Shining a light on the Irish ELT sector

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JohnWhipple2Digital ELT Ireland shone its light the Irish ELT sector for the third year in a row. Paul Sweeney from IATEFL Learning Technologies Special Interest Group has been making sure this happened since 2012 and it’s been a boon to the English language teachers and organisations in the Republic each year.  Marketing English in Ireland gave its blessing and did major work in coordination. The 1-year-old ELT IRELAND, born at the 2013 conference, publicized and put in manpower- or more accurately, womanpower- to make it all happen. Expect to see more and more from these guys.

 A LITTLE BIT OF IRISH (ELT) HISTORY

Previous to the Digital ELT Ireland, ELTOs in Ireland had few venues to talk about integrating technology outside a discussion in private school owner’s office. But they happened occasionally.
One occasion for ELT tech talk had a particularly big impact on me as a teacher: Gavin Dudeney came to speak on technology to the Celtic hordes in 2008. He was welcomed but his perspectives and suggestions seemed to the uninitiated either far out, too small or not suitable to the unique rather unique Irish ELTO. But I like a quite a few others took his suggestions back to my school. We did our best to implement them. It made me think hard about why and how to use technology for my classes.

Irish ELT is dominated by privately owned English language schools. Irish ELT is unique. It happens in the only European country where everyone speaks English and lives outside of the UK. We don’t use US materials and should be a tech-friendly teacher’s paradise as the EU home of Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter… etc. It’s an interesting place to be a part of.

GUSHING ABOUT GAVIN

6 years later I was grinning at the prospect of Gavin Dudeney coming back. His That’SLife blog was a touchstone for me. It was well written, deeply informed, powerfully personal and critical. It was an example of how and why ELT needs to be experimental and decisive about how it deals with the slow, irreversible changes happening to education.

His talk didn’t disappoint. He chose to go right back to the hard topics: the publisher’s strategies for staying relevant and powerful, the weakening of their relationships with teachers and teaching, their focused efforts to be a part of the assessment process, the need for schools and teachers to focus on pedagogy and maintain their informed skepticism of the salesmen. His plenary was a valuable survey of the critics and voices pointing out the edtech bluster and outright guff.

These voices are not Luddites or anti-tech teachers. They are well-read, active researchers in technology with years in ELT. They are not looking for a product to champion or sell. Like many working English language teachers, they are looking to hold ELT to its potential. Dudeney’s choices showed he continues to be a rare and valuable voice. And just like in 2008 he also kept things connected to the work we do in classrooms and staffrooms.

His Sunday workshop balanced the talk with the walk.  It was practical for nearly all levels of technical confidence. Elements could be used by teachers in any of the various learning scenarios the attendees may lead over the next year: classes in schools, out of schools, one-to-ones, online… ELT is lucky to still have him around.

COMING IN FROM THE COLD

But he wasn’t alone. The speakers in the 2014 conference defied the picture presented in last year’s survey Digital ELT Ireland survey of Teachers and Technology.

A significant, albeit accidental, finding of that survey was the isolation in which most English language teachers work. Teachers in Ireland have to take risks to be connected to each other. Schools compete in a mature market often to the detriment of collaboration and connection- perhaps the greatest advantage the Internet brings working teachers.

Digital ELT Ireland is a welcome relief from the isolation. Teachers from the fiercely competitive Dublin schools and as well as the innovative and apparently more open schools from the west of the country came together, let down their guard ever so slightly and gave each other a bit of time. We all sat back to hear the experiences, insights and ideas of English language teaching professionals from on and off our little island. What happens between the presenter’s microphone and the back row at the plenary is just as important as what happens in the over the coffee table at the break. It’s at these events we see ourselves and talk. The only pity is that it happens just once a year.

HOME AND AWAY

Two other plenary spots followed Gavin’s: Dr Nellie Deutsch and Sylvia Guinan. Sylvia seemed more deeply involved in ELT and her talk challenged many conference goers in a couple of ways. She teaches principally online, a difficult prospect for many teachers and a challenge to how they get their paycheck.

Sylvia left Ireland years ago for Greece. Her presentation seemed cobbled together from a variety of sources reflecting the messy online world she and other online teachers are trying to tame. The slides were colorful, plentiful and went seemingly in every direction: inspirational, inclusive, bursting with sites to try, ideas to recast… I was slightly bewildered to start. But sitting down to review the notes afterwards it was one of the richest presentations. There were good solid ideas to try as well as a host of ideas to debate and consider. Her self-belief and resultant ability to make a living on a Greek island (and afford to have kids!) was inspirational in itself for professionals whose work is often regarded as flippantly as minding a till behind the counter of a Christmas pop-up shop. She showed that it is possible to start over online if you put in the time, build the network and stick with it. Challenging, a little messy but committed.



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