Practical lesson considerations The utility and futility of digital media

Conventional media are passé.
Conventional media are passé. | Photo: © Gabric – plainpicture/Millennium

There are plenty of tips recommending particular apps and other digital media. Rather than considering merely their individual application, however, it is more important to think carefully about the context in which such media might be useful and how best to incorporate them into lessons. The following offers some guidance based on experience gained at the IDT 2017.
 

The subject of “Teaching and learning – with digital support” proved extremely popular at the 2017 International Conference of German Teachers (IDT) in Fribourg. The mere fact that this was the section with the most contributions speaks volumes. Learners around the world are increasingly well-equipped with digital and Internet-capable devices; the use of mobile devices is changing their access to knowledge and thus also to learning processes. These powerful and ever more compact computers are our constant companions wherever we go, and are dominating our everyday lives to a growing extent. Consequently, teachers have already been asking themselves for many years how they should address these developments in their lessons. The pros and cons of digital media continue to be a matter of some controversy among teachers of German as a foreign language. New ideas and suggestions for the classroom were presented at the IDT in Fribourg.

What is meant by digital media in the classroom?

Digital media are “highly versatile technical devices that are not limited to a particular kind. This is a category that is in a state of constant flux” (Müller/Serth 2012: 5). When talking about digital media in foreign language teaching, we can distinguish between three categories:
 
Are the digital media being used to make the lesson content more interesting and to supplement it with up-to-date information? Does this involve for example a change in media from an overhead projector to an interactive whiteboard with a view to presenting Internet content? The Internet can be used in the classroom to gain easy access to German-speaking countries. No matter where they live, learners can obtain up-to-the-minute insights at any time.

Drawing – on a whiteboard or paper – is timeless. Drawing – on a whiteboard or paper – is timeless. | Photo: © Maskot – plainpicture Or are we using digital media in a bid to make exercises more fun and their impact more lasting, packaging them up in such a way that they have a more motivating effect on learners? Practising new structures and vocabulary is an important part of the language acquisition process, and one that often poses a challenge for teachers and learners in terms of maintaining motivation. Digital media can help promote autonomous learning by providing more nuanced exercise types and can increase motivation through digital cooperative games.

Or are the digital media being employed to encourage interaction between learners and to give them the chance to learn cooperatively with one another, either in or outside the classroom setting? As such, digital media bring about a change in lesson didactics and methodologies, meaning that new models and formats will have to be worked out. Teachers need to think about the skills that will be suitable for an online or classroom phase, and how the two phases can best be interlinked and coordinated so as to enhance the learning process.

What are the advantages of using digital media in the classroom?

Different applications were discussed in detail at the IDT, with numerous examples being presented from all over the world – highlighting the very different circumstances that teachers face in their respective countries.
 
Before the lesson: Teachers can use a variety of online materials to prepare their lessons more efficiently and better customize them to the needs of the learners. Once created, materials no longer simply gather dust in a cupboard but can be adapted, improved and shared time and time again.
 
During the lesson: Although the teacher’s role changes as a result of digital media, it is still of central importance in the learning process. The teacher defines the learning goal and enables learners to reach this goal by designing learning processes such that they can be prepared and taught in a nuanced and learner-oriented manner:
 
  • Classroom learning is opened up by using the Internet to access current and authentic materials.
  • Interesting applications can enhance creativity and motivation, and learners have the chance to take greater initiative themselves.
  • More time can be spent on productive skills and phonetics, using for example audio recordings and videos or jointly working on lesson materials.
  • Digital media can be used to encourage learners to interact in lessons – also with learners from other courses, cities or countries – by collaborating on projects and activity-based assignments that they can continue working on even outside the physical classroom.
  • Digital media can make learning progress transparent, enable rapid feedback and allow learners to better evaluate their own progress.
Outside the physical classroom: Thanks to the Internet, collaborative learning is no longer tied only to the classroom. This opens up new learning formats such as blended learning and joint learning in tutored online courses. Digital media can make communication between learners and the teacher quicker and more efficient, for example through the use of a learning platform.

Which scenarios are best-suited to digital media?

“There is no such thing as good or bad learning media – it is only a question of whether they are used appropriately or inappropriately. Their learning-specific qualities emerge only when they are incorporated into a didactic context” (Mitschian 2010: 75). When thinking about working with digital media, one often still has an image in mind of individual learners sitting quietly at the computer. This scenario should not occur in the classroom. Though autonomous learning is important, it is essential for the time together in the classroom to be used interactively. Digital media can help create activity-based scenarios and encourage project-oriented learning (such as collaborative writing, keeping a school blog or composing audio drama scenes and sharing them with a partner class). Examples were presented at the IDT showing how more time can be devoted to oral skills in blended learning courses given that listening and reading comprehensions can also be practised in the online phase, allowing learners to engage with the materials in a way and at a time that suits them best.

Man and machine – a powerful combination. Man and machine – a powerful combination. | Photo: © Maskot – plainpicture

10 useful tips taken from contributions to the IDT

  1. Define the learning goals and create situation-based contexts, focusing on the learning content. Choose only instruments that offer added educational value, and think carefully about why you are using digital media.
  2. Mainly pick applications that are suitable for cooperative learning. They must be easy to understand and use. Frequently use the same applications so that time is not wasted on introducing the technology.
  3. Lay down clear rules and establish routines in your lessons. Lasting change is rarely possible without continuity.
  4. Do not use digital media for illustration purposes only, but above all as a means of conveying content.
  5. Select applications that increase exchange in the target language and make it more lasting. The use of digital media should help build communicative and productive skills.
  6. Be ready to accept that the lesson may deviate from your original plan. Do not have excessive expectations of the applications. What counts is that learning content is implemented and developed.
  7. Talk to your learners about why you have chosen to use the media in question. Regularly evaluate the progress made by your learners and ask them about the use of the digital media.
  8. Be critical when choosing your materials, try to avoid using copy-and-paste, and always adapt the materials to your group of learners. Check and respect copyright laws.
  9. Try to reduce the input and make nuanced learning possible, also outside the classroom.
  10. Combine online activities with analogue exercises in the classroom and give your learners regular feedback about their online tasks.
The use of digital media does not automatically make lessons better per se; a clearly defined learning goal and thorough, learner-centred lesson planning are at least as important as the teacher’s media competence. The contributions to the IDT make it quite clear that there is no need to fear that digital media might replace teachers – after all, it remains the job of teachers to make lessons special.
 
Our conclusion is that, just like in analogue lessons, lesson phases will be successful if they are properly thought out in didactic terms and interlinked by learning objectives, and if they are clearly structured and taught with enthusiasm by the teacher.
 

Literature

Müller, Sina/Serth, Yasmin (2012): Mit digitalen Medien den Schulalltag optimieren. Mühlheim an der Ruhr: Verlag an der Ruhr.

Mitschian, Haymo (2010): m-Learning – die neue Welle? Kassel: Kassel University Press.