Tips for success with learner-centered technology

Tips for success with technology

The above tips were suggested during my OneStopEnglish webinar on February 10th. Here, I've added a few further notes to them.

1 | Find out what apps (etc) your students already use and start with those
If many of your learners are already using, say, Instagram, that's probably the place to begin. Their familiarity with it means that you don't have to teach them how to use it, and if some are unfamiliar, their peers can provide the technical support.

See also (5), below.

Conversely, if many of them are not really using things like Facebook at all, start with one that no one uses (Edmodo and a private G+ Community would be obvious choices; see also (4), below). The fact that they will only be using it for my class (plus the fact that I've made it private) has persuaded even some of my most technophobic learners to come on board.

And one that's caught me out: if they don't use email, don't use that, use WhatsApp instead!

2 | Don't touch the technology yourself, ever
I mean this one literally. If you have a computer and projector in your classroom, the best possible piece of equipment you can purchase is a wireless mouse and keyboard — and then put one of your learners on it. You want to show a YouTube video (or whatever)? Get one of your learners to do it for you. Handing over the technology takes so much of the stress off of the teacher!

You think technology "always" goes wrong in your classes? Make one of your learners handle it for you and you'll be amazed: it never seems to go wrong!

See also (5), below.

3 | Have your students use technology to create things
You can do wonderful things with YouTube but you don't just want to have your learners sitting there watching videos, something which they could be doing at home! And if your learners are simply passively consuming your PowerPoints, rather than creating their own, then you're perhaps using 1% of the potential of 21st century technology.

What you really want to be doing (and what lots of your learners really want to be doing 😉 !) is to have them use technology to create things — photos or text, or audio or video, all of which can be done on the smartphones you might actually have just told your learners to put away.

See also (6), below.

4 | Have your students set up a shared digital space
You get your learners to (a) create things; but after that they'll need somewhere they can (b) share them and (c) comment on their creations. The commenting is an important stage of your task design because it provides further opportunities to use language. That's where a shared digital space comes in, a class blog on which your learners are all authors, or an Edmodo group (great with teens!), or WhatsApp or a Google+ Community (those last two with adults).

You want to be using social media with your learners (though that's a term I generally avoid using with them, so as not to put anyone off!)

5 | Have your students provide the technical support; you provide the linguistic support
Using technology successfully in a classroom is very much a question of getting learners into good habits (backing things up, using safe passwords, keeping the noise level down, speaking in English… etc.). One of the habits I most strongly recommend you to get your learners into is to have them turn to their peers if anything goes wrong, rather than turning to you.

Especially if they're young, you want to identify which of your learners are great with technology, and make use of them. Your learners calling out "technical!" if they have a problem and your new assistants then getting up and going to provide that help is another great habit to get them into. Your job is to help with the language, not the technology! On the former, not the latter, you're the expert to turn to.

Here's possibly the best ever scheme for providing technical support in a school that I've ever come across, described by my son Toni.

6 | Create tasks that require your students to play with language, not just technology
Technology can be exciting and, yes, you can do amazing things with it. But I often wonder whether or not our learners get so excited about it that they switch into their own rather than the target language, or else fall totally silent (bliss 😉 !) and end up doing a lot of excited clicking, but not much in the way of language work and practice. The latter is what we're there for, after all.

I think it's probably best to devote the usually limited number of hours our learners have in class to them talking and we the teachers helping them to talk better, providing language and improving performance, as well as to things like pronunciation, intonation, etc.

To have this happen, in other words:

What I want to happen in my class

If in class we've provided them with the ideas and the language and the practice and the rehearsal, outside class they can do the clicking and editing that pulls everything together, preferably collaboratively, perhaps using the shared digital space we've set up, to produce a digital end product like a story or a podcast or a presentation to be rehearsed at home and performed in the next class.

The way to go is probably talk inside, click outside the classroom.

7 | Never be afraid students will know more about technology than you do!
One of your learners will always know more about some aspect of technology than you, some more about all aspects of it.

They do? Be happy, not intimidated! You need technical assistance? You have it sitting right there in front of you!

See also
What's the recipe for using technology successfully?

More on using technology in language teaching

Subscribers to OneStopEnglish have access to a series of articles detailing activities for many of the tools mentioned above.

Useful things if you blog with learners (and you should!)

Over on Edublogs ("Easy Blogging For Education"), where they reckon they've helped build 3,378,490 blogs since 2005, they're carrying out their annual survey of blogs in education. If you blog, they'd like just 5 minutes of your time.

I'm a big believer in getting feedback from people and listening to what they have to say. With students, Google Drive forms are so brilliant for that, and as a teacher you should complete such things, apart from anything else because it forces you to reflect for a few minutes on what you're doing.

"Is there anything else we didn't cover that you would like to share?" they ask at the end of the survey.

You mean apart from the fact that I love blogging with learners?

Well yes:

I always recommend a single blog per class with all students "authors" on it but generally working in 3s or 4s to collaborate to write posts (so we get 5 posts on one topic on one blog, not 25 on 25 different blogs) and with the fewest possible number of posts by the teacher, the highest possible number of posts and comments by the learners.

Facebook and so on have come along and, sadly, displaced blogs as the popular platform. I used to run a blogging in language teaching course but it got dumped as "old" but, because you can make a blog so water-tight on privacy, they're in fact still my first choice as a shared digital space for use with learners, particularly if what you want to have is somewhere for your learners to "publish" their project work.

Edublogs uses WordPress as the platform for blogs you create with it. I use WordPress for this and other blogs but in fact recommend Blogger to teachers as experience suggests that they find it slightly easier to learn to use.

Nevertheless, Edublogs have some great things on their website and on their blog (these 50 ideas for student blogging, for example, and see also these resources), useful whichever blogging tool you decide to use. They also produce one of the few email newsletters that I actually read and haven't unsubscribed from (as I have with virtually every other email newsletter being pumped at me). On Twitter, you also have @edublogs.

Previous reports on the state of educational blogging are to be found there.

Start your Christmas project early this year

Random items photographed in the street

Christmas is still around 70 shopping days away but here's a fun, simple idea for project work that you probably want to start a couple of months before Christmas and — important! — not make any mention of Christmas when you do first start.

I'd suggest that you don't mention either that you have a longer, four-part project in mind. There's no worse way to begin the year than by telling learners how much work they're going to have to do 😉 !

That also means that if it doesn't turn out to be successful for you, you can drop it at any point and not continue.

Task #1: Totally random photos of whatever
Instructions given to learners:

Take 4-5 photos of totally random things [see examples above] that you see at home, in the street, in school, in the classroom… and share them with us [see below]. The more random, the better! You should say where the photo was taken but not what it is.

Optionally: using a free app like the amazing Pixlr Express (or the even more amazing Pixlr Editor) will improve many photos remarkably.

Sharing the photos
There are lots of ways the photos could be shared including the following:

The photos can be posted directly to any of the above. Alternatively, also saving the photos to a shared Google Drive folder is an interesting option (especially if the learners do it themselves, not you!). Having the photos there makes them handier for the later parts of the project — because we're going to be reusing the same photos later.

Using a shared digital space like these with learners is so much more 21st century than continuing to imagine that the fact that you use PowerPoint means that you're using technology.

One of the things I like about the project is that it's a nice simple way to start taking advantage of the amazing technology now in your learners' pockets (i.e. their smartphones). It's also a great, simple way to get them started using some of the brilliant shared digital spaces now available to us which you might then take advantage of for other projects.

I recommend picking a tool that you are going to use for other projects and highly recommend using a digital space like these with learners — it's so much more 21st century (and productive in terms of use of language!) than continuing to imagine that the fact that you use PowerPoint means that you're using technology.


  • Add your own random pictures, as examples of the sort of thing you want
  • Stress that they MUST take the photos themselves — they cannot just steal them from wherever on the internet or social media!

Task #2: Commenting on other learners' photos
To get the most out of shared spaces like Edmodo you want to get your learners (1) to add accompanying text to their photos and (2) to comment on what their peers are posting, either during or outside class time.

If the image is a personal belonging, the story behind it is sometimes interesting. With objects taken in the street, some indication of why the learner chose to photograph that gives them a short text to write. And if you encourage the photographer to include in the text a question for his/her peers (e.g. Does anyone remember these? Does anyone else own one?), then comments — and thus more language — will get generated.

With random images like these, you should also get (and should encourage!) a certain number of spontaneous comments. These could include guessing what the object in the image is if it's not otherwise clear but also things like questions and answers on how the photo was taken and edited.

You can also obtain comments by having your learners propose — via the comments — which images they think should get prizes for "Best Photo", "Best Editing", etc.

Note that I recommend not correcting errors in comments.

More opportunities for language use arise if you get learners to very briefly present some of the images, perhaps in the first or last 5 minutes of class. For that purpose, easy access to the photos in a shared Google Drive folder is also ideal.

Levels and ages
This looks like a project for young learners, but colleagues have also done it with adults and though originally it was designed for a B1-B2 level class, it has also worked below (and above) that level.

For Part 2 (and to see what this actually has to do with Christmas!), come back next week.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

3 brilliant videos to share and comment on via social media

In a session last week on one of our Spanish teacher training courses, we were talking about using tools  such as Edmodo or a Google+ Community or other social media — and the question was raised on what you should do if learners start sharing things that have nothing to do with what you've been doing in class.

My answer to the question would be "Brilliant!" — for two reasons: (1) that's exactly what I want to happen with shared digital spaces used with learners — I want them to take charge of running it, rather than me doing all the work; and (2) if it leads to more interaction and use of language, fantastic! That's why we're on social media with language learners!

An example would be the video above, shared by a learner in an Edmodo group being used by a colleague, Esther, who then shared it with me.

Here's another example, one I posted on Twitter the other day, which I shared with the teenagers I have in a small private class which meets only once a week, sometimes not even that — circumstances crying out for a digital space in which to share and comment on such things:

These things can be a bit hit-and-miss: I thought I'd got zero response (!) on this one, as none of them "replied", but face-to-face it turned out that they had  all watched it and they found such a lot to say about it!

And while we're on the subject of great videos for class, here's another TED talk that looks great material if you teach adults B1 or above who spend any amount of time attending meetings:

You might try this generic activity with it, and then talk about whether or not they think the idea would work in their company and why/why not.

If you don't have a lot of learners doing that kind of job, it's still a brilliant one to share with them — both for the listening practice and for any discussion it might generate. It won't always do the latter but that's not going to stop me posting such stuff!

See also this video on how (not) to motivate people, great for discussion with adults.

A class blog would also make a perfect platform for such things.

Next question: How do you correct all the errors learners then make?

3 reasons why you want to use social media with your learners

Social media

In a previous post, I argued that as teachers we should be "on" social media; now, I'd like to suggest that we should be there with our learners, too, taking full advantage of the opportunities it provides…

First things first: for any teacher wanting to use social media with learners, privacy ought to be a big concern, and an excellent reason for picking the fabulous Edmodo as the social media platform to use for any class — and for not choosing Facebook for it.

Particularly with young learners, as well as considering any school or local education authority requirements, you want parental permission, preferably written, before you and your learners start posting anything online or using social media (or mobile phones) — and it's far more likely to be forthcoming if you provide information on exactly what you're going to be using it for and how you're going to ensure privacy (by using Edmodo; or with a private "authors/readers only" blog — for example with Blogger; or with a private G+ Community…).

With a group of adults, again do check school policy, and you want everyone to be willing to give social media a go, even if they're not currently big social media users. For that reason, Edmodo is again a good choice, because it doesn't involve anyone sharing their private life with others), though again a private G+ Community would also be a great choice — and do make it private when you set it up.

TIP Next after ensuring privacy would be ensuring your learners' willingness to be "on" social media with yourself and their classmates. There are still a surprising (?) number of people that don't want to be — and so I expressly avoid using the term "social media" when suggesting we create a space to use. Instead, I suggest we're going to use a "tool" or a "group" or a "Community". The term "social media" seems to set alarm bells ringing — and you want willingness to be there.

What is the point of being on social media?
Why, as a language teacher, would you want to be on social media with your learners? For three reasons:

  1. Because first of all it's social — and learning should be first and foremost a social experience (and not a technological one)
  2. Because, as a result, it generates good group dynamics, which washback into your face-to-face classroom — because your learners create and share and comment on things together, and therefore belong
  3. Because it creates further opportunities for interaction — outside the classroom — and for use of language, and therefore language learning, which is your primary reason for being in your classroom in the first place

If you teach a lot of different classes, you probably don't want to be "on" social media with all of them — you don't want to be managing half a dozen or more very active Edmodo groups for example.

But try it with one group or, better still, get one of your learners in one of your classes to set up the shared digital space you are going to be using, take charge of running it, and invite you to join…

Possible alternatives to Blogger, Edmodo and G+ Communities: a WhatsApp group or Twitter, which you can also use privately.

If it takes off, it will change learning

See also
Why teachers need to be on social media
Top 10 tips for starting with Edmodo