I use a lot of technology in my teaching now, but this hasn’t always been the case.[i] In fact, when I first started out teaching a number of years ago in West Africa in the Peace Corps, I had zero technology effectively. My main technology was chalk. I had white chalk, I had a blackboard, and I even had some yellow chalk to emphasize things.
That was my technology.[ii] The students for their part all had notebooks and a pencil. And they wrote diligently in their notebooks anything that I wrote on the blackboard. They took it home, studied it, practiced it, memorized it, and that was something they used as a basic technology.
I’m telling this not as a kind of generational tale to show how easy we have it these days and how tough it was back in the day. Indeed, I’m sharing this story because I think it reveals to us as teachers that we should use technology—whatever is available—as long as it enhances our relationship with the students.
I learned a very valuable lesson. I’d like to take you back to that experience and pull out what I consider to be one of the basics of the teaching-learning relationship and one of the reasons why we should use technology intelligently. This was the first day of teaching for me—my first real job, the first real class that I was ever in charge of.
After several months of training in the Peace Corps and immersion in the French language, the national language (of Togo), and a little bit of study of Ewe, the local language (of coastal Togo and Benin), I was given my class. And I was so excited to be starting at last.
And so here I am on this hot September morning—seven in the morning—rows of students lined up in front of their classroom, and I was given a clipboard kind of like this, with the names of 80 students, who were the students in my first class.[iii]
I noticed that my colleagues up and down the row of classroom going all the way down the courtyard are calling out the names of their students, their students are saying présent, and they’re going into the class. And I’m lagging behind already, so I figure out I’d better start calling these names. And I look at the first one, and I see this intimidating list of names, names I don’t know how to pronounce.
And I start, jump right in, and say: Ag-be-fi-annn-u . . . And I look up and I notice that all the students are fidgeting and nervously wondering, what’s this guy doing? And I realize, you know, I’m not going to be able to get through this. I’m not going to be able to get through this. [iv]
And I think, what am I going to do? So I say to the students: Je vais être en mesure de dire vos noms correctement. Je vous promets. And I hand the list of names . . . I say to them in French: I will come to be able to say your names eventually, I promise you. . . . But I give the list of names to Mr. Agbefianu[v], the first student in line, and ask him to call the names.
And as he calls the names—very fluently and articulately—I stand by the door, shake their hands, say hello, how are you doing? And the class gets underway. Now for me this story shows it’s OK not to know how to do things. And it also shows that it’s OK to share with the students that you don’t know how to do something. It’s important to establish this relationship of trust and mutual learning with the students. In fact, during the school year this particular phrase—Je vous promets. I promise you—is something that came to be a sort of common language, a little mantra for us, to each other, to show that we are actually going to work hard. So I think that when we use technology, we always want to come back to the relationship with the students. And ask: How is this going to enhance our relationship? How is this going to improve our relationship? And then when we add the technology, we know that we’re using it in an intelligent way.[vi]
A lot of studies of technology in language learning have shown that the addition of online learning, for example, in addition to classroom learning almost always improves the learning outcomes.[vii] But the achievement is even higher, significantly higher, when the teacher gets involved, and has a relationship with the students to show them how to use the technology, why to use the technology, variations for using the technology. And in that way the technology is another tool for enhancing the relationship, enhancing the learning relationship with the students. So I wanted to leave you with that idea, that a preferred technology is always an assistive technology that helps us with our main tasks in teaching and learning.