Technology in the Classroom

This page is separated into the following sections:

  1. What is a “technology”?
  2. Use technology to solve problems.
  3. Work smarter, not harder.
  4. Deploying technology, teaching, and collaborating

What is a “technology”?

Before diving into what a technology-enhanced classroom looks like, let me lay some groundwork so we start off on the same page. I like to think of “technology” in the broadest sense possible, i.e. an invention or advancement which solves a problem. Language is my wheelhouse, so we can start with that as an example.

“Writing” technologies include:

  • Writing systems (alphabets, syllabaries, logographs)
  • Chisels
  • Wax tablets
  • Quills and inkwells
  • Inkpens
  • Typewriters

That’s just one technology; consider too that each advancement builds on the technologies (and the society) from which it developed–standing on the shoulders of giants, if you will. Take Sid Meier’s Civilization V game’s technology tree as an illustration of this mindset.

Agriculture and pottery are as much “technological advancements” as iron working, computers, and robotics; and engineering requires mathematics as much as horseback riding requires animal husbandry. Looking through this lens, it becomes evident that each advancement solves a particular problem we come across. Tired of the nomad lifestyle, with its long and dangerous hunting excursions? Let’s try to cultivate some of these local edible plants. Tired of copying a text by hand, word for word? Let’s create the printing press!

Use technology to solve problems.

Each technology solves a particular problem, but it sometimes creates its own, new problems. We started farming, but now we need to find a way to store these crops for the winter, when we can’t grow them. We’ve got a printing press, but now we need to do something to stop the machines from jamming. Likewise, just throwing a technology into education doesn’t mean we’re done.

Wax tablets were all the rage for ancient pupils, but they had to be wiped after use, with no way of saving your writing for later. Far cheaper to make, quicker to set, and much more portable than a chisel and stone or clay tablets. A modern equivalent might be those small, personal whiteboards and a couple dry erase markers. They aren’t very efficient for note-taking; students would run out of space on their desks, and they’d have to keep a steady supply of new ones. But, hey, now our students aren’t going through all that paper! We can save the planet by switching to dry-erase!

Alright, let’s get digital. Various schools I’ve worked for shelled out a ton of money for the top-end license for a video-chat program, in order to cope with the social distancing required by a global pandemic. Problem solved, right? What we’ve done is substituted video-chat for the physical classroom experience: we can again see each other’s faces and chat synchronously, one person talks at a time (great for teacher-centric classrooms which have a lot of lecture, right?), and we’ve even replicated the projector/whiteboard combination!

Mapped onto Puentedura’s SAMR model, we’re at the shallowest end of of technology-enhanced education: Substitution. We took the format for banking education, and created a digital environment for it. Colleagues of mine continued lecturing, now able to ensure that students can’t talk to each other by muting them and blocking chat functions. Students raised their digital hands, waiting to be called on by the teacher. My K12 institution even maintained the in-person schedule. Despite the affordances of digital technology, we continued to deliver outdated educational models with new technology. It was the equivalent of using a word processor as if it were a typewriter: spell-check by hand, rewrite the whole page if you want to move a paragraph, no multimedia embedding, etc..

That’s not to say that video-chat can’t be used more effectively. I’ve used video-chat breakout rooms to facilitate paired and partnered conversation exercises. Along the SAMR model, this is more Augmentation: the technology provided a functional improvement with quicker, automatic pairing of students–and no need to move seats around. We need to leverage the affordances of the technology to enhance and transform our pedagogy. The next steps would be to Modify and Redefine tasks, such as utilizing screen sharing to allow students to collaborate on research and creation projects.

So let’s make sure we start thinking about the problem before we start thinking about a solution. This chart below has some problems you might encounter as a (language) teacher, and some solutions in general terms. I’ll compile a separate list of specific applications or software (it’s hard to vet all these services and make sure I’m not encouraging students to give away their personal information to ad companies).

ProblemDigital Solutions
Textbooks and workbooks are heavy;
Students keep forgetting materials at home
Digital worksheets
Digital problem sets
Online classrooms
Video lectures
Students need to practice speaking with each other outside of classTelephones
Online voice calls
Video calls
Asynchronous video/voice chatting
I need to grade student speaking from outside of classVideo recording
Voice recording
Students need access to target-language news sourcesNewspapers’ websites
Journalists’ social media
Journalists’ podcasts
Students need access to native speakers who live thousands of miles awayVoice/video call pen pals
Social media
Students need access to target language cultural artifactsDigital images
Digital books
Movie/TV/music streaming services
Social media
I need to keep all of my various teaching materials in one easy place for my students to access, so they don’t get lost!Personal website/blog
Students need to conduct their own research and find their own sourcesDigital library catalogues
Digital research databases
Web search engines
Students need to create something which evidences their learningPersonal website/blog
Digital postcards
Video/voice recording
Follow some of the links for some examples

Work smarter, not harder.

Just because a digital solution exists doesn’t mean you need to use it. You have a working VHS copy of Das Boot for your German cinematography class, along with a VCR and some sort of display to plug into? If that’s been working for you, go for it. Hell, I still mostly use pen and paper for my own note-taking. I’m certainly not here to tell you that there’s a new, state-of-the-art, digital solution for your problems. But maybe consider that you can streamline what you’re doing if you take the time to learn a new technology.

Let’s use the VHS copy of Das Boot as our example here. The tape is going to wear down the more you teach the course. Luckily for you, your department head is a German cinephile who made your course a requirement for the German Studies major. Your tape is now riddled with all that choppy grain, making it pretty distracting to watch. But you’re committed! It’s muscle memory for you to pause, rewind, or fast-forward exactly to the parts you want to discuss. But now, you can’t find another VHS copy.

Get a digital copy. Familiarize yourself with some video playback application. Take some time to write down the timestamps of the important bits you want your students to pay attention to. You just shaved off the time it takes to manipulate the physical tape, and replaced it with additional time for student discussion.

That’s not even the most time-efficient solution. Remember why you had to get a copy of the movie on VHS in the first place? Because your students couldn’t all borrow the library’s one copy at the same time, or the local cinema didn’t screen foreign films, or you serve at low-SES area and students can’t afford all the movies in your syllabus themselves. If your department has access to a video streaming service that has all these films, you can just give your students access to that so they can watch it on their own time. Now all class time is discussion time. You have to learn the new software yourself, and now you have to plan more discussion prompts, but wow, those are nicer problems to have.

Just as in the above example, technology can enable us to flip the classroom. Just as students can now watch Das Boot on their own time, they can also engage with your instruction. I’ve pre-recorded brief, explanatory videos for my students to interact with outside of the classroom so they can come to class prepared to use the new skills. Students who are having difficulty can rewatch the video, or check out our other didactic materials posted to our classroom page. I’ve posted recordings of my own video projects and presentations for students to watch if they need an exemplar (or want to review it!). Once, I even left a video introduction for parents on Meet the Teacher night when I was working in two schools in the same district and could only physically be in one building.

I used to spend large chunks of class time on grammar explanations and content lectures. Now, I can prioritize activities in which students are using the target language, and provide guided feedback on work in progress.

Deploying Technology, teaching, and collaborating

All of the tools and strategies I’ve outlined above are great for keeping yourself organized and solving problems in your classroom. So far, the only cost is the time investment required for you to learn and starting using these technologies. But, just like how we often teach using textbooks we haven’t written ourselves, you don’t need to undertake these tasks all on your own.

Share the tools you find with others. Honestly, the reason I started this blog was to share teaching materials with other people. I’ve borrowed materials from co-workers before: lesson plans, worksheets, activities, realia, dry erase markers–you name it, I’ve probably borrowed it! We need to do the same with any new technologies we come across. Before COVID was even on anyone’s mind, I took the liberty of digitizing the workbook I used for my middle school French class. A colleague of mine had her students use the workbook religiously. All of a sudden, the school had one of the first COVID clusters in the state, and students weren’t allowed in the building for weeks–no access to physical workbooks. I sent my colleague all the scans I took of the workbook, and showed her how to use a PDF annotation webapp (which our school bought a license for, but few teachers used).

If you can, schedule time to work with other instructors in your department to share strategies that work, as well as new technologies. Often, due to K12 teaching schedules, I would barely have 3-5 minutes to talk to a colleague, or we’d be limited to the few minutes of idle chat before our department head came to our meetings. These few minutes are often enough to say “Hey, I just tried out this new tech, check it out!”, or maybe even show a quick demo. If you can’t schedule time to meet up, send an email to share your work–that’s what I did for my colleagues with the middle school French workbooks.

Invest time now to save time later with an LMS. As long as you keep teaching the same class, it will save you time in the long run to invest some time up front to make your life easier down the line. Pre-record your lectures, then stick them on your course LMS for students to watch outside of class. Now class time can be used for active learning. Upload a digital copy of your handouts to your website. Now you don’t have to spend time distributing physical copies. Yes, it only takes you a minute or two to pass all the worksheets back? Multiply that by the number of times you ever have to distribute a worksheet–that’s how much class time you’re saving.

The best part about using an LMS is how you can copy/paste the bones of the course. You literally only do the set-up once, and it’s all minor tweaks from then on out. One of my Spanish-teaching colleagues kept large binders of all the handouts, worksheets, tests, and quizzes he ever gave. I turned it all into a G***** Classroom page for him, tied in with that PDF annotation app. No more requesting hundreds of photocopies every day. No more “I lost the packet” or “I need a new sheet”. Just a couple mouse clicks to push the docs to students, and for a lot of apps, you can view student progress in real-time.

I do the same with all the courses I teach. It’s all modules on the LMS. A few months ago, I started teaching a new course. I spent a few hours up-front organizing everything into modules, assigning points according to the syllabus, etc.. I’m teaching the same course again this semester, so it was just a quick copy/paste job and taking a few minutes to change the dates for the assignments. I can add new materials if I need to, or choose not to publish old materials.

Just like in the above example of having students watch Das Boot at home, setting up the LMS page as an extension of the classroom makes it easier to flip the classroom, no matter what level. I post reading materials, study guides, brief video lectures, and homework assignments all on the LMS. This provides a centralized place for students to organize their learning, and, when well-curated, acts as an interactive course syllabus. They’re a click away from the reading I assigned, supplemental videos, additional exercises, or discussions with peers.

In classes I’ve taken, some instructors use the LMS as if it were the small section of the blackboard they write the homework assignment on: “Due Tuesday: read chapters 1-2, answer questions 1-25”. Back when some districts started hosting individual teacher websites (which had to be manually written in HTML, so it was no surprise that teachers rarely updated them), this kind of information was the only kind you’d find. Now, an LMS can host the assignments or course materials, or directly embed them if they’re hosted on another service.

One of the major hurdles to hosting an online class this way used to be teacher training. Most teachers couldn’t write HTML back in the day, so their webpages were updated once per year by IT. Now, the LMS is streamlined and easy to use–there’s no need to contact IT if you want to post an assignment or a file. Students are automatically enrolled in your course page by the Registrar, and automatically removed if they transfer out. This streamlining has lowered the barrier to entry, and we need to start taking advantage of that.

Everyone interacts with the LMS differently: students and teachers alike. As with everything, share your what works and what doesn’t with colleagues. I used to leave everything siloed in separate categories: students had to go to the “Discussions” page to view discussions, the “Files” page to view readings, and the “Assignments” page to view assignments. This meant that, week-to-week, students had to check several different places, and they had to pay careful attention to what I said in class. I often had students check the “Assignments” page, see only the activities on our e-textbook platform, and then skip out on that week’s discussion threads because they were in the bathroom when I mentioned the forum posts in class.

Now, I organize everything in Modules, with intra-LMS hyperlinks to materials. This allows me to centralize the information on one page, and any students who miss the class session know exactly where to go and what to do. Students see all of the learning materials and the various tasks that would otherwise have lived on their own siloed sections of the course site. With this format, my expectations for students are clear (assignment descriptions, deadlines, rubrics, what materials to access and when), and I’ve mapped out each learning step in order.

Learn how to learn. Get accustomed to figuring things out on the fly, and don’t be afraid to try something completely new if it looks interesting. New applications and hardware are coming out all the time, and they have the potential of making your life easier.

Teach how to learn. On top of that, your students are entering a world where these technologies are commonplace. Just as we once taught students proper cursive penmanship, we need to make sure our students can tackle new technologies. I had the privilege of teaching fifth graders how to use a PDF annotation application to fill out French worksheets on their Chromebooks. Each time we used the app, they got better at it. By the end of the marking quarter, they were pros. Repeat this process for every batch of fifth graders I ever taught (I got a new crop every quarter, so: many). PDF annotation is how I submitted district paperwork, and it’s even how I had to fill out all my mortgage paperwork. You can’t bury your head in the sand and ignore the technology, because it’s coming, whether you’re ready or not.