What if we treat technology like a foreign language?

Photo by Roland O'Daniel license
Recently, I had a thought-provoking experience in my Spanish 3 class. The students had been struggling with using Explain Everything to make screencasts. They'd been frustrated with the app; they were saying things like "I'm not good at technology," "Technology hates me," "I suck at this," and "Why is this so hard?" I felt badly that the assignment wasn't going as smoothly as I'd anticipated, but I also wondered why some of my students were so anti-technology. Why did they lack curiosity about how the technology worked? Why were they reluctant to engage in trial-and-error as they created their screencasts? Why did they seem unreceptive to the possibilities that this technology made available to them? And then I thought that those qualities I wanted to see in them--curiosity, risk-taking, open-mindedness--are the same characteristics that I'm hoping to cultivate in them as language learners. Could we approach learning new technologies in the same way that we approach learning languages? 

After the students had completed and submitted their screencasts, we had a discussion about the process. I wanted to know about what they felt their challenges were, and how they met those challenges. They were in agreement that the assignment was good, but they felt that the Explain Everything app didn't facilitate the process. They thought that the interface was confusing and the process for saving and retrieving work was complicated.

(A word on my process: I've been modeling screencasts with Explain Everything for most of the school year, so the students are familiar with what screencasts are and what their purpose is. I provided them with checklists of content to include in their screencasts, as well as video tutorials on YouTube. We also dedicated half of a class period to "playing" with the app, just messing around with it to see what its capabilities are. Because we were using a class set of iPads that is shared with other classes, I had students save their unfinished projects to their Google Drives at the end of the class period so that they could access them from any iPad at any time. I devoted about four class periods to the screencast-making process, which was two periods more than I had planned for.)

During this discussion, I asked my students to consider how they responded to the challenges they faced in their process. Did they turn to the Internet for help? Did they ask their classmates for assistance? Did they modify their original plan? Did they allow difficulty to become an obstacle to their success? What do they do when they are challenged by non-technological difficulties? Are their responses different in those situations? Why? What do they do when they do not comprehend written or spoken Spanish? Does that have to be so different from what we do when we do not understand technology? 

When I broached the idea of technology learning being similar to language learning, some of them were skeptical. "If technology is like foreign language, where's the curriculum?" one student asked. She's not wrong; we don't have a mandatory, articulated technology curriculum in our school, as is also the case, I suspect, in many schools. While I don't have the wherewithal to develop and implement such a curriculum on my own, it's certainly within my capabilities to better scaffold the technology I do use in class. I must remember that technology comes with its own structures, contexts and uses, just like language does. And it's important to use the right technology at the right time for the right purpose to avoid over-complicating tasks. 

This experience reminded me that I have to help my students learn to ask the right questions and become self-sufficient in their search for answers. Even in lessons that feature little to no technology, maybe I'm asking them for answers too often. I need to be asking them to ask more questions, and encouraging them to go find answers on their own. 

How have your students faced technology-related challenges in your classes? 


  1. Katherine I like the question posed to the student, and would like to respond with my thoughts about curriculum. Imagine that we lived every day as the students do with technology. It seems that it should come second nature to most (but not all) the students to learn a new application or usage of the device. I've always felt that they are ahead of the curve in learning technology, while the teachers are the ones afraid to dip our toes. I don't know if I would want a curriculum in each class dedicated to the amount of time that you spent on the task. I am in favor of a school wide technology class, built on the applications that have been garnered from each teacher, or geared towards the teacher's needs for that school. I would love for kids to come in already knowing how to use "explain everything", or Google docs, etc... The question is a good one since we treat native speakers with a multitude of English classes throughout every year of school. I am sure that in Spain the same is true for Spanish classes (as well as English). So I am wondering if you lose by spending more time teaching the tech needed and less time on Spanish, or should we look at technology becoming a standard course in the school.

  2. Kevin, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I completely agree that too much time was spent on the "tech skills" part of this task, which was one of the reasons why I wanted to reflect on it with the students to see how it could be improved. I also agree that your ideas for a technology class would work really well in many contexts, but the reality is that the students don't have that (yet). In my experience, students aren't really that "ahead of the curve" with regards to technology; they can do some things fast on mobile devices, but that doesn't mean that they automatically know what tech tools to use, how to use them, or when to use them... which is why I try to choose tech tools very carefully for class. I'm not saying I'm successful 100% of the time, but I have found that purposeful use of a few tools really can facilitate the learning process, not least because it helps me to meet the students where they are, as well as prepare them for a world where technology will be more and more integrated into our daily lives. For that reason, I don't think that time spent learning how to use/using the RIGHT tech tool at the RIGHT time for the RIGHT purpose is lost time. It's an essential part of becoming a productive citizen in the 21st century. In an earlier blog post about the impact of 1:1 iPads on student learning, I talked about how students in a 1:1 class performed the same on traditional assessments as a non-1:1 class (no improvement in test scores). However, the 1:1 class did have many more opportunities to develop skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, media literacy, and information literacy, and they also were able to engage in more creative tasks with the iPads. Our challenge, I think, is to figure out how to mesh "traditional" content with new literacies and skills to prepare our students for the future.


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