To Tech or Not to Tech: Interview with Russell Stannard, Plenary Speaker for TESOL Greece’s 44th International Annual Convention

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By George Kokolas

Russell, during the Covid era, the whole global ELT community had to turn to “Emergency Remote Learning”. What do you think the lesson out of this experience is, and what are we to expect from now on regarding how technology is used in the classroom?

The result of ‘Emergency Remote Learning’ is that the teachers now have a more significant idea of the technologies available. So, for example, tools like Padlet, Wordwall, Kahoot and Socrative are much more mainstream. However, I am experiencing a lack of a clear view of what role technology should play in the classroom. When and how should we use it? Much of the training and consultancy work I am currently doing tends to focus on this question. 

From talking with teachers, I think one lesson is obvious, especially when talking about young learners, and that is teaching entirely online doesn’t work. Young learners lose interest and suffer from not being in a classroom environment. I have several consultancy roles with language schools that deliver lessons to young learners, and they found it very difficult. On the other hand, some universities had real success with providing some of their courses online, impacting how they think about delivering their classes. So, it is a very mixed picture. 

Your plenary during the spring TESOL Greece 2023 convention will be about the tech/non-tech balance between teaching and learning. Is there eventually a recipe for this balance to be achieved?

 There are some valuable guidelines as to the role that technology can play. I believe technology can play a more prominent role outside the classroom than in it. My main interest is in how technology can impact the homework we ask our students to do. We can add much more variety to the activities we ask our students to do outside the classroom. We can ask our students to watch videos with subtitles, listen to audio recordings, use Quizlet, work with dictionary tools, record themselves speaking and even do collaborative activities online after the lesson. I was always quite happy with the range of activities, games, and ideas I could introduce into my classroom lessons. I was always a fan of photocopiable games, card games, and the work of people like Jill Hadfield and Mario Rinvolucri. I also liked using a textbook as it gave me a clear syllabus and a clear record of what I was doing in class. What always frustrated me in the past was the type of homework I could set my students. This began to change when the web came along, mainly when web 2.0 emerged.

More recently, I have become interested in these ‘Learning Platforms’ that often support a course book. I have experience using one for learning Polish, and I find it useful as it means I can watch videos, listen to audio, study vocabulary and do exercises, all related to the unit of the book we are currently studying at home. 

Another essential guideline is to use technology in class, which will help your students become more autonomous. For example, some of the tasks which teachers could teach are: training students to search for videos with subtitles on YouTube or to generate Quizlet flashcards from a list of words in a Microsoft Word file, or even showing students how to search for podcasts on Google Podcasts. These skills can open a new world to students and facilitate and support their learning outside the lesson. 

The third guideline for technology is to choose and use technologies that help support a more vital link between what students do in class and what they do for homework. This guideline could be considered the basis of the Flipped Classroom approach to blended learning. We get the students to watch a video, listen to audio recordings, prepare a presentation or read an article for homework with the idea that we can use that material as the springboard for the lesson. I ran a whole course at Kings College University using that approach not long ago, and it worked. I could start the ‘live lesson’ by saying, ‘Ok, you have watched the video and thought about the questions I asked for homework, now I am going to put you into groups to discuss the following questions. I use the tech as a sort of ‘dive board’ into the lesson. But, of course, sometimes it works well the other way around too. So, for example, if we want our students to record themselves talking over a picture or talking over a PowerPoint, we might do the prep work in class and the recordings at home. For example, they do the base work in the classroom: searching for the correct vocabulary, preparing what they want to say, taking notes and even rehearsing the recording, but they do the recordings at home. I love using technology to build a connection between the classroom and homework. 

How would you assess the general digital literacy of ELT teachers today? 

Teachers often know a lot. However, in my training, I frequently come across teachers who know far more than I do, but they sometimes lack an understanding of when and where to use technology.

A lot of teachers are what I call ‘Recipe Based’. They use a particular technology for a specific lesson or game they play. However, they don’t know the technology beyond that. For example, teachers often say to me, ‘Oh, I know Quizlet’, and yet, when I show them a few things you can do with Quizlet, they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize I could do that’. My advice is to learn a technology well as it tends to be then that you are the most creative with it. That certainly has been my own experience. The more I delve into what technology can do, the more creative ideas I come up with. 

Where should teachers start if they want to become more skillful in technology? 

There are also excellent courses and plenty of good free material on YouTube. My website is helpful as all the training videos are free, and I try to make quite a variety of training practices. For something more formal, look at some of the excellent courses run by NILE or by E-Consultants.

I would focus on tools that you are going to use time and time again. Padlet is an excellent example, as you can do so much with it. It is ideal for brainstorming, collaborative and group-based activities, and getting students to record themselves speaking. Learning all the fantastic things you can do with YouTube would be another skill worth developing. Most teachers have only skimmed the surface. They don’t know about playlists, subscribing to channels, searching YouTube or the clever things you can do if you set up multiple channels.

Do you see or fear that teaching might ever cease to be an interpersonal, human process and become an asynchronous, fully tech-based, impersonal task? Could it be that the teacher might not be a priority anymore? 

I don’t spend too much time looking at the future of technology. I know a bit about the metaverse and some emerging tools and updates to products like Zoom. I am even helping with developing some of the emerging products, but overall, my focus is on what technology can do now, and how we can harness it and use it in our teaching and learning. From my point of view, we need teachers as much as before, but the teacher’s role is changing, and we need to develop our ‘digital competencies’. However, we have to be careful. Our currency is language learning, and we can be effective language teachers using a good course book, some exciting games and activities, good classroom management, and a bit of creativity. We don’t have to obsess about technology, and most of my best lessons as a teacher never included any technology. I think technology can play a role in our teaching and learning, but having a solid understanding of the creative ideas, approaches and methodologies in language teaching and the incredible heritage of the ELT industry is just as important, if not more.