2012: The Year Of English 2.0

2.012

“Technology” has been one of the hottest buzzwords in the world of education for a couple of decades now. Teachers, education authorities, multinational companies, entrepreneurs and investors around the world are waking up to the transformative possibilities of digital and online technologies applied to the learning process.

Likewise, the EFL/ESL conference circuit has shown a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for any presentation involving online platforms, podcasts, tweets, blogs, or mobile devices. No TESOL or IATEFL national chapter meeting or global conference these days is complete without a smorgasbord of talks showing how teachers of English can use new sites and services to drag their lessons kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

So I would suggest it’s time to formally recognize the new opportunities these technologies bring to the domain of English language teaching, and to mark their pedagogical importance, with a collective label. For no other reason than its widespread identification with evolved (i.e. interactive, socially connected, hardware-agnostic) digital networks, I humbly suggest English 2.0.

The term has an immediate weakness, which I am the first to admit: that of implying that the set of teaching advances represented by English 2.0 is solely focused on technology; on the medium. In this case, Marshall McLuhan was only partially right. The medium is indeed part of the message, but not all of it. I will explain why.

 

It has by now become a cliché to say that technology is just an educational enabler, not the objective of digitally enhanced teaching. Nevertheless, it’s healthy to remind ourselves that sound pedagogy must always be at the heart of the teaching endeavor. Always, always, we must maintain our focus on how technology can help implement those pedagogical principles, not substitute for them. If we can use that as our starting point, and if we think laterally about all the new things we can now do in language teaching instead of vertically about how technology can merely improve what we are already doing in the classroom, we can consider English 2.0 as following on from Grammar Translation, Audio Lingual / Structural Situational, Cognitive Code, and more recently the Communicative and Lexical approaches not as the latest in a series of pedagogical fads, but rather as a further step in our understanding of how additional languages are learned and what we can do to empower and facilitate that process.

Of course, there is always the temptation to over-reach, to ascribe to a new vision foundations that have in fact already been in place for some time. At its heart, even though so much of what it can achieve in scale is unprecedented, English 2.0 is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. As a pedagogical orientation, it builds on the more valid elements of those ELT methodologies that preceded it, in particular the Communicative and Lexical approaches.

This deep nod to Mssrs Chomsky, Nunan, Widdowson, Krashen, and Lewis (and even, in a way, to their distinguished critics, like Michael Swan) is reflected in the fact that English 2.0 is best understood as providing new, unprecedented facilitation and acceleration to the best of the past four decades of pedagogical advances in EFL/ESL; as well as adding new dimensions to them.

Some of these concepts – immediate personalized feedback and continuous positive reinforcement, to take two examples – have been seen and appreciated  in the past, but were hitherto used only in small-class or tutoring contexts and thus unavailable to the majority of learners. Other dimensions  encompassed by English 2.0, on the other hand, are totally new, such as the ability to connect the learner with a quasi-unlimited choice of current authentic input; the extent to which new online and mobile teaching platforms can extend EFL/ESL education to a vast “anywhere/anytime” arena, including transforming the whole notion of homework; and the ease with which these platforms can foster autonomy and intrinsic motivation in the learner. Another new dimension created by English 2.0 is the ability to effectively “gamify” EFL/ESL for learners, thus allowing the educator to replace the learning-unfriendly stress brought on by grades and pass/fail marks with learning-enhancing game-like reward systems and the social sharing of learning achievement.

There is one aspect to English 2.0 that might seem counter-intuitive at first. It is that this vision for language learning can completely and comfortably embrace stripped-down, “unplugged,” high-touch teaching methods like Dogme, which often are positioned in direct opposition to a learning-with-technology approach.

Unplugged ELT: not at all in opposition to English 2.0

Unplugged ELT: not at all in opposition to English 2.0

This is because English 2.0 fully recognizes that some things are best done by a human being spending time with other human beings in a physical space, such as a classroom. These areas include person-to-person unscripted discussion (i.e. “talking”); gentle pronunciation guidance; or communicated centered on local and present topics relevant to the learner and teacher.

Learners can only spend so much time in a fixed location with a teacher, however, and thus if we want to make the learning process faster and deeper we need to add out-of-classroom learning into the mix. It seems fair to say that this is where the new generation of networked, interactive digital resources and platforms can make a real difference. Compared with the textbooks of old, we can now give learners access to vast collections of authentic language samples (which in turn allows much lexical and grammar work to be contextual); allow them to explore language in a non-linear fashion; and achieve levels of intake frequency and repetition-with-variation that allow them to better lock vocabulary items and language usage principles into long-term memory.

In fact, there is more than mere parallelism to the relationship between online resources and Dogme-style teaching. It is precisely the ability to shift lesson components like Presentation and Drilling away from the classroom that allows more if not all classroom time to be dedicated to the high-touch methods and human-interactions principles on which the Dogme concept is based.

So we see that English 2.0 is not just a collection of technology tools, but rather a way of using assets like time, place and the teacher-learner (and learner-learner) relationship in new, more flexible, more creative and more productive ways.

This is the key thing to understand about English 2.0. It is a combination of the best of past pedagogical breakthroughs in linguistics; of a better understanding of how learners actually learn (including the latest advances in cognitive neuroscience); of a re-valued and enhanced role for the teacher and what his or her core function needs to be; and, yes, of technology to increase and optimize time spent learning. More than yet another “approach,” it is a spirit of openness, of adaptability, of trust in the learner’s capacity to become engaged in the learning process; and of ambition that we can harness the new communications tools and social networks around us to make learning a new language more enjoyable, effective and efficient. It is also a spirit of democratic access to learning, made possible by digital technology. For the first time ever, the ability to learn the global language of opportunity does not depend uniquely on the presence of qualified teachers in one’s school or home town, nor on the ability to afford language courses and expensive textbooks.

There is one additional facet of English 2.0 that is worth emphasizing. The digital revolution of the past 20 years has unfolded in the context of increasing globalization. Soon, if it hasn’t happened already, the number of speakers of English as a foreign or second language will surpass those who speak it as their native tongue. English 2.0 belongs to those born in the midst of this technology revolution. Digital natives tend not to have a marked preference for British English or American English, because all imaginable variants of English are reflected in the terabytes of input material now available to learners and reflected in the reality of everyday digital communication among speakers and learners of English across satellites and the Internet.

Learners today know that they want to be at least capable of understanding all forms and regional variants of English, from formal written business texts to the most informal verbal, regional slang, including idioms, acronyms and cultural references that will tend to pop up as they expand their roster of entertainment references and their circle of English-language conversation partners. Most of these learners will never develop a Texas drawl or even attempt to affect a Cockney’s dropped consonants, but they will benefit from knowing that one seldom actually “takes a bull by the horns” these days, and that being invited over to a London friend’s “Mickey Mouse” does not imply paying a visit to a Disney character. English 2.0 is World English. Not some neutered “globish” version of the language, but an all-inclusive appreciation for the vastness of English that encourages recognition and understanding of all its manifestations, even if we don’t use them ourselves in everyday discourse.

There is one last extraordinarily significant aspect of English 2.0, true to the significance of the “2.0” label, that bears mentioning: the extent to which blogs, Twitter, webinars, Facebook fan pages, and LinkedIn professional groups have allowed teachers everywhere to create Personal Learning Networks that help them become better teaching professionals as well as forming productive friendships with other educators. Whereas once a teacher in a small town might only hear about a new pronunciation approach or classroom management technique months or years after it had first been introduced somewhere, that information now reaches hundreds of thousands of EFL/ESL professionals around the world in seconds. Where once information was power; now it is the sharing of that information that confers status on the person sharing it. We have thus moved into an era where good teaching ideas circulate faster, productive experiments can be brought into practice more quickly, and great educational resources can be made available to both learners and teachers instantly and regardless of physical location.

A facet of English 2.0: Powerful Teacher Training and Sharing via PLN's

A facet of English 2.0: Powerful Teacher Training and Sharing via PLN’s

So, in conclusion, as we glide into 2012 and the 20th anniversary of the internet’s reaching “adulthood” via the standardization of the Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP) in 1982, let’s honor this landmark event in the history of human evolution via lending part of its nomenclature to the way we can finally start teaching English to reach the hundreds of millions of people who thirst for it, keeping all that is great about the best in EFL/ESL pedagogy; communicating it and sharing it among ourselves collaboratively;  and amplifying it through the power of personalization, context, creativity, emotion, choice, speed, interactivity, motivation, and community. Think “twice as good.” Think 2.0!

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3 Responses to 2012: The Year Of English 2.0

  1. Eric Roth says:

    You’ve written an excellent primer on how 2.0 technology allows greater individualized learner – and compliments “high-touch” teaching methods like Dogme. Thank you for writing down your perceptions, clearly organizing them in a persuasive manner, and sharing them with ESL/EFL teachers. Bravo!

  2. Anne Shabaya says:

    Nothing is more profound than what you have said; technology is definitely beckoning English educators to take action. Just the same way technology has impacted our daily lives; it should be optimized to impact our English language teaching. Thank you for bringing this to our knowledge in such a comprehensible way.

  3. Sharon says:

    While I agree that technology is good, the danger is that teachers are becoming too dependent on it.

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