Digital for all now

Shona Whyte: using new technologies to make language learning easier

Econocom 19 Nov 2015

Shona Whyte is Senior Lecturer at the Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis where she teaches English and language teaching. In charge of the English course of the new French Masters in Teacher Training , this Doctor of Linguistics is very much involved in training future teachers.  


Where research is concerned, with the iTILT and then the iTILT 2 projects, Shona Whyte became interested in the use of digital tools, and in particular, interactive whiteboards, for teaching foreign languages.


How can you help teachers appropriate these new technologies? What are the advantages in terms of teaching methods? What obstacles need to be overcome? Shona Whyte answered these questions and more.





Tell us about the iTILT and iTILT 2 projects.


iTILT (Interactive Technologies in Language Teaching) was set up to facilitate incorporating new technologies into language teaching. It’s a pan-European project involving seven countries – France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Wales and Turkey – and concerns a wide range of teaching: primary and secondary school, professional training and higher education.


We first looked into using interactive whiteboards because when we started the project back in 2009/10, interactive whiteboards were becoming very popular: in England, nearly all schools had them.


For iTILT, we trained teachers in how to use them and filmed the sessions with interactive whiteboards in classes of different levels. Using these recordings, we created a website with over 250 videos, all accompanied by descriptions of the lessons or comments from the teachers. That way, education professionals can see what they can do and how they can use the technology in class.


“One of the things that puts people off adopting new technologies is the lack of concrete examples. You can read a book about it and think it could be useful but, without any actual examples, it’s difficult to get started.”


In addition to this project, I published a book called Implementing and Researching Technological Innovation in Language Teaching. This involved following for almost a year the nine teachers who were part of the French part of the iTILT project – four at primary school, two at junior secondary, two in senior secondary and one at university – to try and understand what factors influenced adoption – or not – of the digital tools.


“The technologies are interesting but you should focus on the person rather than the technique. Just as each person has a different approach to teaching a foreign language, they also have different ways of incorporating technology into their teaching”


One thing we noticed is that you can’t say that an interactive whiteboard will help language learning directly: it’s always mediated by whoever’s using it – i.e. the teacher, and the teacher will always use it according to their ideas, their project, their objectives and their perception of the tool.


With iTILT 2, we work on other tools apart from interactive whiteboards. They’re not as widely used in France as other European countries and some studies show that it’s more useful at primary school level than at secondary school. So we looked into other, more mobile technologies: tablets, video conferencing and telephones. But we always film the sessions and used a similar system, except for two things. The first is that we try to train people more in teaching methods and less in how to use the tool and the technical aspects.


“We noticed that sometimes, disappointing results for example, ways of using the boards that weren’t particularly interactive were more due to a misunderstanding of the methods to use or the purpose of the teaching, than from an incorrect use of the tool itself.”


We also use a task-based approach: rather than memorising lists of vocabulary or learning grammatical rules by heart, we try to use languages in a context that’s as realistic as possible, by thinking up real-life situations in which our students might have to use a foreign language.  The other main difference is that we encourage more interaction between teachers in different countries via an online platform.





In your experience, what makes teachers adopt digital tools more easily?


When I wrote my book, at the beginning and the end of the iTILT project, I got the nine French teachers I was monitoring to complete a questionnaire on how they viewed their skills and how useful they thought the technology was. Based on this, I identified three profiles. Three teachers took part in most of the activities in the project but didn’t do more than we asked of them. Another group was more involved: they made a lot of progress in using the interactive whiteboard, but less in terms of their approach to teaching. The last group, meanwhile, drastically changed their teaching methods.


“The teachers who progressed with the digital tool started questioning their teaching methods. They saw the projects and the interactive whiteboards as an opportunity to develop and change their approach.”


A very good example is one of the teachers in a special education class at primary school. For the project, she asked students to draw their English lessons. When she looked at the drawings, she realised that she took up the most room in the class whilst her students drew themselves as really small. This led her to the conclusion that she was too present and she changed her way of teaching so that she took a backseat to the interactive whiteboard.



What sort of things can you do with the digital tools?


To go back to this last example, what this teacher liked about the interactive whiteboard is that it grabs all the students’ attention at once. On the whole, primary and junior secondary school teachers said that’s the main advantage of the tool: as it’s very big, colourful and bright, it attracts all the students’ attention.


In language classes, we often work in small groups, away from the board. With the interactive whiteboard, you can begin a task and, when it’s completed, it’s easy to take over the class again because you can focus very quickly on a task.


With interactive whiteboards, you can display images and add multimedia files easily. It’s completely different from just showing a PowerPoint presentation where the slides go in a specific order that’s defined from the outset, and doesn’t take into account the students’ reactions. When you’re working with an interactive whiteboard, you can add an extra page, make notes on the side, go back and watch something again, etc. If we have a brainstorming session in class, we can save the files and export them as a PDF file, so it’s not lost like an ordinary board that you wipe. A lot of teachers have also pointed out the fact that you can keep a record of students’ contributions. That’s really important as it lets students know that their comments are taken on board: we don’t just listen to them and then forget all about it.





How did the students respond?


The classes of future teachers have grasped the advantages I’ve just described. In younger classes, the students find it more difficult to say what they like: sometimes it’s the colours, or the fact that the text is easier to read. It looks nicer and that’s something they really respond to.


The most useful feedback we’ve had is from junior and senior secondary schools. The teenagers were very clear about the fact that they like screens and they’re happy to have them in the classroom. Others said it was easier for them to keep up with what’s happening in class. With interactive whiteboards, they know that if they don’t manage to make a note of everything, it doesn’t matter because the teacher can put the class notes on the school’s digital workspace. And that’s a relief for them.  And we had the same feedback from universities. Digital tools allow students to focus more on the content in lectures because they don’t have to take notes.



What sort of difficulties have you come across?


There are always technical problems. We often waste time plugging in cables and getting rid of software bugs.


“For teachers, it’s very frustrating working on software that only works half the time!”


We haven’t really found a way to resolve this; we wish we had the resources for proper technical backup. All we’ve come up with so far is to tell the teachers to work together as a network. With interactive whiteboards, there’s also the problem of licence fees: it’s difficult to get schools to subscribe to or buy software licences.



What other projects are you working on?


SoNetTESocial Networks in Teacher Education – is a project that’s just coming to an end but was very interesting. It involved setting up international study groups to get teachers from different countries and different subjects to work together: languages, science, maths, education. We created online courses, which is another way of using technologies for education!



Read our other interviews with digital makers in education:

Nicolas Prono: using digital to help children with learning difficulties

Yves Le Saout: using tablets to develop new teaching approaches at secondary schools

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