The smart way to use Smartphones in the language classroom

Originally Published as The smart way to use Smartphones in the language classroom. Modern English teacher, 25(3), 2016.

 

Smartphones and mobile communication technology are continuously evolving, becoming more and more a part of everyday life. Love them or hate them (and for many it may be a bit of both) smartphones are incredibly versatile pieces of technology. At any one time, we can carry around in our pockets a digital library of ebooks, audio and visual files, not to mention apps for education, entertainment or work. My smartphone is not the newest model but on there I have had skype conversations with my family 6,000 miles away from the park where I am walking my dog, I have proof-read articles and replied to urgent emails from colleagues and students, I have even composed early drafts for articles. I have also played games which help me to remember Japanese kanji, and used the Japanese dictionary to help me to maintain a conversation about difficult topics I am not used to speaking about in a language I am still learning. Of course, I have also spent (or wasted) less productive hours on my phone reading posts on Facebook or watching YouTube videos that make me laugh. The fact of the matter is that a smartphone is a powerful, personalised communication tool which allows connections between people and information, and this can be harnessed in the language classroom, if the right approach is applied.

Initially when smartphones started to appear in students hands in my classroom, I (like many teachers) found them to be extremely irritating. It was obvious that Student X at the back of the classroom was not paying attention to the instructions about the task I was setting up, they were paying more attention to their crotch area, where the smartphone was nestled. It is always obvious when a person checks their phone in secret, and as teachers we are naturally aware of our students in a way that they often do not give us credit for. The same is true of other social situations; it is generally seen as bad etiquette to ignore a person who you are face-to-face with in favour of your phone. There are several articles already about how phones are ruining face-to-face conversations (Drago, 2015), and from my own personal experience this is not hard to see why. When I worked in a language school in London I often had to resort to taking students’ phones away from them in order to keep them focused on the class. My friends who are teachers in High Schools in both Japan and England have also reported this, with one friend telling me that her school collects all the students’ phones in a box before the lesson can even begin! However, if used in the right way, smartphones can be a very useful tool to support and extend language learning opportunities, precisely because they are designed as communication tools.

There are simply thousands of apps for education, and a large proportion of these are dedicated to learners who use multiple languages. If you are not sure which of these to use, why not turn that into a task for the class and have the students try them out and present their reviews to the class. The students could put it to the vote after their research presentations, the chosen app might then be used for homework assignments. It would not only be very informative for everybody, but also empowering for the students to have a direct input on the way the class is taught or the choice of materials to use for class. This is also a good way for teachers who feel less tech-savvy to take further steps towards a blended classroom environment, in which technology has a comfortable and supportive supplementary role.

One of the most obvious and effective ways of using smartphones in the class that I have had enormous success with, is to use them to allow students to go on a mini-webquest when I am introducing something or activating schemata about a topic. For example, I might ask my class “have you ever heard of David Bowie?” and right there and then, using their smartphones the students can quickly do a search for the great late Starman and find out enough about him to move into the next stage of the task. Students who already know about the topic can still benefit from this by checking certain facts, and then of course the group discussion can take place as usual with smartphones safely back in the students’ bags. I have had unexpected benefits from this approach, for example in a class for the English Literature department where I work, I asked the students to learn something about Raymond Carver (the American short-story writer) and one student learned that it would have been his birthday on that day. These serendipitous moments add what Freda Mishan (2005) calls ‘currency’ to the tasks; an element of authenticity which is dependent on time-relevance. Of course, this achieves nothing which could not already be done in a CALL room, but here the smartphones are simply a handy tool rather than the computers being the central medium in-which to conduct the class. These schematising mini-webquests can also be more flexible than CALL room time as they require almost no forward planning and can be done on the fly.

Smartphones are not only potential tools for use during the class, they can also be very useful for self-access learning and homework type activities, as I touched upon earlier. Many teachers have accounts with apps such as Quizlet, which allows the creation of vocabulary flash-cards and multiple-choice questions. Teachers can set up classes in Quizlet which their students can join. This has many advantages, such as very accurate monitoring and instant feedback. The teacher can see who has done the tasks and what their score was without having to do any marking or checking of homework with a red pen. Many leading textbooks also offer apps and media-content specific to their units, and this might be a more engaging type of out-of-class activity to set for homework than photocopying the activity book. A further advantage is that these activities can be done whilst busy students are on the move, although this may have implications for the amount of cognitive engagement they can invest and retention. Although mobile learning (mLearning) is a popular buzz-word and has some success reported in the research (Cavus & Ibrahim, 2009; Stockwell, 2007), I am still rather sceptical about how deeply we can learn something while on the move. However, having the option allows for a more flexible approach and accommodates students with different life-styles and learning preferences.

In a similar way, it might be useful to set-up a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) such as Moodle, or create a free class learning site using a service such as Weebly, edublogs or SchoolRack. If you use PowerPoint (or another presentation platform such as Prezi) then you can set up ‘remote presenting’ which allows students (either in the classroom or at home) to follow your slides on their smartphone whilst you are presenting. This could be useful for large-classes or other situations where the slides need to be made more accessible, for example if students are sight impaired (see Robert Lowe’s article in ETp for further practical suggestions for sight-impaired students). This way also can be a step towards a paper-free classroom, something the environment and future generations will thank you for (or so we are led to believe, as I will return to later).

Another useful way to use smartphones in the class is to incorporate them into information-gap tasks. Instead of preparing two versions of a handout, Partner A can simply visit one link and Partner B visits another. I have taken this further also, and put students in groups where they each watch a different video or listen to a different song, and then the group describes the video and when we watch them all back as a class, the groups have to match the other groups’ descriptions to their videos. Tasks like this would not have been possible if it were not for the students all having their own personal media-viewing device.

This brings me to one of the possible limitations with using smartphones as a whole-class activity. I have had a few classes where one or two students do not have a smartphone, and in this case it can seem rather awkward. If one student does not have the smartphone because they cannot afford one, then it could raise issues of discrimination and this might prove to be problematic. It is therefore worth checking before-hand what percentage of your class has a smartphone. Also, some students may be on limited packages and the amount of their data-usage needed for classroom tasks may also cause problems. Needless to say, many classrooms may be in areas where the reception is weak or limited as well, which would make a class based around streaming video into a quagmire of frustration. Of course, the number of smartphone users and the network facilities and packages on offer are very contextually dependant, and therefore many of these ideas will need to be tested and adapted to each country or teaching context. Where I teach in Tokyo, it does seem that in the past five years the amount of students holding smartphones with unlimited packages and with access to high-speed internet has increased to such a high percentage that if the students come to class, they are almost guaranteed to be carrying their smartphones.

Not only are smartphones becoming more ubiquitous, but also many schools in developed nations are now offering iPads and other tablets for students to use in class, and these often come with a host of apps and online tools to use both in-class and for self-access study. These are reported to be particularly beneficial to students with special needs (Ellis, 2011). Such institutions need to not only supply the hardware, but they also need to provide training and support for teachers and students alike in terms of how to get the most out of these technological tools. The institutions also need to provide a robust wireless network so all the end-users can access the internet at the same time and do the high-bandwidth-dependant tasks which educational apps usually require. Needless to say, although it is becoming more common for students to receive tablets as part of their enrolment, it is still much less common to see them being used effectively as an integrated part of the classroom. Schaffhauser (2013) has a useful article with tips about how to effectively adapt the personal iPad design so that it can be at an institution. However, at this early stage, it can often seem daunting to people to move the classroom too far away from the traditional models which require people to interact with either books or each-other. Many teachers, parents and even students are likely to ask ‘what’s the point?’ if they are looking at a screen when a piece of paper would do the same job. It is misleading to talk of the paperless classroom as an environmental initiative, when there is of course a carbon footprint attached to an iPad just as there is to a textbook (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: sources according to a Green Office Report at the University of Wageningen in Holland
Figure 1: sources according to a Green Office Report at the University of Wageningen in Holland

Whilst the iPad still comes off best according to the statistics (which are necessarily generalised and based on averages), it is important to note that many of our students will use all of the above devices, rather than just one, and so relying more on technology does not off-set the use of printed materials. Of course, smartphones are not even listed here, and so they would represent yet another large expense in terms of C02 emissions.

In summary, smartphones are certainly finding a place in the classroom practices for language teachers and learners, and they offer versatility and flexibility of tasks. They also offer a distraction from what students should be doing, but I feel that this is not particularly made worse by students. Ten years ago, I had to call out students for looking out of the window too much, and I still have students doing homework for other classes when they should be working on the task I have set. Smartphones are often given a blamed for taking away students’ attention, but this may not be entirely a new phenomenon. In my experience, smartphones are certainly something to utilise for language learning, and as technology moves forward I feel more and more language teachers will be grateful of them for the opportunities they can offer for language learning, both in the classroom and for supplementary study.

References

Cavus, N., & Ibrahim, D. (2009). m-Learning: An experiment in using SMS to support learning new English language words. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(1), 78-91. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2007.00801.x

Drago, E. (2015). The Effect of Technology on Face-to-Face Communication. The Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications, 6(1), 13-19.

Ellis, S. (2011). Teaching the future: How iPads are being used to engage learners with special needs. Screen Education, 63, 60-64.

Green Office Wageningen University. (2014). What is the best device for reading in terms of CO2? Retrieved from https://gowageningen.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/co2-footprints-of-kindle-vs-ipad-vs-books.pdf

Lowe, R. (2015). Integrating blind students. English teaching professional, July(99), 16-18.

Mishan, F. (2005). Designing authenticity into language learning materials. Bristol: Intellect Books.

Schaffhauser, D. (2013). Tips for effectively managing your iPad classroom. THE Journal (Technological Horizons In Education), 40(5), 7.

Stockwell, G. (2007). Vocabulary on the move: Investigating an intelligent mobile phone-based vocabulary tutor. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 20(4), 365-383. doi:10.1080/09588220701745817

Authenticity 2.0

At the MATSDA (Materials Development Association) conference held in June 2016 in Liverpool, Freda Mishan gave a presentation entitled Authenticity 2.0.

As language use today moves increasingly into digital fora – social media, social networking and so on, accompanied by an internationalisation of the language most associated with the Internet, English, the concept of ‘authenticity’ in the context of language samples and language use becomes ever more evasive. One route for achieving authenticity in the language learning context can be found, ironically perhaps, in the work of pre-digital theorists such as Van Lier (e.g. 1996), who maintained that authenticity was not intrinsic to learning materials themselves but was a factor of the learners’ engagement with them and of the tasks enacted with them. This conception of authenticity is a perfect fit for the digital era, where more and more of the language use is in interaction on a plethora of different media and applications. In the digital era, therefore it is to interaction and task that we turn for our ‘authenticity 2.0’.

Below is the Prezi for her session.

It seems to me that the relevance of Authenticity, reactions and Online Communication will be something to keep an eye on for the foreseeable future. Getting back to the older, more philosophical definition of authenticity for language learning seems to be the best way of keeping the issue up-to-date for the digital-era.

Reconceptualising Authenticity for English as a Global Language

Reconceptualising Authenticity

This is a post with information about my forthcoming book from Multilingual Matters.

This book examines the concept of authentic English in today’s world, where cultures are in constant interaction and the English language works as a binding agent for many cross-cultural exchanges. It offers a comprehensive review of decades of debate around authenticity in language teaching and learning and attempts to synthesise the complexities by presenting them as a continuum. This continuum builds on the work of eminent scholars and combines them within a flexible framework that celebrates the process of interaction whilst acknowledging the complexity and individual subjectivity of authenticity. Authenticity is approached as a complex dynamic construct that can only be understood by examining it from social, individual and contextual dimensions, in relation to actual people. Authenticity is a problem not just for language acquisition but one which affects us as individuals belonging to society.

Use this discount code at the Multilingual Matters website in order to get 50% off and free worldwide shipping
Use this discount code at the Multilingual Matters website in order to get 50% off and free worldwide shipping

What has plagued the notion of authenticity to date has been an ‘alphabet soup’ of abstract terms and simplistic references that attempt to define what it is and why it is important in L2 teaching and learning. In a compelling personal voice, Pinner masterfully unpacks the complexities of authenticity while re-positioning it on a continuum that is inclusive of global Englishes and relative to individuals’ selves and perceived position in rapidly changing societies.

Karen E. Johnson, The Pennsylvania State University, USA

This wide-ranging book offers a timely reassessment and reassertion of the notion of authenticity in English language education, decisively unshackling it from its ‘classic’ mooring in native-speaker models. Richard Pinner convincingly argues that authenticity – viewed as relevant to the socially dynamic contexts within which people are learning and using English today – is a more important goal for educators than ever before.

Richard Smith, University of Warwick, UK

Continue reading “Reconceptualising Authenticity for English as a Global Language” »

JALT CALL 2015 Conference – Session Summary

This is the session summary/repository for my two talks at the Japan Association of Language Teachers Computer Aided Language Learning Special Interest Group conference at Kyushu Sangyo University June 5-7 2015. My supervisor Ema Ushioda is giving the Keynote Speech, and the conference theme is Language Learning Technologies & Learner Autonomy. Looks set to be a great conference!

Here is the link to the conference home-page.

I will upload a review and further resources after the weekend. Below are the resources for my session.

Session One: Learner Development SIG Forum

Transportable Identities and Social Networks: a reflection on the pros and cons of out-of-class communication

PDFLogo Session handout

Accept or Decline? Some teachers encourage their students to befriend them on social networking sites (SNS), others are understandably wary. SNS can be a very effective way of connecting with students outside the classroom, engaging their real lives and identities. It can also create opportunities for authentic and motivating communication, not just between classmates but also a web of connections with other learners and speakers around the globe. It could also be an ethical minefield, a social ‘can of worms’ and a web of disaster. When people interact in different social contexts, they utilise Transportable Identities (see Ushioda, 2011 for explanation). In this presentation I will draw on both published research and personal experience to reflect on the place of these types of Web 2.0 technology and the inevitable consequences they pose.

Ushioda, E. (2011). Language learning motivation, self and identity: current theoretical perspectives. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 24(3), 199-210

Session Two: Paper Presentation

A Reflexive Narrative of one Teacher’s Professional Digital Literacy

PDFLogo Session handout

I have always combined my interest in technology with my work as a teacher, thereby developing my own digital literacy to the extent that it has been a very influential factor in my professional development and teaching beliefs. Whilst working in London in 2007, I began teaching IT skills classes to pre-masters students and at the same time I became the eLearning coordinator for a large chain of language schools with over 40 international locations. I was responsible for maintaining an online self-access centre and virtual learning environment with over 10,000 registered users. I created my own consultancy which offered technology training specifically for language teachers. Since moving to Japan in 2011, I have continued to utilise educational technologies in my work. My story may not be particularly unusual, and therefore in presenting a reflexive narrative of my experience I hope to open up a discussion with other practitioners who have similarly developed their digital literacy in order to improve their teaching and career prospects. I will also discuss my views on EFL teacher digital literacy in general, as well as my experience of student digital literacy. This presentation takes the form of a narrative inquiry (Barkhuizen, 2013), based on data collected through the process of reflexive practice (Edge, 2011). I encourage others to utilise narratives as a way of improving their practice.

Barkhuizen, G. (Ed.). (2013). Narrative Research in Applied Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Edge, J. (2011). The Reflexive Teacher Educator in TESOL: Roots and Wings. London: Routledge.

kyushu sangyo

Teaching with Social Networks

Whether you find yourself addicted or at a loss when it comes to things like Facebook and twitter, more and more people are using social networks for personal and professional reasons. For example, LinkedIn has active discussions about language teaching and various professional groups of teachers and applied linguists. Many schools and institutions have Facebook pages which they use as an extension of the school’s social programme, and thousands of people stay up-to-date using information from twitter. These sites all have valuable applications for language teaching, not just in the ways described above, but as part of actual lessons as well. In this article I am going to discuss the reasons social networks can provide such rich and authentic language practise for students and explain ways to keep your own private life separate from your professional use of social media in class. I will also discuss some simple practical ideas which you could easily use in your own classroom.

Many teachers who use social networks in their personal lives may not know how they could be used for language teaching. If that is the case, what about those teachers who are not even comfortable using social networks in their personal lives, let alone in a professional context? In my work I have encountered many people who admitted they could see the value of social networks for connecting to other learners and speakers of the English. This is especially true for teachers in an EFL context where the students do not get many opportunities to interact with people outside of the classroom. Unfortunately, there are two major problems with social networks for language teaching. Firstly, many teachers may not wish to mix up their own personal lives with their professional lives (such as adding students as friends on Facebook) and secondly, teachers might feel uncomfortable about advocating for their students to make contact with strangers through a social network, especially if you teach younger age groups. A third complication could be that some teachers are unfamiliar with social networks even for personal use, and as such feel that they could not possibly recommend them to students.

Privacy

These are all valid concerns. In order to avoid these problems it is important to start off with security in mind. The way social networks function is by having users enter personal information about themselves, which is then searchable by other users. All this personal information is stored in a database and much of the information provided is available for anyone to see and search. If users are not careful then it is possible to gain phone numbers, addresses, birth dates and even find out where people are going to be at a particular time. It is often possible to get all this data simply by looking at the information that comes up when you view someone’s profile. For this reason, I recommend you take one of the many quick privacy reports before even attempting to use social networks with your class. You can also view recommendations about how to improve your privacy settings there and improve your privacy rating. Once you are comfortable about your own online privacy you can turn to your students to ensure they do the same.

If you are planning to add your students as friends it is highly recommended that you make your profile as private as possible because your students and your friends will get mixed together and that could lead to issues. A possible solution is to have two accounts, or if you are uncomfortable having your students as ‘friends’ on Facebook then simply don’t accept their requests. You can still utilise social networks in your class without adding your students as friends.

Here are a few tips for teachers to remember when using social networks with your students.

  • Don’t get caught with your pants down. If you do have deeply personal content in your profile or on a site, request that it be removed or remove it yourself – this is good general practice. Alternatively, you could avoid getting into these situations in the first place, whichever is easier…
  • Test the sites are accessible from the students’ machines. If you plan a lesson involving the use of a site such as Facebook, always check that you can access the pages you intend to visit from the students’ machines, preferably using a student login otherwise your entire lesson could be ruined.
  • Keep the class together. You can create a group or page which is especially for your class, so you can keep members organised and together. If you create a group, you can also connect with students without having to add them as friends, thus ensuring privacy for you and for them. This is also how many institutions manage their students on social networks.

Each of these may require a little bit of work in terms of learning your way around whichever particular site or social network you have chosen to use, but the knowledge will help you maintain your professional image online.

Netiquette

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, netiquette is etiquette for the internet. Your students will hopefully have a good idea of what it means, but it never hurts to go through the list with them for good measure.

Don’t

  • make contact with people you don’t know or have never had previous contact with unless there is a good reason.
  • accept connections with people who you don’t know or have never had previous contact with unless there is a good reason.
  • post offensive materials or comments which may offend other users or result in you being banned from the site

Do

  • reply to other people’s public posts about topics which are of interest, even if you don’t know the person this is ok. For example, if you are fans of a celebrity who has a public fan page, or members of a particular group online, it is fine to chat and respond to people’s posts on these public areas because the nature of the discussion is open. This is not the same as sending a friend request to someone you don’t know.
  • check back on the site in your free time and see if someone has responded to your post.

The above rules of netiquette are by no means extensive, but if you go through them as a brainstorming activity with your students before attempting any of the following practical ideas I am sure you will compile a comprehensive list.

Some Practical Ideas

Below are a few lesson plan ideas which you may wish to use. They use a variety of different sites but hopefully the general ideas could be exploited in other ways for more variations.

Agony Aunt / Problem Page Lesson

This lesson works well if you have been learning about ’giving advice’ in class and you would like to give your students some authentic, meaningful interaction with other English speakers. Although you may need to screen the pages you use carefully, you could take your students to a site which allows people to write in with problems or ask for advice. First your students could create their own posts asking for advice (make sure they only write about something they are comfortable sharing with the class, such as the feeling that they are not learning fast enough or have no one to practice with. If they can’t think of anything they could write it on behalf of an imaginary friend). After that they should follow the thread and also try to reply to some other people who are having a problem which they think they can help with. Although it may sound risky, I have done this lesson a few times with mature classes and students always get a lot out of it. If you explain that the class will be sharing the posts then people generally do not post up anything too personal or that they are uncomfortable sharing, and my students are always respectful of other people. The real advantage of this lesson is that it goes beyond authenticity and is actual real world use of the target language. This really gives such a class the edge over any contrived language practice lessons. A lot of rich, real language also comes out of these lessons, which students can ask about and share in class later. This project can span several classes and provide a great deal of rich authentic language interaction.

Facebook Group

There are lots of groups on Facebook and other social networks which are specifically for language learning. For example, the BBC has a learning English Facebook page which allows wall comments and photos. This is a great place to get your students commenting on things and replying to posts. They could ask questions about something specific on the wall or post a link to something they found useful. Although this might not take a whole lesson, it could be treated as a homework or used as a study suggestion. Alternatively, you could have students go and post something on the wall and search other posts for something interesting to share with the class. The Facebook page is also a great way to run services such as word of the day and to promote school excursions, or to run study-buddy pairing.

Twitter Contest

If your class enjoys a bit of competition, why not ask students to create a new twitter account and to see who has the most followers after a week, who can manage the highest number of tweets in a week, and who can manage to get a famous person to follow them. There could be a running commentary of the scores going on over the course of the week and the final lesson where the winners are announced should be quite exciting. Twitter is also a great media for the consequences game, where students contribute blindly to a story and read the final result at the end.

These are just a few ideas but as you can see, there is no need for privacy to be invaded or personal space encroached on just because you are using social networks with students. The key is to try a few of these things out yourself (perhaps in a language you are learning yourself) and then get the students to have a go.

Despite the precautions needed to ensure privacy for yourself and your class, there really is a lot of scope for using social networks as part of a class. In addition, the benefits for students in terms of meeting other people to practise with and retain contact after the course is finished make using social networks a very powerful tool at the language teacher’s disposal.

 originally published in  Modern English teacher, 20(3), 37-39. 2011.

TEFLology (podcast)

This is a quick post to recommend a brilliant new podcast all about Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). If you think that a podcast about TEFL sounds rather dry and boring, you will be surprised at how listenable, upbeat and interesting the TEFLology podcast is. This will become apparent right from the catchy theme-tune, which is sung by one of the presenters and has TEFL-related lyrics! This is not a podcast for people who teach TEFL but have no interest in their work, or for people who go backpacking around the world and teach English as a way to pay for their air-fares. This is a serious but fun podcast for people who want to know more about the present and the past of language teaching. The TEFLology podcast deals with interesting and relevant issues as well as looking back at the history of TEFL and different approaches to teaching languages. It is done in a light-hearted and upbeat way by three “self-certified TEFLologists” who certainly know their business very well, but who focus more on discussion than academic debate or name-dropping.

The podcast is released bi-weekly and each episode lasts about half an hour. The episodes are split into different sections, including a section on TEFL news, TEFL pioneers and there is also a section in which the TEFLologists discuss various methods or teaching approaches. The three hosts of the show, Rob, Matt and Matthew, demonstrate an excellent balance of rapport, preparation and ad-libbing and I find listening to the podcast is always both fun and informative. I don’t know if this makes me a TEFL geek or a “TEFLolophile” but I just wanted to share the podcast with readers of my blog as I can highly recommend this as a download for your commute or as something to listen to on one of your numerous but short-lived coffee-breaks.

Here is the link http://teflology.libsyn.com/ and it is also available on iTunes.

TEFLology Podcast

Vizualize Me

This is a great site which takes information from your social networks and builds an infographic. It has a very neat feature in which it shows a world map of the languages you speak and the countries where they are spoken.

vizualizeme

 

 

engnet-education.com becomes UniLiterate.com

 

 

Dear valued followers, readers and clients

Recently, due to rather irritating circumstances and a fall-out with my registrar (123-reg) I have had to move my blog to a new domain. As they kept the name and that has now been bought by another company (sigh) I have had to migrate everything to a completely new domain and come up with a new name and a new image for my language learning consultancy and blog. Thus, Uniliterate was born.

Despite the rather frustrating origins, I had actually meant to move the site or to re-brand it anyway. Previously I had focused specifically on technology and language teaching, which is still a passion of mine. But whereas engnet-education was established as a consultancy and we sold VLE implementation and training, my own professional focus was moving away from this and into new areas of language education – mainly the issue of authenticity and Global Englishes, in particular content-based learning and content and language integrated learning (CLIL).

So, this site will continue the work I established as engnet-education, but with the re-branding comes a change of theme and focus. One of the primary reasons for me wanting to move away from a focus on the use of technology in language teaching was that, as I found during my MA research and as Graham Davies himself predicted, CALL and the use of computers is not so much a separate thing in education any more. It is becoming more and more common, and indeed many people, myself included, view it simply as a tool for learning. This is certainly still interesting and still valid, but my approach is now to view technology in the language classroom as part of another field of enquiry, rather than looking at it in isolation as I was before.

So, once again I would like to thank my clients and readers and to ask you for your patience while I sort out this transition and please stay posted for more exciting developments and hopefully an improved flow of content and discussions.

The new ‘dog ate my homework’ & the importance of Backups

Believe it or not, I once used “the dog ate my homework” as an excuse for not doing my French homework. It has, for a long time, being a standing joke that this is the worst and most inexcusable excuse available to students. However, there is a new “dog ate my homework” which I have been hearing students use more and more and which I find equally inexcusable – “my hard drive died”.

As someone who encourages students to type their written assignments and to submit them online through email or through a moodle assignment activity, I hear excuses about lost work which was not backed up quite often. I am quite religious about backing up my own work, ever since a close friend turned to me and told me he wouldn’t know how to continue with his life if he lost all the work on his computer. We have moved on from a society that uses floppy disks and CDRs to store our important files. With digital cameras and online shops such as iTunes and Amazon.com selling music and films for download, many of us now have considerable capital invested in the contents of our hard drives. On my hard drive there are several gigagbytes of films, music and software not to mention all my recent photographs and a growing collection of essays, articles and lesson plans. If I were to lose all this it would be a very crushing blow, something akin to having my house burgled. And yet, computers and hard drives are much more likely to go wrong than a person is to get burgled.

I use several applications to securely backup and synchronise my work. My virus and PC security software is Norton 360, which comes with a small amount of online backup storage which can be scheduled to run automatically. This space is just about enough to backup email contacts, browser favourites and so on. However, for browsing I use XMarks, which is fantastic as it not only backs up your bookmarks but it also synchronises them with another computer and allows you to access them from the cloud on any machine. The other service I couldn’t recommend highly enough is Dropbox. I find this invaluable both as a cloud accessible online storage service and also as a synchronisation tool between my desktop and laptop. It is incredibly easy to use, after installing the program a simple file is created in the My Documents folder and you can simply drop files in there and they will be backed up automatically. If you have more than one computer, the next time you turn it on the new files will be synchronised as long as you have Dropbox on there and registered.

Of course, there are limits to these cloud services, especially for things such as my lesson bank and music files. I invested in a 1 terabyte external hard drive a while ago and I use a free program called FreeFileSync which is very versatile and allows you to create automatic or mirror backups in just a few clicks. Of course, some people create .bat files and use scheduled tasks to automate this process, but I find this method works best for me as I use my computer at different times of the day and night and scheduled tasks don’t always get the chance to run.

When I begin a term and meet a new class of students, I think it is important to explain to them clearly and in no uncertain terms that lost homework from failing to have a backup will not be accepted as an excuse. It is not only a bad excuse, it is a dangerous lifestyle choice to fail to keep your work backed up at all times. If students don’t have a USB stick or don’t want to use any of the free services such as Google Docs, Hotmail SkyDrive or Dropbox then they can simply email themselves the essay they are working on and that will also suffice as a backup.

Although we often think of our students in terms of ‘digital natives’ I think that we can easily forget that they are not digitally experienced although they are digitally literate. Unless you have experienced first hand the pain and frustration of losing a body of work due to hardware malfunction the hard drive can seem like too much of a robust and impenetrable safe box. If we can explain this issue to our students then we not only teach them the worthlessness of the dead drive excuse, but we may save them from the  genuine danger of losing their work.