Digital technologies have changed the way we communicate, think, and most importantly, teach and learn. In a society that is now permeated with digital devices and technological advances, teaching professionals have been exposed to a plethora of materials and tools to support them and their learners in the language learning process. While learners today are labelled as net-generation digital natives with strong 21st-century digital skills, teachers are faced with the challenges that these transformations bring to their professions as they try to appeal to learner intelligence by incorporating more technology into their teaching practice. Here are some of the challenges I’ve faced, and the solutions that I have employed.
The school where I work encourages teachers to keep a digital teaching report accessible to students and teachers via a WordPress blog, to provide information about what has been covered in class in the event of absenteeism on the part of the teacher or the students. Students are required to sign up to the ‘group’ that the teacher has created, but are often unable to gain access or are reluctant to join. I have never known a class where all students have managed to sign up, so I needed to find a different way of communicating with them and sending them materials and notes about what was covered in class.
I decided to harness a tool that I know is already integrated into student lives as a regular method of communication – instant messaging (IM) – and set up a WhatsApp group for every class I teach (I don’t teach young learners). The ease of accessibility of this group has resulted in improved homework carried out by absent students, as well as making it much easier to view messages for quick reference.
The possibility to instantly check or post something using an IM app is more quickly accessible than an online open source website tool that students need to sign into. Scanning documents on a photocopier that are saved on the school network in a file that needs to be named, retrieved and uploaded to the school platform, then downloaded and saved onto student desktop PCs has been replaced with taking a screen shot of the document, which can be instantly shared in the IM group, and immediately referred to.
This tool has proved to be an effective way of fostering student–student interaction because it nurtures a social atmosphere in the class and creates dialogue amongst learners. It means that all group members can send messages, unlike the school platform, where the teacher is the only person who can post information. In addition the communication is more student centred.
I have also exploited the group to support flipped learning. I often give students a short video or podcast to watch in their own time, which will provide the foundation for the language production activities conducted in class. This approach allows learners the opportunity to work at their own pace and play back the material an unlimited number of times. With the WhatsApp group, students feel more confident knowing that if a problem occurs they can send a message that will be responded to by a classmate or by their teacher.
I have found that by harnessing the principles of Mobile Assisted Language Learning (MALL) students can use their smartphones as portable computers that can be used any time, any place, anywhere.