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Interview: Plug into the digital zeitgeist

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Digital tools for the classroom should be ‘quick and dirty’, focusing on four key areas, Thomas Strasser tells Melanie Butler

An academic once told me that if you think long enough, you can explain anything simply. If you can’t explain it simply, you haven’t thought about it hard enough.

I am sure Thomas Strasser would agree. The Hochschulprofessor für Fremdsprachendidaktik und technologieunterstütztes Lehren/Lernen, to give him his full title, this Viennese professor must have spent many hours thinking.

He specialises in the use of technology in the language classroom and if his latest book, Mind the App! 2.0, is anything to go by, he has perfected the art of explaining things simply.

Even I, over 60 and barely able to use a smartphone, was able to follow his instructions on how to make a quiz. I wrote to congratulate him. He was impeccably polite.

‘Thank you so much, much appreciated.’

But when asked how he fell in love with teaching with technology, his answer was firm:

‘I did not fall in love with technology but with methodology.

‘That is why I always emphasise the “educational” in Edtech because we should always exploit digital tools methodologically and never focus too much on the “bling bling” of digital tools.’

I asked him about his first experience of taking technology into the language classroom.

‘Among the first tools I tried in the classroom were Hot Potatoes and JClic. They were pretty cool software-based tools that generated multiple choice quizzes or matching exercises.

The problem was: you had to be a very tech-savvy and patient teacher in order to set up simple interactive quiz formats. It took you ages to produce a simple digital cloze exercise.’

But things have changed. These days even old technophobes like me can handle the latest software offerings.

‘Nowadays digital tools are far more dynamic, user-friendly, interactive and intuitive, like Learning Apps or Kahoot, for example.’ So what makes a good classroom app? For Strasser the answer always comes back to methodology, what actually works in a classroom and what can help kids to learn.

‘I am developing a taxonomy that sheds light on quality criteria of browser-based educational apps.

It’s a work in progress. But, in a nutshell: digital tools should be quick and dirty focusing on collaboration, communication, reflection and creation.

‘Eduapps have become an integral part of modern foreign language teaching they should not be seen as just an incentive for students.’

Strasser champions the use of mobile phones in the classroom. He dismisses teachers that say students using them will just switch off in the lesson or go on Facebook.

‘It’s important to stress that mobile phones should not be some kind of pars-pro-toto scapegoat.

They are not responsible for every learning/teaching failure. Students also switched off in analogue times.

‘It‘s always a question of methodological design of your lesson: if your lesson is boring, learners will drift away, with or without smartphones.’

Strasser thinks we should drop our prejudices against mobile phones and follow the evidence.

‘Research says that the dominant form of media consumption among teenagers/young learners is mobile but unfortunately our educational system does not reflect this.

‘Why shouldn‘t you use mobile devices in the EFL-classroom? They are more or less a vital component of many young learners’ everyday lives.’

The media environment has drastically changed and 21st century learners constantly use their smartphones for knowledge creation and curation.

‘Apps like Spreaker, for podcasting or Lyricstraining, which involves learning a language with music, have been shown to motivate students.

This is especially true with inhibited students. Using technology that fits in with a young learner‘s zeitgeist enables them to perform well, both productively and receptively.’

But what would Strasser take with him if he was sent to teach on a desert island, and was only allowed to take one resource?

His answer is simple: ‘Evernote. It‘s my digital brain in the cloud. Ubiquitous and encrypted access to my creative pool.’

Thomas Strasser is the author of Mind the App! 2.0 published by Helbling. He works at the Pädagogische Hochschule in Vienna, Austria.