'Ping Pong' by Max Braun, https://flic.kr/p/4FGkoG

Table tennis and tech boosterism at the English Australia Conference 2014

'Ping Pong' by Max Braun, https://flic.kr/p/4FGkoG

‘Ping Pong’ by Max Braun, https://flic.kr/p/4FGkoG

The highlight of the 2014 English Australia Conference for me was Adrian Underhill: the sheer delight that he takes in just about everything was both entertaining and inspiring. During his Friday morning session on ‘demand high’ teaching, he spoke of what I’m going to call a ‘multi-pong’ approach to teaching (bear with me!). That’s pong as in ping pong, i.e. teacher-student interaction in the classroom can be like a game of ping pong.

Teaching is often of the ‘single pong’ variety:

  1. The teacher directs a question to one student – ‘Juan, what did you get for question 2?’ (ping!)
  2. Student responds (pong!)
  3. Teacher asks another student about the next question (ping!)
  4. Student responds (pong!)

The alternative suggested by Underhill involved just one ping followed by a succession of pongs as a range of possible responses bounce around the room, rather than just a single, ‘right’ answer.

There’s also a multi-pong effect at conferences, and, apart from the interactions with friends and colleagues, I think this is what I enjoy most about conferences. For example, Tess Julian spoke about innovation and how from little things (e.g. being helpful) big things grow (an innovation culture) – ping! Then at the end of the day, Underhill spoke of the learning organisation, and the importance of feedback, systems thinking and how seemingly small things (a bunch of teachers at a language school attending a counselling course together) can lead to big things (an organisation in which people are really good at listening to each other and is like an ‘adventure land of learning for everyone’) – pong!

In this way, the true, deeper themes of a conference reveal themselves over the course of the event. Following Underhill’s argument about systems thinking, they’re emergent, a function of the system itself (the system being the relationship between all the different parts – speakers, content, delegates, venue) and cannot be imposed or predicted.

The official theme was quality. It seemed to me that there was a tendency to conflate it with innovation, an impression reinforced by the strong emphasis on technology. I went to most of the sessions described in Mark Pegrum’s post (and also participated in one of them) and came away with the sense that, when it comes to technology in ELT, managers and those responsible for curriculum aren’t really in the game yet. Rather, teachers are left to work things out (or ‘innovate’?) for themselves. This is illustrated by the parade of apps and websites that continued throughout the conference: Moodle, Apple, Samsung, VideoScribe, Tellagami, Padlet, Quizlet, Kahoot, Socrative, Voxer, Voki, Google Classroom, Fotobabble, Penultimate (how many of these, by the way, will still be around or free by the time of the 2015 conference?).

‘Old computer technology: ‘floppies” by Daan Berg, https://flic.kr/p/8i1G3Y

But what impact do these tools really have on quality experiences and outcomes for learners? From my perspective, these crucial aspects tended to get lost amidst the tech boosterism: the focus was much more on what teachers do with them. Or, more precisely, what teachers can do with them. Speakers would present a tool and talk about how it could be used, rather than what actual learners actually do with them and how this impacts on their learning. I think the reality most likely is that none of us – and, from the evidence at the conference, ELT managers perhaps least of all – can say with much confidence how it all impacts on learning and what it means for quality beyond anecdotes, assumptions and ideology.

One example that came up of management involvement in technology related to banning the use of Facebook for interacting with classes and students. Contrary to apparently common beliefs that sharing stuff online is good for students or that pixels are better than paper, management were perhaps right to take action in this case but, generally, to do so without making clear what the issues are – perhaps management themselves don’t really understand what they are? – isn’t very helpful for anyone. In keeping with the principles of the learning organisation which Underhill spoke of, an alternative approach would be to take teachers seriously when they say they want to use Facebook, involve them in a proper evaluation of it and discuss the issues without pre-determining the outcome. Such a process will help to educate all the stakeholders on the pros and cons and help individuals to practice systems thinking – as a teacher, Facebook might be a great solution, but what are the wider implications? Echoing comments made by David Graddol in his plenary talk on Thursday, who’s benefiting?

Graddol in fact was the only speaker to my knowledge who struck a clear pessimistic note regarding technology and education. He brought to the surface niggling doubts about the agendas of Big Ed multi-nat corporations like Pearson – they’re investing hugely in technologies which aim to devolve to algorithms at least some of the key tasks currently performed by teachers. He also expressed some sympathy for Chomsky’s view that:

Globalization is the result of powerful governments, especially that of the United States, pushing trade deals and other accords [and educational technology? – KS] down the throats of the worlds [sic] people to make it easier for corporations and the wealthy to dominate the economies of nations around the world without having obligations to the peoples of those nations. (1999, ‘Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and the Global Order’)

Is this a neoliberal conspiracy? No, it’s just business. However, if it seems a bit paranoid, check this out.

This is why I’d be happy to see us moving beyond the current stage of teachers incessantly plugging Google (‘We must learn the knowledge from the Googels’) and dismissing criticism as neoliberal conspiracy theories, to a stage where the wise elders of our industry/profession are engaging more directly with the messiness of educational technology and supporting the pursuit of good practice amongst those who are keen to experiment.

As one form of justification for the tech boosterism, references were made here and there to digital literacies, one of which surely is good old-fashioned critical literacy. Sadly, though, it seems to be a bit unfashionable in the face of a whole bunch of new literacies. For example, one speaker had a slide that said, ‘I don’t work for Google, Google works for me’. I’m not sure I can imagine a teacher at conference proudly saying that of any other corporation, especially one that generates over 90% of its revenue from advertising. Why do we assume that Google is a special case? Why should they get the benefit of the doubt? Is it because of their ‘Don’t be evil’ motto? Or because people write books with titles like ‘What Would Google Do?’? Or is it because they genuinely deserve our trust? From my perspective, it’s a common blindspot. There was plenty more of the same about Google at the NEAS Conference this year, along with similar amazement at Uber, despite ample evidence – including articles published that very day – that we should be wary.

It will be interesting to see how technology is dealt with at the EA and NEAS Conferences next year. I’m hoping to see evidence of an increased problematising of technology in education and a greater emphasis on its impact on learning experiences and outcomes. What’s just as likely, though, is that we’ll hear about Google Classroom, the fruits of the partnerships between Knewton and CUP, Macmillan, Cengage and Pearson, and a whole new slew of apps and websites.

Letter to my local MP, Wayne Swan, about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers

I’ve just sent this email to Wayne Swan. Not much, I know but I needed to do something.

Dear Mr Swan,

I’m writing out of sadness, frustration and disgust at the treatment, at a federal level, of asylum seekers.

I despair in general at the degenerate state of Australian political leadership currently – something which I believe Tony Abbott in particular has to answer for. In every single portfolio area, his government is failing the country dismally in its pursuit of ideology and its narrow focus on sectional interests.

However, the issue of our treatment of asylum seekers in the name of ‘border security’ and ‘the public interest’ is of particular concern to me. Events of the last 24 hours (during which Scott Morrison claimed on ABC’s 7:30 that all is well on Christmas Island and questioned the integrity of Gillian Triggs and immigration officials demonstrated an appalling failure in their duty of care; particularly for the children for whom they are responsible), not to mention the missing Vietnamese refugees in South Australia, the entire period since the 2013 election or the entire post-Tampa period, leave me feeling utterly dismayed.

How can people be treated with such callousness and how can we as a society allow our public servants to conduct themselves with such contempt for our fellow human beings? This kind of treatment would not be tolerated in other institution in Australia, be it a family, a business, a church, a prison, a hospital, or a school – why should we tolerate it any further from our Immigration Department? How can we permit such an egregious double standard? I don’t think ‘state-sanctioned abuse’ is an unreasonable description of what’s being done to our fellow human beings.

I also think that DIBP as employers are failing their own employees by asking them to participate in such treatment – surely it must be taking an emotional toll on them? What of their mental health? Why should it be acceptable for an employer to place an employee in the position that Martin Bowles and co were in today, for example? Is that not negligent?

I am deeply saddened and offended that our elected officials could tolerate this, let alone actively and unashamedly pursue it as policy. I’d like to ask you two things:

1. Is there any action that I could take, in your opinion, that would be a constructive response to this?

2. Could you please do everything in your power to bring attention to this, and increase pressure on all our politicians – LNP, ALP, Greens and PUP – to end this shameful treatment of asylum seekers?

Yours sincerely, Kyle Smith.

Collected thoughts on Sugata Mitra at IATEFL

In one sense, for me, it all started with this tweet:

(BTW why didn’t he do a Q&A session immediately afterwards?)

It came up in my timeline, quickly followed by others like this one:

And this:

I think it was around this point that I watched Mitra’s talk and then read Wiktor’s blog post in which he said this: “Clearly, when you ask about how learning can improve – and try to discuss the future of education – you’re becoming very unpopular.” This was problematic because not only did Wiktor apparently not question Mitra’s constant assumptions and generalisations (e.g. all ‘good’ teachers in India want to live in Delhi*), but he was piling on more assumptions and generalisations: that the negative reaction to Mitra’s talk was because we were ‘not prepared to have our minds changed’ and we were ‘expecting to hear that the lessons we’re teaching are just fine’. 

There were several other blog posts and many tweets along similar lines. Another common theme (along with the implication that some of us ELTers were scared of the ugliness we might see if we looked in the pedagogical mirror) was that we were scared of losing our jobs or becoming obsolete. By this time it probably would have been wise to disconnect and do some gardening or something constructive but instead I decided to vent my growing frustration:

I think that the criticism of Mitra is easily misunderstood as simple concern abt job losses when the concern really is much broader and deeper: teachers applauding the further encroachment of neoliberal ideology into education under the superficially appealing guise of ‘learnification’, with no real evidence [given] or asked for. What are Mitra’s education credentials really? His background seems more that of a technologist. Also, Microsoft are one of Schools in the Cloud’s key partners – what do they stand to gain frm Mitra’s edtech advocacy? These are the questions which get lost when Ts stand and applaud Mitra & dismiss critics as simply being afraid of losing their jobs or having to [face] the reality that they’re obsolete and/or ineffective.

A couple of themes in post-Mitra IATEFL discussion that are really starting to grate: 1) That if I reject Mitra’s evangelism that I’m having difficulty dealing with having my beliefs and practices challenged. Sanctimonious garbage. 2) The suggestion that we should at the very least be grateful to Mitra for triggering this debate. Rubbish. It’s proved to be needlessly polarising and I think that’s largely due to the disingenuous and simplistic nature of Mitra’s IATEFL talk – so much glossed over and taken for granted. It’s also an insult to the great work of many others in our profession and PLNs to suggest that we needed Mitra to lead us forward to the promised land of student-centred education.

Many of the ‘others’ had presented earlier in the conference and I wondered, “If we want to give standing ovations to academics who are making us think deeply about troubling questions, why not David Graddol?” It is a bit unfortunate that all the ‘debate’ about Mitra’s talk distracted from issues raised in Graddol’s plenary. (As an aside: Mitra came to IATEFL after TED. Do you think Graddol would get a TED gig if he wanted one?)

Then there was the #eltchat during which:


My response was:

Who says it IS a choice between grannies and nothing or even Ts who aren’t good enough for Delhi? I think that’s a faulty proposition. There are perhaps other ways to address inequality in India or elsewhere  and, more than anything, it takes political will. We shouldn’t swallow the economic rationalist argument that there isn’t enough money to fund public education properly so we’ll let private interests ‘disrupt’ it. Rather than reducing inequality in education, there’s a chance that Mitra’s proposition will actually serve to further entrench it. 

I elaborated on that in a blog comment:

One of the prominent themes in the discourse of edtech-as-a-movement is the inevitability of reducing expenditure on education globally. It comes up again and again, often accompanied with references to the global financial crisis. If something like that is repeated often enough, the result is what Freeden calls an “impenetrable and non-transparent shield of self-evidence” (quoted by Neil Selwyn, in Distrusting Educational Technology). That shield could also be called ideology and there is a strong ideological, neoliberalist imperative for reducing public expenditure on education and allowing private enterprise to take over.

But I don’t see it as inevitable that nations should be reducing expenditure on education. I see it as just one possible government response to changing demographic and economic circumstances but, again, that ideological shield of self-evidence masks this. In the case of Australia, where I’m from, our government could reduce funding for education to help address our budget deficit. Or it could raise the GST to generate additional funds for education – if it feels that widening access to high quality education is a high enough priority for the nation. Or it could increase the tax burden on coal-fired electricity generators. And so on and so on.

To link this discussion to another heated discussion that’s arisen out of the IATEFL conference, the inevitability of reduced expenditure on education was also a theme of Sugata Mitra’s talk. If you assume that, globally, the ability of governments to fund public education is decreasing, then Mitra’s work might seem like a very pragmatic and innovative response. To me, even if I accept that assumption, there’s a sour note of fatalism in what Mitra is saying: we can’t afford to invest in good teachers, so let’s try to get by without them. Shouldn’t we be calling for a change of economic priorities and INCREASED public funding of education?

This criticism of Mitra and edtech more broadly does not imply that education in its current form cannot be improved. I think the key point, which is easily missed in discussions of edtech, is that we should really be asking what education could be globally if we TRULY made it a priority and funded it properly, as opposed to surrendering it to private enterprise in the midst of neoliberal post-GFC rhetoric. If we really want a more equitable world, where everyone has access to high quality education and the economic opportunities that provides, should our governments and we as citizens not take more responsibility?


A bit of background: When the IATEFL Harrogate program first came out, I saw that Mitra was on it but wasn’t particularly interested in watching his talk. I watched his TED Talk and read his TED Book about two years ago, and at the time I found it all quite thrilling. If he’d spoken at IATEFL a year or two ago I probably would have responded very differently.

However, my perspective on educational technology really changed earlier this year though following the #AusELT chat with Scott Thornbury. It made me question some of my assumptions and encouraged me to read Philip Kerr’s blog posts on adaptive learning in ELT. Before doing that, I thought I knew what adaptive learning was all about – reading Kerr’s posts I realised that I didn’t have a clue. I then went on to read Neil Selwyn’s Distrusting Educational Technology. I’m currently reading Joel Spring’s Education NetworksThese are both books that I think are highly relevant to the discussion of Sugata Mitra’s talk and educational technology in general – I strongly urge anyone interested enough to read this post to read at least one of them.

On page 7 of Distrusting Educational Technology, Selwyn writes:

So why do so many intelligent and well-meaning people appear to suspend their disbelief when it comes to digital technology and education? Is educational technology really…a ‘consensual hallucination’ on the part of techno-romantic educationalists? Is educational technology a bold but ultimately doomed attempt by those who are brave enough to ‘dare to dream’ of a better educational future? In my mind, it is all too easy for the critical onlooker to excuse the field of educational technology in these forgiving terms

The standing ovation following Mitra’s talk seemed to me to be a startlingly vivid realisation of this ‘consensual hallucination’ (although I’m sure not everyone who applauded could be described as ‘techno-romantic’).

'Untitled' by Akue, https://flic.kr/p/i7p5Rw

‘Untitled’ by Akue, https://flic.kr/p/i7p5Rw

[* Lindsay Clandfield ripped into this one in his blog commentWhat if this thinking were extended to other professions? e.g. We know it’s difficult to get good doctors in remote places. We know it’s difficult to get good cops in remote places. We know it’s difficult to get good services in remote places. If we look to replacing these human services with tech fixes that enable us to keep the good teachers, doctors, cops etc in the wealthier cities then what are we doing to our citizens in remote places?]

My favourite blogposts on this topic:


Developmental stages: Why would anybody be a Dos?

I wrote this in May last year but didn’t get around to posting it.

Recently I was reading this summary of a May 2011 #eltchat on what makes a good DoS and was particularly struck by this: “given the difficulties and poor financial reward, why would anybody be a DoS?!” Why, indeed? It’s a commonly-expressed sentiment, usually put simply to me as”Better you than me.” In the hope of making the prospect of becoming academic manager of an Australian ELICOS college seem more appealing, I’d like to give my answer to that question, “Why would anybody be a DoS?”

I’ve just completed one year in my first DoS role and these words have come back to me many times. It probably sounds a bit scary, but I would also say the same thing about teaching: early on, I found it extremely challenging on a number of levels, and I seriously considered packing it in; after six months, I started to relax a bit, and began to actually enjoy it! Those are the two extremes: terror and joy. It’s mostly not like that, of course; there’s a great deal in-between.

  • Before becoming a DoS, I’d spent a bit of time as an Acting DoS; I’d guess this is a common experience for DoSes. My time as Acting DoS added up to seven weeks and included a four-week stint. By the end of that period, I’d decided I knew what DoSing was about and I didn’t like it very much; my experience of the job boiled down to numbers: student numbers, room numbers, capacities, limits, targets, numbers of students starting, numbers of students finishing, and phone numbers (for relief teachers). By the time I’d gotten through the first six months in my current DoS role, though, I’d realised that as an Acting DoS I’d had to deal with the all the worst aspects of the role and none of the best. Now as DoS, the ‘numbers stuff’ generally doesn’t worry me – I get it done and then I’ve got time and energy to focus on the aspects of the role that attracted me to it in the first place: improving the experience and outcomes for students, contributing to teachers’ professional development and helping to raise teachers’ morale.
  • (With ever-decreasing frequency) I’ve longed many times to return to the simplicity, purity of teaching. Now I’ve (mostly) got to grips with DoSing, if I really want to teach, I can make it happen very easily! This week, for example, I’d spent hours evaluating newly-developed A1-level materials and realised I’d completely lost perspective on what A1 learners were capable of so I arranged with a teacher to take her one-hour A1 grammar lesson. She observed me and kindly said afterwards that she’d learnt a couple of useful things. I learnt that I can actually still teach (not sure about other DoSes but I worry about that sometimes) and also gained a better understanding of what our A1 learners are capable of and the likely effectiveness of the materials we’re developing.
  • At the beginning, I also just wanted to feel competent and professionally adequate again; I hated the feeling of not knowing whether I was any good. Of course, I had exactly the same feelings when I started teaching: I thought fondly of my call centre job and how simple it was – just me, the phone, the computer and the customer!
  • I’ve often felt out of my depth, especially regarding the HR aspects of the role. Maybe it’s not such a great thing that many academic managers don’t have any formal HR training, but then many university lecturers don’t have any teacher training and manage to be very effective. I’ve had a lot of HR ‘firsts’ – the first contract I drew up, the first senior teacher I hired, the first teacher I fired, the first performance appraisal I conducted, the first senior teacher meeting I ran – but once you’ve done something once, you’ve done it and you’ve acquired some experience you can build on.
  • One of the biggest challenges has been developing a DoS ‘voice’, particularly at staff meetings. At the end of last year, one of my colleagues mentioned my tendency to say “Perhaps we should…” at senior teacher meetings – I wasn’t aware of it, but it was a very useful piece of feedback and I think I’ve greatly improved the way I run those meetings since that comment. I realised around the same time that to sound like I was in control, I had to actually be in control. Initially my meetings were unstructured and others did most of the talking; following the “Perhaps…” feedback, I established a more formal structure to the meetings and ensured they happened every week by moving them from the busiest time of the day (first thing in the morning) to the afternoon. As a result, the meetings are much more effective.
To sum up, the aspects of being a DoS that are most apparent to others seem to be those which are least appealing; it’s perhaps hard to get a sense of how rewarding the role can be until you’re in it. There is certainly a steep learning curve, but that’s true of teaching and, in fact, most things in life that are really worth doing. But along with that learning curve, there are amazing opportunities to develop professionally and personally.

PD Fest, March 16 2013: Catching Up & Getting Ahead or How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love Twitter

These are the links to accompany my presentation at English Australia PD Fest. If you came along to my presentation, drop me a line – I’d love to hear from you!

My Prezi


New Media Consortium (thanks @trylingual for sharing last year’s Horizon Report with me)














Nik Peachey




Digital Literacies

http://connectedprincipals.com/archives/7773 – What is Digital Literacy?



Using Evernote in the classroom


Damien Herlihy & Zeke Pottage’s VoiceThread on using VoiceThread in the classroom






George Siemens & Connectivism (thanks again to @trylingual for introducing me to connectivism last year)


Cisco & the Internet of Everything