Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Technology Language Learners

Should we approach technology in schools the way we address language?

We use terms like digital literacy and digital fluency to describe one's level of comfort and ease with which they navigate digital space.  We use the same terms to describe English language learners in our educational spaces.  Do the same issues apply to digital language learners as do English language learners? I think so and I think it also shines a light on an issue with tech integration and possibly why it has not statistically proven to produce grand results.

The problem is, if I am working with a group of students who have limited English skills there is only so much I can teach them.  Limited vocabulary gets in the way of me elevating students to the level they would be with my content were I able to teach them in their native language.  Therefore, all classes I teach with ELL students become English classes despite what the content is supposed to be. If I am teaching a lesson on how search engines work, much of that lesson ends up becoming a vocabulary lesson and many of the more abstract concepts barely get realized.  These students are learning a new medium, English and that learning comes before the content.

Now, suppose I take a class of non-ELL students and introduce a new tech tool to them.  I integrate this new tool, this new medium, into my lesson. The students are expected to use this new medium to learn about and process some other content.  They face the same dilemma my ELL students faced with learning English.  If the tech tool is new, the new learning becomes the tech, not the subject content.  I cannot successfully ask students to master both a new medium and a new curricular concept at the same time.  One takes precedence over the other. If I am constantly introducing my students to new and different tools it will slow their acquisition of content knowledge just as a language learner is splitting focus between content and language.

I have been watching school districts push new digital tools pretty hard for about a decade now.  Often I played a pretty active role as an instrument of this trend.  I have seen the push for interactive whiteboards, student response systems, learning management systems, iPads with educational apps, etc.  The one thing these tools all have in common is they were designed for the classroom and are not tools our students use at home.  Therefore, regardless of how tech-savvy our students are, when we force them to integrate these tools into their learning they all become technology language learners.  The same issue applies. Am I teaching tools or am I teaching content today?

Why do we invent new mediums that only schools use?  Why not integrate technology students already use?  Why not allow students to choose their own tools?  I often ask my ELL students to do heavy content work in their native language first and later translate it into English for me.  We can integrate technology while keeping the focus on our content.  It just needs to be technology students are already fluent with.

Every time I address this topic, and it has come up many times over the past decade, I get the same kind of push-back.  I will never understand why tools designed for schools are more acceptable than tools designed for people.

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