From professional photography and smartphone cameras to ed-tech and challenges in ELT

28 10 2014



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.



Nat Geo panel


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 Alvarez



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.



8 responses

29 10 2014
Vinicius Nobre

As usual, you fascinta me with your ability to put ideas into words. Great analogy, connecting Stephen’s talk with technology. It was a privilege to be near you during the conference and an even greater honour to be on the panel with you!
Miss you already,

29 10 2014

Thank you for your kind words, Vinny. It’s always wonderful to be around people like you.

29 10 2014
Vinicius Nobre


29 10 2014
Itana de almeida Lins

Dear Isabela,

As Vini has already pointed out the way you put your ideas into words is awesome. Thank you for sharing with us your thoughts and conclusions. I’ve always looked up to you as an engaged and caring professional. You really make a difference in our field.

Your blog is inspiring.



29 10 2014

Dear Itana,
Thank you for your kind words and for reading my post. I like to write and share my thoughts with my colleagues. I guess it has to do with my background in journalism. It was nice to see you again. Please do keep in touch!
Take care,

31 10 2014
Vinicius Lemos

Blend technology and Education in the same talk and you can be sure people are going to have mixed feelings about it. Some will be in favor of using technology in the classroom, some will be against. What educators should not forget is that the presence of technology in our lives can no longer be ignored and that embracing novelty does not necessarily mean using it, but at least learning about it. You cannot give an opinion on the efficacy and potential of a resource if you don’t know it (meaning you have tried and reflected on the outcomes, taking into consideration all the pros and cons). It is absolutely true that technology is never essential, a lot can still be accomplished without using all the available high-end tech devices. You guys have brilliantly concluded that technology is just a tool. I would even go beyond that by saying that it is also the means through which certain outcomes can be evidenced. May truth be said, certain outcomes are only possible through technology and this is the potential that we need to bring to the table. I’m in favor of employing technology in the classroom, but I also believe this is a choice that needs to be carefully analyzed beforehand. One might conclude that technology is not really necessary for an intended learning outcome, for example.
I have recently attended a round-table conference at an international congress in Curitiba in which the speakers discussed the future of Education. I liked it so much that I decided to share what I learned by writing a blog post that is about to be published (what a coincidence, your post addresses very similar issues!). One of the speakers reminded the audience that technology does not imply innovation in the classroom. Innovation means changing the methodology, values and approaches and that can be done with or without technology.
Thanks for sharing this great post and for positively provoking the EFL teaching community through very relevant topics.

31 10 2014

Thanks, Vinny. Yes, technology doesn´t imply innovation and neither does innovation necessarily imply technology. Perfect definition of when innovation really happens. Thanks for your contribution!

3 11 2014
Eneida Soares Coaracy

Dear Isabela, I agree with Vinicius when he says that ‘you fascinate him for your ability to put ideas into words.’ Thanks for sharing!
Eneida Coaracy

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