If you’ve had any contact with youngsters over the last few years, you’ll have noticed that they seem to spend a significant amount of their time glued to a range of digital devices. Partly because of this, English language teachers are often told that they should be using digital technologies to enhance their teaching and to increase their students’ motivation.
But the essential question – Do digital technologies actually help students learn English? – is not always asked. Let’s ask that question.
Consider these statements.
Note: This blog post is based on a 30-minute talk that I gave at the recent IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) conference held in Glasgow in March 2017. The research referenced below is from my recent book Focus on Learning Technologies (Oxford University Press, 2016). The talk included four statements, but in the interests of brevity we’ll start with just two. The next post will consider two more, and the following look at some of the wider issues.
1 Children & teens are naturally good at using technology
Despite the myth of the digital native being well and truly debunked (I’ve written about this in my blog, as have many others), this is still a statement that is regularly trotted out. However, although youngsters may be comfortable with digital technologies, they are far from savvy users of technology. Research tends to bear this out.
A large-scale comparative study into the state of digital literacies around the world was carried out in 2013 by the International Association for The Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), an independent consortium of national research agencies. 60,000 13 to 14-year-old students (grade 8) in 3,300 schools in 21 education systems/countries were surveyed, with additional data collected from 25,000 teachers, school principals, and school ICT (Information Communications Technology) coordinators working in these schools. The study evaluated students’ computer and information literacy, defined as ‘an individual’s ability to use computers to investigate, create, and communicate, in order to participate effectively at home, at school, in the workplace, and in society’ (Fraillon, et al., 2013, p. 17). It included a focus on the impact of student characteristics, and home and school contexts on levels of computer literacy, both within and between countries. A computer-based assessment and questionnaire was delivered to students via USB drives attached to school computers. The assessment required students to carry out a number of practical tasks that required a range of digital skills, and led to a larger task, such as creating a webpage with information about a school band competition, or collecting and managing information to create a presentation about ‘breathing’ to present to 9-year-olds. There were a total of four of these larger tasks, and each student completed two, randomly assigned. Results were mapped to a proficiency scale, from level 4 (the highest) to level 1 (the lowest). 81% of the students surveyed achieved scores that placed them within levels 1 – 3, with the majority at level 2. In addition, factors such as students’ expected educational attainment, parents’ educational level and profession, the number of books in the home, and access to ICT resources at home were all found to positively impact individual test scores across most education systems, although low socio-economic status cancelled out the positive impact of having access to ICT resources at home. In all but two countries, females scored higher than males on the proficiency scale. Having received ICT instruction in schools also positively affected the test scores in eight countries/education systems. (Focus on Learning Technologies, page 36).
2 Blogs can help (teenage) students improve their writing skills
There are many reasons why one might intuitively think that this statement is true. For a start, blogs provide students with a way to write for a real audience (e.g. other classmates, parents, or even the general public). It’s been argued (e.g. Raith, 2009), that blogs enable new genres of writing and the development of new contexts for communication, and this requires students to develop new literacies. Several researchers (e.g. Ducate & Lomicka, 2005; Hendron, 2003; Hourigan & Murray, 2005) have argued that blogs can motivate students to write more and to write more accurately, and that they are therefore good tools for English language teachers to adopt. But do blogs actually get students to write more and to write better? Let’s see.
Raith (2009) examined the use of blogs with twenty nine grade 9 EFL students in Germany with a fairly low level of English proficiency (A2 on the CEFR). The aim of this 6-week qualitative study was to investigate the effect of an online audience on the students’ writing process. The students created written journals about their reading of a set book in English, and they were allowed to choose which medium to write in: nineteen students chose to use traditional paper and pen journals and wrote for an imagined/abstract audience, while ten students chose to use blogs, and wrote for a real online audience. Data were collected by means of pre- and post-treatment questionnaires, and post-treatment focused interviews with the students, as well as the content of the paper journals and the blogs. The researcher found that both groups of students were acutely aware of audience, but the blog writers showed more focus on meaning in their writing, and were keen to interact with their audience about their writing.
Raith’s study adds to the positive press that blogging for English language students receives, both in secondary and adult contexts. However, there are voices of caution. A study carried out with a group of twenty-seven Belgian 17-year-old EFL students examined the extent to which blogs motivated the students to write more and to write better, as well as whether the quality of their writing, and their understanding of the content under discussion, actually improved (Sercu, 2013). Over a period of 6 weeks, students were given a weekly prompt on a range of topics (e.g., an international political issue, a recent local health campaign, their post-high school plans), and were asked to write a blog post with their reactions to the prompt. The data analysis involved both qualitative and quantitative approaches: questionnaires were administered to the students, and two software packages were used to analyze the linguistic complexity of their blog posts. Sercu found that the majority of students were motivated by writing for a real audience, and by being able to interact and discuss issues via the comments section on the blog posts; the students also wrote more than usual. However, the researcher did not find conclusive data to demonstrate that the students’ writing had improved over the course of the project, possibly because of the short duration of the study, and the limited amount of written data produced. In addition, the Sercu found that the lower proficiency students found the project less motivating, wrote less, and preferred to read their classmates’ blog posts rather than producing their own. Sercu concluded that ‘blogs work for some students, but not for others’ (2013, p. 4364). Nevertheless, the post-treatment questionnaires revealed that the majority of the students felt that their writing had improved, and that they had become more aware of the areas in their writing that needed work. The detailed analysis carried out in this study provides a useful counter-balance to claims that blogs are always effective in supporting and developing all students’ writing skills. (Focus on Learning Technologies, pages 113-114).
It often seems that for every study showing a positive outcome for technology x, there is a study showing the opposite. The research into blogs is a case in point. Sometimes they seem to support the development of students’ writing skills, sometimes they don’t. Clearly there are plenty of issues involved in research in our field (as in many other fields) – small sample sizes, lack of replicability, dodgy research design, contextual factors, research bias, publication bias, and so on… I’ll be exploring these in more detail in a later post.
Ducate, L. & Lomicka, L. (2005). Exploring the blogosphere: Uses of weblogs in the foreign language classroom. Foreign Language Annals, 38, 3, 410-21.
Fraillon, J., Ainley, J., Schulz, W., Friedman, T., & Gebhardt, E. (2013). Preparing for life in a digital age. The IEA International Computer and Information Literacy Study International Report. Springer Open: Springer International Publishing AG Switzerland.
Hendron, J. G. (2003). Educators as content publishers. The VSTE Journal, 17, 3, 2-6.
Hourigan, T., & Murray, L. (2010). Using blogs to help language students to develop reflective strategies: Towards a pedagogical framework. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 26, 2, 209-225.
Raith, T. (2009). The use of weblogs in education. In Thomas, M. (Ed.). Handbook of research on web 2.0 and second language learning (pp. 274-91). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
Sercu, L. (2013). Weblogs in foreign language education: Real and promised benefits. Proceedings of INTED2013, 7th International Technology, Education & Development Conference, Spain, pp. 4355-66.
Additional resources (e.g. book sample, discussion questions) for Focus on Learning Technologies can be found on the OUP companion website for the book.