Beyond Classroom Settings: Collaboration, Connectivity, and Learning with New Technologies

By Dr. Susana Sotillo, Associate Professor, Linguistics, Montclair State University.

 

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Image courtesy of Creative Commons/Google Images.

We achieve digital wisdom by enhancing our brain’s capacity through the appropriate use of technology. This is Marc Prensky’s major argument in Brain Gain (2012).  Although many of my generation continue to labor in the traditional classroom setting, with its emphasis on the transmission of knowledge through face-to-face (F2F) lectures, others are exploring the use of technology for teaching content as well as language skills.  In our continuously evolving high tech society, employment opportunities are being redefined as part of a global shift from an abundance of labor-intensive jobs to highly complex technology-driven occupations.  With this in mind, Prensky (2012) points out that today’s students need to master three major skills: “working in virtual communities, making videos (on both sides of the camera), and programming our increasingly powerful machines.” (p. 210).  Ironically, programming skills are what make a difference in Elysium, a recent Science Fiction action quest, where intelligent machines can indeed be reprogrammed to alter the power structure.  All these skills involve a high degree of collaboration and connectivity, whether face-to-face or virtual, which are themes other educational technologists emphasize in their writings.  Collaboration and connectivity also figure prominently among game designers, computer scientists, and high school and college classroom teachers.  These groups are keenly aware of the importance of immediate and effective connectivity. 

Connectivity and flexibility are highly valued in any post-industrial society.  As Oblinger (2013) states, we have moved beyond the Information Age in every aspect of modern life, especially in education, industry, business, and health delivery systems.  We are now in the Connected Age.   In higher education today, whether we like it or not, students and faculty are strongly interconnected.  In my own field, linguistics and language learning and teaching, the focus has shifted from strictly teacher-centered traditional classrooms to student-centered online and hybrid instructional options.  For successful language and content learning to take place in virtual environments, student and instructor interconnectivity is essential.  Otherwise we are merely recycling the transmission model of education as online instruction with instructor designed objectives and assessment tools. 

Uses of technology in areas other than language learning is extensively documented in professional journals and books.  For example, Niess (2005) investigated five case studies and documented the successes and difficulties encountered by student teachers developing pedagogical content knowledge and preparing to teach with technology in science and mathematics.   In the field of Geography, Armstrong & Bennett (2005), made a strong case for mobile, location-aware computing technology in teaching abstract geographic concepts by allowing teachers to take students into the field, thus  contextualizing geographic education. 

Today, students who have limited access to resources for technology-driven learning at the college level can borrow laptops and iPads from their college libraries or Information Technology departments.  This would allow them to participate fully in collaborative assignments and field research with mobile learning tools.  In K-12 urban environments, efforts are underway to provide every child with access to a laptop or iPad (Warschauer, 2011).

In the traditional classroom setting, most faculty stay in touch with students by scheduling F2F office hours or via Email, an old technology in this rapidly evolving digital age.  Some of us prefer to use other tools in order to stay effectively connected with colleagues and students.  In my case, I use SMS texting and our virtual Blackboard Collaborate classroom for staying in touch with graduate and undergraduate students.  When I need to remind undergraduates of upcoming assignments, tests or projects, I text them and they in turn text me when they need clarification of course content or small-group projects. Students also text me to remind me about deadlines for letters of recommendation or to inform me that they will be late or absent from class.  

In the field of language learning, extensive research has been carried out from a variety of theoretical perspectives on the use of technology and its impact on student achievement in foreign and second languages (Stanley, 2013; Stockwell, 2010, 2012, 2013).  Most recently, studies in second language acquisition have examined the impact of technology in the acquisition of intercultural competence (see Chun, 2011; Godwin-Jones, 2013; Kukulska-Hulme, 2010; O’Dowd & Ritter, 2006; Thorne, 2003).  This type of research is very important because it helps individuals working in a variety of professional and informal settings avoid serious intercultural miscommunication problems.

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Image courtesy of Creative Commons.

Students in linguistics and teacher education programs who are seeking certification in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) often take courses in Methodology of TESL, Language and Culture, Structure of American English, and Language in Society.  In the past, teaching methodologies were offered exclusively in traditional classroom settings or community centers.  This has changed radically with the development of the Internet and video-conferencing software that allows teachers-in-training and students to learn and interact beyond the confines of localized physical spaces in both K12 and higher education.  Another useful technology is SMS texting.  As Stockwell (2010) has shown, SMS has proven to be very effective in teaching English as a Second-Language (ESL) students.  A simple way to help ESL students build up their vocabulary involves sending mini-lessons or true/false quizzes to their smartphones.  Other creative uses of technology in ESL classrooms involve the use of videos.  I have witnessed how technology-savvy ESL students have effectively collaborated with classmates in the creation of videos for classroom projects that were successfully uploaded to YouTube and shared with a wider audience.  This approach allows ESL students an opportunity to use their second language in context in order to effectively communicate with others and accomplish a variety of goals.

A successful classroom project for English language learners involved tutoring partnerships between students majoring in Linguistics and their counterparts in Shanghai, China.  I had remained in contact with Jie Chen, a professor of English at Shanghai Institute of Technology who was a student in a course that Shufa Li and I developed and taught in July 2012 for the Teaching in English Summer Program at MSU.  Jie and I decided to keep in touch via FaceTime since she plans to return to MSU as a visiting scholar in 2014.   We developed a project to encourage our students to greet and meet via FaceTime.  Five students who were doing well in three of the courses I was teaching in the spring of 2013 volunteered to tutor five English language learners attending college in Shanghai.  Technology played a significant role in these international exchanges, but there were some challenges tutors and tutees encountered.  For example, Internet connections in China were unreliable and the language learning applications used by our students were not available to Chinese students.  One of the most enthusiastic participants in this project, Gabrielle Napoli, expressed her views about this experience: “For 5 weeks I pursued an opportunity to connect with a student across the world. She told me to call her Mao, which was not her first name but her last. I asked why she asked me to call her by her last name and she explained that her first name would be too difficult for me to pronounce. When connecting with students who are not native to the English language, everything must be simplified, not only for them but for the native speaker as well. … I never thought we would become as close as we have. We still communicate and talk frequently over email and FaceTime.” (Gabrielle’s blog http://usatoshanghai.wordpress.com/ ).

ImageAnother project participant, Jonathan Williams, also found these language learning partnerships rewarding, though he chose to work with Skype rather than FaceTime and explore Google documents, slideshows, and occasionally screen sharing.  He writes:  “Working with foreign students on Skype was a fantastic experience, and it’s something that I’ve continued doing throughout the summer and hope to continue doing while studying and after graduation. Being face-to-face with a student, even though you may be miles apart (in this case across the globe) is invaluable for student-teacher dynamics and effective learning. Though there were internet connection issues and technical faults at times, the disturbances never significantly disrupted the sessions. In my opinion, what’s crucial about this is that learning sessions don’t lose anything by occurring online. Despite the distance, students and teachers are still able to convey things like tone and body language – each of which is lost in other media such as phone calls or emails.”  (Jon’s blog can be accessed at http://jwskypetutor.blogspot.com/ ).

Technology made these global projects possible.  It is also changing the dynamics of learning subject matter and languages.  Online and hybrid courses afford students and teachers opportunities to learn beyond the confines of the traditional classroom at convenient times for all involved.  In addition, mobile communication tools (i.e., notebooks, iPads, Tablets, smartphones, etc.)  have made it possible to learn anywhere and anytime, while at the same time increasing the strength of people-to-people connections locally and globally (see October 2013 issue of Language Learning and Technology).  We are indeed witnessing radical changes not just in modes of teaching-learning, but also in the degree of interconnectivity in multiple environments, which include school, work, neighborhoods, communities of practice, and nations. The future of education at all levels offers exciting opportunities for learning with technology and managing time wisely so that we can all eventually attain digital wisdom.

 

References

Armstrong, A. P., & Bennett, D.A. (2005).  A Manifesto on Mobile Computing in Geographic Education.  The Professional Geographer  57(4), 506-515.

Chun, D. (2011). Developing intercultural communicative competence thorough online exchanges.  CALICO Journal 28(2), 392-419.

Godwin-Jones, R. (2013).  Integrating intercultural competence into language learning through technology.  Language Learning & Technology, 17(2), 1-11.  Retrieved from http://llt.msu.edu/issues/june2013/emerging.pdf

Kukulska-Hulme, A. (2010).  Learning cultures on the move: Where are we heading? Educational Technology & Society 13(4), 4-14. 

Niess, M. L. (2005).  Preparing teachers to teach science and mathematics with technology: Developing a technology pedagogical content knowledge.  Teaching and Teacher Education 21(5), 509-523.

Oblinger, D. G. (March/April 2013).  Higher Education in the Connected Age.  EDUCAUSE review.

O’Dowd, R., & Ritter, J. (2006).  Understanding and working with ‘failed communication’ in telecollaborative exchanges. CALICO Journal 23(3), 623-642.

Prensky, M. (2012).  Brain Gain.  New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Stanley, G. (2013).  Language Learning with Technology: Ideas for Integrating Technology in the Classroom.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stockwell, G. (2010).  Using mobile phones for vocabulary activities: Examining the effect of the platform.  Language Learning & Technology Language Learning & Technology 14(2), 95-110.  Retrieved from http://llt.msu.edu/vol14num2/stockwell.pdf

Stockwell, G. (Ed.). (2012). Computer Assisted Language Learning: Diversity in Research & Practice.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stockwell, G. (2013). Mobile-assisted language learning. In M. Thomas, H. Reinders & M. Warschauer (Eds.), Contemporary computer-assisted language learning. London & New York: Continuum Books.

Thorne, S. (2003).  Artifacts and cultures-of-use in intercultural communication.  Language Learning & Technology 7(2), 38-67.  Retrieved from http://llt.msu.edu/vol7num2/pdf/thorne.pdf

Warschauer, M. (2011).  Learning in the Cloud. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

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