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. Technology, teaching, and collaboration

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!

Tired of this analog nonsense because you’re not sold that we can call these “technology”? Alright, let’s get digital. You’re a language teacher, and your school shelled out a ton of money for the top-end license for a video-chat program. Now, you can have students chatting in Esperanto in breakout rooms with each other, even though they’re all at home in their pyjamas. Great, problem solved. What happens when we’re back in the classroom? Do you use the video chat software to pair off students for speaking activities? No, of course not; the problem that the video chatting software solved was that students were physically separated. Now that you’re all in the same room, you don’t need to use that technology all the time. Keep it in your back pocket for when the school has an emergency remote-learning week to accommodate the antivax parents whose kid started spreading the bubonic plague to the rest of the school.

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
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.

Technology, teaching, and collaboration

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).

Invest time now to save time later. 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. Oh, 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.

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.

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.