I’ve just returned from a National Geographic Learning conference for ELT leaders in Latin America, where I had the honor to participate in a panel on the use of technology and the main challenges faced by ELT institutes in the 21st century. It was a very exciting presentation followed by highly thought-provoking questions, and it was facilitated by Hugh Dellar and delivered by six leaders from different Latin American countries – Ana Sylvia Ramires, Instituto Guatemalteco Americano; Lenise Butler, Unversidad del Valle de Mexico; Luz Ribia Rey, Centro Colombo-Americano, Bogota; Maria Tereza Tejeda Gonzalez, Tecnologico de Monterrey; Vinicius Nobre, Cultura Inglesa, São Paulo; and myself.
One of the major conclusions from the discussions was that technology is a tool, not a methodology, and it should be subordinate to the intended learning outcomes. In other words, first we come up with the outcomes, and then we decide if technology will help us reach them more effectively and, if so, which tool to use. This can only be achieved if teachers are well-versed in both ELT methodology and educational technology.
Another conclusion was that the ELT profession is still seen and treated very informally by all stakeholders. Lenise pointed out that the university she works for sometimes has high expectations about the results they want to achieve but doesn’t necessarily allocate the sufficient resources. Vinny told an anecdote to illustrate that sometimes teachers themselves don’t think they need to know English in order to teach it. I mentioned my impression that many younger teachers nowadays do not want to invest the necessary time and effort to keep improving their English and are unrealistically satisfied with their level of proficiency. Teachers are not taken seriously and sometimes they don’t take their profession seriously either. Hugh Dellar blamed the international certification boards for disseminating the idea that people can receive a one-month training and then go and teach anywhere in the world. While there wasn’t a consensus among all panelists about whether teaching English is seen as prestigious or not in their countries, they all agreed that their greatest challenge was teacher development.
In this conference, we also had the chance to learn about the excitiing experiences of National Geographic explorer and photographer Stephen Alvarez. He talked about his exploration of Paris’ catacombs, Madagascar’s stone forest, and the Yucatan Peninsula’s caves, among many other thrilling places. We were all fascinated by his adventures and resulting photos. What he probably doesn’t know is that his last talk turned out to be a metaphor of what we panel speakers and participants had just debated that same morning about the use of tecnology in the EFL classroom and the challenges faced by ETL institutes.
Stephen talked about a job he had been doing for a smartphone producer, photographing the seven wonders of the world with a smartphone camera. He showed us the breathtaking pictures he had taken all around the world with a smartphone camera and how surprised he was that smartphones had cameras that were actually capable of taking such pictures. He then told us that he had been asked if he thought he would have taken the same pictures with his expensive professional camera. Yes, the photos would probably have looked the same.
You see, Stephen is a professional photographer and he has the skills to find the right angle with the right amount of light, regardless of the camera he is using. The camera is just a tool. In other words, his outcome – the photo – is the same, no matter which type of camera he uses, because he is a professional photographer who knows what he is doing. This doen’t mean he won’t use his professional camera anymore. It just means that the camera doesn’t define who he is as a photographer.
The same goes for technology in the EFL classroom. It’s a tool that professionals who have the desired teaching and technological skills will use to reach the learning outcomes. Just like the professional photographer, professional teachers who know what they’re doing will reach the same outcomes with diferent tools. For the photographer, it’s about the camera position, the angle, the light. For the teacher, it’s about the students, what they need to achieve and the best match with their profiles and the outcomes for the specific lesson. A good teacher will find pathways to reach the learning outcomes even without any 21st century technology. However, if this technology is available, the teacher will also know how to use the tools at hand to reach the same objectives, perhaps faster, perhaps in a more creative and unpredictable way. Students’ learning will come first, and the technology will be just a tool to aid such learning, preferably aiming at higher-order thinking and redefinition of learning (rather than just substitution, augmentation or modification).
Cameras don’t dictate the photos that photographers take, and neither should technology dictate the classes we teach. How can we achieve this? With less informatilty and more professionalism in ELT.
On a final note, it was interesting to see how the panel discussion became much more vivid and meanginful to me when I was able to connect it with another experience in the same conference, a talk seemingly unrelated to the panel topic. We sometimes need to go outside our field to find the most meaningful answers. Thank you for the opportunity, National Geographic Learning.