Monday, January 3, 2011

It takes a village

The following article appeared in the TESOL CALL-IS Newsletter, vol 22, No. 2, March 2005, online.

I am not a native technophile; in fact, I even have trouble changing ink cartridges and making them work. I joined CALL-IS many years ago because I knew no one else in my program would, and because I felt that the world of teaching was changing too quickly for me to not at least try to keep up with some of the changes. I was right on both counts. It's still not easy for me; I struggle with everything from chat to WebCT; Wimba and streaming video are way over my head, and I struggle to maintain basic decent design on lots of important web pages. Some colleagues are really impressed around my department, and I model the patience and can-do spirit necessary to get past technological hurdles, but when I'm around people who really know what they're doing, I often feel like a charlatan. There's so much to know! (and, in my case, so little time!) But it's somewhat like playing the fiddle; no matter how bad you are, usually the people who are good at it are encouraging, because they know that you'll get better if you keep at it, you'll find lots of rewards in learning and using it, and the world is never too small for another person who's good at it.

That's why I love the Electronic Village at the TESOL Conference. It amazes me that people set up all these computers for an event that takes less than a week; just to be in a room with a computer at every station, with uploaded software, fills me with awe and respect for the volunteers who managed it. People show what they do, and they do everything from delivering online classes to using international conferencing, voice identification systems and speech analysis. I open my eyes as wide as a child and try to take it in quickly. And this is another way that learning to teach with and use computers is like learning the fiddle: it is always amazing to watch or hear someone who has mastered it, someone who knows a good trick and can tell you how to do it.

Of course, some people come to the Village trying to sell software or an online program, and that's ok, it's an open market and a free world. But we don't have much money for this, and I often think of some advice I heard a few conferences back: If you only have a little money, don't buy software, train a teacher. If you have a teacher who will use the computer, he/she will get others started, but if you don't, whatever you buy will just sit there.

Sometimes my own inadequacy makes me feels left behind, longing for the safety of the cretaceous limestone chalk era, where the only danger was touching a chalky blackboard or scratching the chalk unpleasantly. But I realize that, compared to some of my colleagues, I'm at least partially aware of what's around the corner. I actively bring home things that I've learned and try them with my students; I teach students and colleagues how to upload pictures and text; I make people in my own environment more comfortable with technology. And I find the favor returned at the Electronic Village; people with more experience than me are gracious, sharing, welcoming. Information wants to be free, and it spreads easily here, as people teach each other how to use new tools, how to go around what seemed like formidable technological hurdles; or how to use new innovations effectively in teaching and learning. And they are able to do it, even on temporary computers set up in a temporary hotel site!

This is another way that it's like the fiddle and a good bluegrass event: though the presentations alone are worth the admission, it's what happens in the parking lot that really makes you glad you went. For that's where new things are shared, in the generosity of friendship, where they seem to last longer, and become tangible skills that we can take home with us. I hope to see you there!

Thomas Leverett, 2-05

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