Retooling Perspectives on Technology’s Role in Language Education

Randall Davis, University of Utah, USA

Davis, R. (2011). Retooling perspectives on technology’s role in language education. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 2(3), 212-218.

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For years, educators, parents, and the rest of the general public have often been bombarded (or for a better word, lulled) into believing that technology can be the end-all solution to educating children in the classroom or in self-access learning environments. Broad assumptions are commonly made on how technology, including anything from computers, whiteboards, and iPads, can transform and revolutionize teaching, independent learning, assessment, and other educational initiatives. Furthermore, changes in school programs are at times instituted at break-neck speeds with little understanding of the effects that technology can have on the actual learning process.

Unfortunately, simple catch phrases and anecdotal accounts on how students appear to be more motivated to learn in and out of the classroom only serve to cloud the already murky debate, and much has been written on the potential benefits and limitations of technology on student achievement and learning (Cordes, & Miller, 2000; Cuban, 1986; Farenga & Joyce, 2001; Openheimer, 2003). In fact, measurable and quantifiable data demonstrating the real impact of technology on learning is somewhat spotty and open to much debate, findings often relying solely on interviews and observations (Cuban, 2010; Trucano, 2005). Of course, much can be said about the value in qualitative research and even anecdotal evidence, but this should be combined with other well-defined research methods that give a more comprehensive understanding of how technology aids learning.

With such diverging views, educators may be in somewhat of a quandary as to how to proceed in their attempts to blend pedagogically-sound instruction with the latest technologies available in self-assess centers. This is nothing new. Success with technology has been a mixed bag in language learning and instruction, in part because of the multiplicity and conflicting agendas coming from political, educational, and business arenas. In response to this conundrum, I would like to share several experiences I have had in providing teacher training in different parts of the world and discuss three contributing factors that can lead to better application and integration of technology in the language classroom and in independent learning situations.

Determining Teacher and Student Needs

Over the years, investments in technology have been driven by many competing interests, including the desire to look high tech without a clear picture of what is needed. In fact, Trucano (2005, p. 5) states that “one of the enduring difficulties of technology use in education is that educational planners and technology advocates think of the technology first and then investigate the educational applications of this technology only later.”

One classic illustration of this perspective became evident when I was invited to visit the language department of a major institution and give a number of lectures on instructional technology. Before arriving, I had been informed that the department was concerned about their teachers’ perceived reticence on using technology in their classrooms, particularly in the institutions new high-tech multimedia lab. The group to whom I was speaking was made up of classroom educators and administrators from different parts of that country, and as my lectures proceeded, I sensed a deep-rooted anxiety on the part of teachers that their needs had not been considered. After further discussions, I discovered that many of the purchases of technology, including the computer lab, were decisions made by upper administration based on an apparent urgency to appear high tech in the name of better instruction and learning, with little or no input on what teachers or students really needed. Furthermore, there was no specific plan on how the lab could be used to enhance autonomous learning during after-school hours. As a result of the disparity in perspectives between administrators and teachers, the whole discussion ended up in a quagmire of debate and little progress was made.

On another occasion, I received a long-distance phone call from a school administrator seeking advice and recommendations on how to spend a sizeable budget designated for educational technology, specifically on computers and software for a self-access lab in a public school. The immediate concern was that if the money was not spent in the next three days, the funds would be lost, and there was not sufficient time to meet with teachers to discuss these decisions. (I did not ask him why a thorough needs analysis had not been conducted earlier, and the person did not volunteer an explanation.) Not having done a needs analysis and with no concrete plan on how the computers would be used to achieve curriculum goals, technology would have probably gone underused because teachers were never involved in the needs assessment process.

These stories typify the common of practice of circumventing the very steps that ensure successful technological integration, that is, teacher and student involvement in the initial stages of planning and needs assessment to determine what technologies would actually benefit instruction and independent learning. Assessing a program’s technical needs from the beginning through questionnaires and planning meetings will save administrators and teachers the heartache of relegating new fancy gizmos and gadgets to the unused electronic heap once they realize, in hindsight, that they never really needed the technologies in the first place.

Maintaining Realistic Expectations

In addition to conducting a careful analysis of teacher and program needs, educators should fully understand and consider the limitations and even the possible shortcomings of technology in self-access centers. If the goal in such learning environments is to encourage learner autonomy leading to better language proficiency, then teachers and students need to understand what can be realistically accomplished with the technology at their disposal. To illustrate this point, a common learning task assigned to students might be to visit a specific website after school to practice their listening skills; however, with undefined learning goals, tasks, and self-assessment rubric or tools, it will be very difficult for a student to measure specific learning outcomes.

With these issues in mind, educational institutions need to evaluate what technologies can produce realistic results in the development of language skills in self-access learning environments before investing in new products and technologies, and in the end, what educators often discover is that “less is more” in accomplishing learning objectives. In other words, rather than purchasing computer equipment and software that most learners may never need, self-access administrators may find that a judicious selection of a few items can be a more productive effective use of funding. For instance, instead of purchasing high-end, multi-track digital voice recorders for the simple task of recording and assessing students’ speech samples, other much simpler devices such as a student’s cell phone with free voice mail services could accomplish the same task. Simply investing in expensive tools does not always translate into better learning outcomes.

In the same way, technologies dressed as educational tools will not deliver magnificent results without effective teacher intervention. Indeed, what I have seen most in the classroom over the years would not be considered cutting edge, innovative, or thought provoking. At times, students are simply asked to look up information as part of a writing assignment without having been given instruction on how to evaluate the authority, relevance, credibility, and timeliness of online sources. This also could be said in the overuse of PowerPoint for presentations in which students sometimes spend the majority of their time in developing the slides with elaborate animations and graphic embellishments, and very little time on the linguistic competencies needed to convey their ideas in front of an audience. In this case, a simple poster board would be a more useful presentation tool.

In the end, teachers need to realize that if you invest in new technologies with the hope of great learning outcomes coming forth on their own, you may be sorely disappointed. In fact, one observation made years ago by Warschauer (1996, p. 11) is still very relevant today:

Those who expect to get magnificent results simply from the purchase of expensive and elaborate systems will likely be disappointed. But those who put computer technology to use in the service of good pedagogy will undoubtedly find ways to enrich their educational program and the learning opportunities of their students.

Investing in Training, Not Devices

The final point I would like to make deals with teacher training. Over the years, I have visited institutions in which I often encountered one similarity: abandoned, discarded, or underused pieces of technology. As I have mentioned before, this can occur due to inadequate assessment of students’ needs or over-realistic expectations on what technology can do to enhance learning. What is actually true with technology is that even with the best tools, little can be accomplished without significant investment in ongoing, in-service training.

For years, technology has been viewed as a method, rather than a tool to facilitate and support teaching, and not the other way around, and it is sometimes assumed that if computers are placed in the hands of teachers, these devices will transform teaching. Unfortunately, a great deal of teacher training is based on this premise and fails to acknowledge that teachers often do not implement or follow through with the ideas that they learn in training workshops. This can be due to a number of reasons including a top-down administrative approach that attempts to mandate use of technology without considering student and teacher needs. Even when in-service training is provide, it often takes the form of shotgun instruction in which teachers are overwhelmed with information in one gigantic burst without additional follow-up sessions for review and hands-on application.

An additional misdirection in the purchase of any technology is that when institutions determine budgets, program administrators often focus on the tangibles because these items can be easily measured (e.g., number of computers, software licenses, headphones, etc.). Unfortunately, training and teacher development takes a backseat to other items, and such training finds itself at the bottom of the budgetary ladder.

Two points on successful training practices brought up by Kessler (2006) worth mentioning include having a CALL specialist as a part of any language program and keeping training sessions extremely relevant to current needs. At the English Language Institute at the University of Utah, I have worked as the Computer Lab Coordinator of the Intensive English program, and a number of our full-time staff provide on-going assistance to part-time teachers and students when carrying out learning tasks in our computer lab.

One example that illustrates the three points made in this paper is the development of speaking assessments in our program. A number of teachers at the English Language Institute determined that assessing students’ productive use of grammar in conversation was an essential part of grammar classes instead of simply relying on written assignments and tests. Part of the impetus for creating speaking assessments was the result of discussions with other university administration and professors who had indicated that some international students in classes lacked the communicative ability to engage in class discussion and other speaking tasks. Once this needs assessment was made, we determined that that a combination of computer software, cell phones, and a Web-based voice mail service could serve our purposes of recording student speech samples. Finally, students were provided detailed instruction on how to use the devices and software outside of the classroom, and in some cases, screencast video tutorials can be created with services such as Screencast-o-Matic ( to guide on how to self-assess their speech samples through the use of concrete and very measurable rubric. Preliminary research on the use of this speaking assessment approach has shown that students are able to learn how to apply the grammar structures in oral communication over time with repeated and focused practice, part of which includes activities in which they listen and evaluate their own speech samples. Students have also expressed positive feedback with this method of assessment especially when the tasks used reflect real-life situations which they will encounter in future academic environments and careers.


Without a doubt, technology will continue to permeate in the language classroom and self-learning environments, and the debate as to its efficacy in enhancing learning will rage on on both sides of the issue. Nevertheless, the fact that remains at the core of the issue is how to integrate technology in sound-pedagogical ways, and Sparrgrove (2009, p. 11) summarized these observations when he stated that in the end, “it is pedagogical innovation that will define technology integration effectiveness.” No number of bells and whistles that technology produces can compensate for, or take the place of, poor instructional approaches. However, educational institutions can enhance the blending of pedagogy by realigning their perspectives to include a needs assessment, realistic expectations, and the right type and amount of teacher training in their programs.

Notes on the contributor

Randall Davis is the Instructor Coordinator at the English Language Institute at the University of Utah, USA. He also has developed Web-based multimedia Web sites for language learners since 1998, including Randall’s ESL Cyber Listening Lab (


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