The age-old age debate: is technology a turn-off for older teachers?

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Debates involving technology within our profession tend to be posed in binary terms: is technology good or bad for the classroom? Will technology replace teachers or will we always have a role to play? Are our learners digital natives or not? While none of these debates end up being quite so simplistic (see other posts in this series), one that continues to obfuscate discourse is that of teachers’ beliefs about technology and their suitability to implement it, particularly within differing age groups and experience levels. But is this age-old debate one that bears any real weight? I’d like to explore this complexity by focusing on two key relationships with respect to teacher age and experience: these versus the ability to understand and use technology effectively; and these versus beliefs about the efficacy of technology in the classroom.

A person’s age and the technological climate in which they were raised can definitely influence the  familiarity with – and recognition regarding – the ubiquity of new technologies. I argue, however, that it’s a misnomer to present this as a causal relationship. We all know that an older relative who struggles to move past the familiar technologies to new, more efficient versions (e.g. VCRs to cable box recorders, fax machines to PDFs, etc). However, this does not and should not define a generation’s ability to understand or use a technology effectively. We can all think of a colleague who vocalises their distaste for social media, for example, or who continuously (attempts to) commiserate about how technology never works properly. Incidentally, they also tend not to differentiate between terms like ‘browser’ and ‘Facebook’. It may be easy to pass this frustration off as an age-related issue, but I suspect it is more related to level of understanding than ability. Lack of adequate training on how to use technologies (e.g. mobile devices, software, etc) and reliability of the equipment (e.g. internet connection, equipment failure, etc) contribute to this resistance more than ability (see discussion on overt and covert factors in Al-Kehtani, 2004, for more on this).

You only need look at teacher organisations related to technology to visually dispel myths about age or career experience being causally related to a lack of ability. The committee that forms the IATEFL Learning Technologies Special Interest Group (i.e. LTSIG), as an example, consists of members whose teaching experience is no less than a decade. One may suggest that serving on the committee does not necessarily equate with proficiency, but given the prominence of this SIG internationally and its prolific events and publications, that seems unlikely. Beyond this, we can look anecdotally at ourselves and colleagues. Most of my colleagues are over 40, have more than a decade of teaching experience and utilise a wide array of technologies with their students, from the mobile devices for note taking to websites like Google docs or Facebook groups, and apps such as Socrativ or Quizlet. If you believe that an older relative who struggles with technology is representative, then you must also accept this sample as equally representative.

Another argument made is the perception that older or more experienced teachers believe technology disrupts learning and that the ‘old ways are best’. This suggests that younger, less experienced teachers are more willing to try anything. One place where this really breaks down is the lack of understanding regarding the pedagogical value of technology in the classroom. An oft-referenced example is that mobile phones are a distraction to our students. Many times I’ve heard colleagues – locally and globally – complain that their learners check their phones for social media and texting throughout lessons. This often results in blanket rules about their use in class, like collecting them all at the beginning of class or taking punitive measures if learners are caught using them. While this is one way of dealing with the situation, I suspect that a lack of pedagogical understanding of the technology might underpin this resistance.

We might look at the TPACK framework as a way of illuminating how technology can be used effectively once a teacher is familiar with it. Basically, it suggests that the ideal situation for technology use in the classroom is when a teacher’s Technical Knowledge (TK), Content Knowledge (CK), and Pedagogical Knowledge (PK) overlap – this is when the resistance to technology diminishes and the understanding of its efficacy increases. When one of these is lacking it creates barriers that likely result in the issues mentioned above. I recommend not only the linked website, but a read of Mishra and Koehler’s 2006 article. Adequate training with the technology in question works wonders.

Another area to explore is the motivation for using technology in the classroom. When one recognises a need that cannot be filled through other methods, the motivation for exploring the benefits of the technology significantly increases. Consider the older relative example again. If keeping in touch with relatives can be done easily and effectively through Facebook because that’s where those relatives most frequently post photos, then the motivation for learning to use Facebook increases, despite any fears or concerns involved. Similarly, when a teacher wants their learners to write collaboratively, and where doing so with pen and paper is too cumbersome or time-consuming, they may investigate alternatives such as Google docs in order to bridge the gap between what they want learners to do and what is practical for them to do, given the restraints of the physical classroom.

Finally, we can simply look at examples of where these negative beliefs are occupied by teachers of all ages and experiences. In their 2015 study, Van Praag & Sanchez note similar technological concerns by its participants, all of whom were under 40 and had fewer than a decade’s worth of teaching experience. We cannot then assume that one age group or experience level shares the same characteristics.

The bottom line is that perhaps it’s time to put to rest the generalisation that age or experience are the cause of the barriers or beliefs regarding the use of technology in the classroom. Rather, as a profession, we need to explore individual circumstances and teaching contexts, and address the needs at those levels.

References

Al-Kahtani, S. (2004) Deterrents to CALL in Saudi Arabia. Essential Teacher, 1(3): 26–30.

IATEFL Learning Technologies Special Interest Group [website]. (n.d.). The Committee. Retrieved from http://ltsig.iatefl.org/welcome/committee/

Mishra, P. & Koehler, M.J. (2006). Technological pedagogical content knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge. Teachers College Record 108(6): 1017-1054. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9620.2006.00684.x

TPACK.org [website]. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://tpack.org/

Van Praag, B. and Sanchez, H. G. (2015). Mobile technology in second language classrooms: Insights into its uses, pedagogical implications, and teacher beliefs. ReCALL 27(3). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0958344015000075


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