ELTJ: Digital technologies in low-resource ELT contexts

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ELT Journal Advance Access published October 29, 2013

technology for the language teacher

Digital technologies in low-resource ELT contexts Nicky Hockly

The use of new technologies in English language teaching is often associated with higher resource contexts, particularly in so-called ‘developed’ countries. However, low-resource contexts are also witnessing innovative projects involving digital technologies, both at the national level and through smaller scale initiatives. In this article, we discuss some of the challenges associated with using digital technologies in low-resource ELT contexts, outline example projects, and summarize key issues.

Low-resource contexts

Discussions about access to technology frequently centre around the notion of the ‘digital divide’. Often understood to refer to the difference in access to technology between developed countries (who have technology) and developing countries (who do not), the idea of the digital divide can also be applied within individual countries (for example between urban and rural areas) and even within individual classrooms (for example between learners who have access to technology at home and those who do not). This more nuanced understanding of the digital divide suggests that teachers working in high-resource contexts may find themselves working in resource-poor institutions or classrooms. In addition, even broader definitions of a digital divide might include the difference between ‘effective’ and ‘ineffective’ uses of technology for language learning (Yang and Egbert 2004), regardless of the technology available and the divide between those who have the necessary ‘skills’ to use technology effectively and those who do not (Warschauer 2011). In this article, however, the discussion will focus on how digital technologies are being deployed within ELT in what are generally considered to be low-resource contexts, that is, where the costs of hardware and infrastructure generally limit access to technology. It is tempting to believe that it is simply not possible to use digital technologies in such low-resource contexts because of the erroneous ELT Journal; doi:10.1093/elt/cct063

© The Author 2013. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.

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In this series, we explore current technology-related themes and topics. The series aims to discuss and demystify what may be new areas for some readers and to consider their relevance to English language teachers.

assumption that ‘good CALL activities and lessons can only be carried out with the use of advanced and cutting-edge technologies’ (Yang and Egbert op.cit.: 281). Yet, effective technology use in lowresource contexts utilizes a wide range of new and older technologies. Key to the effective deployment of technologies in these contexts is the cultural appropriacy of materials and approaches, using appropriate technologies, keeping costs low, and ensuring long-term sustainability. Three different approaches to digital initiatives within low-resource contexts can be identified: national projects, institution-led projects, and projects carried out by individual teachers. Each of these approaches has significantly different levels of access to funding, different scalability (that is, the potential for use with increasingly large groups), and different time frames. We examine each of these three approaches in more detail below.

National projects

Best known are large-scale projects, some of which have received significant media attention. Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative or Sugata Mitra’s Self-Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) are two well-publicized projects in low-resource contexts. Although neither of these initiatives is exclusively aimed at language learning and both have come under criticism (see below), the OLPC initiative has impacted significantly on English language learning in some countries. Plan Ceibal en Inglés in Uruguay and Conectar Igualdad in Argentina both aim to put low-cost laptops into the hands of primary school children (and in later phases, into the hands of secondary and tertiary students) and specifically aim to develop the children’s English language skills along with their knowledge of other curriculum subjects. Many other countries, from Afghanistan to Venezuela, from Nepal to Rwanda, are similarly working on OLPC initiatives. All of these projects are designed to run over several years and so work with extended time frames. Some OLPC projects—such as that carried out in Ethiopia, where laptops were parachuted into remote areas—have been criticized for being neither sustainable nor sensitive to the local cultural context (Clark 2013). However, there have been some notable successes, such as the Plan Ceibal en Inglés initiative in Uruguay. Initial evaluations of the project have found that students in the programme score better on tests and examinations than previously (El Observador 2013). Other large-scale projects focus specifically on English language learning and on teacher training. Jointly funded by non-governmental organizations, Ministries of Education, hardware and/or software providers, mobile telephone companies, and educational institutions such as the British Council or universities, a large number of projects are taking place all over the world, for example: ■■ ■■

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English in Action/BBC Janala project in Bangladesh Mobiledu project in China

Nicky Hockly

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MILLEE (Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies) project in India British Council Learn English SMS project in Libya and Sudan TALULAR (Teaching and Learning Using Locally Available Resources) SMS teacher mentoring project in Indonesia Great Idea project in Afghanistan.

(see Pegrum 2014 (in press) for detailed discussion of these developments). Many of these projects have a social justice agenda, for example aiming to improve children’s literacy in rural low-income groups (the MILLEE project) or aiming to provide greater access to technology for disadvantaged women (the BBC Janala project, see Tyers 2012). Significantly, all of these projects are based on the use of mobile devices. Obviating the need for expensive hardware and infrastructure, low-cost mobile phones are becoming ubiquitous even in very low-resource contexts, and as such are enabling learners to access learning materials in places, and in formats, that were previously impossible. Beyond the digital technologies discussed above, we should not forget that older non-electronic technologies, such as radio and television, still have a place in national and regional ELT projects. Describing the continued importance of these technologies, the British Council Broadcast Media Manager Julian Wing explains: British Council radio programmes reach millions of learners. Despite the growth of digital media for ELT, there is still a great appetite for radio ELT in many parts of the world, especially Africa. Radio is considered positively by society at large as a medium for education. It reaches parts of the world which other media still haven’t reached and it has a long history in terms of providing educational opportunity to learners. (Wing, personal communication 2013)

Institutional initiatives

In low-resource contexts, individual institutions or universities also carry out the strategic implementation of digital technologies to support language learning. For example, The Casa Thomas Jefferson in Brazil uses class sets of iPad tablet computers with disadvantaged learners, as well as with their more affluent students. Similarly, teachers at the British Council in Hong Kong integrate the use of tablet computers into their classroom practice. Strongly supported by ongoing teacher development and a well thought-out implementation plan, both projects are examples of good practice in the integration of digital technologies into low-resource contexts (see Hockly and Dudeney 2014 (in press) for further details). Of course, tablet computers such as iPads are prohibitively expensive outside of private institutions in most low-resource contexts. However, other equally innovative initiatives with digital technologies of much lower cost have also been trialled in public institutions. For example, a blended learning EAP project at the Federal University of

Digital technologies in low-resource ELT contexts

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Technology Akure (FUTA) in Nigeria uses a free VLE (virtual learning environment) to support student learning outside the classroom, in a context where ‘universities are low-resourced with the triple constraints of few teachers, large classes and grossly inadequate facilities’ (Aborisade 2013: 35). In FUTA, ‘the main driver of change to incorporating technology in our practice is pedagogic—the large class situation that made interaction in English [...] difficult, if not impossible’ (ibid.: 36). The reasons for introducing digital technologies in low-resource contexts may vary. In one institutional blended learning project in Egypt, as a result of increased political tension [...], and the resultant disruption to classes and learning, there was a general advantage in enabling the students to participate in flexible online collaborative learning. This meant that if students were unable to attend classes, having material online would enable them to study independently and help maintain motivation in between face-to-face lessons. (Fleet 2013: 202) However, institutions simply imposing digital technologies can meet with resistance from students. In the Egyptian project, the institution found that ‘the face-to-face part of the blend is crucial in motivating students to participate in any web-based element. Without this, in view of their educational background, it is likely that many will feel isolated and unenthusiastic’ (ibid.: 204). Similarly, a blended learning institution-led project in Turkey concluded: If students use an online programme for the first time, it will take some time for them to get used to it. The way students are used to studying should be taken into consideration. [...]. In the study, the compulsory use of the online programme was one of the reasons for the student discontent. It seems that although students today are very technology oriented in their daily lives, they may not be as eager in their learning. (Bilgin 2013: 210)

Individual teachers

On an even smaller scale, teachers who are early adopters of technology often experiment on an ad hoc basis with small groups of students, sometimes with little or no support from their institutions. In Turkey, Tıraşın and Ugur (2012)report using smart phones with their learners and Kern (2013) provides podcasts for taxi drivers outside of class time. In both cases, the teachers used technology already owned by the students. In Kern’s words, ‘The technology—their mobile phones—was already available and they knew how to use them. [...] and no additional cost or technology training was needed’ (Kern ibid.: 134). There are also many cases of individual teachers making a significant difference to the adoption of digital technologies within their institutions, and sometimes even influencing uptake on a national level, despite significant barriers and a lack of support, for example in Sudan (Fawzi), Nigeria (Dalha), Brazil (Menezes and Braga), or Iran

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Nicky Hockly

(Marandi), all outlined in Egbert 2010. (Several more case studies of how teachers use technology have been collated by the University of Manchester and Cambridge University Press over a two-year period (available at http://goo.gl/zSA86f); a further number of case studies of individual teachers using digital technologies in low-resource contexts can be found in Motteram 2013.)

Key issues in lowresource contexts

Thus, despite significant challenges such as access to limited hardware and infrastructure—and even censorship (Yeok-Hwa Ngeow 2010)—there are many examples of teachers, institutions, and nations using digital technologies effectively in low-resource contexts. Yet, whatever their scale, a number of issues need to be borne in mind if the deployment of digital technologies in lowresource contexts is to be effective. As the examples in this article illustrate, the choice of not just hardware and software but the teaching and learning approach and the instructional design of materials must be aligned to the reality of the local cultural and educational contexts. Clearly there is no single technology that ‘works best’ in low-resource contexts. As in any context, myriad factors such as (lack of) teacher training, student motivation, class size, limited class time, educational beliefs, access to resources, culturally appropriate materials, culturally sensitive approaches, and even political realities will determine how to work most effectively with digital technologies. And many of the case studies show that those most prepared to face these challenges and work towards a solution are those ELT teachers already working and living in these contexts, whether they are working alone, with their institutions, or as part of large national projects.

References Aborisade, P. 2013. ‘Blended learning in English for Academic Purposes courses: a Nigerian case study’ in B. Tomlinson and C. Whittaker (eds.). Bilgin, H. 2013. ‘Students CALLing: blended language learning for students’ in B. Tomlinson and C. Whittaker (eds.). Clark, D. 2013. ‘Negroponte: 10 reasons why his Ethiopian project smacks of educational colonialism’. Post on blog Plan B. Available at http://goo.gl/EZpQUc (accessed on 30 August 2013). Egbert, J. (ed.). 2010. CALL in Limited Technology Contexts. CALICO Monograph Series Volume 9. San Marcos, TX: CALICO. El Observador (newspaper). 2013. ‘Ceibal en Inglés da buenos resultados y se extiende a 25.000 niños’. Available at http://goo.gl/GTqFLm (accessed on 30 August 2013). Fleet, L. 2013 ‘A blended learning approach to soft skill training at Al Azhar University, Cairo’ in B. Tomlinson and C. Whittaker (eds.).

Hockly, N. and G. Dudeney. 2014 (in press). Going Mobile: Teaching and Learning with Handheld Devices. London: Delta Publishing. Kern, N. 2013. ‘Blended learning: podcasts for taxi drivers’ in B. Tomlinson and C. Whittaker (eds.). Motteram, G. (ed.). 2013. Innovations in Learning Technologies for English Language Teaching. London: British Council. Available at http: //goo.gl/qdZ4cm (accessed on 30 August 2013). Pegrum, M. 2014 (in press). Mobile Learning: Languages, Literacies & Cultures. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Tıraşın, K. and Ç. Ugur. 2012. ‘Smartphones in grade 8: hot or not’. Presentation at IATEFL Annual Conference, Glasgow, UK, 19–23 March. Available at http://goo.gl/bmQelx (accessed on 30 August 2013). Tomlinson, B. and C. Whittaker (eds.). 2013. Blended Learning in English Language Teaching: Course Design and Implementation. London: British Council. Available at http://goo.gl/M9cyA2 (accessed on 30 August 2013).

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Tyers, A. 2012. ‘A gender digital divide? Women learning English through ICTs in Bangladesh’. CEUR Workshop Proceedings. Helsinki, Finland, 16–18 October. Available at http://goo.gl/LEqJ3u (accessed on 30 August 2013). Warschauer, M. 2011. Learning in the Cloud: How (and Why) to Transform Schools with Digital Media. New York, NY: Teachers College Press. Yang, Y. and J. Egbert. 2004. ‘Mediating the digital divide in CALL classrooms: promoting effective language tasks in limited technology contexts’. ReCALL Journal 16/2: 280–91. Yeok-Hwa Ngeow, K. 2010. ‘Restricted internet access and censorship: CALL alternatives and initiatives’ in J. Egbert (ed.). CALL in Limited

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Nicky Hockly

Technology Contexts. CALICO Monograph Series Volume 9. San Marcos, TX: CALICO.

The author Nicky Hockly is a Director of Pedagogy with The Consultants-E (www.theconsultants-e.com), an online training and development organization. She has been involved in EFL teaching and teacher training since 1987 and is co-author of How to Teach English with Technology, Learning English as a Foreign Language for Dummies, Teaching Online, and most recently, Digital Literacies (2013), as well as an e-book, Webinars: A Cookbook for Educators. She maintains a blog about e-learning at www.emoderationskills.com and is a keen user of new technologies. Email: [email protected]

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