Integrating Technology from the Ground Up—Making the Most of Technological Affordances

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By Brian Wilson

[This article was first printed in the Winter 2016 issue of TEAL News.]

I have a confession to make. When talking about educational technology, I’ve used the words affordances, leverage and integration more often than I probably should have. In fact, I’ve even played “Meeting Bingo” with them. In my defence, however, I continue to use these terms because there often doesn’t seem to be a common, easily accessible vocabulary or set of practices when discussing instructional design, educational technology, and language learning. Too often when doing so, educators get bogged down in talking about the tools and how to operate them, instead of thinking more deeply about what students are to gain by engaging with the various technologies. It is possible to be swayed by the sexy, trendy, but perhaps not overly effective new tool or, conversely, to abandon a promising, if somewhat clunky, piece of software simply because it seems not intuitive or easy enough to use.

With that off my chest, let me be completely upfront in saying that I don’t think there is one must-have tool, technology, or even approach. Nor would I support the notion that new is always better. Sometimes paper and pen really is best. What I do support, however, is the idea that not only should educators take advantage of what today’s tools have to offer, but it must be done in a principled, pedagogically sound manner. In other words, integrating technology, and digital technology in particular, is more desirable than just simply using technology, and in order to make the most of that distinction, language educators need to be able to articulate why they have chosen to use the tools that they have. They need to be able to demonstrate alignment between the underlying pedagogy, the approach to language learning and the instructional methods employed when designing and delivering technology-enhanced lessons. The challenge is: How best can instructors do this?

The first question to ask when considering whether to introduce a new tool or technology into the classroom is: What will this enable me to do that I could not otherwise accomplish? There is little to be gained by simply replicating an existing method or activity unless an improvement in learning outcomes can be realized. This is especially true if the proposed tool or resource requires student registration, disrespects their privacy, or contributes to a digital divide. By identifying the particular affordances of a technology early, educators can then better design their lessons so the desired alignment between pedagogy, approach and methods can be realized. For example, if a set of stand-alone, online, multiple choice grammar questions is completed by students sitting individually in a language lab with little or no relation to the preceding or following lesson, it will be hard, if not impossible, for the instructor to argue that this aligns with a pedagogy that adopts a constructivist orientation, a communicative approach or a methodology that is task-based. If the instructor can’t justify why having students sit in a computer lab provides a better learning opportunity or contributes to a principled approach to language acquisition, then that particular technology may be a poor choice. It’s not that spaces like language labs or tools like online quizzes are inherently good or bad. Rather, it’s a question of identifying how that technology needs to be used in order to take advantage of what it offers. In the case of online quizzes, for example, as a means of fostering some self-directed study or providing focused, adaptive practice on a particular concept, they might provide an ideal means of supporting the learner and his or her particular challenges, but this can’t simply arise from the too often default position of using lab time simply because lab time has been scheduled.

In addition to offering new and varied ways of tackling ongoing language acquisition challenges, what makes many of the tools currently available so enticing is that they enable educators to transition their classrooms from that of being a walled garden into a networked public. The real power of Web 2.0 and social media is that it enables both the students and the instructors to develop interactions that are primarily relational, instead of informational. That is, the relationship developed between members when using these tools is often more important than the nature of information that a social network contains (Ito et al., 2008). This enables educators to better integrate technology by considering how the students will interact rather than what information they will acquire. Take Twitter for example. Simply having students engage in an ongoing dialogue with each other on a variety of topics is likely to have more benefit than either simply transmitting information from teacher to student or by focusing on accuracy at the expense of (digital) fluency or literacy.

The Pedagogy of Multiliteracies (The New London Group, 1996) provides a useful pedagogical foundation upon which to integrate technology choices with instructional methodology. Central to this theory is the assumption that 21st century learners operate in a multi-modal, multi-cultural, and multi-media environment and that “curriculum is a design for social futures” (The New London Group, 1996). In other words, as fundamentally and unequivocally important as traditional concepts of literacy are, students now live in an era when also being digitally literate can make the difference in a student’s ability to successfully navigate between various forms of language and multiple modes of expression. In fact, it can also have a direct impact on career and employment opportunities. It is no longer adequate for students to gain proficiency only in the traditional areas of reading, writing, speaking and listening – they are necessary, but not sufficient, for students to thrive. The four pillars of multiliteracies are: situated practice; overt instruction; critical framing and transformed practices. While a full discussion of multiliteracies is by no means possible here, these pillars do provide salient questions for the instructor to ask before choosing a particular tool or technology.

  • Situated practice: Will the students be immersed in authentic experience and engage in meaningful practice, including those from the students’ everyday lives, workplaces and public spaces?
  • Overt instruction: Will students gain a systematic, analytic, and conscious understanding what is being learned? Will they develop the metalanguage necessary to do so?
  • Critical framing: Will students be able to gain mastery, thereby extending and applying their knowledge in new and enriched contexts?
  • Transformed practice: Will students, through application and reflective practice, be able to transfer their meaning-making capacity to other contexts or cultural sites?

To help put the concepts of affordances, networked publics and multiliteracies into context and provide a wrapper for holding them together, Garrison, Anderson & Archer’s updated model for a Community of Inquiry (Garrison, 2011) provides three key questions to ask when considering the instructional design of a technology-enhanced course: How will it impact the social presence? What is the instructor presence going to be? What is the cognitive presence required? If a technology is able to leverage any one of these domains more fully, not only will the interactions between students, instructors and technology be more intentional, but in all likelihood, learning outcomes can be improved, but for that to happen, instructors need to make sure that any adoption of technology can address any or all of these domains while still aligning pedagogy, approach and method.

Once educators have considered how they will design their courses, what technologies and activities will enable their students to reach the desired learning outcomes more effectively, and how a community of inquiry can be fostered, they can then use their chosen instructional methodology (e.g. task-based, PPP, TTT) to decide how best to structure their lessons. Every technology comes with its own inherent logic, cultural and political assumptions, and impact on its users, and the “tool” itself cannot be separated from these. In fact, it would be an oversimplification to try to separate the function of a technology from its form. Therefore, it is extremely important when choosing technologies that educators don’t become complacent and simply try to emulate existing face-to-face classroom practices. For example, in Mobile pedagogy for English language teaching: a guide for teachers, Kukulska-Hulme, Norris and Donohue (2015) introduce the mobile dimension into the existing challenge of integrating technology in an attempt to help instructors bridge their existing expertise with their desire to take advantage of the possibilities that mobile learning offers so that instead of asking students to turn off their phones and put them away in frustration, instructors can develop a framework through which they can better make use of the tools while still creating an active and engaging learning environment.

In How Learning Works, Ambrose et al. (2010) argue that the seven principles of good teaching (knowledge, structure, motivation, mastery, practice, climate, metacognition) are rooted in cognitive science, and that these principles support a set of strategies and provide a checklist of sorts that can be used as a reference against which an instructor can determine the likely success of a particular set of activities. For many experienced educators, these seven principles and the resulting strategies will seem like common sense, but they are worth remembering if only to remind ourselves that above all, pedagogy and good teaching must provide the foundation for our informed choices in technology, not the other way round.

Resources

The pedagogy of multiliteracies:

Community of Inquiry:

How learning works primer:

Using technology vs. integrating it:

Mobile pedagogy:

References

Ambrose, S., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., Norman, M.K., & Mayer, R.E. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Garrison, D. R. (2011). E–Learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice (2nd ed.). London: Routledge/Falmer.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning. (2008). Living and learning with new media: Summary of findings from the digital youth project. Chicago, IL: Ito, M., Horst, H.A., Bittanti, M., Boyd, D., Herr-Stephenson, B., Lange, P.G., Pascoe, C.J., & Robinson, L. Retrieved from http://digitalyouth.ischool.berkeley.edu/report.html

The New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review. 66(1), pp. 60-93.

Kukulska-Hulme, A., Norris, L., & Donohue, J. (2015). Mobile pedagogy for English language teaching: A guide for teachers. London: British Council.

Biographical Information

From the Winter 2016 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter:  Brian Wilson is the Curriculum Manager at UBC Vantage College. Before this, he was an Instructional Designer/Project Manager at the UBC Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. His areas of interest include educational technology, blended and mobile learning environments, and program design. Brian holds an MA TESOL from the University College London, Institute of Education, and has been involved in EAL since 1990.

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Original reference information:

Wilson, B. (2016, Winter). Integrating Technology from the Ground Up—Making the Most of Technological Affordances. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/BC-TEAL-Newsletter-Winter-2016-FINAL.pdf

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