On a random Wednesday at some point the last ten weeks I wasn’t quite sure what I’d do with a class of future interpreters, who are in the first year of a two year graduate program. As I was considering this question I saw an invitation to talk tech from eltjam. They listed some questions regarding tech use and I thought the questions might be a nice intro into discussions on autonomous learning and summer plans for improving English and technology in general. The good people at eltjam listed 11 questions and before that there were some general discussion questions loosely focused on Sugata Mitra’s talk at IATEFL this year (and maybe the ensuing debate). Before starting with either set of discussion questions I cued up some Mitra with a few comprehension questions. It was starting to feel like a real planned lesson.
We talked about the following questions as a whole group (four students and me) after students had discussed them in pairs. It was a mix of me interviewing people and nominating speakers and a more free flowing discussion.
- Do you like working without a teacher?
- Would you enjoy working in a small group with a computer (ie a SOLE)?
- Would you like English help from my Mum (ie a grandma)?
- When do you think your English improves most: in class or outside?
Students liked the word mum vs. mom, by the way. They thought it might be nice to talk to random grandmas they didn’t know but also wanted language and teaching experts. For their field as potential conference interpreters they pointed to history and culture as very important things and felt random grannies in the cloud could be helpful for this. They also liked the idea of potentially cheering up or giving company to someone. There was some concern that the elderly might talk in old-fashioned ways or might not pronounce things accurately or quickly enough. There was also the worry grandparents might not understand the students well. The consensus seemed to be that discussion partners in the cloud might be good as a supplement but not as the primary way of learning.
As a group they were largely pro-teacher (and not, I believe, because I was the person asking). They thought it was good to have someone devoted to the task of helping them learn. They placed a high value on trust and reliability and thought maybe a stranger wouldn’t have these things. They liked the idea of having experienced and trained teachers.
The students thought the ideas of SOLEs was okay and said they already do a lot of work on their own in groups and are quite capable of choosing tasks they need to do. My impression of their take on the SOLE idea was that it was nothing new or revolutionary and the impression I got was they felt “Of course students can get together to do tasks with the help of technology.”
They came back to the idea of a teacher being helpful and important, in order to keep students on task and to provide expert feedback. They said it is too easy to be distracted when working in small groups without tangible goals or tasks. They also suggested it is very nice to have a teacher around when they get stuck or misunderstand something. It is nice to know if you are on the right track, they said.
I mentioned distraction above and this was very much a key issue for the students. They were worried too many apps or too many sources or too much going on might distract them from their goals. I got the sense that doing and using lots of tools seemed a bit scattershot to them and they’d prefer to work with just a few quality things.
My students said they preferred and believed in a mix of in and out of class learning. Some of the tools they mentioned as most useful were online dictionaries and apps, TED talks, NPR podcasts, lectures from EBS, and newspapers online (with and without accompanied audio). They preferred things that had a connection to Korea but said this is not necessary. They said they don’t like to pay for apps or materials because there is so much out there for free and they can find the free or pirated versions quite easily.
I was curious about smartphones being used for studying here in the most wired country on earth and they said they didn’t do so very often and neither did their friends or siblings. Smartphones are mostly for fun. The main educational uses were podcasts and dictionaries. They said they didn’t know much about apps for learning English that were made outside of Korea. This matched with my perceptions about not so many Korean students using apps for improving their English.
They were also not so hot on the idea of social media for improving English. Many of them had Facebook before they were asked to make an account for another course. They didn’t seem to see the point of social media for improving their English. I took a few minutes and shared who I think Twitter could be super useful for students in their situation. I saw some nodding but I think this would take a bit of nudging (or devoting class time to it.)
I enjoyed the conversation and got a lot out of it. I hope and believe the students did too. It looked like they enjoyed hearing the strategies and tools their peers employ. The class flew by and at the end I asked the students to answer some of the other questions from eltjam. Their (occasionally edited just for clarity and flow) responses are below.
- Apart from textbooks, what do you use outside of class time to help you learn English?
Ted Talks, Good Morning pops (app).
Sometimes novels or short stories or movie scripts/scenarios.
Watch TED Talks and speeches and EBS World News. Recently Freakonomics.
Radio, apps (Ipad), newspapers.
- What technology do you use to learn English when you’re not in school?
Smartphone apps and computer websites.
Websites-google to find English texts.
Apps-Podcast, TED, Umano, dictionaries.
Websites-Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal.
Googling, dictionary apps, EBS program, NPR, podcasts.
- Why do you use them?
Because they are more interesting than textbooks and more practical.
Because speakers normally use good English. Basically I believe their English is good enough for me to learn grammar, words, and also for me to memorize because they are publicly giving a speech.
The two websites (Huffpo and WSJ) provide both Korean and English scripts.
Podcasts are good for listening to fun programs for free.
TED is good for learning the structure of speeches and various information from various fields.
They are reliable and I can access them any time.
- How do you know if they are helping you learn?
I don’t know exactly but friends’ or teachers’ positive comments are helpful.
I sometimes find myself using the expressions I picked up.
I can learn various expressions and use them in interpretation.
Because Native Speakers teach or speak and the teachers are qualified and professional. I learn new expressions.
- Do you use them in class? What technology do you use in class?
Oxford Dictionary (English-English), Nave Dictionary (English-Korean), Google Search (to find out appropriate collocations).
Yes, we use Ted Talks sometimes and googling for translation.
Yes, WSJ, dictionary and TED apps.
English dictionary app or googling.
- What language is your phone and things like Facebook set to?
- What do you think about using technology in class?
If properly used it would be very helpful but if too much is used it will distract you.
I think it’s necessary sometimes. Since we are learning interpretation skills, we need more practice rather than apps in class.
Sometimes good but usually some PowerPoint or screens make my eyes tired. I have to protect my eyes. And they are boring.
- What English skills do you think technology can help you with?
Listening. I often listen to TedTalks but I think face-to-face conversation is better to improve one’s speaking skills.
Fluency and vocabulary (through dictionaries).
Listening (especially through TED and NPR).
- Would you like to do homework, or communicate with your class, on the train home?
Yes. While commuting I listen to podcasts (Good morning pops app) or read some English materials.
Yes, but not online. Face-to-face.
I drive so I can’t do homework in my car.
Class is enough. After class I have to review on my own.
- Do you study English outside of class with other students? If so, do you use any technology to do this?
Yes, searching for materials and listening to dialogues or speeches.
Skype and KakaoTalk.
Yes, I use an Ipad to practice interpretation.
Yes. Listening to TED or speeches together.
- Is there anything you want to do with technology and learning English, but can’t?
With technology including Skype or Facetime I can talk or converse with someone who speaks English. So, technically, I can. But, in fact, I can’t because I don’t have enough time.
I don’t know what I need. If there is a cool app I would use it.
No, I have a lot of stuff I have to study.
It seems that their answers clearly show their specific interests, goals and challenges but I hope their answers are helpful on a more general level too. Thanks very much for reading. Please be sure to see the follow up post on eltjam about what students want from edtech. If you have any questions you’d like me to ask my students in the fall I will more than likely be happy to do so.