Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Penny Ur is not a technophobe: she loves her Kindle and uses moodle a lot with her students. But…

There’s a tendancy to see technology as intrinsically good rather than as a means to an end. Does it improve language learning? Or motivation? Does it do this enough to justify it’s use?

There is a general assumption that investment in technology is desirable and to this end there is a massive investment in technology by governments and private companies. Modern is good. Change is good. Technology is good. Stakeholders have an interest in technology being in schools: for governments, shiny new computers win votes; commecial interests are important too. The use of digital tools then becomes an end in itself. People are presented with solutions, but not problems. Ur says that we should be starting from the problem and finding solutions, not vice versa.

A lot of studies have been published looking into technology in education. Most have been driven by policy decisions rather than educational questions. There is some evidence that the use of technology may contribute to increased motivation, but the studies have been short. Noone knows how it affects motivation in the long-term. If you know you’re being studied, you may want to fulfil the expectations of the researcher. The novelty effect can also make a difference. So is the incase in motivation really the technology or is it the novelty/research factor? Writing and pronunciation may be improved through technological means, but no research has shown technology affects other areas.

However, this does not mean that technology is useless. We therefore need to be cautious, selective and selective. So what DOES it contribute? Word processing, editing tools, internet, digital dictionaries, self-acces, written interaction, audiovisual material, distance learning, interactive whiteboards. These tools are generally easier and faster than non-technological tools. They can contribute positively to our teaching. For example, teacher-student communication is improved. Being able to look up words quickly means dictionaries are more likely to be used. Video and audio presentation is easier, and thefore more common.

What can technology NOT do? It cannot teach (as opposed to instruct). It cannot faciliate the creation of knowledge, because this generally depends on face-to-face interaction. Technology cannot plan lessons and tasks. It cannot provide supportive and appropriate corrective feedback. It cannot respond to open-ended tasks. It cannot select and evaluate information.

Technology also carries dangers. It may decrease the amount of direct teacher-student interaction. It may waste time in terms of preparation and student investment in activity other than learning (like formatting a document or searching). It can also create an overly teacher-centred classroom. It can also lead to a focus on lower-order thinking, like a ‘one-right-answer’ methodology. Attention might be diverted to irrelevant but more interesting activites, like other apps if using ipads.

– Find at least two meanings for the word ‘bright’ from your online dictionary, then share with your class.
– Show a YouTube clip with no sound and tell the story yourself.

We need to ask:
– Does it produce good learning?
– Is it motivating?
– Is the improvement in learning and/or motivation worth the investment of time and money?

If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, then we should use the technology. If not, then we shouldn’t.

Remember: Technology is a MEANS not an END. The question is not ‘How should I use technolog?’, it is ‘How can I help my learners learn best?’


Neil McMahon includes some comments on Penny’s talk in his post about day 1 of the conference.

Comments on: "Technology in ELT: to be used cautiously, critically and selectively – Penny Ur (IATEFL 2013)" (6)

  1. Oh, the irony….


  2. Reblogged this on Stop Complaining – Enjoy Teaching! and commented:
    Penny Ur is one of our plenary speakers in June when she’ll be sharing a bit more on tech in our English classes. Get a head start one what she thinks by reading Sandy Millin’s reflection on Penny’s workshop at IATEFL Liverpool last week.


  3. Philip Saxon said:

    Good post! However, I would venture to suggest that technology can play a huge role in the creation of knowledge. Open access to research articles makes a big difference, likewise the opportunity to participate in online education: some MOOCs are fantastic.

    Collaboration is also facilitated by e.g. Google Docs (for writing) or Hangouts. I assume you count Skype as face-to-face interaction, but quite a lot of valuable information gets swapped on Facebook: does this count?

    Last but not least, my research this summer (2014) for my MA involved getting teachers to reflect openly on Edmodo – and the results were strikingly good. Participants actually preferred it to face-to-face discussion of what happened in their teaching practice.

    All told, I love Penny Ur but if her message was knowledge can’t be created online I would respectfully beg to differ.

    Philip Saxon


    • Thanks for your comment Philip. I agree with your points about knowledge creation and collaboration.
      I’ve been using Edmodo for a few years, and I’d be very interested to hear more about your research. What kind of reflection were the teachers doing?


      • Philip Saxon said:

        Hi Sandy, glad you like Edmodo so much, too! My study participants were trainee teachers from Japan attending a short course (a bit like an adapted CELTA) at Warwick University. During the middle 5 weeks of their stay they did teaching practice at a local school where they taught Japanese to learners from years 7, 8 and 9. Each week I set them a reflective task, giving personalized feedback each time, and pushing just a little harder each time we repeated the activity. It went well, so I hope the write-up meets with approval!


  4. Pete Stone said:

    Interesting. I think judicious use of technology with a specific language aim can be beneficial. If anyone is interested (or not interested) could I ask you for some help by doing my survey. It’s for my Trinity Diploma in TESOL. If you leave your email address in the final question, I’ll happily share the results. The address is as follows below:




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