The Changing Role of the Teacher-Technologist (live-blogging from IALLT 2007)

The Changing Role of the Teacher-Technologist: How connected learning, meaningful collaborations and reciprocal apprenticeships are changing the FL teaching/learning experience (Barbara Sawhill, Oberlin College)


Social software / collaborative technologies are now safe to use for teaching / learning / exploring without worrying about their expiration. These tools (blogs, wikis, Twitter, etc) allow many voices to come together without special technology (just a web browser). But there’s a disconnect between teachers/technologists and students, and also between teachers / technologists and IT support staff concerned about adding to their workload. “Yes you can do this, no we won’t support it.” And what about security? Let’s control, limit, shape them “lest they get out of control.”

Book suggestion: Remapping the FL Curriculum (Janet Swaffar) “the separatist practices at work … a practice of separating the language teachers from the specialists in their field” The job of language teachers is to prepare students to study literature. But not everyone wants to study lit! We need to work together to form a comon pedagogy instead of a fractured one.

Information / technology literacy: whose job is it to teach how to use these tools properly and safely? This isn’t part of the curriculum. Librarians do it sometimes, but it’s not enough.

Common misconception: Students want to use their personal play-time tools for education. “They don’t necessarily want us in those spaces.” Students are so-called digital natives / millenials … but Barbara is seeing a tremendous pushback. How is this going to help me learn? Check out Generation Me. “We are no longer famous for 15 minutes … we are famous to 15 people.” George Siemens.

So what’s wrong with teacher-centered classrooms?

It doesn’t allow communication between and among the students themselves. They might have common interests that they don’t know about because the teacher has to mediate everything. And that’s hard work for the teacher. In student-centered learning, dialogues and shared learning can happen much more easily. “But how do you control it? It’s so messy!” That’s learning. It’s not neat and compartmentalized. So what /is/ the role of a teacher or a technologist in the student-centered model? It’s not to grade, it’s to monitor, support, to remind students where they were and where they’re going, to be the “living memory” for the class, to bring the outside world into the classroom. How do you bring the outside world in given all the tensions?

We don’t encourage digging deeply because we don’t have time. But foreign language needs to change. “The situation most pregnant with the possibility for change is the system poised on the edge of chaos” –“A Dynamic Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action” by Esther Thelen and Linda B. Smith. Disruption is an essential part of learning, so it’s an essential part of the classroom too!

We’re talking about decentralizing the learning process. (Check out Barbara’s HISP305 blogs). There’s a center where everyone could collaborate, where the topics were student-driven (and not teacher-driven). Students had conversations in and amongst themselves, and with others around the world. Allowing this to happen outside of the classroom made in-class time much richer – students had had time to wrestle with the ideas. And, they were using the language, which is the point! But they didn’t take to this right away. They could tell what was wrong with the language classroom but didn’t want to use what they thought was going to be just another sinkhole of time. They had to be convinced that this would make sense for them as language learners. One student, Evie, wrote around 50 pages worth of text because she did her final project on something that was deeply personal to her – femicide along the Mexican border. And, because it was open, she was able to help a Mexican family who found her blog fill out paperwork to look for their missing daughter. This would never have happened had this been closed, restricted. She was also solicited to be a published photographer – the pictures she uploaded to her blog were the only ones a book publisher could find regarding femicides.

What happens when someone comes on and blasts your students, though? That provides a great opportunity to talk about how to respond to heated discourse in an appropriate way. It can be scary. And, how do we even know they’re learning? How do you assess all of this? A blog is an instant portfolio. Students can look and see where they started and where they’ve come. Also, it’s not about finding the answers, it’s about learning to construct the questions.

Is there such a thing as an emergent language learning technologist? Compare a map of the internet with all its interconnections, and the IALLT logo (concentric circles), which work together but don’t necessarily intersect. We need to do a better job of intersecting! Let’s be more like the Tootsie Pop that is the internet. We need to set the standard. We need to think about releasing our students passions.

Ryan has been proudly maintaining and contributing to Language Lab Unleashed since 2005, and is the current President of SWALLT. Since the summer of 2013 he's been causing trouble with his all-star colleagues in the UMW DTLT; when not wrangling websites Ryan can be found doing strange things with heavy objects.

Leave a comment

  1. Barbara · June 23, 2007 Reply

    This is so helpful…the next time I can’t find my ppt on my harddive, I can find it here. (Not that this EVER happens, mind you)

    Actually, I can post it here too for double safekeeping and incase anyone wants to see the IALLT logo and the tootsie pop again. Will do so shortly. Thanks for staying awake and keeping notes ;-&

  2. Ryan · June 23, 2007 Reply

    You, lose something? I don’t believe it, not for a second.

    Yes, please do upload your ppt. There’s a ton of information I just couldn’t get down … my little fingers can’t move that quickly. Thanks for a great talk! Taking notes is easy when a session is done well.

  3. itsalljustaride · June 25, 2007 Reply

    Speaking personally, as a part-time language student, and not as a staff member, it seems kind of myopic to think that literature comprehension is the ultimate goal of language learning. My BA was in Anthropology, and as such I need much more competence with real-world, face-to-face language, with all its imperfection and spontaneity.

    A field worker can’t be expected to make their subjects write essays with perfect grammar in order to answer questions. I’m sure many a sociology, medical, or educational student would agree.

    Of course one also needs to be able to read the literature that is written on research subjects in these native languages, but that comes far easier to students due to its fairly standard structures.

  4. Barbara · June 28, 2007 Reply


    Thank you for your comments… students are quick to see the schitzo nature of our classes when, on the one hand we still do kill and drill exercises at the lower levels (to make them proficient, supposedly, although I think it just makes them anxious…stay tuned for a LLU show on FL learner anxiety to hear more) and then when we get them to the place in the language where they can converse, they immediately see that native speakers make mistakes too. So our manic push for perfection and accents all in the right place seems misguided to say the least.

    It also proves how human we are as well. When my students do language exchanges on Skype with ESL classes that speak Spanish, all it takes is 30 seconds for them to realize that the other person is just as worried about his/her mistakes and “being correct” as they are, and then immediately the guard falls down and they work well together, supporting each other, encouraging each other. THAT is real language learning, in my mind, and once you insert humanity and compassion, this little exercise that might have been reduced to staccato Qs and As now has the potential to become magical.

    Example: One of my students “met” with her partner 3X a week for the entire semester, completely on her own and w/o tewlling me til the end of the term, as a result of one of these in class exercises…(isn’t this what they want them to be doing???)

    We need to teach our students what we have known all along…that language is a living, breathing, social activity that morphs and changes based upon the user and the region. That and the fact that the real goal for any language class should not be perfection but deep, sustained communication, a sharing of passions, a desire to learn how to say what needs to be said.

    If as language teachers we can tap into their passions, then our work becomes what Dawn M. Skorczewski (Teaching One Moment at a Time) calls “emergent pedagogy:” We are shaping, guiding, helping students listen to one another….vs dictating and correcting and controlling.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: