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The Principled Approach

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


  1. Chiew Pang says:

    Hi Nicky,
    Just to say how much I enjoyed the debate, although it was rather obvious, further attested to by Gavin, that Alan’s heart “wasn’t in it”. Poor thing. Although I won’t let that diminish your resounding victory! But…I’m sure I won’t be the only one who wished that the opposition (or the proposition, in this case) were a little more forceful. I think Scott would have been quite a challenge, don’t you?
    Best regards,

  2. Chiew Pang says:

    Oh, just another thing, Nicky. I think you had another advantage over Alan 😉
    If he started the debate (as proposition), then shouldn’t you be the one to start the summary (as opposition)? As far as I understand debate rules, that should have been the case.

  3. Nicky Hockly says:

    Hi Chiew, thanks for your comments. I think the framing of the debate (basically asking, Is there a role for technology in ELT?) meant that Alan and I had to argue the same point – that there is indeed a place, but it needs to be principled. I don´t think anyone could seriously argue that there is no place at all – it would be like arguing there is no place for pen or paper, as one of my social network contacts put it. It´s a non-starter. As to how debates work and who starts what, I’m not familiar at all with the format, and this was my first experience of a formal debate. Perhaps I didn´t go to the right schools :-) It was fun though!

  4. Dear Nicky,

    I too feel tired of the same debate again and again. And I agree with this post. I had wanted to ask you something from the video of the great debate. You held up a model that had three circles with content, pedagogy and technology for teacher training. Could you elaborate more on this? Is this something being developed by you, by others, are there any studies/reading you could refer me too?

    Thank you


    1. Nicky Hockly says:

      Hi Sharon, thanks for dropping by.
      The model I referred to in the debate is called the TPACK model (for Technical Pedagogical Content knowledge), developed by Mishra and Koehler (2008). You’ll find information on it on Wikipedia here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_Pedagogical_Content_Knowledge, including links to further related sites at the bottom. Hope this helps!

  5. Scott says:

    Thanks, Nicky, for that very clear summary of the background reading that informed the debate – or non-debate might be a better way of putting it! – and once again congratulations for your superb delivery and poised performance (not that I should be surprised, having seen you talk – and teach – on many occasions now).

    Regarding the title of your post – ‘the principled approach’ – I have no doubt that your approach IS principled, but research summaries are not in themselves principles, although principles may be inferred from them.

    In my own blog, I have been explicit as to what my own principles are. These are that the use of educational technology 1. should not be grounded in a delivery model of instruction; but 2. should be informed by some kind of learning theory (my preference is for socio-cultural theory, and hence prioritises [SL] identity formation and community building); and 3. should not distract from learning, but 4. should add value to the teaching-learning experience.

    Looking for principles that are implied in the research you cite, I notice you highlight the collaborative, creative and motivational uses of technology – the first two of which more or less map on to my own position. I am a little suspicious, however, of the motivational factor, since – in my experience at least – technology-induced motivation can run foul of principle 3 above – i.e. learners may be motivated, but, because their attention is dispersed or directed at non-linguistic issues, they may not in fact be learning. I.e. motivation in itself does not cause learning. Nevertheless, a lot of the promotional talk about ed-tech is predicated on the idea of ‘fun’ – which, being an old misery myself, is what I chiefly take issue with – that and the ’10 things you can do with a ball of string’ approach to training in educational technology.

    But, overall, I welcome your attempt to inform the discussion with some evidence-based research, even if the principles that guided your choice of studies are not 100% clear.

    Thanks once again

  6. Nicky Hockly says:

    Thanks for your comments Scott, and for encouraging me to expand a little on the choice of resources glossed in this blog post.

    The choice of these six studies is a sample from the many more that I read for the debate. What is probably the most important thing to notice about them, is that they are fairly anecdotal, and not tied to particularly rigorous studies of outcomes like improved language ability.

    So I’m very much aware that my choice of studies is subjective, and related to the first source I cited above, in which questions are raised about CALL research. Nevertheless, I think the anecdotal research is interesting, and there is a general thread in them which suggests that learners themselves gained positive experiences from these particular uses of technology, in these particular instances. That certainly doesn’t suggest that if you use a wiki in your teaching, your learners’ English will suddenly and miraculously improve :-)

    The Principled Approach of the title – my next blog post is to be entitled The Principled Approach 2, in which I will specifically note down the key questions teachers need to ask themselves when integrating technology into their classrooms. I mentioned this in the post above, but should have flagged it up more – or possibly have chosen a completely different blog title! This post is a bit of anecdotal background, if you like.

    Thanks for your kind words about the debate – I was delighted you were there in person and I was able to refer directly to your (excellent) ISTEK plenary!

    1. Scott says:

      Thanks Nicky .. I think it is quite legitimate to pick the research that best matches your own values, and, given the difficulties of measuring language development in general, probably the best we can hope for is qualititative, rather than quantitative, research of the type that you cite.

      I look forward to reading the next post.

      Yes, thanks for referring to my ISTEK plenary: and I am glad it was not so rivetting that you still had time to update your Facebook profile while listening! (Were you also the person who took a couple of phone calls?) 😉

      1. Nicky Hockly says:

        :-) I resisted the urge to send or receive phone calls on this particular occasion

  7. Diarmuid says:

    Hi Nicky
    I enjoyed what little I could understand of the debate through the fog of three days’ hangover and the seemingly late hour.

    I think it’s regrettable that people feel tired of the debate over the role of technology in education. It’s as if they are languidly sighing, “Look! I’ve made up my mind, now stop being so tedious and agree with me.” In fact, the continuance of the debate should act as a critical friend to prevent information technology ever becoming taken-for-granted.

    As I’ve written elsewhere, the real bugbear is the sheer arrogance that some people exhibit when arguing for the inclusion of IT in classrooms. More than a few times I have seen people say that teachers who do not incorporate IT into their classrooms are failing their students. Where is the research to support that?

    I haven’t (yet) read the research that you refer to above, but you qualify it as “anecdotal” which also implies that it is questionable and proves nothing beyond all reasonable doubt. In fact, just from your potted descriptions, we can see that the research doesn’t prove that, for example, wikis result in better learning. It merely indicates that using a wiki doesn’t necessarily interfere with the gains to be found in taking a process approach to writing.

    I think the best message to send out about information technology is that it is a fascinating new world. Teachers (and hopefully learners) can do things with IT that they would never have thought of just a few years ago. However, it should be approached with caution – there is no clear evidence that it promotes learning, although it would seem to support learning. Until such a time, we should also be wary of trumpeting its achievements too loudly.

    1. Nicky Hockly says:

      Thanks for dropping by Diarmuid and your thoughtful comments. I´d add that one thing that does seem to emerge from the studies quoted above is an enhanced perception of their own abilities on the part of the learners, which in turn increases motivation. Although motivation itself may not lead to learning or increased language abilitiies (as pointed out by Scott), it is arguable a pre-requisite for learning.

    2. Scott says:

      Agreed, Diarmuid. I think one problem (to which these online blog discussions offer a possible antidote) is the endogamy that besets any subculture, and which creates a kind of tunnel-vision effect. So, at conferences, Dogme Man goes to Dogme Woman’s presentation, while Tech Woman goes to Tech Man’s colloquium etc, but seldom if ever do they cross over. Hence, there is a kind of myopic talking up of their respective fields, with little or none of the critique that a detached observer might bring. Dare I say it, but I think this is particuarly acute in the tech sector, where simply keeping up with the tsunami of new gadgetry is a 24/7 job.

      Another, totally different, factor that feeds the polarization is the legitimate hunger that practising teachers have for classroom applications: spare the theory, give me a lesson plan! This tends to discourage a more abstract discussion of principles, so that the rationale for adopting X approach or Y software is at best only sketchily addressed. The talk that Nicky mentioned at ISTEK (6 Big Ideas…) was an attempt to redress that imbalance, but I suspect that Nickly was not the only one blogging their way through it!

      1. Nicky Hockly says:

        Well to be fair istek was the second time I had seen the talk – the first was at the February IH conference in Barcelona where I did indeed hang on every word, with not a gadget in sight (there was no wi-fi) 😉

  8. Rob Haines says:

    Hi Nicky,

    I’m afraid I didn’t make it through the entire debate (video) because the audio recording of your voice was out of sync with your video image’s mouth movement. At least the language (English) matched so that it was just lag and not like trying to watch a poorly dubbed film. :-)

    I look forward to your next blog post. I’m particularly interested in technology and society, which of course includes the role of technology in education. I live near three producers of technology you might know: Microsoft Corp., Intel, and Apple, Inc. – ever used their products? :-) I think it would be naive to ignore the context that these three, and many other producers of modern technology, have created and thrive within; namely, what has been called the ‘new capitalism’ (cf. http://everydayliteracies.net/langnewcap.html ).

    Among other things, schools teach us what information we should deem relevant and what to do with that information. Modern technology plays an important role in this regard, and technology giants like these three have a strong interest in shaping school policy. Examine Bill Gates’ close ties to The Department of Education http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=3781 as just one example.

    My point is that people who advocate for more technology in classrooms, even if they’re simply blogging about it, often make it seem as if there is a great amount of resistance to technology in education although it is apparent that such advocates have a lot of money and influence in their favor – sorry that doesn’t mean the e-consultants per se.


    1. Nicky Hockly says:

      Thanks for your comments, Rob. Yes, education (and technology) are clearly situated in a wider context, and are in no sense neutral, or immune, to wider social, economic and political and ideological pressures.

      In our current mLearning online training course,one of the participants recently brought up the issue of product placement with technology in classrooms (e.g. the push to get iPads specifically into classrooms – which are at the expensive end of the tablet market).

      It’s interesting to consider what our role as educators is here – especially working with younger learners. Foregrounding these kinds of marketing issues is certainly one thing we can spend useful time on (in English) in the classroom. Considering the ethical issues surrounding technology use in our everyday lives is another area worth exploring with learners – Ken Wilson’s recent blog post (and the comments that follow) eloquently explore this: The human cost of being connected http://kenwilsonelt.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/the-human-cost-of-being-connected/
      (Thanks to Shaun Wilden for drawing Ken’s blog post to my attention)

      1. Rob Haines says:

        Thank you for your reply, Nicky. I’ll be sure to look at Ken’s blog.


  9. […] support and enhance English language learning, and at the very least increase motivation (see my last blog post on this -and the helpful comments). But research studies aside, the million dollar questions for […]

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