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TRANSFORMATIONS: Tesol Arabia 2010 by Mark Heyne

This year’s TESOL conference held at the elegantly modernistic Zayed University
Dubai was billed as “Transformations in TESOL”, and everyone had their own take on
the theme of change, mutation, evolution, adaptation or, in one case, revolution.

Learner Centred Instruction was the predominant meme, with Instructional


Technology a strong contender. LCI took centre stage in many presentations, starting
with an enthusiastic Dr. Shedadeh who went over the whys and wherefores in “LCI:
What, Why and How?”, an exposition of how students learn best if they participate
actively in the exercise and exploration of language use. Basically, LCI 101 for those
who hadn’t heard of it until then.

Two teachers from Dubai’s Higher Colleges of Technology promised “Learner-led


transformations in TESOL”, which was actually a few of their students surveying each
other on how they used laptops and mobile phones to access the InterWebs. Turns
out, Emirati students have gone off the laptops kindly provided by the college and
prefer to access the net via Blackberry and iPhone. Indeed, one ingenious teacher
has already started making grammar and vocab applets for mobiles, and using the
Apple bar-code scanner to link to webpages, sticking the barcodes up around the
college for students to find. One wag in the audience suggested that HCT provide all
students with top-end 3G mobiles instead of laptops in future. No-one thought this
inherently implausible.

Others contemplated the current paradigm shift as we old-school, analog-minded


teachers confront the ‘digital natives’ of the present generation. One Featured
Speaker, Gavin Dudeney, put forward the idea that ‘reading the net’ is the new
literacy, and suggested that these precocious young things are hard-wired differently
to us, so they can “juggle multiple sources of input and make snap decisions”. In our
favour, we ‘digital immigrants’ with earlier forms of conditioning, “address one task
at a time, learn more methodically and execute tasks more precisely”.

A sure give-away that he teaches ESL in Europe, Gavin thought a 5 minute video off
YouTube of some chap dancing in 20 different countries around the world was
excellent material for visual stimulation of his well-travelled students. “Where_
the_hell_is_Matt_dot_com” had us all shouting out “He’s in Tibet!” “Burkina-Faso!”
“No, it’s “Koh Samui!” Gavin liked this game so much he played the video twice. Mind
you, some of his ideas were more practical, like making word-clouds at wordle.com
instead of simple linear word jumbles, putting teens in touch with each other via
teenadvice.org or grabbing ready-made teaching materials from teflclips.com.

Another presentation tried “Unravelling the Online Collaborative Process”. One class
in Dubai and another in Istanbul shared a Blogger page and exchanged comments
and queries like “Why don’t you Turkish Moslem girls wear headscarves?” to which a
Turkish girl replied “It’s not a religious thing, it’s a cultural thing!” Women’s College
of Dubai teacher Azzam Premji said “We try not to interfere with their conversations,
so long as they don’t talk about barred topics like sex, religion, politics, dating, and
so on.”

Doll, Moore and LeSeeleur, a highly specialized team of statistical analysts from
Khalifa University of Science, investigated with the help of pie charts, bar charts,
tables and the mystical “Likert-Scale Questions”, all resolved to their “Chi-Square
Significance”, the issue of “Receptions of Instructional Technology and their
Impacts”. I did wonder if perhaps it wasn’t the Instructional Technology that was
having an impact, rather than its reception(s), but I let it slide.

Correlating three major factors, namely which town in UAE the student lived in, their
college major and most recent IELTS score, the team investigated whether 200
students at Khalifa University thought “Laptops would be a good thing to use in
English classes to help learn English.” Intriguingly, they found that Instructional
Technology was 100% popular among students with a low score in IELTS while
among students with 6.0 IELTS acceptance fell to a mere 96% average! After a
moment of stunned silence we all scratched our heads to stimulate the grey cells,
and offered conflicting interpretations: “They are tired of carrying their laptops!”
“They don’t care about English so much anymore!” “They have gone over to
Blackberrys!” To add to the confusion, when asked a different question, whether “the
use of other technologies like radio, cds, video and smartboards helps to learn
English”, the high-scoring students changed their minds and 98% said ‘Yes!’, while
only 84% of the low scores agreed. Ouch! The cognitive dissonance was palpable!
Still scratching our heads, we adjourned for tea. I just wished Doll, Moore and
LeSeeleur might have asked some more useful questions while they were about it,
like whether and what those students actually read on the Net, if they actively
produced text in blogs or if they communicated in English with others around the
world. But that was not within their parameters.

Other interesting events happened in the small conference rooms. “The Corpus in the
Classroom”, sounding rather like an Agatha Christie murder mystery, showed that
interrogating a database of oral usage can reveal counter-intuitive facts about real-
life language usage that should inform our syllabi and course books. “Must” for
example is normally taught as obligation, but records of usage in the oral corpus
reveal that this is an unusual use of the word. Mostly it is a supposition as in “You
must be tired!” or “Your job must be difficult!” Examination of the corpus reveals
other oddities like the prevalence of full forms over contractions. For example “I am
not happy” over “I’m not happy”, despite our intuitive feeling that the contraction
would be more ‘natural’. In another room, an introduction to semiotics was
underway, with signs, symbols and gestures explicated from Plato to Sassure.
Discussing a quote from Unberto Eco that language is “Man’s greatest invention”, I
suggested that a fortunate evolutionary change enabled us to manipulate symbols.
The professor countered that this was God’s gift to man. His G-word trumped my E-
word.

Meanwhile in the big tent a wake for the Revolution was underway. Professor Flavia
Vieira of Portugal quoted Paolo Friere: “Educators experience frustration as they see
that their teaching practice was not able to make the revolution they expected. They
hoped it would do something it cannot do: to transform society by itself.” Echoing
Friere’s “Pedagogy of The Oppressed”, Ms. Vieira called for a “Pedagogy for
Autonomy” that would transform society from the ground up. Change our students,
and the rest will follow. In discussion later, many of us objected to the idea that
teachers were in the business of changing society, and the best we could do was
encourage an independent and critical awareness in our students.

It was a stimulating and enjoyable conference, and we all went away with new ideas
and a basic message to consider: Advanced Communications Technology is here to
stay in education, and if we do not adapt we become irrelevant. The digital natives
will twitter and blog on regardless while we unreconstructed analogs curl up in a
corner with dog-eared paperback copies of Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’, and weep.