Technology is Ice Cream

April 2011

Having watched the recent IATEFL debate between Alan Walters and Nicky Hockly[1] I feel I should post my thoughts because I think Walters’ oratory let him down (he basically just read out a speech) and Hockly used some effective rhetoric which may have won her the debate but the problem with this, and indeed with all sophistry, is the same problem you get with over-use of technology. To wit:

You can fool some people sometimes,
but you can't fool all the people all of the time.

I see technology as being a bit like ice cream: we need it sometimes otherwise things become heavy and dull. Well we don’t need it, you can live without it but it makes life a bit more pleasurable. Now you must forgive me for extending the metaphor but ice cream is rather addictive and if you eat nothing else it becomes sickly and you get fat. Which is why prefer to teach language in a lean way without much tech so that when you do introduce it you get a better effect. You can't just use it all of the time.

Lardass from Stand By Me
Binge approach — technology in education can become a compulsive disorder.

The real meal is human-to-human interaction. People haven’t really changed physiologically or psychologically for over 10,000 years. All that has changed are the tools that we use. In language teaching, technology can be a big crutch for teachers and students. Electronic dictionaries are a good example of this; many people use them but they are still very clunky and pedagogically unsound. They hinder fluency and comprehension in such an insidious way that I always feel inclined to chuck them out the window.

Robot Ice Cream
The technology is not responding.

Hardware is usually expensive and often clunky. Language is neither. Language is a completely elegant, natural, analogue phenomenon so I don’t see the need to unnecessarily complicate it. Learning to speak a language is not a technological endeavour and language teachers are not applied engineers and nor should we have to be at the essence of the craft. I don’t mind using technology, it should make things easier for students and teachers but it’s really not necessary if you accept how language learning most efficiently occurs. Sorry if that sounds glib but many ESL teachers require a more comprehensive understanding of SLA pedagogy so they can discriminate materials and methods more critically.

We are inextricably integrated in a technological world and it has generally made our lives better. But the classroom is a fundamentally simpler social environment than the factory or the office. Would Shakespeare or Aristotle have been better if they had our technology? They would have been more connected but I don't think they would have been better thinkers. Connectivity is not as important as what you have to say to the people you are connected to. The Ancients were no less clever than we are. They attained their truth through applied study and constant practice – a timeless characteristic of human progress.

My real problem with technology is the gimmicky and pedagogically weak nature of a lot of language learning software. Some of the stuff I see has the touch of the emperor’s new clothes about it. The quality is gradually getting better but we have to remember that technology in education and in life is a means not an end. It is to be used as a part of a process, not to be got as a result. In second language education, the internet is for finding and creating good content, not pretty gimmicks. The urge to always turn to the internet belies a weakness and lack of confidence on the part of the teacher.

Space Pen
NASA spent millions making a pen to work in
zero gravity. The Russians just used pencils.

My own philosophy of teaching barely includes technology because if teachers understand the proper principles of language learning, informed by psychology and other fields, then technology is mostly superfluous. It’s not that I don't like it, it’s just that I don't really need it. There is more immediate stuff out there in the collective consciousness and more beneficial techniques to employ than the more-is-more approach of jumping on the latest bandwagon. It’s no good being ahead of the bell curve if you just become an early adopter of all that is mediocre. When the truly revolutionary stuff comes along then its value is by necessity clear enough and the the best teachers will thus naturally use it to best effect.

1. ELT Journal/IATEFL Debate: Tweeting is for the birds, not for language learning, 14.35-15.35, Sunday 17th April