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Dancers not Dinosaurs: English teachers in the Electronic Age

Lucinda McKnight
Lucinda McKnight is a Project Manager at Curriculum Corporation, a former Council member of the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English, and has taught in the Literacy and English Education programs at RMIT and Monash University. She is also an experienced English teacher, multimedia producer and author of English textbooks, including Film Asia: New Perspectives on Film for English

English teachers around Australia are attempting a dance with technology. Yet while conferences allow flirtations with electronic literacies, the challenge of actually finding a partner (ie. accessing computers) at school is creating many wallflowers. In some schools, English is relegated to the bottom of hierarchies of access; the administrators creating such barriers often think computers in English serve only to type neat final drafts.

English teachers themselves have not been the most ardent advocates for more access. Understandably. If you can't get time to see what's possible, how can you design computer based lessons? If you can't afford to buy software, how do you know if it is any good? If you have to wait weeks to get a class into a computer lab, how important can technology be? Such questions remain unanswered and allow teachers to sideline technology and get on with the important work that already filled a demanding curriculum before computers entered the picture. Curriculum imperatives simply add tension to the scenario: the tension between what teachers are told they should be doing, and what they are capable of doing.

This situation can only be changed by English teachers lobbying within schools for increased access. The precursor to this is understanding that software is about so much more than pretty fonts, that it has transformed the media through which we communicate. There is a lot for teachers to grasp and the rate of change has made this increasingly difficult. Students often seem to know more than the teacher, which can intimidate and disorient, so that critical judgement is suspended.

This is not to subscribe to the fashionable and cowardly teacher stance that "the students are the experts, we should just let them take over". Students might know which buttons to push, through more exposure to the software, but they have not suddenly become critical consumers of texts overnight, just because these texts happen to be electronic. The role of the teacher, an adult expert who has more insight than the students (yes, an even more unfashionable view!) is still fundamental to students learning skills of analysis, of empathy, of identifying bias and fallacy. These skills are just as important when studying a website as when studying a novel.

So teachers need to reclaim the territory: to take courage in the knowledge that their maturity, their disciplinary knowledge and skills and their professional experience continue to position them as mentors to their students, rather than clumsy dinosaurs or hardware apprentices. Most of the skills that are really important in the electronic age are those that teachers are well qualified to nurture in their students, such as the ability to work well in a team, to listen and to develop and express ideas.

Confident and secure, teachers can then become familiar with the new media, and see how their skills can be applied in new ways. They can assess the hype surrounding technology, rather than mutely acquiescing to admiration of what often amounts to nothing more than the emperor's new clothes. Instead of deferring to so-called experts who are trying to sell products, they can ask the fundamental question... "Why shouldn't I do this with a pen and paper?" without feeling ashamed.

And indeed, what are some possible answers to this question? If we acknowledge that teachers are already bringing an enormous repertoire of knowledge, skills and experience to the dance, what are the new steps that are worth learning and building into the curriculum and therefore the classroom?

Word processing software allows students access to the tools professional editors use, and the ability to manipulate text in ways that were unwieldy before. Abilities to reflect and self-edit are expanded, courage and creativity are needed to play with words, and mutual respect underpins conferencing on screen and responding to other students writing in appropriate ways. If English teachers are not teaching students to track changes, monitor multiple versions of documents and even simply cut and paste, they are not exploiting the potential of readily available software to enhance what was previously taught.

Presentation software provides useful tools for performance, and needs to be explored creatively and critically. Should words on a screen replicate what a speaker says? Paraphrase? Summarise? Underpin? Provide a counterpoint? Perhaps simply illustrate through visuals? Include sound, video or weblinks? Evidence that teachers are not approaching this software creatively comes from their complaints that it is boring! Is a pen boring? An overhead projector? PowerPoint is only as boring as the person using it! Presentation software creates a more fluid environment for communicating a message, elevating a speech to a more filmic medium. It deserves careful analysis, of both design and impact.

The Internet opens doors to publication and collaboration which were previously closed, or at best prohibitively expensive or time consuming to open. Students collaborate with museum professionals to tell the stories of their migrant ancestors through words and objects in online exhibitions. Students in different schools use discussion lists to explore texts together. Teachers and students use and design tracks and webquests to navigate and organise the information now available. Understanding tone and communicating effectively in writing become even more important, as email replaces speech in many workplaces. Are cats really suspicious of men with beards? A very authoritative website says they are. Research and evaluation skills are even more important in these electronic environments. Within school systems, intranets feature daily student diary entries and quotes.

CD-ROMS make vivid multimedia worlds available and store large amounts of information. Voices and Visions from Indonesia (NALSAS funded and sent free to all secondary schools in 2001) includes 40 texts (poems, plays, film, television, paintings and sculptures) that teachers suddenly have at their fingertips. Computer games use narrative conventions in new environments and make many allusions to traditional texts... swimming as Lara Croft in Tombraider has an other-worldly, lyrical quality, and no doubt other attractions for teenage boys!

I've merely skimmed the surface here, and not even mentioned desk top publishing, idea generation software, search facilities, databases, file management, or the applications for all of these for English. English Ednet, a Curriculum Corporation initiative, provides Internet-related professional development for teachers via an online tutorial. Subject associations and government departments of education are also seeking to meet teachers' need to access exemplary practice in the above areas.

Many students are Playstation gurus, publishing their personal web pages for the world to consume, subscribing to fanzines, hanging out in chat rooms and texting their friends. At work, they are likely to use email, the Internet and Microsoft Office, no matter what the job. These are the tools with which we demonstrate literacy today. These are the platforms for communication. It's vital that we include texts produced by these tools in the repertoire we study with students. This does not require further expensive software to be purchased; the examples I've given above would already be available to a greater or lesser extent in all schools.

The Windows interface makes computers easy to use. Mastering any software is merely learning a series of steps, and joining in the dance. The challenge is to find creative and pedagogically sound ways to use selected software in schools, and for this to drive demand for access. Assessment of this soundness needs to be based on teachers' confidence in their own transferable skills, and even in the gut feelings they have about what is worthwhile, because never before has so much money been spent, often to achieve so little.

This article originally appeared in EQ Australia Summer 2002.

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Computer-based training
English language teaching
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)