How can you use digital technology to bring course material to life in the classroom? Thomas Healy, co-author of Smart Choice Second Edition, shares his ideas on the subject.
It’s an old joke that although the Internet is one of the most important inventions since the wheel, most people just use it to look at pictures of puppies. Certainly, I believed that people, especially younger people, wasted a lot of time on the Internet and on their smart devices. Then I observed an eighteen-year-old student in my class trying to enlarge an illustration in her textbook by pinching it, like an image on a touch screen. This was a wake up call for me. Having grown up with the technology, this student actually expected content to be digital. As someone who prided himself on providing interesting, motivating as well as enriching materials, I looked at my photocopied supplemental activities and wondered how she, and indeed the entire class, must be experiencing them. Her smart device, along with everyone else’s, was in a pile collected at the start of the class, next to a computer that I rarely used.
When I considered using smart devices and social media networks with my students, I wanted to devise activities that the class would immediately recognize as being central to the goals of the lesson. If the activities were just games or ‘fillers’, then I imagined that students would naturally gravitate to games such as Candy Crush that they already had on their devices. I also wanted to harness what most of my students seemed to be doing on their smart phones when not playing games: writing messages and taking photos and videos, which they shared with their peers.
Using Social Media as a Learning Management System
21st Century learners live in a world where they are constantly producing, sharing and commenting on content. In order to have a place where we can share messages, images, videos and word files, I create a Facebook group for each class. I use this platform because all of my students are already active members. Within Facebook, a group is a private, members-only space. Students can join a group without becoming my friend.
When creating activities for Facebook, I started by looking at the supplemental materials I already used in class. Many of these activities practiced, expanded, or personalized the contents of the textbook. Could these be enhanced or transformed by being completed in the digital world?
Using Smartphones with Facebook
A smartphone is like a portable recording studio. Students can readily practice and personalize the target language of the textbook by using the video function. In one activity I use, after teaching a unit about clothing and colors, students go to their favorite store and describe the clothes and colors that they see while videoing the manikins. I ask students to post the videos to the Facebook group, and comment on others’ videos.
This ability to make and narrate videos can bring important but potentially ‘dry’ units to life: those that deal with rooms and furniture, directions, or food. Sharing the videos online provides a lot of additional, fun interaction between students, as well opportunities for language, accuracy and pronunciation analysis.
Making a Digital Projector Interactive
Since 21st Century learners are engaged by content that they can interact with, I have tried to make the digital projector an active rather than passive experience for my students. Together with the projector, I use an audience response app, Socrative, which students download for free. For example, as we work through grammar activities in the textbook, Socrative enables me to project additional practice items on the screen, which students complete on their smart phones. The app automatically checks answers and provides feedback to the class in real-time. Used in this way, digital technology is not merely engaging but plays a central part in achieving the goals of the lesson.
Making Digital Technology an essential rather than peripheral tool
My students sometimes forget their textbooks, but they never forget their phones. Therefore, every classroom we use is a technology-enhanced space. Smart phones, social media platforms and apps have allowed me to bring my materials to life. I can create colorful, interactive activities and I can encourage students to bring the real world into the class by using the video and photo functions of their classrooms. Instead of having students put their devices on a table by the door, I now ask them to make sure their phones are fully charged when they come to class. They understand that we are not using digital technology and social media for ‘fun’, or when we need to take a breather. Together, we have made digital technology a key part of their learning experience.
This article was first published on the OUP Global ELT Blog on 27 August 2014.