Integrating Technology

I am a firm believer that in order for learning technology to be successful, it should be integrated into the curriculum. According to a report published by the educational community Edutopia, this must happen ‘in ways that research shows deepen and enhance the learning process’, and ‘in particular, it must support four key components of learning: active engagement, participation in groups, frequent interaction and feedback, and connection to real-world experts’ (Edutopia, 2008).

Technology should always be part of what a teacher is currently doing with a class, and only be used to promote and extend learning. It shouldn’t be something special, done as a break from regular classroom learning or as a reward for good behavior. For this reason, whenever colleagues ask me for ideas on what to do in the computer room of our school, my first question to them is always, ‘What are you doing with the class at the moment?’ Once I have the answer to this question, then I can help them.

Of course, it’s not always clear that incorporating technology into the pedagogical goal is the right way of doing things. I would hazard a guess that every teacher attracted to using technology in the classroom has been tempted to try using a new tool they have come across, even if the added value of using that tool was dubious. This urge to experiment is understandable, given we live in an age where technological change is happening at breakneck speed. Son (2011) calls for teachers to ‘develop and implement CALL widely by exploring, selecting, using and evaluating the tools in a variety of contexts’, and perhaps it is the evaluating aspect that teachers need to concentrate more on, in order to ensure that technology is not used for technology’s sake.

So what comes first? Technology or learning objectives? The answer is, neither. The learners come first, and this is why one of the best ways of knowing if, and how much, technology should play a part in your class is by finding out from your learners their attitudes to using technology for language learning.

There are a couple of information-gathering activities in this chapter, but before you do these, you can simply ask your learners what they think of the idea of using more technology in class. If they are adults, perhaps the last thing they want to do after a long day sitting in front of screens at work is come to class and do the same! On the other hand, they may all have smartphones, and may appreciate their English teacher showing them how best to use them to practice English when they are commuting. Or you may teach teenagers who are bored with more traditional ways of learning English and who would be highly motivated by your spicing up your lesson with computers. What may have an interactive whiteboard in the classroom, or a computer and a projector. If you are very lucky, you may have a class set of laptops, netbooks or tablets. In both of these cases, you will probably find yourself using technology in every class. You may have access to a computer room you need to book, or for which there is a sign-up sheet determining access. Your learners could all have smartphones, or other mobile devices, you can use. For this reason, determining what technology is at your disposal, and how you can make use of it (should you choose to do so), will be an important factor in deciding how to use technology in class.

Whatever your access to technology, one of the obvious choices of tools a teacher has is of electronic dictionaries, as well as other tools specifically designed to support language learning, such as the thesaurus. Introducing learners to these tools, and showing them when and how to use them, can help them help themselves at a later date. There is a suggestion in this chapter for how to introduce learners to electronic dictionaries.

One way of integrating technology into a course is to adopt a blended-learning approach. Blended learning here ‘refers to a language course which combines a face-to-face classroom component with an appropriate use of technology’ (Sharma & Barrett, 2007:7),  and this definition implies the learners use technology at home. Although many teachers will believe that blended learning refers to when a face-to-face component has been added to an online course (i.e. 90% online; to 10% face-to-face), the term can refer to the opposite: an online component is added to a face-to-face course.

One of the best ways teachers can adopt this type of blended-learning approach, and ensure technology is integrated into a course, is by using a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). VLEs come in various shapes and forms. Another term for a VLE is Learning Mangement System (LMS). The most popular ones are currently Moode and Blackboard, and larger institutions will often have available the VLE, now may be the time to start using it. If you don’t have access to a VLE, then you can always set up one that can be used by a number of classes.

VLEs usually have tools that make it easy for teachers to see how often, and when, learners have accessed the system, and will let you set tests and record learner marks. Therefore, VLEs can be useful for assessment and evaluation.

VLEs, however, are very teacher-centric tools and don’t encourage lifelong learning or learner autonomy. Usually, once a learner has stopped studying a course, or attending a particular institution, he/she will no longer have access to the VLE. For this reason, a popular alternative to the VLE is the Personal Learning Environment (PLE). Rather than asking learners to join an institution-owned platform, they can encourage to set up a number of tools of their own. You can find out more about the PLE in chapter 2 Building a learning community.

One activity in this chapter looks at the flipped classroom, which is an interesting approach to classroom practice that suggests teachers reverse the usual teaching model by delivering instruction at home (often by using teacher-created videos)- allowing them to spend more time in class for practice, with the idea of creating a more collaborative learning environment. Although perhaps best suited to content subjects, the flipped classroom can be used by language teachers as an alternative, for occasional use.

Finally, a common obstacle to integrating technology into a language course can be teacher’s fear of what to do if something goes wrong. A teacher using technology always needs to have a Plan B (i.e. a back-up plan). For this reason, an activity in the chapter looks at how best teacher can prepare for the eventuality that the technology may not work as planned. Above all, this chapter is meant to be an introduction to integrating technology into the curriculum. Throughout the rest of the book, you will come across many ideas for integrating technology, and for making teaching and learning English more meaningful and fun.

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