#IATEFL 2016 - Forum on Technology in the Young Learner Classroom

The great thing about IATEFL Online is not only the chance to get a little taste of the conference as it is taking place but also the chance to watch the recorded sessions from the archive at your leisure. So, that is what I am doing today. As the recently installed ICT Coordinator at British Council Bahrain, a language centre with approximately 2,000 young learners, this forum seemed like the ideal place to start:

Here are my reactions, typed 'live' up as I watched:

Maria Diakou - Snapshots from Implmenting Technology in Young Learners' Language Teaching Classrooms
 The first speaker's abstract promised a focus on 'practical, technology-enriched moments' from her teaching context in Cypriot primary schools.

  • Maria began with discussion of the issue of lack of engagement from YLs in class and the subsequent problems of bad behaviour and overly-strict teachers.
  • She then suggested technology as the solution as it taps into the fact that kids use tech as part of their daily lives - I would, however, qualify this by saying technology can be a solution if it is used in an engaging way. The same can be also said for activities without tech - the activity needs to be relevant, personalised and appealing to interests to encourage YLs to tackle it.
  • Games - this is definitely an area of interest for me as the teacher behind ELT Sandbox. The games shown here, however, were classic 'interactive' learning games. These make the language work aspect of being in the classroom more fun, but for me, they offer little more than a worksheet or activity book page in terms of learning.
  • Zimmertwins - as a tool for creating animated videos, I see a lot more practical use in this as it gets the students involved in being productive and creative. A lot of the technology they engage with on a daily basis is receptive - they watch, listen, and click to follow a pre-determined path. This tool gives them more possibilities to be active rather than passive users of tech and learners of language.
  • Storyboard That also works in a similar way, getting students to create comic strips with their own dialogues written through text. It also offers similar advantages in terms of allowing for creative use of language.
  • Dvolver was featured as an easy-to-use tool that allows creation of animation together with captioned text for dialogue. Maria made the good point that the ease of use means more time can be spent focusing on language rather than getting to grips with the tool.
  • Storybird also allows for easy use with a large selection of pictures and works well for getting students to engage with writing.
  • Voki was then shown as a speaking tools. By speaking through an avatar, shy students can feel more relaxed as they speak from 'behind' the character. I did, however, disagree with using this as an alternative to drawing a monster. In my experience, YLs always love the chance to draw and describe their creations. It's all about giving them personal ownership of the task and in this case, I feel that a picture created by the student achieves that more than an online image with limited editing options.
Overall, a useful selection of tools though the focus was more on what the technology can do and how it can be used - not so much on why it should be used in preference to other classroom tasks.

Amanda Boldarine - Young Learners and Technology: ways to intergate culture and parents 

This talk focused on meaningful use of technology to meet learner needs and engage parents in their learning.
  • Interesting start with data from research with Amanda's own students about their technology use outside the classroom - we often assume that kids are regular, confident users of all devices and software applications but it is a good idea to confirm this before making decisions on in-class use.
  • Encouraging that the initial question ("How can I maximise my students' language learning experience?") does not explicitly focus on technology. It is the learning experience that is important, not the tech tools.
  • Having said that, Vocaroo and Padlet are then featured as the tech tools of choice - this is qualified, however, as appropriate to the limitations of tech provision in the school context with only a computer lab available.
  • Amanda used Vocaroo to get students to listen to their own voices in English and reflect on how they speak, useful in making the tech use about more than simply using tech.
  • An real audience was also provided as the recordings were sent to their parents. This is important in giving the activity a more authentic feel.
  • Padlet was used to post rules about road safety as a follow-up to learning about them. The affordances offered over simply using paper was again the parent link.
  • This was also followed up by asking parents for feedback - this again makes it more than just another activity.
  • The final point was to emphasise that technology is not just about making learning modern or fun. It needs to be integrated into the learning process and evaluated in terms of what benefits it will have for your learners.
I liked the fact that this talk showed that a simple approach often works best. No need for a plethora of flashy tools. Simple apps can be used to help the students produce language and provide them with an audience by sharing the results with their parents.

Addicted or enraptured? Image via pixabay.com

Nicky Francis - Being Creative with Technology in a Young Learner Classroom
The final speaker in the forum proposed a focus on encouraging creativity with technology. I liked that the abstract also mentioned plasticine and yoghurt pots!
  • Nicky began by discussing the seemingly fixated and motionless appearance kids often have when they are viewing the screen, whether it be a TV, PC monitor, or mobile device and how these extended passive moments of silence can be disturbing. While I agree that a lot of technology engagement can be passive, it's also worth remembering that long before the age of digital technology, there was often criticism of people who spent ages with their noses buried in things called 'books'.
  • Speaking of which, the next stage of the talk presented a book - "It's a Book" (that is the actual name by the way, not an attempt at emphasis from me!). The concept of having an intensive course for primary including several hours of art was an interesting one.
  • The tech came in through a movie project but not with an online animation maker. Instead, it was a movie to be made with real world props (that's the plasticine and yoghurt post then!) and the students' own voices - a nice example of integrating tech but not in a way that allows the tech tool to dominate.
  • The learners then went through a process similar to that which Jamie Keddie talked about at last year's conference of choosing characters and a setting, writing a script, and incorporating chunks of language from the story - good examples of language at work while making a movie with the actual filming part being the end product.
  • One positive effect of technology is the way it can level the playing field between teachers and students. This was evidenced here by Nicky highlighting how she learned to use Movie Maker together with her students.
  • "Rough but real" - we can certainly hear the students' voices during the sample video in more ways than one!
This talk was a good reminder that technology in the classroom does not have to form an entire lesson. It can simply form a small part of a project. It also does not have to be something pre-produced and edited by the students. It can in fact be something entirely original. Finally, it does not have to be about the latest and greatest flashy tools. Digital video cameras and programmes like Movie Maker have been around for a quite a while now but they can be just as effective as more recent innovations as long as space is given to the learner's voice.

One little aside to finish on - each of the presenters apologised in advance for their learners' mistakes and less than perfect English. Why? I see and hear this a lot during presentations. It is not about the end product. It's about the process of learning. The mistakes in the sample projects make the whole production more real and more personal and that's nothing to apologise for. :)