Needs and challenges for online language teachers – the ECML project DOTS


The growing use of digital technologies in educatio nal settings, paralleled by a paradigm change in educational theory from an instructivist transmi sion approach to constructivist and sociocultural theories of learning, demands more ad apted teacher training programs, both technical and pedagogical. Looking at factors influ encing teachers’ implementation of ICT in the foreign language classroom and guided by the re sults of a needs analysis survey conducted among twenty six language teachers from twenty five different European countries, the DOTS project aims to develop an online workspace with bi te-s zed learning objects for autonomous Teaching English with Technology – Developing Online Teaching Skills Special Issue, 10(2), 5-20. 6 use by language professionals, particularly freelan ce teachers who frequently miss out on the training opportunities provided for their full-time colleagues. 1. Using ICT in language teaching With the development of digital technologies over t he past decades, the possibilities for learning and teaching languages have changed dramat ic lly, and a plethora of ICT tools allow for a more learner-centred approach and an increase d focus on interaction among students and between students and teachers. This links in with a par digm change in educational theory from an instructivist transmission approach to cons tructivist and sociocultural theories of learning which are informed by pedagogical principl es such as interaction, collaboration, learner control, and community. A report on a Europ e-wide survey on the impact of ICT in teaching and learning foreign languages (Fitzpatric k and Davies, 2003) argues that this change also needs to be reflected in changing teach er/learner roles. Yet while the use of digital technologies in educat ional settings has been growing and teachers increasingly use computer-assisted languag e le rning (CALL) in their classrooms, pedagogical developments have not always kept pace with this. This is particularly true in relation to the use of interactive and collaborativ e Web 2.0 tools such as forums, blogs and wikis. The European Parliament and the Council of Europe r ecommend eight key competences for every citizen of the knowledge soci ety (The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, 2006): 1) communication in the mother tongue; 2) communication in foreign languages; 3) mathematical competence and basic competences in sc ience and technology; 4) digital competence; 5) learning to learn; 6) social and civic competences; 7) sense of initiative and entrepreneurship; 8) cultural awareness and expression. (p. 13). Several of these competences are directly or indire ctly related to language learning and the use of ICT, namely communication in the mother tongue and in foreign languages (cf. points 1 and 2), digital and technological competen ce (cf. points 3 and 4), learning to learn (cf. point 5) and intercultural and social competences ( f. points 6 and 8). Teaching English with Technology – Developing Online Teaching Skills Special Issue, 10(2), 5-20. 7 In the preamble to the language policy of the EU la nguages in particular are seen as ‘a basic building block’ in the European Union’s effor ts to contribute “to the development of quality education by promoting citizens’ mobility, designing joint study programmes, establishing networks, exchanging information, and through a commitment to lifelong learning”, thus enabling its citizens to take advan tage of the educational opportunities created by an integrated Europe ( policy/index_en.htm). In 2009 the EU Education Council also highlighted t he role that teachers have in promoting languages ( policy/index_en.htm). The Lisbon strategy emphasises the need to “take steps to ensure that all the teachers involved are qualified in the use of these [new] technologies” ( n.htm). It is crucial, however, that training should go beyond the acquisition of techni al skills and include the pedagogical implementation of such skills in the language class room. As Hubbard and Levy (2006, ix) stress: “there is a need for both technical and ped agogical training in CALL, ideally integrated with one another”. In order to do this successfully , teachers first and foremost need to develop and continually enhance these competences themselve s, and they need to be equipped with the skills to independently acquire new knowledge a nd pply this knowledge in their teaching. The need for development of teacher training is par ticularly pressing for freelance language teachers [ 1] in higher, adult, and vocational education. Langu age professionals in these areas often do not require a teaching qualifi cation, and the training programmes that are available do not necessarily include the use of ICT . While there is no shortage of good online materials for online teaching of languages (e.g. ), much effort and cost in creating online language learning material is wasted without the ad quate training of teachers to use it. To ensure that both teachers and learners have access to online technologies and new ways of learning, the time-constraints of part-time staff n eed to be taken into account and more justin-time training opportunities need to be developed , providing teachers with general training in the use of ICT and supporting them with specific training in online teaching and learning of languages. 2. Language teachers and ICT: institutional, social and professional constraints Three major factors need to be considered in relati on o language teachers’ interest and motivation in using ICTs in their classes: Teaching English with Technology – Developing Online Teaching Skills Special Issue, 10(2), 5-20. 8 • the type of institution(s) where they work • their social status • their self-perception as a teacher. 2.1. The type of institution The teaching environment of a particular institutio n determines to what extent language teachers are expected to use ICT in their teaching and to what extent it is genuinely feasible for them to integrate online teaching into their cl asses. The institutional expectations may be established within a pedagogical framework, but the successful implementation of these is dependent both on the technical environment and the institutional support provided (see Maver, this volume). On the one hand, the amount of computers and types of applications available to teachers and students are crucial poin ts. On the other hand, institutional help in the form of ICT training programmes and pedagogical support is crucial for overcoming the anxiety and fear of some teachers concerning the us e and the usefulness of online teaching (Karasavvidis, 2009). While we can still find a cer tain amount of institutional resistance towards online teaching, this is expected to dimini sh over time as new generations of teachers and students emerge, for whom the use of ICT is the norm and not the exception. 2.2. Teachers’ social status While the institutional environment plays an import ant role, teachers’ social status often proves to be the decisive factor in integrating (mo re) online teaching into their classes. Johnson (1997) states that [t]eachers in many national contexts – some would s ay in most – tend to be underpaid and overworked, often operating in difficult physical a nd psychological conditions. The occupation of EFL/ESL teaching as a whole lacks the status of established professions such as medicine and law. Many teachers work without job security or ben efits. (p. 682) Vielau (2001) describes the precarious professional situation of freelance language teachers at German adult education colleges and que stions whether these institutions should expect professionalism from their freelance languag e teachers if they cannot guarantee any job security. The author concludes that in a rapidl y changing world in which the educational sector often suffers from severe under-financing, f reelance language teachers should see their status as permanent rather than transitional and co sequently adopt a professional attitude towards their teaching which includes an awareness of the importance of qualifications and the quality of their work. Teaching English with Technology – Developing Online Teaching Skills Special Issue, 10(2), 5-20. 9 However, given the time and financial constraints o ften experienced by freelance language teachers, there are undoubtedly fewer oppo rtunities for (self-) training and (self-) development in the use of ICT than for fully-employ ed language teachers who have access to their institution’s financial, pedagogical and tech nical resources. 2.3. Teachers’ self perception In the plenary talk at the 2010 IATEFL conference, T ssa Woodward (2010) addressed the topic of “The Professional Life Cycles of Teachers” . Based mainly on work by Huberman (1989), Woodward suggests that teachers pass throug different stages in their professional lives and in their self-perception as teachers; sta ges which include experimentation and activism as well as reassessment and self-doubt. It seems that teachers who consistently invest in classroom experiments are more likely to be sati sfied in later stages of their professional life cycles than their peers who focus their effort s on school-wide or district-wide activities. The implications of these findings for the purpose f this article are twofold. Firstly, the model of a professional life cycle can help lan guage teachers to become aware of their self-perception as teachers and subsequently decide to invest in their self-development in order to actively combat disengagement and burn-out . This may well lead to more teachers experimenting with ICT in order to discover ways in which online teaching can enhance their teaching. Secondly, teacher educati