Stephen Louw

Getting to grips with ed-tech (education technology)

What aspects of technology I've found work well in the classroom

Is all this technology really helping?

As a teacher, I’ve been pretty averse to technology in my classrooms. I’ll stand for paper and pencils, and I’ll accept a whiteboard, but beyond that I generally drawn the line (so to speak). 

I remember once, back in the early 2000s, being shown one of those fancy electronic whiteboard things. The salesperson gushed about how marvelous it was and how it would change the nature of teaching forever. Right.

That may no longer be the case. The remote classrooms and lockdowns have forced me to revisit my rather antiquated and technophobic ways. I have had to face this technology-classroom-teacher-student dialogue in all its digital reality. I’ve Zoomed and Teamed. I now know the difference between synchronous and asynchronous teaching tools and have actually got (some) intelligent things to contribute in discussions about them. I even know what an LMS is and how to use it! 

This technological leap forward has, however, come with a rather dizzyingly array of apps, programs and doodahs that I find rather overwhelming. How do teachers keep up with all this stuff? There’s Padlet, Answer Garden, Camtasia,, ThingLink, Wordwall, Jamboard, Mentimeter, Quizlet, Kahoot, Lark. There seems to be a new one every day. There are so many, in fact, that Russell Stannard has an entire website devoted to teaching people like me how to use them. 

Help or hindrance?

I wonder how many of these technologically amazing apps are worth getting to know before they fall into oblivion? 

Looking back at the history of ed-tech, there have been a lot of hyped-up fads that have been rather a waste of time. Take Andrew’s noiseless drawing slates in 1878, or Sidney Pressey’s mechanical teaching machine in the 1920s. Where are they now? I jest, but teaching machines, in fact, were an educational solution worth consideration for quite some time. In this (rather awesome) video from the 1950s, B.F. Skinner himself will tell you how valuable teaching machines can be for your classroom:

Why do some technologies stick and not others? Neil Selwyn argues that technology only becomes truly transformative in a classroom when it can be normalized into a teacher’s classroom routine and therefore help in achieving a lesson’s objective. So, for example, teachers readily use photocopiers as a solution to the problem of engaging students in practice tasks, but would soon tire of designing lesson that specifically utilize the fantastic functionality of photocopiers. The key is that the technology needs to serve real pedagogical purposes.

Technological depth

However, during periods of forced remote teaching like we experienced during the lockdown, teachers might not necessarily need ‘transformative’ technology; perhaps all that is needed is something to get a specific classroom job done. For instance, when teaching remotely, what can substitute as a whiteboard? For this, Zoom has been amazing – effective and simple. 

Technology, then, has different purposes to serve, and to use it well, a teacher needs to know exactly what is needed and then use it accordingly. 

To visualize these purposes, have a look at Ruben Puentdeura’s SAMR model. Sometimes tech serves simply as a Substitute for an analogue equivalent - like the Zoom whiteboard. There are teachers, though, who squeeze much more functionality out of Zoom’s whiteboard than may be possible from an analogue classroom whiteboard, in which case, they are moving into Augmentation or Modification

Some tech can truly transform a lesson. Take for instance the ‘tell the class about a place you like’ activity which bores everyone to tears under normal circumstances. In an online classroom this can be transformed into a fantastic geographical scavenger hunt using Google Street View (like this one). 

The value of technology for a teacher, then, is not in its flashiness, but in how readily it can be used to achieve our lesson’s objective or offers a meaningful strategy for problems at hand. 

How do you know?

Still, how can a teacher know what technology to use to serve these purposes? The superheated proliferation of stuff that is supposed to ‘solve our every educational need’ now available online somewhere has just made things more confusing. To me, anyway. As a technophobic digital idiot, what I need is a shortcut to identifying whether there is an app I can use for my lesson and what it’s called. 

Enter the Padagogy Wheel! True to its technological foundation, it’s now on V5.0. This one comes from Matt Harris’ blog, where you can also find the Android version.

It looks overwhelming, but it’s actually fairly simple to use. 

Start in the center with your lesson objective. You’ll need some knowledge of Bloom’s taxonomy, which may be familiar to you in its original form, but because it’s all about technology, Andrew Churches has an updated digital age Bloom’s, adding verbs like ‘bookmarking’, ‘tagging’ and ‘animating’. 

So you choose the pie corresponding to your taxonomic verb, work outwards to identify an activity that goes with your verb, and then find the app that matches your pedagogy. To quote Allan Carrington, “It’s not about the apps, it’s about the pedagogy”. Nice.

As an example, I want my students to use irregular past tense verbs. I decide I’d like them to tell stories. My Cognitive domain on Bloom is Create, and I’m choosing Orate and Collaborate as my action verbs. My activity, as I work outward on the wheel, is Storytelling and for this, students are going to use the app Writer’s Studio to recreate a Thai folk story – it can be written or narrated with images on the app, and the other members of the class will read/listen to it. 

This kind of activity is going to be fun for students, and also a good opportunity to see learning in action in my online lesson.

2020 has been crazy, but also a fantastic opportunity for us as educators to expand, explore and re-examine what teaching, and learning are about. The last few months have seen an impressive amount of research, blogs, webinars, lectures and TED talks about the lessons learned about technology for education during Covid. For instance, The International Journal of TESOL Studies in Singapore ran a special issue on ELT in the Time of Coronavirus which has 17 articles focused on technology in teaching and learning.

Now is a good time for us all to read Neil Selwyn’s book ‘Is technology good for education?’. I, for one, am glad we are in the classroom and not online anymore, but I’m also no longer the primitive technophobe I was in 2019.

Steve Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TEFL Course in Bangkok.


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