Tired of hearing that technology brings nothing to the classroom? Bored with having to defend the use of ICT in teaching? Weary of the debate on whether there is place for technology in the classroom or not? It´s a no-brainer for me. It´s not a question of if, but rather a question of how. But I frequently still find myself having to justify the (principled) use of technology in the classroom to teachers.

I was invited to take part in a debate defending the use of technology in language teaching, at the IATEFL Conference in Brighton in April 2011. As a result, I did a lot of reading.

First, here is the debate, in which I oppose the motion: Tweeting is for the birds, not for language learning. Despite the title, the debate was meant to focus on the use of ICT in language teaching/learning in general, not exclusively on Twitter. If you listen to it, you´ll see that my opponent (Alan Waters) and I actually argue for exactly the same thing – a principled use of technology in language teaching. Difficult to take any other position really.

But let´s start with the background – the research. I did plenty of reading* as prep for the debate, and would like to share just 6 sources here.

1. ICT, research and language teaching

The first 2011 issue of the IJCALLT (International Journal of Computer Assisted Language Learning and Teaching) provides a helpful historical perspective on CALL research (Chapter 1), and an overview of CALL research to date and where this leaves us today (Chapter 2). Most CALL enthusiasts are aware that research into classroom technology use has not given us any definitive answers to date:

A large body of research has been conducted in the last 20 years, and general statements that arise from it include that generally students perceive technology as a good thing; teachers are worried that it will take over their jobs or leave them behind, and the results of effectiveness for language learning are mixed. However, a question in need of asking is “effective for what?” Lack of specificity makes this question impossible to answer. If it means “effective for acquiring fluency” or “effective for engaging students” or “effective for teaching technical skills,” these are all quite different issues. Where one researcher may study CALL effectiveness for language remediation or practice, others might investigate the effectiveness of presenting con­tent or acquiring a discrete grammar item. Even these foci are broad enough that they show the impossibility of claiming, from one or many studies, that CALL is “effective.”

Far from assuming that this means ‘ICT doesn´t work’, the authors suggest that more rigorous research methodologies are needed. A fair point.

International Journal of Computer-Assisted Language Learning and Teaching, 1(1), 1-15, January-March 2011

2. A Study on ICT and motivation

A study from the University of Lancaster was carried out in 2003 among 17 schools in the UK, and was designed to look at how the use of ICT in classes affected learning outcomes, behavior and school attendance. Overall the results were positive, but a proviso was that the context and how technologies were actually used, affected outcomes.

No surprise there – it´s not the tool or technology itself, but the way it is used and for what. As the saying goes, ‘A fool with a tool is still a fool’.

Passey & Rogers (2004): The Motivational Effect of ICT on Pupils, University of Lancaster
Read it online here

3. A Study on Blogs

Carried out with 11 classes of ESP students in Japan in 2008, this study aimed to test student attitudes to writing via the use of blogs. The process approach to writing was supported by blogging groups and/or blogging ´buddies’ working in pairs for feedback, editing and redrafting. The student´s attitudes were positive about the use of blogs, and there were a number of spin-offs, such as increased quantity of writing, increased concern for accuracy,  increased motivation for writing, and increased interaction with peers´ writing.

Given that students were writing for a wider audience of peers (and potentially the wider world), instead of only for the teacher, this all makes a lot of sense.

Blackstone, Spiri & Naganuma (2009): Blogs in English language teaching and learning: Pedagogical uses and student responses in Reflections on English Language Teaching 6/2, 1–20.

4. A Study on Wikis

This study was carried out in 2008 in a Hong Kong secondary school with 24 EFL students aged 11. The study used process writing techniques with students working in groups of 4, and took place over two months. The findings showed that student´s writing improved in a number of areas: increased length and complexity of texts; increased editing, expanding and creating of texts; increased coherence of texts. Apart from that, students gained confidence as writers, were more creative, worked collaboratively, and were more interested in subsequent English lessons.

There is plenty of research in both L1 andL2 contexts into how wikis can increase collaborative writing. They seem particularly well suited to the process approach to writing.

Mak & Coniam (2008): Using wikis to enhance and develop writing skills among secondary school students in Hong Kong in System 36, 437–455

5. A Study with blended EFL

During 2007-2008 61 undergraduate students at a college in Southern China used Ning (a social networking platform) to support their 4 hours a week of f2f EFL classes. Student wrote blog posts and took part in asynchronous discussion forums. Their perceptions were of themselves as learners changed as a result. They felt that their language level had improved, that the increased interaction with teacher and peers afforded by Ning had improved their communication skills, and that they had become more autonomous as learners.

Note that in this study no objective tests of language ability were carried out. But the study showed a clear motivational impact on student perceptions of their own abilities.

Zhu & Bu  (2009): Chinese EFL Students’ Perspectives on the Integration of Technology in English Language Teaching, 2/3, 153-162

6. On IWBs

Neil Selwyn´s book Schools and Schooling in a Digital Age (2010) describes how mundane factors such as ceiling height may impede IWB uptake, even in the most highly resourced schools. I liked this anecdote,  as it vividly illustrates how even the best laid plans may be ambushed by the most unexpected contextual factors.


These are just a few of the resources I read. From these I take this away with me:

  • The use of ICT is situated in specific contexts which must be taken into account
  • The use of ICT can have a positive impact on student motivation (depending on how it is used, and for what, within that context)
  • More rigorous research into ICT use is needed to be able to assess  impacts on language abilities
  • Research is difficult to generalise because of the contextual nature of ICT use and the large range of ICT tools available, but some tools clearly do some things well  – when used well

And a final thought:

Bad teaching is bad teaching and technology of itself won´t make it good. Good teaching is good teaching but technology of itself doesn´t make it good. Let´s get past the technology (it´s a fact of life) and on to the teaching, and how to make it ‘good’. In my next blog post I´d like to look in depth at some of the principles (as I see them) in the Principled Approach.

*A big thank you to the many members of my online social networks (via Facebook and Twitter) who sent me a number of studies to help with researching for the debate. A special thanks goes to Sara Hannan, Sarah Howell, and Eleni Savvidou for articles. Does this make it the first crowd-sourced ELTJ debate?

Other comments on the ELTJ debate:

You can read more views on the debate here:

Nicky Hockly
The Consultants-E
May 2011