Fear factor

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For teachers willing to take the plunge, ICT presents endless opportunities to engage students, says Pete Sharma.

"I fear maths," admits Pete Sharma, author of a number of books on English language teaching, a prolific conference speaker, university lecturer and director of a company which trains teachers in using technology.

"I know it's not rational, and I'm probably not bad at it, but if you just say the word to me I get scared." This, he continues, is how many teachers feel about ICT (information communication technology). Though they are comfortable with CD players, televisions, and increasingly, interactive whiteboards, some teachers are too afraid of technology to learn how to use it to its maximum potential.

"A great number of teachers are definitely not integrating technology as much as they should," Sharma says. A lot of the fear, he adds, comes from simply not knowing.

"There are some things that teachers may not have heard of before.  If I'm training and say something like ‘wiki', many people will ask what a wiki is." When teachers are asked if they've heard of Wikipedia, the penny drops, and they often realise they know more than they thought.

Fear of losing control in the classroom also plays a part in how much teachers integrate ICT into their lessons. Though few teachers worry about a CD player not working, many will avoid using multimedia and IWBs in case something goes wrong during the lesson.

"I don't think teachers will actually say ‘the reason I'm not using much technology is because I'm fighting to gain control in my classroom,'" Sharma says, "but as a trainer that's what I observe. If something goes wrong you need a back up plan, and some teachers think ‘I'm sure it will all go wrong and I won't know what to do and I'll look stupid in front of the students.'"

Lack of time is another major factor inhibiting greater use of ICT. "Some teachers might have all the will in the world," Sharma explains, "but they are teaching most of the time, so there are not enough hours to get to know things as well as they should." When lesson planning, correcting and counseling are added to the mix, allocating extra time to develop ICT skills is close to impossible.

Yet even with all these prohibitive factors, it is still possible for teachers to make effective use of ICT in the classroom."But one thing I would never do," Sharma points out, "is force it on teachers. It's better if it comes from the teachers themselves." Effective and regular training, he continues, is crucial in motivating teachers to take up ICT.

"One thing that employers and schools often underestimate is the importance of training," he says. Schools will often buy new technology, and expect their teachers to start using it in everyday teaching. "It's like buying a car without the driving lessons," explains Sharma. When training is given, it often falls into the trap of becoming a lecture.

"Some of it is just too much knowledge; teachers go in and they listen and get handouts and then they leave and that's that, now they're supposed to know how to use the technology."

Because ICT involves skills, so should training be skills-based, Sharma continues. "For presentations, simply telling things to people is OK, but all technology training needs to have a hands-on element; there needs to be a point where you do it yourself." Quality technology training, he continues, needs to combine the right amount of both input and practice to be fully effective.

A web log, or ‘blog' is essentially an online diary, kept by people who wish to share their thoughts and experiences with the wider community. In an educational context, using blogs can be a great way to improve students' writing skills, says Sharma.

"The main thing about a blog is that everyone can see it. If students are writing their thoughts, or about their interests, it somehow has an effect on their English, because they're doing it for a worldwide audience." Students will pay greater attention to spelling, punctuation and grammar if they know their writing will not just be seen by their teacher, argues Sharma.

Harnessing audio-to-go

Whereas blogs and wikis can be used to improve writing skills, podcasts have become the new domain for practising listening and speaking. These are audio files, which can be downloaded from the internet and saved to an mp3 player, such as an iPod.

The hundreds of thousands of podcasts available free of charge on the internet can all be adapted for use in the classroom context, says Sharma. "Ten years ago a teacher would walk into a classroom holding cassette tapes, but now there are listenings all over place."

For more proactive teachers and students, podcasts can also be made relatively easily. "It takes an afternoon's workshop for teachers to find out how easy it is to do," he says.

Free software such as Audacity allows users to record and edit audio files, enabling them to become self-styled radio producers. Documentaries, dialogues, or lectures can be created and shared. In the same way that a blog will heighten students' awareness of spelling, grammar and punctuation, so will podcasts make students more mindful of pronunciation and intonation.

"If you like that stuff, it's easy to do it," adds Sharma, "but you've got to be quite keen to do that.  It's not for every teacher."

In a wider context, blogs can be used to "open up classrooms around the world," he says. "A whole group can create an online diary, post it on the internet, and then link up with a school in another country. It makes for a really great cultural exchange."

Wikis, now made famous by Wikipedia, can be just as useful for building on writing skills. "The main thing for wikis is collaborative writing," says Sharma. "Students need to work together to create a text, but not in the classroom."

Students can be given a writing assignment, which can then be corrected or added to by their classmates. "The wonderful thing is that the teacher can just go in and look at the history of the wiki, and see what the students have changed." These changes will often give teachers an idea of the gaps in their students' knowledge, which can then be addressed during class.

Moving up the technology ladder, virtual learning environments (VLEs) are becoming a standard feature of universities' teaching tools. Used mainly to supplement face-to-face teaching, VLEs are an online platform that can be used to upload content, such as lectures and lessons; correct and return students' work; collect and organise student grades; allow communication between students and teachers; and monitor student activity.

With VLEs, university students need no longer worry about nodding off during lectures, Sharma says. "At the end of the lecture, the lecturer can post the PowerPoint presentation to the VLE, so students can access the information when they want to." This is called information-on-demand, he explains.

"Rather than sitting and forcing yourself to follow this lecture, you can get the idea and later focus on the bits you want by going to the VLE. It's actually having an effect on exam results."

Though designed to serve as educational platforms, VLEs can also provide an environment where educators can meet socially. Moodle, a free VLE used by many education professionals, provides a good example of how this can be done, Sharma points out.

"I went to a conference in Scotland, which was also held virtually on Moodle, for teachers who couldn't get there. These teachers could just go to Moodle, and see videos of the presentations at the conference." What happened then, he continues, is that teachers started to socialise with their colleagues.

"The whole idea of socialising in cyberspace really became a part of what Moodle can enable people to do."

Second Life, a virtual world, takes virtual learning environments to the next level. Through avatars, users can create three-dimensional versions of themselves, and engage in a world that has all the features of the real world, online.

More than 300 universities have already set up campuses on Second Life, a platform favoured for giving a personal dimension to distance learning.

For school teachers and students, the Second Life teen grid allows children to interact in a safe environment.  Though it's a bandwidth-hungry programme, Sharma doesn't expect this to pose many problems for schools. "School will probably be able to use it in the future, because bandwidth is always increasing," he says.

As well as countless other applications, the programme provides unique opportunities for language teaching, Sharma continues. "The main reason to use Second Life is because of the role plays. You can actually let your imagination go, and you can do much stranger role plays than in real life."

Realistically, he admits that Second Life is still not practical for everyday teaching. "I don't think classroom teachers need to get worried, because it's still something that one does away from the classroom - at the moment, anyway."

The arrival of ‘smart phones', such as the iPhone and BlackBerry, will probably propel mobile learning to the centre of ICT in the years to come, predicts Sharma. "I think it's going to take off to a larger extent, because you're going to be able to do more and more on these devices."

In the near future, he continues, "students in the classroom will ask the teacher if they can transfer the lesson onto their devices." They will then be able to take that information home, and study the parts they want.

Beyond a couple of years, it's nearly impossible to predict the technology that will shape ICT education, says Sharma. "Seeing into the future is really tough; all you can do is make bland statements like it's exciting and it will keep growing and so on; it's almost impossible to predict."

Whatever shape it takes, ICT presents undeniable opportunities for teachers to engage their students and make their lessons come alive. Once teachers embrace these opportunities, perhaps even maths won't seem so difficult.

Pete Sharma is a lecturer at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. He is also is a director of Pete Sharma Associates Ltd, a company which runs workshops and seminars in educational technology.

He has written books on ICT in language teaching, and is co-author of The Internet and Business English.

His book, Blended Learning: using technology in and beyond the language classroom was shortlisted for the Ben Warren International House Trust prize, 2008. Pete Sharma has trained teachers in Europe and the Middle East, and can be contacted via his website www.te4be.com.

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