Aug 19, 2012

Does digital mean better?

What should I do with these?
Photo by Tzvi Meller
I’ve always envied people who can whip up a blog post straight after returning from – or sometimes while still at - a conference. Although I didn’t write any IATEFL 2012 reflections there was one session that particularly resonated with me: Andrew Walkley’s Technology and principles in language learning. He talked about how trying to bring technology to our digitally native learners many teachers have lost the focus on language. He listed five things that he found particularly worrying about unprincipled integration of technology into ELT:

  • Vocabulary and grammar are seen as separate entities
  • Grammar domination
  • Vocabulary taught in sets
  • Activity overload
  • Skills are separated from language

Andrew seems to have taken the thoughts right out of my head – only I was afraid to verbalise them apart from this post where I lightly bemoaned the lack of web tools and apps focusing on the link between grammar and vocabulary, multi-word phrases and syntagmatic features of words. But, in all honesty, all the digital language learning materials I've seen tend fall into two categories: on the one hand, presentation of lots of individual words which, depending on the tool/app, are matched, flipped or shaken; on the other hand, exercises aimed at practicing sentence grammar, available in alarming abundance.

Same sh*t, new wrapping
Despite some very convincing evidence (Nation 2000, Tinkham 1993, Waring 1997) that presenting vocabulary in semantic sets (e.g. spoon – fork – knife) is counter productive, most online materials repeat the faults of the published ELT materials and organise vocabulary precisely in this fashion. When it comes to grammar teaching, digital resources also mimic the mistakes of many old-fashined grammar books overemphasising explicit rule teaching and sentence-level grammar.

I recently attended a webinar where - after waiting for quite a while for the presenter’s files to upload - we heard a talk about how technology can be used not only with young learners but with adult beginner learners. Great idea, I thought! While I do not wish to detract from the quality and clarity of the presentation itself which was very well organised I went to the websites mentioned by the speaker and checked out some of the recommended exercises. For example, this Past Simple matching exercise taken from the ESOL Courses website - click here

I’ve always avoided and discouraged my students from using grammar reference books that use unnatural examples to demonstrate a grammar point. Why would I switch badly written grammar books for badly written online exercises? I cannot imagine anyone responding to the question on the left with the answers on the right. In fact, the inclusion of unnatural longer responses I went shopping on Sunday instead of the more natural went shopping defeats the purpose of the exercise because most of these questions can be answered by matching days of the week rather than by attending to the Past Simple form (did you do; went) if that’s what the exercise purports to do.
Am I a luddite?
Far from it. I think I am fairly dexterous with computers and, like many, I’ve embraced technology in my daily life, personal and professional. I use social media to connect with teachers around the world, take part in weekly #ELTchat, show Youtube videos in class and play online games with my students. I’ve also read and quoted from Mark Warschauer, attended the Virtual Round Table and given learning technologies courses.

In fact, it’s a bit ironic that I am writing this because earlier this summer I helped organise an ETAI pre-conference event “Integrating technology into ELT” featuring Gavin Dudeney and later on coordinated and taught an advanced learning technologies summer school alongside the Queen of Ed Tech herself - Shelly Terrell. I am neither anti- nor pro- technology; I simply use technology and believe it can enhance learning. But unfortunately much of what I see under the guise of educational technology serves little educational purpose. The fundamental principles of language learning and teaching seem to evade many digital materials out there, whether online resources or mobile language learning apps. It also saddens me to see many bloggers pandering to the lure of Ed Tech and glorifying the use of cartoon makers and online poster designers over the genuine focus on language.

Only when...
Photo by eltpics

All doom and gloom?
Not really. There are many web tools which can be used in the EFL classroom and help teachers and learners focus on language - see my collection here

Interestingly and sadly, when I was presenting these tools at the above-mentioned summer school - and the activities involved actually focusing on language - the more advanced, tech-savvy participants, who were very adept at creating photo slide shows or Glogster posters quickly lost interest and “switched off”. ‘Nuff said.

Nation, I.S.P. (2000) Learning vocabulary in lexical sets: dangers and guidelines. TESOL Journal 9 (2), 6-10. Available at

Tinkham, T. (1993). The effect of semantic clustering on the learning of L2 vocabulary. System 21(3), 371-380

Waring, R. (1997). The negative effects of learning words in semantic sets: A replication. System 25, 261-274


  1. Hi, Leo!
    I also advocate technology integration but only when it does enhance learning. I rarely use online grammar/vocabulary exercises, except for remedial work for specific students.
    I have found that tools created for ELT are not that useful because they fall into the segmentation issue you describe, tearing language apart. So I use tools that have not been created for ELT specifically but help my students to integrate the language we have been learning in the classroom. I use technology to apply what we have learnt more than to teach the language.
    Cheers from Argentina!

  2. Hi Vicky
    Thank you for your comment. I think Gavin Dudeney in his workshop Taking the Tablets (at the PCE I mentioned above) said something similar. He is an active advocate of using mobile devices for learning but he admitted that none of the apps specifically designed for ELT are up to scratch.
    Thanks for visiting my blog!

  3. Hello, Leo.

    Congrats on a brilliant post full of nice thoughts for teachers to reflect on their use (sometimes overuse) of tech in the classroom. I truly agree there is an urge or desire to shift all paper/board/skills activities to e-tivities. But why?

    True, true... most of our teen students are so familiar with these digital tools, so why not implement them into language learning? But sometimes (I'd say many times) it's just, as you put it, "glorifying the use of cartoon makers and online poster designers over the genuine focus on language."

    Last year I took part in a project done with my group of teens in Recife (Northeast of Brazil) and a group of teens from Rio together with @BrunoELT. Sharing ideas, feelings, stories and experiences via Skype was not only meaningful, but only made possible, LIVE in the classroom, via Skype.

    Using tech, and the IWB, as an open window to the world, sharing and promoting collaboration is fantastic and possibilities are endless.

    Cheers from Brazil =]

    1. Hello Eduardo
      Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment.
      I am glad that technology is put to good use in some parts of the world (like in your project with Bruno's studentst). By the way, Mark Warschauer I mentioned above has conducted research into the use of technology in schools in Brazil. He concluded that generally teachers in Brazil have good access to digital technologies and a strong interest in using them.

  4. Hi Leo,
    I read with great interest your post and also feel strongly that tecnology has to enhance our lessons rather than drive them. As a participant at the Learning Technologies summer school said: "You shouldn't think how can I integrate a YouTube video into this lesson to make it an English ICT lesson (Tikshuv)?

    When technology enhances our lessons, and can be either generated by our learners or enable collaboration with or between learners then it can be really useful for language acquisition. I really like Survey Monkey, MailVu, linoit, Wikispaces and Tricider for this reason.



    1. Hi Jane
      Good to have you here.
      The tools you mention are great for getting students to produce language, e.g. writing (Wikispaces), brainstorming (linoit), creating surveys (SurveyMonkey) etc. My main beef with technology is that it's not put to good use when it comes to actual "learning": EFL software based on outdated models of language learning, the lack of focus on language itself (lexis, grammar patterns etc) etc
      Thanks for your comment!

  5. Hi Leo,

    I agree that many tools- or rather the way they’ve been used- are all bells and whistles and don’t promote or enhance learning at all. Sometimes they can even be detrimental to learning causing confusion and cognitive overload. Take how multimedia is used for example; unnecessary or too many pictures, irrelevant sounds, distracting colours. As teachers, we need to understand that it is not the impressive tool that causes learning but rather the pedagogy and the rational behind it. I’m personally a big advocate of technology integration but like you, I firmly believe that we should adapt technology to our students and their needs, not the other way round.

    Thank you for the insightful post :-)


    1. Hi Sophia
      Thank you for reading my post and taking the time to comment. I am glad we're on the same page when it comes to technology integration.

  6. Very interesting read, Leo. I am currently working on a digital product which includes a Vocabulary section and a Grammar section (separately). The lexis is organised into lexical sets because this follows the demands of the exam syllabus, but I am aware that this is probably not the best way to learn vocabulary. I am, however, trying to avoid too many sets of decontextualised words, and drawing attention to collocation in gap-fill texts and inline choices. It's tricky though because there are such a limited set of possible exercise types (multiple choice, drag and drop, matching etc). This is a big issue with digital materials I think.
    On the other hand, for a self-study product like this, the digital format makes it possible to give the kind of hints and feedback that a teacher could give a student much more effectively that could ever be done with a book (turn to page X etc). So there are some advantages for this particular type of product.
    It will also be great, I think, for the speaking section, where we can integrate recordings as models.
    Overall though, I don't like to see the tail wagging the dog, and the content being determined by the limitations of the format.

    1. Thank you so much for commenting, Rachel.
      "The content being determined by the limitations of the format" pretty much sums it up for me. As you said, there are few possible exercise types with digital resources, which means:
      A) Technology cannot provide meaningful feedback and the negotiation of meaning that can only occur with a teacher in the classroom,
      B) Technology has not yet reached the level where it can do these things
      C) People developing these technologies know nothing about pedagogy
      So which one is it?

    2. Nice way of putting it! I think a)the feedback can be meaningful, BUT, b) it will never be as meaningful as interacting with a teacher...and c) probably spot on!

  7. Powerful stuff Leo, especially when coming from you. I really prefer the open aspects of technology, where I can tailor things to my own specific needs.
    Naomi Epstein

    1. Thank you for reading my rant, Naomi :)

      I would like to hear more about how you harness the open aspects of technology. Can you elaborate please?

  8. Hello Leo,
    I've found you recently and I'm only just beginning to get around your blog, but I must say I really like it :-).

    What generally appeals to me are all the novelties and non-standard approaches. I like surprises and so do my students. They need new ideas & exciting topics to be motivated & keep learning. I often use a laptop or an Ipad in my class to have a variety of techniques (documentaries, youtube videos, photos, interviews, etc...). I try to think out of the box and avoid those boring predesigned materials (as you mentioned above)and use resources real people can relate to (You probably know the saying "tell me and I'll forget, show me and I'll remember, involve me and I''l understand"). In my humble opinion, REALIA are the key to success for both teacher and student. The Internet is abundant and friendly to the open-minded. You only need to remember the basics (cause it's so easy to forget): Prepare well, know what you want to teach, revise and test.

    1. Hello Sylwia
      Thank you for the kind words and your thoughtful comment. I've been actually thinking of writing a post about using realia in class and - after your comment -might do it sooner.
      Hope to see you hear again!

  9. This reminds me of the ongoing debate about the normalisation of CALL in that by suggesting technology use be a special thing in language classrooms, we inadvertently (?) fabricate situations to use it for its sake. Obviously doing so isn't the goal, but then I would have thought everyone already knew that. Of course though, they don't.

    1. Hi Tyson
      I am glad you've overcome technological (!) challenges (multiple windows opening) and managed to get here. To be honest, I don't know much about the normalisation of CALL debate unless I misunderstand the term. Isn't CALL slowly dying or already dead?

    2. I think by 'dying', you mean mean being normalised. Tomato, etc.

  10. You are absolutely right,Leo. Just because the technology is there, it doesn't mean that teachers know how to integrate it, much less build lessons with it. Trying to save time, I looked for ppt presentations on the present simple.The quality of 99% of the stuff is shocking,even worse than the most badly written textbooks. I ended up writing it myself. Teachers who value their pedagogical principles need to be aware of the pitfalls of the (mis)use of technology in the classroom.

    1. Hi Laura
      Thanks for your comment.
      PowerPoint presentations... don't even get me started! :)
      I deliberately avoid including PowerPoint into my Learning Technology courses. If anything, I think teachers should be discouraged from using it otherwise it quickly turns into teacher-centred misuse and abuse.

  11. Thanks for saying what needed to be said! I agree with you that technology should be the means, not the end. I think we need a balanced approach. On the one hand, we need training courses on Web 2.0 tools, so that teachers feel comfortable using them. On the other hand, trainers shouldn't forget to discuss methodology and pedagogy with teachers and clarify aims. I found this "Teaching with Technology" checklist that was shared during the Learning Technologies course very helpful:

  12. Thanks for saying what needs to be said! I agree with you that technology should be the means, not the end. I think we need a balanced approach. On the one hand, we need training courses on Web 2.0 tools, so that teachers feel comfortable using them. On the other hand, trainers shouldn't forget to discuss methodology and pedagogy with teachers and clarify aims. I found this "Teaching with Technology" checklist that was shared during the Learning Technologies course very helpful:

  13. Thank you for your comment, Elana.
    When it comes to teacher training, unfortunately many trainers (including myself) assume that teachers have enough experience to make that link themselves and apply technology to pedagogy but they don't. Very often I am afraid to sound patronising and state the obvious but it seems that's what I am going to start doing from next year: start with discussing methodology and pedagogy with teachers and then move on to relevant tech tools.

  14. I use a lot of technology - at home, and so do most of the kids I teach. I specialize in using music to teach English. They don't need me to watch a YouTube clip, they watch plenty of those on their own. However, who is going to come into their home with costumes and percussion instruments, teach them a song, sing it and act it out with them and watch them perform?

  15. Good teaching and effective education begins and ends with the teacher. Technology, employing well or poorly designed exercises, will not teach anyone anything. Bad exercises in the hands of a good teacher can be much more effective than the best, most up-to-date pedogogically correct technology based learning.

    Great post!

  16. Leo, you ask "Does digital mean better?" and you look at the mechanics of teaching English. This could be supplemented by a more general consideration of the politics of replacing more and more teaching functions by ed tech (I know that the examples you mention do not involve a replacement of teacher time by tech time, but there is a trend towards having the teacher step to the side to allow the students to move ahead with their own learning on various shiny plastic devices). The implications of this both in the wealthier countries and in the poorer countries (where people like Sugata Mitra have suggested that instead of setting up better schools with better teachers, kids really only need access to the internet) are a touch dubious.

  17. Thanks Leo for sharing your insights.But let us just not focus on the compartmentalizing nature of these tools in a negative sense alone. They can also be used to provide an impetus to promote self learning and drilling. For example, if a student makes repeated mistakes in the use of the past tense in real time communication, he can be motivated, to take up a drill exercise using the appropriate software. And when we discuss digital, let us not forget the enormous potential of the Internet and social media in promoting language learning.

  18. Yes, what books can do, tech can do bigger and faster. Just like robots in the manufacturing industry. I think most of us know that tech for tech's sake doesn't hold water just as some teachers' antagonism towards tech because of a fear of them being replaced by it is unfounded.

    Tech tools are just that - tools. Means to an end. Just as teachers following coursebooks rigidly aren't helping their students, the same can be said of teachers using tech so that they can mark their papers... (half joking).

    In other words, it boils down to the teacher. Always. If there isn't any interaction between teacher and students, then, learning is minimal. Don't you think so?

  19. Thank you everyone for your comments. I've been away (holiday + conference) so apolgise for not replying sooner.

    Torn, I am not very familiar with Sugata Mitra's claims but I've already googled him and will watch his TED talk about minimally invasive education. You've rightly noted that the technology in education debate extends much further than what I focused on in my post. I just wanted to lament the quality of the materials available online and fascination with bells and whistles.

    Velu, I concede that there is (some) room for decontextualised grammar practise and drilling in ELT but these shouldn't be the only kinds of exercise. Unfortunately they dominate the Internet.

    As Chiew and Michele noted above it all boils down to the teacher and how they use the tools available.

    Thank you once again for reading my blog and taking the time to comment.

  20. Thanks for referencing my talk and I'm glad it generated so much discussion. I tried to comment before, but my tech skills let me down!!! My concerns are less that teachers are being replaced and more tat they are being forced or dragged into more unpaid work. In terms of lexical sets, I've recently posted on our new blog at CELTtraining, which may be of interest given your comments here.

  21. Hi Andrew
    Great to have you here! Regarding lexical sets, I was going to write on the subject of lexical sets myself but - to coin a phrase - you took the blog right out of my mouth. If I ever write one I will be sure and link to your series of posts on the problem of lexical sets.
    Thank you for the comment.

  22. Hi Leo
    A great post written with clarity , depth of thought and experience. I have been to several of your workshops where you use technology in an extremely creative and inspiring way. I wish more of the teachers that I mentor were more adept and creative and selective in the way that they use technology in their classrooms.


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