19 July 2014

iPad for teachers? No thanks.

My laptop is stuffed. There's some kind of fault in the power circuit and it keeps refusing the mains power. As the battery is nearly exhausted and holds about twenty minutes of charge at most, it's basically unusable.

As the problem worsened, I slowly migrated as much of my daily activities as possible to my iPad. First it was web browsing, then email, an eventually I bought a Python programming environment and the Pages word processor so I could continue developing software and producing material for my students.

There are lots of articles out there that will tell you how wonderful the iPad is for teaching, but these are often little more than superficial lists of frivolous apps for presentations, flashcards and the like.

As a language teacher, there are more fundamental features of the iPad that are instantly a problem: audio and video and file access.

Sound files? No thanks!

I wanted to do an exam simulation using one of the practice papers at www.cityandguildsenglish.com, so I downloaded the paper, the answer scheme and the listening transcript onto my iPad. But all this became a bit futile when I rediscovered that e iPad will not let you download MP3s from websites, preferring to force you to use either the iTunes store or the iTunes app. With the files not being available on iTunes andmy PC out of action, I have no way to get any audio or video files I need onto my iPad. Now for listening exercises I am forced to fall back on a rather old Android phone, as it allows me to download anything I want.

Why would you want to access your own files?

Apple have gone out of their way to prevent the iPad being a computer. In one aspect, it was a clever design decision, as now rather than having the abstract concept of "a file", most file types exist as documents within their respective applications. There's less confusion for the user and less danger of malicious or faulty software interfering with the files from other applications,

However, in my current job, I don't do my own printing and photocopying, so I'm always sending multiple worksheets to the course secretary. Without file browser access, I'm currently restricted to going into individual applications, and using the "share" function on individual files to send them as emails. Where once I had one email with 8 attachments, now I have 8 emails with 1 attachment each. This makes life hard for both me and the secretary, as there is a very good chance that one of us will forget something.


Feel free to tell me about the latest app that has made your life so much easier, but I will never be able to advise other teachers to use a device that complicates the very basics of digital technology for teachers. Most of those apps, or close equivalents, will be available for Android anyway, and Android gives you the power to do what you like with your own data.

Not only that, but the iPad is actually massively overpowered for the basic functions we teachers need (have you seen the complexity of some of the games?) so you're paying more than you need.

Buy a cheap Android tablet instead - it'll save you money and time.

07 July 2014

Musings on confusings...

Since I first learned I had got the job in Sicily, my Spanish has suffered. The day after the job interview, I was at a Spanish/English language exchange, and I kept dropping words of Italian into my Spanish. The weird thing is that my Spanish was a million times stronger than my Italian then, but somehow my brain had switched "mode".

Obviously, living in Italy for four months has only served to intensify this, with my Spanish now being half-hidden behind fairly broken bits of Italian. My assumption for a long time was that my problem was in my accent -- I still speak Italian with a bit of a Spanish twang. This belief was bolstered by the fact that my Catalan, while being very, very weak from lack of use, didn't seem so badly affected. The Catalan accent is very, very different from Spanish and Italian.

However, I was at a Couchsurfing meeting on Friday night which changed my mind. There was an Andalusian tourist visiting, and when I spoke to her, my accent was more different from the one I use in Italian than I had expected. My brain started playing tricks on me, and I had difficulty speaking Italian when she was in my line-of-sight, and for a while I was wobbling between Italian and Spanish.

But that's not the important thing.

When I was speaking Italian, I got into much deeper and more complex conversations than I normally would, and rather than jamming up as I hit the limits of my Italian, I was automatically switching to Spanish to fill in the gaps. Now, I wasn't just importing words or grammar rules from Spanish into Italian -- no, I was switching into Spanish; conjugations, pronouns and all. As I became aware I was doing this, it dawned on me that I'd been doing it for my whole stay, but normally I'd just not thought about it too much and fallen back to English.

This is a bit of a new sensation... or actually, no. The only new thing is the fact that I was unaware of it. When it was Scottish Gaelic and French, for example, it would be instantly noticeable. The difference here is that the similarity of the languages (including, but not limited to, accent) allowed it to slip through the net on occasions.

The trigger mechanism is the same, regardless of language: hit a gap in your knowledge in one language and the brain will fall back on another. The only difference lies in detection.

This makes me wonder if the only option I have now to get my Spanish back is... to learn more Italian. My theory is that filling in the main gaps in my Italian will not only stop me falling back on Spanish when I run out of Italian, but that as a consequence of this, it will reduce the strength of the linkage between the two, allowing me to speak Spanish without Italian interrupting me.

It looks like I might be practising my Italian a lot, even once I leave Italy...