Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Final Thoughts on IATEFL 2014

Here are my final impressions of the IATEFL conference in  Harrogate. For me, it was more enjoyable than the one in Liverpool last year, the plenary speakers were more interesting and more engaging, and the programme of sessions more focussed and varied ( at least for me, your mileage may vary).

As a round up, I wanted to highlight a couple of sessions in the last few days that I think deserved wider recognition. I generally find that the big names in ELT deliver quite unadventurous presentations and it’s the lesser known presenters who can really fire the imagination.

As part of the Learning Technologies SIG event on Friday, Nick Turner gave a great session on his attempt to run a language MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). With a suitably laconic style and spartan use of slides (quick rant: teachers really need to learn how to use Powerpoint better) he talked about the process of setting up and running a MOOC for a hundred language students all across the globe. It seemed that the response was similar in terms of uptake and completion rates to MOOCs around the world, where normally only under 10% generally complete the course. I’m not convinced that a MOOC is something that will be massively disruptive to either ELT or education in general. I think the kinds of people who complete them are the kinds of people who are going to learn by themselves anyhow and the kinds of people who drop out of them - and it’s the vast majority - are the kind of people who need teachers to guide and help them. Our jobs are safe for a little longer at least.

The next hidden gem was the session called Write Here,Write Now by Fiona Johnston . This was tucked away on Saturday morning when most people were packing their bags or saying their goodbyes, which is a shame as it deserved a bigger and wider audience. It was a fantastic session focusing on the skills students need to be able to write for social media and instant messaging, particularly the ability to write quickly and in a more relaxed, abbreviated form. . There was a little bit of focussed theory, but then Fiona gave some excellent examples of activities you can do with students to develop these fast writing skills. I particularly liked the idea of the shrinking question where students have to create a question of exactly 12 words and then they have to do answer it in increasingly small numbers of words - twelve, eleven, ten - or as an alternative in increasingly shrinking amount of time. These are exactly the kinds of genre writing skills we need to be addressing with our students as it’s likely that a lot of their interaction in English will be via messaging apps, social networks or online forums/discussions.

I was going to say a few thoughts on Sugata Mitra’s plenary on Saturday morning, but it seems that Hugh Dellar has gone ahead and summed it up far better than I can. I’m not sure I would be quite as scathing as Hugh, but I’m equally sceptical about this idea of Self Organising Learning Environments (SOLEs). It’s a very slick narrative but there are so many questions left unanswered and so read Hugh’s post or this one by Donald Clark raising some objections to Mitra’s experiments.

Just some random thoughts at the end about the conference. Tech support could have been better, I was in several sessions where presenters were having problems with the sound or the network connection and there didn’t seem to be anyone there to help them.

Oh, and fewer workshops and more talks. As a communicative language teacher, I suppose I should be advocating it the other way round, but the time allotted is short and there isn’t enough time to get comfortable with your fellow audience members to make the discussions worthwhile.

I just wanted to say thanks to all the staff at the centre and at IATEFL who made the four days a wonderful experience.

David Read

1 comment:

  1. It really was a wonderful conference. You're right about tech support; there were a few sessions I was at that had problems too. It's a pity as there's such limited time to begin with.
    I enjoyed the variety of talks and workshops, but time was an issue. Maybe they could extend the time.
    Regardless, it was a fantastic week full of inspiration! And the staff wrte brilliant, so helpful and friendly. It really makes a difference.