Integrated Technology in the ESL Classroom

A helpful blog post about how technology can be integrated into the ESL classroom, with links to research and studies, to help teachers know what works.

If you’ve taught English as a second language (ESL) for a few years, you’ll have noticed changes in how educational technology, or edtech, is used. Things like tablets, gamification, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and individualised learning, which were rare just a few years ago, are becoming more common every day.

Students’ expectations are changing too. For example, almost everyone uses a phone instead of a paper dictionary to look up a new word. They’re also far more likely to go online to do research on the journey home, rather than going to a library.

Classroom technology can bring great benefits to students. For example, some studies have shown it may speed up language learning. But it can also be disruptive, as any teacher who has had WiFi fail during a classroom quiz will tell you.

As Scott Widman pointed out in his TED Talk Technology, The best or worst thing for education:

“If you Google ‘technology in education‘ you’re going to find hundreds of articles that can convincingly argue both sides from every angle.”

So, in this article, we will discuss the positive and negative impacts that technology can have on the classroom and offer tips on using edtech in your lessons.

When technology doesn’t integrate

You probably know that any technical problem can ruin the flow of a lesson. Technology has to be seamless. You don’t want slow loading pages, complicated interfaces, or errors to disrupt your students.

So, the first question is whether the class’ attention will be on learning, or on getting the technology to work properly.

Here are some of the key questions to ask:

Is the tech relevant to students?

The most famous example of classroom technology becoming disruptive is One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). Its goals were ambitious: to help underprivileged children access quality education by providing them with low-cost internet-connected laptops.

It didn’t go quite to plan in some countries though.

For example, OLPC laptops included a music suite which allowed children to create their own music. Sadly, Uruguayan children “noted that the music authoring program was unable to create music which matched the beats of their local music.”

Children felt that they could not customise the music to play the sounds in their cultures. As a result, they were reluctant to use the software again, holding their creativity back. The technology, rather than helping students make music, got in the way and stopped them from doing what they wanted to do.

Our takeaway: Think about how this applies to your own teaching. Look at the technology and think about whether students can relate to it. Does it look like it was designed by someone who understood your students? If students wouldn’t recognise it in their everyday lives, be very careful about using it.

Will edtech benefit students?

Technology can’t be too much of an unknown to teachers. Although OLPC was innovative, this was also a weakness. There wasn’t any data to guarantee it would benefit students, making schools reluctant to gamble on buying the laptops.

Does this sound familiar?

Before using a new piece of technology in the classroom, it’s a good idea to check whether others have used it and whether it actually works. Organisations like EdTech Impact have hundreds of studies of different classroom technology products.

Our takeaway: Consider what you want to get out of the technology in your classroom, whether it’s accurate error correction, examples of good pronunciation, or just cool content. Then try to find out whether it can achieve your goals.

Is it safe?

Finally, a more recent concern, especially with younger students, is safeguarding their wellbeing. Young people’s social lives are online. Problems outside the classroom, such as cyberbullying can stay with students 24 hours a day.

A report for a UK parliamentary group pointed out that educational technology “must be secure by design”. Think about whether there is anything in the technology that might cause a danger to students.

Our takeaway: Who does it enable them to speak to? Could it be used to harm your students? This includes VR too. Is your classroom a place where accidents like this could happen?

When technology goes right

There is plenty of evidence that technology does benefit learning, especially if you take the above questions into account. This 2013 meta-analysis found a strong positive impact of technology on language learners’ progress.

According to the UK Educational Endowment Foundation, the thing to always keep in mind when using technology in the classroom is to make sure it is embedded in a well-designed system of teaching.

On top of this, this study from the University of Nicosia found that technology doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated to benefit students.

An Indonesian ESL teacher set up a WhatsApp group for B1-level students and closely monitored it. The researchers found that the teacher was able to improve students’ motivation and study skills.

WhatsApp made learning more accessible and allowed students to learn from anywhere with a mobile signal. Since young people are especially fond of using WhatsApp groups to talk to friends, there was no learning curve for them to join their English WhatsApp class. They were able to work together to access learning materials, and also to support each other’s learning.

Our takeaway: Use technology as a way to enhance your work as a teacher and the other materials you use, not as a replacement.

How to integrate technology into the ESL classroom

There are many ways that edtech can be used in the ESL classroom. And new ones are appearing all of the time. The key thing about educational technology is that it is used in a balanced way, which accommodates the needs of each individual.

For example, our collaboration with Minecraft, Adventures in English, aims to inspire children to learn English at home, playing a game they already know and love. It encourages learners to complete fun puzzles, meet new characters, and solve mysteries while they learn to use new words.

Similarly, Cambridge English Kahoots help teachers integrate fun, interactive games with their lessons. It helps learners practise their English and build their language skills.

On the more academic, but still fun, side, Exam Lift is an enjoyable way for students to practise and improve their English. It focuses on all four language skills – reading, writing, listening and speaking and offers in-app exam practice.

All that said, the importance of educational technology is only going to increase as teachers and students learn how best to make it work.

We hope that this article has helped you know which questions to ask when deciding whether to use technology in your classroom.

Want to learn more about teaching with technology? Check out Raquel Ribeiro’s article: ‘Metaverse’ and the educational potential: Is it so far away?