COMPUTERS FOR ENGLISH TEACHERS - WHAT ON EARTH FOR?
By Phil Brabbs
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Computers - some love them, some loathe them, some are addicted to them, some people are terrified of them. But one thing is for sure, computers are here to stay and, as teachers, we are going to see a lot more of them.
The computer revolution that is currently taking place all around us is of massive and far-reaching proportions. It will affect the way we teach, the way we learn, the way we live. And the changes are taking place at great speed:
When I trained to be a teacher in Britain in 1981, I had never used a computer let alone owned one. Today, I couldn't imagine working without one, and I am not alone - according to the British Government, as of 1999 all newly qualified teachers in the UK must be computer literate and by the year 2002, all serving teachers should feel confident and be competent to use computers in their teaching. (For details of the British Government's initiative for ICT in schools see the Department for Education and Employment . Here you can also find details of the Survey of ICT in Schools carried out in March 1998, and the results of this survey.)
But what about the Czech Republic? In the seven years that I have lived here, computers with email and Internet access have become commonplace in university departments and are also now appearing in greater numbers in schools. But the biggest changes are just around the corner. In a document entitled Koncepce státní informacní politiky ve vzdelávání dated 31 March 2000, the Czech Government has set out its goals for the next 5 years. For example, by the end of 2003, every secondary school and large basic school in the country should have a classroom equipped with at least eight multimedia computers with a high speed, fixed link to the Internet, all teachers should have easy access to a computer with Internet access, each school should have a web site and each secondary school student his/her own email address.
Whether or not you view such developments with glee or with horror, there is little doubt that all teachers in this country are going to find themselves under increasing pressure to become computer-literate. This pressure will come from the MMT, from the institution in which you work, from parents and from your students themselves. Unfortunately, many teachers have a lot of catching up to do:
quoted in Sweeney P. "Technology Teacher Training"
In the remainder of this article, I would like to look at why computers have suddenly become so important and how they can be of use to English teachers.
WHAT IS ICT?
But first a word about terminology. When talking about computer technology, the acronym now in widespread use is "ICT". "ICT" stands for "Information and Communications Technology", sometimes also referred to as simply IT or "Information Technology". Both of these terms refer mainly to computers, but the "Communications" part of "ICT" reflects the way in which computers are now also being used to communicate via email and the Internet.
WHY ALL THIS FUSS ABOUT COMPUTERS?
So, why all this fuss all of a sudden about ICT, or computers? The short answer is: "the Internet". The Internet is probably the most revolutionary communications tool to hit the world, and education in particular, since the invention of the printed word.
Although computers have been around for many years, they have until now tended to be the preserve of enthusiasts, teachers who were prepared to spend their spare time learning how to use them. I must admit to being one of those enthusiasts and over the last twelve years I have found the computer to be an indispensable tool in my work as a teacher, using it to design and produce teaching materials and carry out all sorts of administrative tasks. But the Internet has produced a quantum change in the usefulness of computers for teachers.
WHAT IS THE INTERNET?
The Internet consists of millions of computers all over the world linked together mainly through the telephone system. It is the highway over which our emails travel. It is also our means of accessing the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web (or WWW) is a vast library of texts, pictures, video and sound stored all over the world.
Because of the Internet, it is now possible to get a copy of any document, a newspaper article, say, or a lesson plan, stored on a computer on the other side of the world transferred to your own computer in a matter of seconds for the price of a local phone call (or for free if you have Internet access at work). Moreover, all the different documents on the WWW are also linked together in such a way that by simply clicking on a link (eg http://www.britcoun.org/index.htm) you can move to a completely different document, maybe another lesson plan, but this time stored on a different computer on a different continent. In this way, you can now travel around the world (or surf) at the click of a mouse button.
Now that's all very well you might be saying, but why on earth would I want to do such a thing? To answer that question, lets look at what is on the WWW that is of interest to English teachers.
WHAT'S ON THE WWW FOR TEACHERS?
The WWW is truly vast, consisting of millions of pages. It is therefore impossible in this short article to provide anything more than a glimpse of the many WWW pages that are of interest to English teachers on the Web. What I shall do therefore is outline some of the main categories of material that are available, together with example addresses plus some hints on how to look for useful materials without getting hopelessly lost on the Internet, which is what happened to me when I first started using it.
(NB In drawing up this basic introduction to the Internet for English teachers, I have deliberately assumed that teachers reading this article do not work in classrooms where computers are freely available to all students.)
In order to teach any aspect of the English language you usually need something to talk about like hobbies, the latest news, etc, ie you need some content. Unfortunately, the content provided by your textbook is not always of interest to your students and, no matter how new your textbook, any information it contains which is time-sensitive, eg news stories, fashion, etc will be at least 1-2 years out of date, this being the minimum time required to publish a textbook.
Enter the Internet. The Internet provides a vast data bank of up-to-date, authentic materials, including all the sorts of things that English teachers used to bring back from English-speaking countries in their suitcases, like timetables, tourist brochures, newspaper articles, etc. Moreover, since the range of subjects covered by these materials is almost limitless, it should be possible to find something of interest to your students, no matter how specialised.
One excellent site which can provide a wealth of interesting and useful content material for use in class is the BBC website. For example, when I was preparing a talk on the Internet during the Olympic Games in Sydney, I found a story on the BBC news site. entitled "Sharks in for a Shock". This article revealed how precautions were being taken to protect swimmers taking part in the Triathlon event from shark attack whilst swimming across Sydney Harbour. I chose this article because at the time it was topical and because the subject matter was likely to be of interest to secondary school students of a certain age.
The BBC is of course just one of many news-related sites on the Internet. Other TV stations such as CNN and newspaper sites such as The Observer, Time Magazine and Newsweek are all excellent sources of up-to-the minute content.
But news sites are by no means the only source of interesting content material. For example, Teen Advice Online resembles the agony column found in teenage magazines. However, instead of just the two or three problems you would find in a magazine, there are literally hundreds of problems which have been submitted by teenagers, all sorted into useful categories making it easy to find the sort of problem which would be appropriate for your own students' age and interests. What is more, the advice is provided not by some middle-aged "agony Aunt", but by other teenagers and provides a very rich resource both in terms of content material and the actual language used for you to exploit in class.
Here I have focussed on just two web sites which can provide useful content for teaching language. For ideas on how to find more content sites, see the sections on Links Sites and Internet Books for Teachers below.
Lesson plans and materials on-line
Of course, as a busy teacher, you may not always have time to create your own teaching materials, and you may sometimes wish to find some ready-made materials or even a ready-made lesson plan. There are many on-line sites which offer this kind of thing, though of varied quality. If this is what you are looking for, a couple of links to get you started are TESL Journal's TESL lessons and Dave's ESL Café.
Another source of on-line materials is textbook-linked websites. For example, it was mentioned at the Spectrum 2000 conference in Plzen that there are plans to supplement the new British Studies textbook for the Maturita called Lifestyles with additional materials stored on a dedicated website. This is something we can expect to see a lot more of in the future. (For an example of such a site that is already up and running, check out the Go For It site.
Language learning resources on-line
According to Eastment (1999, p 12) there are between 800 and 1000 sites on the Web devoted to language learning activities or materials. One excellent example is the British Council's Learn English website which has three different entry levels (kids, teenagers and adults), and provides, amongst other things, songs, stories, poems, games, grammar and vocabulary activities and even on-line tests to enable students to see how much English they know. Such sites can also be of interest to teachers looking for teaching ideas. For more sites see David Eastment's links page.
To complement these learning materials, there are also dictionaries such as Newbury House on-line dictionary, grammars such as English Grammar on-line by A Hughes and encyclopaedias such as Encyclopaedia Britannica on-line to be found on the Web.
Communicating over the Internet
But the Internet does not only permit the receiving of information, it is also possible for teachers and their students to publish on the Net and also communicate by email.
As has already been mentioned, by the end of 2003, every secondary school and large basic school in the Czech Republic should have a web site. It is very likely, and highly desirable, that teachers and students should play a role in designing these web sites. With this in mind, you might like to take a look at the websites of some schools in the CR and in the UK which are already on-line.
By combining use of both the Internet and email, it is possible for schools situated on opposite sides of the globe to communicate with each other and carry out joint projects. An excellent example of this is provided by the Montage site. For example, a recent Montage project had young students sending email questions to a teaching couple who were spending winter at the South Pole.
Many teachers have now started keeping in touch with each other by email, but email also offers other possibilities. For example, you can keep up-to-date with what is happening all over Central & Eastern Europe in the English teaching world by subscribing to the British Council's ELTeCS-L list. (Click on the link to find a description of ELTeCS-L and a link to a sign-up form.) NB A list is a way of sending messages automatically to a large number of people. When you subscribe to a list, any message sent to the list is sent to you too. On ELTeCS-L, you will find information about conferences, book reviews, scholarships, on-line journals, useful websites, etc.
You can also use email to provide you with short daily news bulletins in English about the Czech Republic by subscribing to Radio Prague. Apart from being of genuine interest, these bulletins can also provide content material for use in class.
Maybe one of the most exciting aspects of email and the Internet is the opportunity they provide to follow an on-line training course. Teachers are very busy people, often with substantial family commitments, and so it is not always easy for them to travel to attend training courses. An on-line course is much cheaper than attending a residential course, and of course you can study when it suits you rather than being tied to class times. A recent example in the Czech Republic was the British Council's "Future of English" on-line course. It is highly likely that as access to ICT increases, much more training will be provided for teachers over the Internet.
If you are new to computers and want some help in learning how to use them, there are many free resources available on the Internet to help you. There are basic introductions on how to use a computer, tutorials for popular programs like Microsoft Word and Excel, lots of help on how to use email and the Internet, how to write a web page, etc. If you want to know where to find them, take a look at Phil Brabbs' website. Here you will also find links to information about the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL), a basic computer qualification suitable for teachers.
HOW DO I FIND WHAT I AM LOOKING FOR ON THE INTERNET?
A major problem for all users of the Internet is how to find what we are looking for. With such an immense amount of information stored on the WWW, stored in a chaotic and anarchic fashion, finding anything useful to you as a teacher can at first seem like an extremely daunting task. I remember the first few times I surfed the Internet, only to switch off after an hour or so, totally disheartened at my inability to find anything I was looking for.
More experienced Internet users will have heard of things called Search Engines like Altavista and Directories like Yahoo and Seznam which are there to help you find anything you might need. Such sites are of undoubted usefulness, but for the busy teacher who is new to the Internet, I do not feel they offer the quickest route to finding what you are looking for.
Instead, start by finding out the specific addresses of some useful sites. This will allow you to go directly to the site which is of interest to you instead of getting hopelessly lost. To find useful addresses there are two comprehensive sources that all Internet newcomers should know about - links sites and Internet books for teachers.
Both individuals and organisations interested in helping teachers navigate the Internet have taken it upon themselves to search out useful web sites and present these in ways which are user-friendly for teachers. Below are four examples of such sites:
Another excellent source of useful web site addresses can be found in books such as OUP's "The Internet", Longman's "How to use the Internet in ELT" and CUP's "The Internet and the Language Classroom". All of these books are specifically aimed at teachers and provide extensive, easy to use lists of useful web sites. In addition, the books have extremely useful introductions to email and the Internet and how to use these in teaching English. All of these books are available in the CR.
In this article, I have tried to explain why I think computers are going to play an increasingly important role in teaching English in the Czech Republic. I have also tried to provide some practical tips for teachers who are relatively new to the Internet, want to start using it in their professional lives, but who understandably do not want to waste time wading through heaps of useless information. To finish, here is a quotation from Paul Sweeney, writing in CALL Review (March 99, p7):
Phil Brabbs (freelance). Plzen, 7 November 2000.
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© Phil Brabbs