Original Plenary

by thomas leverett
The following was prepared for the Annual Conference for Teachers of English, June 8-12, 2009, in Santiago and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. It was sponsored by the Centro Cultural Dominico Americano (Santiago) and the Instituto Cultural Dominicano Americano (Santo Domingo). The actual speech was changed. -Thomas Leverett

Conference links:
[ Technology as gateway and window to opportunity ]
[ Using weblogs to integrate writers into target communities ]
[ AC for TE weblog, made at the conference ]
[ Actual plenary ]
[ Tom's home ]
[ Tom's weblog ]

Digital fluency and the role of the teacher

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Annual Conference for Teachers of English at the Instituto Cultural Dominico Americano. I speak to you on one of the cusps of history; by that I mean that , worldwide, technology has shifted the way we communicate and do business, so that the world your students are going into is quite different from the world that you were educated in, or the world that you expected to find your way in upon leaving school. You may have been confident that you had the tools and the ability to survive in this modern world, by virtue of having been taught English, knowing your craft, knowing how to read and write, and in general being able to prove that you could teach a language and teach it well. Your students, who are going into a number of different fields, all affected by the technological revolution in their own way, will not be so lucky. They must in effect step onto a moving train as it takes our entire culture and moves it online. This virtual world is at the same time a place where opportunity is infinite, and yet where it is also small; people can see virtually everything that is done; they can recover it, and the price of making mistakes is quite high. In short, it is a scary world, where one needs a confident guide and vigilant guidance.

It appears sometimes that they know more about this world than you do already; that they could simply go there, and teach themselves about the dangers, dangers which you yourself may have trouble even imagining. In fact many of us who entered technology from a non-technological world did so because our own children were there already, and we were determined to know more about what they were doing and how. In fact, the younger generation may always stay a step ahead of us, and someone will always be someplace new, where we can barely find them, much less imagine what they are doing. But now is not the time for us to back off and let what happens happen. Never has the role of the teacher, in guiding, leading, and teaching, been more important than it is now. You, the teacher, and your attention to this situation may be the single most important influence on their lives as they step into this new and unfolding world, which, remember, they have little choice but to enter.

Hold on, you might say; I am only an English teacher. I have been trained to teach reading, writing, pronunciation, grammar, speaking; it's all I can do to keep up with these, with the limited resources that I am given, and to give my students what I can, with the limited time and support available to me.

I can understand your protests. It's a scary world, and we have limited time to explore and understand it, much less lead an innocent soul into something of which we are not confidently sure that we understand. Yet I will explain to you why we have no choice, and in fact we should embrace this opportunity and begin to take advantage of it.

I should begin by saying that my name is Thomas Leverett; I am a Lecturer at the Center of English as a Second Language at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, and I have been putting entire classes online, by which I mean on weblogs and using chat, for several years. The world of education is quite cautious, I should say, and would not be going online at all, if it were not convinced that it had to, that the world is not going back. But that is just what has happened. Even the schools and the universities, bastions of the system and of understanding and reason, know when it is not going back.

My classes are diverse, from many countries, young enough, at 18-22, to be open to new opportunity, but not too young to be denied access by virtue of their age. I have talked to them more about this world, the world of weblogs, chat, HiFive, Facebook, and Skype, a world which they may have onceconsidered their own social domain, but which is increasingly being absorbed by the worlds of business and diplomacy. At first, as I said, I did it to know where my own children were going. Then, I did it because I realized that my students had an enduring interest in the things they were finding there, good and bad, permanent or not. Finally, I did it because the allure of connecting to anyone, anywhere, was too useful to ignore as a teaching tool, and because I realized that the new technology and its ethic of permanent, ongoing connectedness was the first wave of a massive, permanent shift that would change our lives dramatically, theirs moreso than mine; that there was no ignoring this tsunami, no turning our backs, and pretending it wasn't there.

As a teacher who was taught to teach at the height of the communicative era, I was taught that we were to teach our students to use the language in the environment that they would need it in; that separating a language from its environment set up the futility of the language learner who had an infinite vocabulary, yet was unable to respond to simple questions because of unfamiliarity with the medium or with the social realm that language after all belonged in. At that time, the prevailing belief was that oral, conversational fluency was at the heart of knowing and being comfortable with the language; that reading and writing skills should come later; that without the ability to function in the simplest conversational contexts, reading and writing skills were to some degree useless. The communicative idea was that language at its base was face-to-face oral interaction, involving conversational strategies, gap-fillers, questions, and functional objectives such as asking politely, disagreeing politely, and clarifying things you didn't understand. Communicative teachers set out around the world to teach this basic conversational fluency on the assumption that a certain conversational ease was necessary as a base, before one started to read or write; that a learner basically had to be able to hear and respond first, before starting the productive skills.

We know now, through the world of technology, that people often chat online and use written language without corresponding sounds. Thus we know that perhaps the oral fluency that we considered the base of all successful communication, may move into a different role, as people start with the written online medium perhaps, and move on from there. What I am saying is that the assumptions we made about primary mode, and base of languages, may not necessarily be always true, for all languages, as we move into the future. We know that in a world of depleted energy resources, increasingly crowded, travel will be more limited, but ability to communicate cross-culturally, and across languages, will be increased and will be increasingly blended, perhaps less distinct, and certainly more voluminous. Increasing numbers of people will do most of their communication, every day, with people outside their own culture and/or country, and this will be considered the norm. English, or an online, written, coded version of it, will be extremely useful in this context. Our students will never forget the person who first showed it to them, or the attitude that teacher had for the opportunities available in the online realm. They will not forget whether your attitude toward the dangers of that world was cavalier, or careful. They will not fail to notice how you responded when your browser failed to accomplish what you wanted, because above all, we are models; we show them how to manage the things they don't understand, and, by doing so, unwittingly sometimes, we determine whether they will go forward into it, head held high, or shrink from it and the opportunity it offers, for another twenty years or a lifetime.

It was in the context of this new world that, before coming here, I was able to find out in minutes about this conference, this city, and you; you, in turn, could probably find everything I've written online, find my Facebook profile, my weblogs, and my biography, with a but a few clicks of your iPhone, or other cell-phone. This instant access to all information about anything, anywhere, is a given in the new world; if your students aren't used to it yet, they will be soon enough, and so should you. It will require of us a certain transparency of intentions, a fearless and adventurous sense of how to reach out to people, wherever they are, using whatever medium arrives and becomes accessible. As communicative teachers, we will find, use and master the environments that our students will use English in, even if we have never experienced them before. We will do this because we know that English cannot be separated from the cultures and environments it is used in, and because we know that all the reading and vocabulary in the world will do you no good, if you don't have the digital fluency to master the environment that it is used in.

And this is perhaps where we can be of the most use to our students. We may find ourselves teaching just a little bit of HTML, in order to make a link, or fix a broken one. We may have to interpret code that is dense, thick and impenetrable, in the same way the car or bus engine is, that engine that you have been relying on all these years, yet don't really understand. But when we ourselves are unwilling to try a new medium, or dive into unknown code, even when we have a good reason, how then can we expect anyone to learn a language, when they don't really know the benefits of using it? Here is where we can remember: a huge English-speaking world is at our fingertips. It makes our small environment, wherever we are, seem unnecessarily confining; it opens out as we go; it is everyone's future, and somebody has to go forward, and know the way. It is, after all, our new home.

[ Tom Leverett's weblog ]

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ICDCA, Santiago, Dominican Republic