Like many of you out there, the institution I work in is engaged in a desperate – and at times highly unfocused – dash towards digital. We’ve invested quite heavily in Blackboard, an online learning platform that I’m guessing many of you will already be familiar with, and in order to feel that this investment was valid, there’s increasing pressure coming down from on high to ensure that Blackboard is somehow seamlessly integrated into all courses. In addition to this internal institutional pressure, there’s also obviously the external pressure on all language teachers these days to not only be excellent at dealing with language and dealing with students, and to know about and be comfortable with a range of pedagogy, but to also be teched-up, to be digitally literate and to be integrating tech in some way into everything we do.
I’ve blogged before about some of my concerns about the current state of affairs, and if I had to characterize my own attitude towards things at present, I guess I’d say I was skeptical, but curious. I think there’s a lot of snake oil being sold, there are plenty of administrators and bosses hoping (in vain) that tech will provide some kind of magic bullet and fast forward learning into some futuristic utopia and there are plenty of stupid and disparaging comments being made about the many excellent teachers out there who have not ’embraced’ technology in their classrooms, but who continue to deliver excellent classes to satisfied students. Personally, outside of a Coomber for playing audio CDs, I basically don’t use any technology in my actual classroom, and we’re moving increasingly towards a ‘No mobiles in class’ policy too, simply due to the perennially disruptive nature of the things, with students (and, let’s face it, ourselves also) increasingly hooked on being in constant contact with our friends out there – and texting furiously throughout lessons! That said, I’d like to be convinced that there ARE sane things going on INSIDE classes that utilise technology, and I do try and keep abreast of what’s out there and what other teachers are doing.
Also, obviously, I use technology outside of class for all kinds of purposes, both professional and leisure. I blog, as you can see; I’m on Facebook (twice! personal and professional profiles); I upload music onto YouTube; Andrew Walkley and myself are doing a university YouTube project, which I’ll say more about later; I occasionally use Twitter; I use Vocaroo with my classes; I’ve tried class blogs; my students have access to online workbooks that accompany the coursebooks we use; I send emails round after every class with links to things that came up in class, mostly of a cultural / global general knowledge ilk, and so on. Hopefully, I’ll be returning to some of these issues later on.
I also try to ensure I keep up with, as best I can, the many many recommendations for various tech-related sites that are out there. I subscribe to both Russell Stannard’s newsletter and also Nik Peachey’s, and I read whatever I can that comes by way via other gatekeepers of the digital realm such as Gavin Dudeney and Nicky Hockly. I feel grateful that I’m already fairly sensitive towards language and fairly au fait with methodology, because, as I’ve often quipped, one of my main fears for the language teachers of tomorrow is that keeping up with all the tech that’s out there, and developing critical faculties towards it, is so time-consuming that you really do have to wonder where they’re going to find the time to tackle language and classroom practice on top!
Anyway, to eventually get somewhere near the point, it seems to me that one real issue at present is that there amidst all the enthusiastic boosterism and the carving out of career space for the gatekeepers (and just to be crystal clear from the outset, I’m NOT knocking them for this. They clearly serve a similar function to the applied linguists who bring the results of their findings to the field and leave us as teachers and materials designers to unpick the implications), what’s sorely lacking is any real space in which teachers can discuss and critique the uses (and abuses) of particular sites and pieces of technology. There’s not enough critical engagement with what’s being touted – or if there IS, I’ve yet to see it (!) – and so what I’d like to try and do with this next ongoing series of posts is to explore and consider a range of different sites that I’ve spent time looking at after seeing them touted and praised.
To begin, I’m going to talk about a site I first encountered courtesy of Russell Stannard called Lingro. It modestly proclaims itself as “the coolest dictionary known to hombre“! And Russell himself was almost as enthusiastic, calling “this fabulous tool” “the best website” he found in 2011.
The basic gist is that it’s a site into which you can drag and drop other pages (in a range of different ‘mainstream’ languages) from the web, whether they be news sites, articles, blog pages, or whatever, and Lingro will not only provide a dictionary to help you understand them, but it’ll also give you the pronunciation and even keep a record of the words you look up, store them away and turn them into games for you to revise from later on. Surely the perfect site for our students to be practising their reading and developing their vocabulary! Sounds too good to be true, right?
Well, I’d argue that that is because it is! Below you can see a screengrab of the first time I tried to use the site. I entered a page from The Guardian’s website into Lingro, as I imagined my students might do were i to recommend the site, and started toying around. You don;t need to spend too long on the site to realise that whilst the dictionary may be ‘cool’ (even if it does say so itself), it’s also, to be frank, rubbish! I mean, look at what it tells you about WITHDRAWAL! Most students – and possibly many teachers – would actually need to use a decent learner’s dictionary in order to understand the definitions in 1 and 2, neither of which, of course, have anything to do with the meaning here. And as for the third definition, well it’s a piece of tautological genius! Slog through all three and you’re still no nearer understanding what on earth the word is being used to mean here, and have problem been sent off down all manner of random rabbit holes, guaranteed to derail your train of thought and your focus.
Let’s turn instead to a decent dictionary written by actual lexicographers that understand the way foreign learners process language and who write in a way that’s aimed at EFL students. Take the Macmillan Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, for example. The first definition you meet is this:
1 [C / U] the act of stopping something or taking something away
Their withdrawal of support forced the minister to resign.
1a the removal of an army from an area of fighting
Troop withdrawal will take place immediately.
Bingo! Even though it’s not as precise as the second definition, even the first gets close and gives a fairly clear indication of meaning and usage.
In the same way, the Lingro definition of delay used as a verb – to put off till a later time, to distract – is nowhere near as transparent as the Macmillan version – to do something later than is planned or expected, and again there then follow a series of excellent parallel examples.
Still not yet convinced of the sheer awfulness of the dictionary?
Well, thanks to Gavin Dudeney, I’m now using Camtasia at home and thought that as I’m writing about tech, I may as well prove I’m not a total Luddite by making a short movie of myself trying Lingro out this very morning. You watch the results below and chortle at my increasing disgust as I very quickly come up against the site’s (many) limitations.
So why is this happening? And does any of it really matter?
Firstly, the utterly appalling nature of the dictionary is down to the fact that it’s all based on Wiktionary. Wiktionary is the result of all of those sexy buzzwords that web-heads love to sling around: crowd-sourcing, networking, interactivity, the blurring of the lines between user and creator, all that . . . and it’s dreadful! And it’s not just me saying it. Here’s Jill Lepore writing in The New Yorker, back in 2006: “There’s no show of hands at Wiktionary. There’s not even an editorial staff. ‘Be your own lexicographer!’ might be Wiktionary’s motto. Who needs experts? Why pay good money for a dictionary written by lexicographers when we could cobble one together ourselves? Wiktionary isn’t so much republican or democratic as Maoist. And it’s only as good as the copyright-expired books from which it pilfers.” And there are plenty more such stinging critiques out there, should you care to seek them out.
Why this matters is partly because the craze and craving for the free, the online, the interactive is essentially – in this instance – a vote for plagiarism, for the mediocre, for a poverty of resources. On top of that, though, it’s also a nail in the coffin of real lexicography. All the major publishing houses are selling fewer and fewer dictionaries each year so every time you recommend any site that uses Wiktionary, you’re basically advocating the total amateur over the highly skilled professional. The longer this continues, the higher the risk of all serious lexicographers who’ve spent their entire working lives studying the language, discussing and debating how best to present the findings of their research. As if none of this was bad enough, you’re also encouraging an impoverished view of language, which will lead to students taking on similarly impoverished views themselves. I mean, this is a view of language which doesn’t even recognise phrasal verbs for God’s sake, let alone chunks, collocations, fixed expressions, idiomaticity, or the power of examples.
But wait, I hear you cry. What about the revision games the site makes? Surely that must be fun. And motivating.
Well, because my patience is wearing thin, I’ll spare you too many of the gory details, but here’s another screen grab of the kind of games it’s capable of making.
So basically it can save the key words – and really ONLY words – and turn them into very very basic flashcards that you use to test your memory. You look at the words and – in the instance above – check you can remember the Spanish, click on the ‘cards’ and check your answers. Well, we’ve already seen how poor the site actually is at even giving basic definitions of single words, so why on earth you should trust it to give decent translations of the meaning of the word in the context that you encountered it in is beyond me!
Just for the record, by the way, I’m really NOT saying the flashcards like this are a bad idea. They’re not. It’s just that these ones are very very poor. I make my own when studying Indonesian, but by doing it myself I can add in pronunciation and word stress, extra examples, collocations and add translations for all of these on the flip side. I can also customize these over time and test myself with them, which I do.
Philip Kerr has written well about using vocabulary cards to revise language you’ve encountered and I think this can be very very useful. Now, obviously, there’s no real reason why this couldn’t be done using technology.
It’s just that Lingro isn’t the place where you CAN.