Technology in teaching

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On my Trinity DiplTESOL course we write essays, and they’re helpful to think things through. Here’s a long one I wrote about using technology in class. It’s based on my experience and is related to a talk I gave last November at BESIG, which in turn grew out of the ELTAS TechToolsDay. Louise Kennedy has suggested me for a workshop at the school she teaches at in Hamburg, which is super, and I’m looking forward to trying things out and exploring/exchanging ideas with the teachers there. But that’s way off, in November. So just to put this in a safe place… All the references in the text are at the bottom, with links. — If you have any suggestions, or if you can confirm my experience or have experience that differs, I’d love to hear from you!

1. Advances in technology are facilitating learning globally

Back in 2000, John Seely Brown, former CSO of Xerox Corporation, wrote:

“with the Web, we suddenly have a medium that honors multiple forms of intelligence – abstract, textual, visual, musical, social, and kinesthetic. As educators, we now have a chance to construct a medium that enables all young people to become engaged in their ideal way of learning.”

He identified aspects of the ongoing shift, highlighting what he called “multiprocessing”, “navigation”, “discovery-learning” and “social learning”, and foresaw that communities of practice would emerge, engaging in the social construction of knowledge in their areas. Later he would call the way social networks draw their members out of traditional roles and institutions and into these new learning communities “The Power of Pull” (Hagel/Brown/Davison 2010).

That power is clearly at work in our profession. The Internet has given us access to a huge knowledge base, while social networking has provided personal connections that allow us to share information with an extended circle of “colleagues” and “friends”. Cloud computing simplifies organizing and sharing data from multiple sources, while mobile devices let us access it nearly anywhere. “Connected learning” has become a way of life, and more and more apps are being produced for autonomous learners. In short, both we and our students have a new world of tools and materials at our disposal.

So what does that mean for us teachers? How people learn language through social media and self-study is not yet fully understood. Our profession is currently going through a steep learning curve in how to incorporate these new learning channels in our teaching, both in regular classes (Dudeney/ Hockly 2007) and in distance courses (Hockly/Clandfield 2010). In this essay I would therefore like to concentrate on my own experience, thinking over how I’ve used new media in face-to-face lessons, and what has and hasn’t worked well. I hope to clarify through reflection what implications this has for my further development as a teacher of English.

2. Implications for teaching

Adult learners in my classes today appear to be far more autonomous than they were ten years ago. Today, they rarely express interest in using a course book. Instead, they are most interested in content that is up-to-date, authentic, and retrieved at short notice. Video, audio and online practise are expected, and they want tips on apps to use on their own. They may be happy to do some extended reading with a graded reader or other material outside class, as long as they don’t tie themselves down long-term. For example, Fiction In Action: Whodunit (Gray/ Benevides 2010) was a hit with one of my classes, but after only one of the stories, they were ready to move on.

In my one-to-one classes, students want something else entirely. They generally have a clear agenda, and require progress coaching, with immediate feedback on their recorded output. Like the group learners, the one-to-ones are modular learners and take a discriminating “iTunes approach” to the media and materials they purchase.

While there have been materials available online for years (BBC Learning English and IT’s Teachers since 1996, Macmillan’s One Stop English and Spotlight since 2000 with Business Spotlight following soon after, Sean Banville’s self-published Breaking News English since 2005), only very recently have publishers begun providing online textbooks in small modules (English 360), geared to online and blended learning. However, we still need to tailor offline materials to student needs. Like most teachers, I go online to find pertinent material, adding content from dictionaries, thesauruses, corpora, encyclopedias like Wikipedia, and editing them into worksheets for class. Other media, from podcasts to downloaded videos and online scripts, complete the lesson.

Some online tools simplify making supplementary exercises. The sophisticated Lesson Writer (thanks, Louise!) lets you input a reading text, then generates options for grammar, vocabulary, word roots and phonemic exercises, and gives Bloom’s prompts for the teacher to write comprehension questions. Other lesson writing tools, including puzzle makers, have not quite caught up with best practice in teaching. While there are many crossword creator apps (e.g. Puzzle Maker), none of them allows you to create communicative crosswords that allow students A and B to collaborate (thanks, Jo!). The set of online tools we have for materials design is a result of disjointed Internet growth before social networking started informing and driving the development of more effective apps.

2.2 Using apps with more autonomous learners

Asynchronous social game apps like Scrabble for the iPhone (Words with Friends) are showing how “connected learning” could become more entertaining in the future as the market develops. But “ELT has yet to get a grip on smartphones”, as Moore and Sweeny point out. There is still an “over-reliance on multiple choice and true/false questions.” (Moore 2011).

Actually, however, there are already plenty of available apps that teachers and students can use in class to enable collaborative, constructivist learning, using content that students can enter. Some of them can be used in tried and tested ways, while others suggest we need to develop new teaching methods. Here is a selection of apps I have tried out with learners.

a. Apps for reading
In reading-related apps, the most popular tool so far has been Wordle, a word cloud tool that collects words by automatically extracting the most frequent ones from a text or website. Word clouds can be used to summarize a subject, predict or reconstruct or revise a text, compare two texts, memorize the spelling of words, start storytelling, etc. A tool similar to Wordle is Tagxedo, which turns each word to a tag linking to an online word search. This invites further online exploration of words in context. Another excellent explorative tool is the VocabGrabber, part of the Visual Thesaurus, which analyzes text and highlights useful vocabulary, outputting word lists. Of these three tools, Wordle is perhaps most suited for classroom use, because it is intuitive, self-explanatory, produces a finite outcome rather than being an open-ended tool, and therefore focuses learners’ attention and communication on the in-class task. The other two apps are perhaps more engaging for self-study, as they are more complex and allow even more “multiprocessing”, “navigation” and “discovery-learning”.

b. Apps for writing
The many tools available to teach writing include blogs (Posterous), wikis (Wikispaces, PBWiki) as well as forums and chats, which can be a part of integrated platforms like Ning or Moodle. Preliminary studies suggest that language learners make most progress when they keep reflective diaries, guided by tasks (and “blog challenges”) that are read and evaluated by both the teacher and their peers. However, it is not clear whether online diaries in blogs are substantially more effective than offline ones in notebooks or files, though online writing has been linked to slighter higher results (Lund 2009). Forums and wikis (and taking part in blog discussions) offer an opportunity for communicative writing, a life skill that connects back to the learners’ real, professional environment. Finally, chat is being used experimentally to teach English in class. However, a recent preliminary study (Douglas 2010) suggests that chat is slower than normal conversation, giving students fewer opportunities for turn-taking and hence “noticing” language, making it less effective than conversation for in-class learning. Slow typing, the study says, may contribute to lower student engagement levels and concentration.

A sensitive issue I’ve had trouble with is correction. Feedback procedures need to be clarified, especially when drafts and feedback are visible online to all participants. I’ve discovered that writing online comes in many guises, and we need to distinguish between ad hoc blogging, which is process-oriented, and the more formal task of essay writing, which aims to produce a deliverable product, at least down the line. For essays, I use Word documents or GoogleDocs (thanks, Karenne!), as they let both me and the peer reviewers use highlighting and mark-up for feedback. By contrast, students write in blogs without getting a list of errors in my comments. I did consider the option of editing texts before they were posted in blogs and forums, but that destroys the idea that students should be engaging in meaningful communication before they begin to worry about errors. So instead, we concentrate on the conversation, and I may recast/ paraphrase some aspect, or select an error, sandwiching a form-related comment between the meaning-related ones.

There are many more tools that can be used to get students writing, such as making a comic strip (Bitstrips, MakeBeliefsComix), penning a minimal story (Twitter), adding captions and subtitles to a video (YouTube) or creating quizzes for other students (ProProfs) (thanks Barbara!). Anything students produce can be embedded in a class wiki. A class that enjoys technology can find such tasks very engaging, but these apps do take time to learn, which needs to be factored in. They are nice add-ons and motivators for techy students to take home and work on and then share.

c. Apps for speaking
Recording students has a long pedigree in teaching. The didactics are solid: The act of performing live before an audience, taking center stage, stimulates performance through peer pressure.

Many voice recording apps promote speaking. Ian James has presented a wide variety of useful and accessible ones in his blog (see James 2011a and 2011b) (thanks Ian!). As he shows, a semi-scripted voice recording task promotes concentration and performance. Another teacher (Picardo 2011) has reported using Voki, an app that allows students to create an imaginative avatar before they actually record themselves, to evaluate his students. The playfulness of this virtual performance seems to me to be one of the reasons why particularly the shy students do well. Using a recording tool to comment on a picture (e.g. Fotobabble) may work in a slightly different way. As it focuses attention away from the speaker, and to the picture, it may make the speaker a little less self-conscious. Students could theoretically also make their own podcasts (PodOmatic), but mine so far have not found creating a broadcast for a wider audience an interesting task, preferring their recordings to be listened to in class, only.

Students use laptop webcams to record themselves, and phones and my Flip Mino to film each other. These recordings can be saved and studied (Vimeo, where videos can be made private, and are not found by search engines) (thanks, John!).

Other new apps are emerging that are expanding the way we can teach, suggesting new methods that need to be tested before we know what our students will get out of them. For teaching speaking, for example, a student could use a dictation app (spoken word to text) like Dragon Dictation for iPhone. But what exactly would the outcome be? The learner would have turned a spoken text into a written one. Could that serve as an awareness raising exercise in differentiating between spoken and written registers? Trinity Course participant Andy Wilson had the great idea that Dragon Dictation could be used by students to consider the consequences of poor pronunciation. He said:

“I teach monolingual classes and recently did a class on pronunciation where they had to dictate sentences with the wrong pronunciation to each other. They were amazed at how difficult they found it to understand the sentences and how it must feel for perhaps a native speaker trying to make sense of what they were saying. May be this app could be used in a similar way?”

I have also experimented with two quite new online technologies more loosely related to speaking, namely text to voice technology (e.g. iSpeech, Voki and Xtranormal), and text chat with a chatbot (ESLRobots). Tasks involving these tools can be entertaining and educating for students, though they are paradox, because the machines are clearly not “up to” human speech. In the case of the text to speech voices, the phonetics and connected speech don’t sound human. One class I taught experimented by placing commas strategically, to change the phrasing, but ultimately decided that is was better to record real voices. Another class enjoyed a funny chat with a chatbot and then took the chatlog apart, asking “Where does this sound human” and “where does this sound like a robot”? Their reflections on “what was wrong” raised analytical awareness with regard to pragmatics in English. (I later used that lesson to make an online exercise at Spotlight here. Thanks, Morphosys/Chicago!)

d. Apps for listening
Obviously, any speaking activity that is recorded can lead into a listening activity, but this deals with external recordings. Apps can include podcasts, easily accessed though a mobile device, or dipping into the vast listening archives now available online, for example to The Speech Accent Archive. Learning sites pair online listening with interactive comprehension questions and quizzes, often dedicated a certain area (e.g. Lyrics Training). Other options include using dictation practice sites (Listen and Write) or, for gist listening and writing practice, subtitling videos (YouTube), to name just a few.

2.3 Outlook

Overall, using apps in class should be fun and motivating for learners. If they feel like a “task” in the negative sense of the word, something is going wrong. Didn’t Brown say that young people should become engaged in their ideal way of learning? So apps can and should encourage a playful, more holistic, yet still outcome-oriented approach to learning that may, at least for a short time, eclipse the main purpose of practicing the language. I think that how learners relate to learning in the long run matters more. Note to self: A bit of fun and games cannot hurt.

Secondly, there will hopefully be a great deal of research on the effectiveness of connected learning. It’s on my agenda to see whether new methods I find myself using are based solely on my own learning preferences, or whether there is actually evidence that backs them up or contradicts them.

Finally, the burden of expertise and investment is increasingly being placed on teachers, as the language lab with its institutional constraints, support system and investment is being replaced by wifi and mobile technologies. At the moment, the old and the new technology cultures are in competition, at least at the universities. The challenge is to handle changing technical and social issues as they arise. Which channels we use for support and advice may change, but with the Web, we will continue to have a tool that can assure “connected learning”.



Learning websites:

  • BBC World Service – Learning English: “Comprehensive materials for intermediate to advanced ESL learners from the BBC World Service.”
  • It’s teachers: “online magazine for English Language Teachers”
  • Onestopenglish/ Macmillan: “Free materials to download plus lesson ideas, games and competitions and professional support.”
  • Spotlight Online: “”Englisch online lernen und üben, mit unterhaltsamen Übungen und Tests zu Grammatik und Vokabular, sowie Audio und Video.”
  • Business Spotlight Online: “Business-Englisch lernen und üben mit Business Spotlight Online, außerdem Tipps zur interkulturellen Kommunikation und zum beruflichen Erfolg.”
  • Sean Banville: Breaking News English: “ESL Plans Teaching Current Events. English lesson plans: Free EFL/ESL lessons and online activities, handouts and podcast for teaching current events, speaking, listening…”
  • English 360: “Teaching Business English and ESP online.” “English360 is the fast and easy way of delivering blended learning programmes for your clients.”

Online tools/materials:


17 Responses

  1. Hi Anne,
    This is an excellent essay with so many valuable resources. I’ve learned so much from reading this and will keep it close at hand. I’m really interested in your point about the Who Dunnit series. It does seem that young people lose interest in things quickly and want to move on. My own kids are always wanting another app and rarely revisit the ones we get more than a few times. I wonder why this is not the case with something like the Harry Potter series? If Harry had been published today, would things have been different? Anyway, it’s very interesting. We’ve tried to take this short-attention-span approach with the “Discussion Starters” on ESL-Library (rather than the old style 10 page lesson plans). Best of luck with your presentation! I’m sure it will be amazing.

  2. Hi Tara,
    Wow: – this is great, just having a look around. Are you a contributor here? Or are you talking about something on
    In my case, I often need very topical or scientific content for the lesson, so I really have to focus on things that there aren’t many plans for.
    About the short attention spans: They seemed to get longer with the Twilight books, too. Just wait until the authors team up with Dave Eggers and give us EFL readers 😉
    The students I did the Whodunnit with actually did plenty of reading on their own, just in very diverging genres, and couldn’t agree on one!
    BTW, I’m learning so much about online learning and teaching from the work you do on English Club, really exciting, thank you soooo much!!

  3. Thanks Anne! Glad you’re checking out ESL Library. It is my second baby! I am the head writer and media director for Red River Press, a small press in Canada that built the library and also builds language learning apps. If you want to check some of the apps out with your students (iPhone/iPod/iPad), let me know and I’ll send you some free codes.
    Dave Eggers EFL Readers! That would be fantastic. 🙂

  4. Thanks very much for noticing LessonWriter.

    Regarding your observation that: “The set of online tools we have for materials design is a result of disjointed Internet growth before social networking started informing and driving the development of more effective apps.”

    Please note that LessonWriter DOES offer premium features for students to communicate and collaborate online, but they are not part of our free services.


  5. @Stephen,
    Thanks for this. Can you expand a bit, maybe add a link to where I/we can find more information?
    My comment related more to the design of offline activities using online tools. Many teachers are without Internet access in class (or: students don’t all have computer access there), so those offline activities are still key. And I actually think it’s important to blend the best of both worlds, so: “quality offline/face time” with “quality online time”.

    @Dolce – thanks 🙂


  6. @Tara,
    I actually have several of them already: English @ Work and Learning English with the New York Times (which should be marketed for its “historic moments” angle). They’re self-study apps, like a mini reference and practice book.
    In an ideal world (and we’re doing what we can to make it better, right?) I’d be looking less for content in the app itself, and more for strategic connections to the Web/ abilities to store and share content. So my idea of a really good app would be something that provides the best kind of structure for learning. Are you with me?
    But of course we need good content too, and the price of producing content is going down, which is bad news for writers, right? So there always needs to be both, some content and then the strategic facilities. And updates.
    Oh, and please make it as much fun as Angry Birds!

  7. Hi Anne,
    Super, I’m enjoying reading along, here. In some ways it brings the breakdown of the mystery behind hi-tech issues a lttle closer. And yes, I noticed your point about pairwork crosswords not being in there on Weaver – I just copy and paste – as I expect everybody does.
    Marks’s Dynamic Presentations book arrived today – with the CD, so thanks again for that great tip.

  8. Ha! My kids are addicted to Angry Birds. We were out for dinner with the whole extended family last night and even my three year old nephew was begging to play it on his Daddy’s iPod. And yes, the RRP apps are mainly for self-study so far. Some of them are based on the content that is already in the library, so if the teacher has a membership and uses the content the apps would be useful for review and pair work. The NYT app is for high-level learners who want to improve reading skills and learn vocab in context, and again is useful for one-on-one or self-study. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let us lower the level of the articles (our original plan), but we learned a lot from building it. It would be great to get a big wish list from English teachers who want to use mobile apps in class.
    Thanks for mentioning Rafal’s speaking group! This week we’re practising linking and minimals pairs. It’s amazing what you can do online these days.

  9. @ Joan: I’m glad, that’s certainly what I intend. Technology is like math, we just need to have it explained and explore it in connection with what we know.
    @ Tara: I like the NYT app. How interesting to be able to compare your work there with the work you do as a moderator at English Club. It really adds perspective when you have several points of access to how content is used, doesn’t it?
    Anyway, all of this is loads of fun, and I’m looking forward to seeing where we are all going.

  10. Hi Melanie,
    Thanks for posting! This looks really interesting. But I didn’t find my way in because I frankly didn’t quite get what they mean by “Point your mobile phone on and start having fun!” Can you explain?

  11. Anne, this is Adam Gray, one of the authors of Whodunit. I came across your site and of course appreciated your comment on our Facebook page. I was really interested in your perspective, especially the point about students not wanting to get tied down to a text long term. Obviously as a materials writer that means I need to update my approach and not stubbornly adhere to an outdated model (um… Blockbuster video, are you listening?), but at the same time, there is real value in starting and completing a challenging text that takes more than a few days or a few lessons. Thoughts? Can the more personalized content you mentioned fully fill that niche?

    FYI we have been looking to update Whodunit and bring it more into the technology fold. Very hush hush for now.

    Thanks again for the shout out! If anyone else wants to check out the book, I strongly encourage!!


  12. Hi Adam,
    Thanks for dropping in! A friend and colleague of mine also asked what the “real” reason was, and I thought it through again:
    Your readers in this particular company course were often too busy with lab work to attend the weekly class. I’d hoped your book would motivate them to come in if they knew we’d be discussing a certain chapter on a certain day, especially as they enjoyed the quiz. But I postponed the discussion if only 3 of the 8 made it. Mistake! Because, of course, reading is something learners do at their own speed, ultimately, and dropping the schedule caused things to drag on too long.
    Your quiz would be really quite nice for multimedia self-study, as you’ve built potential self-correction in. All the best with it!

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