Teaching ESL with Technology

Image source: bigstockphoto.com
Image source: bigstockphoto.com

Technology in Education is so hot right now! Since the technology boom of the mid- to late-nineties, high-tech gadgets have been creeping into the classroom and into our lives in general, for better or for worse. But, does educational IT really help our students learn?

Maybe, if it’s used well and for the right reasons. Below are several tips on effectively incorporating technology into your ESL class.

Prepare in Advance

One of the first traps many teachers fall into when attempting to use technology in the classroom is the lack of adequate preparation. Typical preparation for a course includes building and reviewing a lesson plan, creating or finding didactic materials and ensuring that all needed peripherals are in place. Educational IT, however, requires a little more attention. First, in heterogeneous classrooms, the students will have varying levels of ability with IT. The learning curve with new technology will be very different for the students involved. It is highly suggested to prepare instructions on the use of the technology, model its use with students in class and make sure all IT components are in place. You should probably also arrive to class a half-hour in advance just to make sure the internet is working, test your headset and microphone, adjust the projector, etc. Briefly, once prepared, IT can still go wrong, so ensure it is working before class. If things still don’t go your way, have a plan B at hand.

Avoid Gimmicks

I am not a fan of smartboards, especially for an ESL class. For those of you familiar with this technology, you probably know that these boards are very trendy. Institutions have been purchasing and installing them for nearly ten years now, with minimal success. While they are very cool gadgets, they do very little for the language student. Smartboards are like tablets, but up on the wall. You can directly manipulate the objects on screen, add comments, zoom in and out, etc. While applicable for an industrial drafting course or for chemical modelling, it just doesn’t enhance language learning to the same extent. Besides, just turning them on and getting them going can be a nightmare. Stick with markers and chalk, you will save yourself a headache.

Apply a TPCK Model

Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPCK) is perhaps the best framework for thinking about how to integrate technology effectively. As ESL teachers, we all have “content knowledge” (CK) that we want our students to learn. Attached to this type of knowledge, in this case physiological language ability, is an appropriate knowledge of pedagogy (PCK). Or, in other words, as ESL teachers, we understand how to teach languages. When we incorporate IT, another layer is added in which we are forced to ask the question: “What is the most effective way for the content, pedagogy and technology to interact?” See the following link for more on TPCK: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_pedagogical_content_knowledge

BYOD Inclusion

As an Education Advisor, I constantly hear teachers complaining about smartphones and how students are distracted by them while in class. Many of these teachers don’t allow the devices to be used in class and reprimand students who do. The blame is placed on the technology and the student when I believe it should be placed solely on the teacher. First, this type of classroom philosophy is “teacher-centered” – not the most effective in generating language ability. Second, you are swimming against the current if you think you can prevent IT from floating into your class. Instead of trying to stem the tide, include their devices. Encourage students to “Bring your Own Device” (BYOD) and use them to leverage the course. Smartphones can be used as dictionaries, note-taking devices (instead of jotting down notes, take a picture), and even clickers. See: http://www.socrative.com/

Extend Class with an LMS

Often, when a given class ends, the student does not return to learning until the next class session. By using a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Moodle or Brightspace, you can essentially create a “Facebook” for your course. Learning can continue from home; students can submit assignments online, pre-read concepts, participate in discussion forums and ask questions. Using an LMS boosts a sense of class community and makes all course material easily accessible, not to mention helping you organize and grade all of your assessments.

What do you think about tech in class? What are some of the challenges you have faced when incorporating IT into your teaching?

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7 thoughts on “Teaching ESL with Technology”

  1. Thanks for this article. I agree with most of your points except the use of a Smartboard. I don’t think it is a gimmick at all. Combining the Smartboard with the Smart notebook can be interactive and engaging AND not to mention, with the new updates, it can make use of the learners’ Smartphones through Kahoot-like activities. The idea of a Smartboard being used only as a projection screen breaks my heart a little.

    One other point about technology in the classroom that I think needs to be made comes from a recent experience I had with OneNote/OneDrive. Whatever piece of edutech the instructor plans to use, especially if this piece is going to be a major cornerstone (as in, an e-portfolio for e-PBLA), it’s imperative that the instructor stay on top of the technology. She needs to be informed, updated, and relevant. When that tech changes (for example, personal OneDrive space decreased by 67% last week), this impacts what the instructor can do with the tech.

    If you can read between the lines, you can probably tell I’m chagrined about the OneNote/OneDrive updates that have left me frantically reviewing how I can continue to use OneNote in my classroom. It can still be done, but not the same way.

    So, while I am still in favour of disrupting Adult ESL with relevant and pedagogically-sound edutech, instructors using the tech need to be aware of its limitations as well as its benefits for the learners.

    -Jen Artan

    1. Hi Jen,

      Thanks for your comment! I completely agree. Though my own experience with smart-boards has left me questioning the merits of the technology in terms of language development, if they leverage your teaching and learning, great! Using TPCK, I can quickly see how smart-boards don’t immediately help with developing biological pragmatics in my students – better to just get them talking to each other rather than spending time on learning how to use smart-boards to begin with. However, there may be a pedagogical requirement in your courses that are greatly supported by smart-boards. Do you mind sharing some examples of teaching and learning situations which are enhanced with smart-boards?

  2. Thanks for this article. I have taught online and in the class room, and i think person to physical face to face is far more effective. However,I do believe in incorporating tech in the classroom.
    My adult student use their phone as dictionaries, and I have started a fb group where I leave `homework`that they can work on if they want to continue studying.
    I`m discovering that many of them love this extra work. I think I`ll have to think about using and LMS…
    Thanks again for sharing.

    1. Thanks for the comment Marilyn!
      Facebook can be fun for students, and many already have an account, so setting this up is fairly easy. However, FB was not designed for teaching and learning and as such lacks all of instructional tools that are possible in a blended course format. LMS’s are designed for such a purpose but can present a bit of a learning curve, depending on which one you use. Many institutions use Moodle because it is open-source, but requires a host server and possibly a programmer for major modifications. Again, I will emphasize that if this learning curve takes too much of the focus away from language learning, you might want to avoid using it to begin with. With students who are tech-savvy, getting Moodle up and running can be relatively seamless.

  3. I agree with your advice to prepare in advance when using technology, and would underline the importance of navigating sites prior to introducing learners to them.

    I have had great success using the edulinc.org moodle with my Foundation Literacy and CLB 1 learners, using information I created or by embedding URLs into my ‘platform’. The addition of LINC 1 Activities to the moodle last year added interactive learning activities for my students BUT many of the activities require in-class preparation and support, while some are just not accessible for the level and should be avoided. That said, I have learners using my platform over the summer break to build their language skills.

    Secondly, I agree with Jen Artan regarding the use of SmartBoards, as well as the Smart Notebook software. With a low level, a picture can be worth many words. It has proven to be an invaluable addition to my toolbox when introducing new themes. Picture based PowerPoint presentations can be converted into the Smart Notebook, allowing me to create interactive communicative language building activities that encourage learners to speak. My learners enjoy manipulating images and vocabulary on the SmartBoard, and find team “Jeopardy” review activities engaging, competitive and language building.

    No matter what the technology (be it pencil or computer), its value is revealed when lesson planning, peer and instructor support, and needs related content is in place.

    1. Hi Catherine,

      Thanks for your comment. I think I may need to revise the way I wrote the post. Smartboards can be awesome! If you have found a way to leverage language learning using them, bravo! I think the same applies to all ICT.

      I can speak for my host institution when I state that smartboards can be a little bit of a gimmick, only because the smartboards aren’t working half the time (or at least the teacher hasn’t taken the time to properly prepare in advance.) Sometimes, sticking to paper-based activities can be just as effective and paper always functions.

  4. I have had a lot of success using a blog (http://my-teacherkelly.blogspot.ca) with my seniors. We use it as a sort of quick and dirty LMS. While it doesn’t have the grade book feature of an LMS like Moodle, it does allow me to give students a one-stop-shopping experience. All the links they need are there. I can link to videos, quizzes, flashcard sets, etc.
    My literacy students use iPads for about 40 minutes every Wednesday. I have been absolutely amazed at how little time and effort this costs me to get them up and running and self-sufficient. While I do start them off with a module on parts of the iPad, students who join the course later pick up all the necessary skills from peers. They love using apps such as iWrite Words to practice writing the alphabet, sight word, counting and spelling apps. Like our computer lab time, during which I use a simplified blog, activities are self-directed and self-paced.

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