A Clash of Technology and Needs

Confused elderly man looks at the computer
Image source: bigstockphoto.com

The age of technology has arrived. It can be integrated, according to its pundits, into every stage of teaching the four basic skills: Speaking, Listening, Reading, and Writing. Better yet, nothing beats technology for enhancing both teaching and learning, the pundits add. It’s the new transformative tool and game changer in the domain of education.

Selected studies on specific target audiences suggest that one particular app or another has indeed enhanced reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. On the whole, however, years have passed, and test scores and outcomes have not gotten any better with most technology assisted learning and its various applications. No one, especially me, seems to know which technology is best suited to a teacher’s goals and outcomes. There are, and I think everyone would agree, too many apps purporting to enhance both teaching and student learning. At the same time, studies on the efficacy of technology and second language learning are at best contradictory; there are no self-evident truths inasmuch as the technology papacy would like you to believe that they exist.

I grew up in a British colony in which radio broadcasts from the BBC were the staple for dictation, pronunciation, and listening and comprehension exercises. In 1945, William Levenson (as cited in Cuban, 1986), the author of Teaching through Radio, had predicted that “radio instruction will be integrated into school life” (p. 19). Of course, in 1922, Thomas Edison (as cited in Cuban, 1986) had already predicted that motion picture would “revolutionize our educational system and … supplant … the use of textbooks” (p. 9). If you’re interested, more references can be found through Krippel, McKee, and Moody’s (2010) article “Multimedia Use in Higher Education: Promises and Pitfalls”.

Later, when I attempted to learn Spanish in University, the technology at the time was the language lab with its headphones, tape recorder, and cassettes. How effective any of these devices are is anybody’s guess; half a century ago, there were hardly any studies on the effectiveness and usefulness of things such as the radio, language lab, motion picture, and educational television. Anything new in those days was supposed to be good.

I still have a cassette player with scores of cassettes at home. They have been, for some time now, supplanted by CD and DVD players in the classroom. I take out the CD player in each class, even when I don’t have the intention of using it. Why? Well, it seems a part of my educational infrastructure, among a small number of other things that give me a sense of preparedness.

Not wanting to be left out of the tech world, I ventured to use the computers I had access to. (I work for the largest school board in Canada, but it has little or nothing by way of technological devices for its adult non-credit English as a Second Language Programmes.) Teaching writing on Word was my first attempt; it became my last. I painstakingly did the relevant vocabulary: mouse, cursor, screen, keyboard, etc. I also did the usual motions, like opening a blank page, moving the cursor, making capital letters, and the using the full stop. All but three of my learners were over 55 years of age. All were at level one, with a few at the literacy stage. I started with the usual: My name is, I am from, I speak, My telephone number is, and My address is. All of these things were already done on paper. I extended with things such as My book is on the table. After getting everyone started on the second session at the computers, I asked them to type anything they wished on the blank page. Everyone looked lost at the blank page. I suggested typing phrases and words such as Good morning and Hello. A few tried.

My objective was to get the students to write short sentences and notes, and then proceed to writing e-mails. (Every tech prophet had been talking about how wonderful it was to have second language learners use e-mails.) I kept asking my students to type this and that. Alas, it was a one-sided affair.

So where did I get the idea that using the word processor was going to be an interactive affair? What influenced my decision to use computers? Did I venture to use the computers simply for the sake of using them? My novice learners need much scaffolding and individual attention. My little grounding in constructionist learning theory tells me that my students need to work at their own pace. And, of course, where in the learners’ needs assessment and my term plan is the mention of using the computer and writing e-mails? Did I consciously change my term plan and pedagogy just to join the tech world? Did I coerce my students to the computer? I really don’t want to think that, inasmuch as I did.

I am not saying that the use of technology in the classroom is a bad thing. But for older novice learners, it is something that needs addressing. I ventured to do a little research. Space allows me to mention one item. In the Journal of Aging Studies, Neil Selwyn (2004) in his article, “The Information Aged: A Qualitative Study of Older Adults’ Use of Information and Communication Technology”, argues that there is an implicit assumption that technology is a perquisite to living in the information age. Older adults, my reality says, hardly find it useful. For older novice language learners, computer-assisted language learning, to my mind, can take a back seat until these learners feel the need to use it. After all, that’s what learners’ needs are.


Levenson, W. (1945). Teaching through radio. New York, NY: Farrar & Rinehart.

Cuban, L. (1986). Teachers and machines: The classroom use of technology since 1920. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Krippel, G., McKee, A. J., & Moody, J. (2010). Multimedia use in higher education: Promises and pitfalls. Journal of Instructional Pedagogies, 2, 1-8.

Selwyn, N. (2004). The information aged: A qualitative study of older adults’ use of information and communications technology. Journal of Aging Studies, 18(4), 369-384. doi: 10.1016/j.jaging.2004.06.008

Post written by Sridatt Lakhan.  After completing his TESL Instructors’ Course from the Ministry of Citizenship in 1991, Sridatt started as an ESL instructor with the Toronto District School Board.  He has a BA from the University of Guyana, an MA from the University of Windsor, and a BEd (Adult Education) from Brock University.  He has written extensively for a number of publications including peer-reviewed journals.


One thought on “A Clash of Technology and Needs”

  1. Sridatt Lakhan,

    I wonder if this approach would work with a younger group of students? I currently am teaching ESL to students who are new to Canada in a high school setting and have been looking for ways to integrate technology. I like your idea of writing email in English. I am concerned that young students may spend more time setting up their technology before using their English writing skills to create an email (For example, when I taught students how to use formulas in excel for a math course, students were more interested in the colour of their cells than inputting a new formula). Also what happens when they use google translate? Clearly, I also struggle with integrating technology in ESL- even in this situation do you still think the simple paper and pen works the best?

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