Table tennis and tech boosterism at the English Australia Conference 2014

'Ping Pong' by Max Braun,
‘Ping Pong’ by Max Braun,

The highlight of the 2014 English Australia Conference for me was Adrian Underhill: the sheer delight that he takes in just about everything was both entertaining and inspiring. During his Friday morning session on ‘demand high’ teaching, he spoke of what I’m going to call a ‘multi-pong’ approach to teaching (bear with me!). That’s pong as in ping pong, i.e. teacher-student interaction in the classroom can be like a game of ping pong.

Teaching is often of the ‘single pong’ variety:

  1. The teacher directs a question to one student – ‘Juan, what did you get for question 2?’ (ping!)
  2. Student responds (pong!)
  3. Teacher asks another student about the next question (ping!)
  4. Student responds (pong!)

The alternative suggested by Underhill involved just one ping followed by a succession of pongs as a range of possible responses bounce around the room, rather than just a single, ‘right’ answer.

There’s also a multi-pong effect at conferences, and, apart from the interactions with friends and colleagues, I think this is what I enjoy most about conferences. For example, Tess Julian spoke about innovation and how from little things (e.g. being helpful) big things grow (an innovation culture) – ping! Then at the end of the day, Underhill spoke of the learning organisation, and the importance of feedback, systems thinking and how seemingly small things (a bunch of teachers at a language school attending a counselling course together) can lead to big things (an organisation in which people are really good at listening to each other and is like an ‘adventure land of learning for everyone’) – pong!

In this way, the true, deeper themes of a conference reveal themselves over the course of the event. Following Underhill’s argument about systems thinking, they’re emergent, a function of the system itself (the system being the relationship between all the different parts – speakers, content, delegates, venue) and cannot be imposed or predicted.

The official theme was quality. It seemed to me that there was a tendency to conflate it with innovation, an impression reinforced by the strong emphasis on technology. I went to most of the sessions described in Mark Pegrum’s post (and also participated in one of them) and came away with the sense that, when it comes to technology in ELT, managers and those responsible for curriculum aren’t really in the game yet. Rather, teachers are left to work things out (or ‘innovate’?) for themselves. This is illustrated by the parade of apps and websites that continued throughout the conference: Moodle, Apple, Samsung, VideoScribe, Tellagami, Padlet, Quizlet, Kahoot, Socrative, Voxer, Voki, Google Classroom, Fotobabble, Penultimate (how many of these, by the way, will still be around or free by the time of the 2015 conference?).

‘Old computer technology: ‘floppies” by Daan Berg,

But what impact do these tools really have on quality experiences and outcomes for learners? From my perspective, these crucial aspects tended to get lost amidst the tech boosterism: the focus was much more on what teachers do with them. Or, more precisely, what teachers can do with them. Speakers would present a tool and talk about how it could be used, rather than what actual learners actually do with them and how this impacts on their learning. I think the reality most likely is that none of us – and, from the evidence at the conference, ELT managers perhaps least of all – can say with much confidence how it all impacts on learning and what it means for quality beyond anecdotes, assumptions and ideology.

One example that came up of management involvement in technology related to banning the use of Facebook for interacting with classes and students. Contrary to apparently common beliefs that sharing stuff online is good for students or that pixels are better than paper, management were perhaps right to take action in this case but, generally, to do so without making clear what the issues are – perhaps management themselves don’t really understand what they are? – isn’t very helpful for anyone. In keeping with the principles of the learning organisation which Underhill spoke of, an alternative approach would be to take teachers seriously when they say they want to use Facebook, involve them in a proper evaluation of it and discuss the issues without pre-determining the outcome. Such a process will help to educate all the stakeholders on the pros and cons and help individuals to practice systems thinking – as a teacher, Facebook might be a great solution, but what are the wider implications? Echoing comments made by David Graddol in his plenary talk on Thursday, who’s benefiting?

Graddol in fact was the only speaker to my knowledge who struck a clear pessimistic note regarding technology and education. He brought to the surface niggling doubts about the agendas of Big Ed multi-nat corporations like Pearson – they’re investing hugely in technologies which aim to devolve to algorithms at least some of the key tasks currently performed by teachers. He also expressed some sympathy for Chomsky’s view that:

Globalization is the result of powerful governments, especially that of the United States, pushing trade deals and other accords [and educational technology? – KS] down the throats of the worlds [sic] people to make it easier for corporations and the wealthy to dominate the economies of nations around the world without having obligations to the peoples of those nations. (1999, ‘Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and the Global Order’)

Is this a neoliberal conspiracy? No, it’s just business. However, if it seems a bit paranoid, check this out.

This is why I’d be happy to see us moving beyond the current stage of teachers incessantly plugging Google (‘We must learn the knowledge from the Googels’) and dismissing criticism as neoliberal conspiracy theories, to a stage where the wise elders of our industry/profession are engaging more directly with the messiness of educational technology and supporting the pursuit of good practice amongst those who are keen to experiment.

As one form of justification for the tech boosterism, references were made here and there to digital literacies, one of which surely is good old-fashioned critical literacy. Sadly, though, it seems to be a bit unfashionable in the face of a whole bunch of new literacies. For example, one speaker had a slide that said, ‘I don’t work for Google, Google works for me’. I’m not sure I can imagine a teacher at conference proudly saying that of any other corporation, especially one that generates over 90% of its revenue from advertising. Why do we assume that Google is a special case? Why should they get the benefit of the doubt? Is it because of their ‘Don’t be evil’ motto? Or because people write books with titles like ‘What Would Google Do?’? Or is it because they genuinely deserve our trust? From my perspective, it’s a common blindspot. There was plenty more of the same about Google at the NEAS Conference this year, along with similar amazement at Uber, despite ample evidence – including articles published that very day – that we should be wary.

It will be interesting to see how technology is dealt with at the EA and NEAS Conferences next year. I’m hoping to see evidence of an increased problematising of technology in education and a greater emphasis on its impact on learning experiences and outcomes. What’s just as likely, though, is that we’ll hear about Google Classroom, the fruits of the partnerships between Knewton and CUP, Macmillan, Cengage and Pearson, and a whole new slew of apps and websites.

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