Let me take you to the south of Spain. I’m working as a freelancer in Algeciras, the biggest port on the Mediterranean and the nearest town to Africa. It’s mid-January and I have my first lesson of the new year with Manolo – an insurance salesman who wants to speak to the expat community. Manolo has lessons during his short lunch hour and usually runs to my house. Today is no exception and, when he arrives at my door, he’s out of breath. A pearl of sweat drops from his brow. He comes inside and I start my lesson.
I want to see what Manolo remembers of the Present Perfect that we looked at briefly last year. I give him a handout with a cutting from a bumper book of twentieth-century history that I found in my local library. The cutting is an announcement from the first newspaper of 1900 and celebrates the coming of the new century. It speaks of the dawn of a new era, one of prosperity, opportunity and hope. Manolo struggles with the words. Next to the story there’s a picture of a woman who I think is Libertas, and around her in little clouds are a steam engine, a hot-air balloon and open volumes of an encyclopaedia.
I photocopied the page of the book at the library. When I got it home I cut out the section that I wanted to use and sellotaped it to a blank sheet of A4. On this new copy, faint black lines appeared where the edges of the cutting had been, so I tippexed them out and made another copy. Then using my typewriter, I typed some examples of the Present Perfect, as well as some questions about things that have happened since the beginning of the century. ‘We’ve leant to fly’ is the example given. I made a typo so, before making my fourth generation photocopy, I pencilled in an ‘r’. The figure is now no longer Libertas and the things that surround her are barely recognisable. Yet I am proud of my handout.
Manolo uses it to fan his face. He struggles with some of the words, so I get him to look them up in my dog-eared dictionary. As he does so, the centre pages fall out and he puts it down.
‘You know Andrea’, he says, ‘we are at the beginning of a new revolution!’ He holds his head high, proud of this sudden statement.
‘First came the industrial revolution, then medicine and science – we learnt to fly; heart transplantation – what do you think is next?’
I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it.
‘Information!’ He then says. ‘The informatic revolution!’
We sit silently reflecting on what this means. We have no idea of what’s to come. I prepare my listening comprehension, using my cassette from the Streamline English series.
Fast forward 15 years and I’m in Hamburg, Germany. I’ve just given a workshop with Andi White on teaching with technology. The participants listen politely as we go through each item on our agenda – blogs and wikis, rss feeds and readers, websites and apps. We are so enthusiastic that our teacher talking time goes through the roof.
Beside us on the desk are a Mac and a netbook, and the cable to a video projector passes between them as if in a game of tennis. We don’t have an IWB but we do make the board interactive using the projector, and I get to play with my latest toy – a powerpoint clicker.
As Andi speaks, I remember Manolo and reflect on how technology and his ‘informatic revolution’ have completely transformed teaching as I knew it. Manolo was right. When I taught him, mobile phones – the black and white variety – were used for making phone calls only. People did have computers but internet was unknown. We did not scan documents or pictures, videos were VHS and even the CD was unrecordable.
At the Besig Conference in November, I attended Pete Sharma’s workshop ‘Business English on the move: a critical analysis of mobile technologies’. In his session, Pete mentioned things I have yet to really discover. He also made a very important point that, even if we do not have all of these things ourselves, our students probably do. Instead of telling them to switch off their smartphones as a courtesy to their classmates, they should demonstrate the apps that they use and discuss how these apps can help with language learning – dictionaries do not fall apart any more! I’ve since followed Pete’s advice and had some excellent lessons as a consequence.
When social networking first came out, it did not take me long to sign up for friendsreunited account and then, a little while later, I signed up for a Facebook account. Then I discovered pleaserobme.com. I read things I shouldn’t have, and I developed facebookphobia.
That said, the very thing that has influenced my teaching most recently is Twitter. Used in a professional context, I can not only share my own ideas and materials but also follow what other teachers, trainers, and authors are doing. Stuck on a Sunday afternoon for inspiration for next week’s teaching, I now only need to switch on my tweetdeck and either an interesting article will pop up or someone might even share material that’s been tried and tested.
When Andi and I planned our workshop, we tried hard not to squabble over who got to talk about what but, when our Assistant Manager suggested we do the workshop individually, he was sorry. We protested like spoilt brats, we waved our hands in the air and cried ‘never’, not on your Nellie! We both realised that we had important things to share – the wealth of technology we now have is so vast that it would be impossible for one person to cover everything in a three hour session.
In our excitement to deliver the workshop, however, we did forget to ask the participants the burning question: What do you use? And if you were faced with going back to the days of sellotaping cut-outs, what single piece of technology would you want to take with you?