To tech or not to tech? that’s a silly question


December 1, 2010 by Willy Cardoso

When I started studying English at age 9, the tech we had in the classroom consisted of a slide projector and a tape recorder. Lessons evolved around situations that were presented on 12 slides accompanied by the dialogue on tape. We were drilled to death and only two lessons later were we to have a written version of the dialogue followed by grammar ‘explanations’.

Many years later I worked with this same method teaching 9-year-old children and the situations were the same, that is, they were old. The language was getting older too, and sometimes I drilled them to death. But hey, I did all that crap on DVD! How super!

Fortunately, since I had already developed some anti-crappy-teaching awareness at that time, I sometimes let the children be children and we played lots of games too. And once or twice when the girls were absent I let the boys sing F-wordy South Park’s tunes in class.


Not long ago I attended an online seminar, a.k.a. webinar. The speakers’ planned to show teachers how to teach online. The first part was dedicated to give attendees some background on the available platforms which was a very good start. They also gave us some tips regarding the management of teacher-learners interactions and the most common problems online teachers face and how to deal with them.  In the second part, the speakers showed some practical activities teachers and learners could do. Boy, were they lame!

I could exemplify, but no… just open that coursebook you don’t like much and get that senseless warm-up that you always skip and that’s the kind of activities suggested by award-winning ELTers who hosted this webinar. I didn’t quite get it to tell you the truth. The speakers are such good fellows, they’ve been in ELT for ages and they showed an impressive knowledge of virtual learning environments. However, in my opinion the end product was no better than what we could have through distance learning via mail, yes, mail, remember that? Ok, or even e-mail if you prefer. Oh, but they claimed that what made it so nice was that now it is more synchronous (in real time). In that case, I felt like in a university lecture room packed with 50 students listening to someone who doesn’t care much about who is in the room as much as about their precious subject-matter. Or worse, at times I felt like in a pub game… What I was shown was innovative tech in obsolete pedagogy.

Of course, I couldn’t diss edtech -which is exactly what I’m not doing in case you didn’t get it- based solely on these two accounts. And I’m not going to narrate all my encounters with it either.

Anyhow, I recently visited many lessons on WizIQ and other places when I was asked to suggest some platforms to my former employer. Those lesson I observed were mostly awful! Teacher-centered to the most, full of Word documents uploaded with stupid decontextualized gap-fills and matching exercises.

While we (oh, the elite of ELT) rightfully celebrate edtech and the power of engaging students with the Web and its frills, and the great things emerging from Tweeted PLNs which surely make education more bearable, we can’t forget that the majority of teachers out there are just doing THE same teaching they were doing before all that 2.0ish fuss. And it’s not a piece of tech that will make them any better.

A dull teacher is dull with a chalk or with an iPad. It doesn’t matter.

Btw, why the hell would I use an Interactive Whiteboard if what is on screen is a digital version of a grammar-driven coursebook??

Well, I know there’s a lot more to IWBs than that. But how many teachers out there, and out there I’d like to mean outside of US and EU, how many know how to use said tech to promote better learning?

Or really… why would I go to an online platform where a publisher ‘offers’ chapters of their coursebooks for aham ‘truly personalised lessons’??

Education is a political affair before it’s a technological one, in fact, I don’t even know if it is ever a technological matter.

(Marketing education is a technological matter)

Education is a cultural affair before it’s a technological one. A societal affair as well and a historical one if you will.

There are all these things to think about and improve before we want our teachers to use tech in the classroom.

What’s the use of tech when so many people can’t even think critically why they’re in a classroom?

As I said, I am not dissing edtech.
There are very good things out there, of course. I’ve actually seen great examples of edtech in two presentations last weekend, one by Karenne on using forums, blogs and Nings, and another by Shelly on using Skype. These were great examples I tell you. But hey, they were not selling a book, they were not using disposable apps and expensive gadgets, they were not locking students up in a monthly subscription nor giving ‘free’ additional useless rubbish, they were not putting a fill in the blanks with the present perfect on Google docs and thinking hey this is new. On the contrary, they were listening to their students’ needs, they were connecting them with real people, they were promoting cultural awareness and critical thinking. Yes, they perceived a gap in the market and are hopefully reaping their rewards if not now anytime soon, BUT, as far as I could see they are teachers working with learners using technology, not teachers working with technology using learners.

I think that before asking How will I use technology with learners?

I should ask Why will I use technology with these learners?

Teaching is already full of desirables, but what are really the essentials?


11 thoughts on “To tech or not to tech? that’s a silly question

  1. Richard says:

    Great article Willy. Slideshows were often dull, powerpoint can be dull, online powerpoint prezos in slideshare can be dull, online powerpoint prezos embedded into a Second Life environment surrounded by blue dragons and fountains can be dull!

    It’s not about the ‘what?’. As you say, it’s ‘how’? and indeed ‘why?’. I made a similar point round my blog gaff the other day.

    cheers ; )

    • David says:


      Great, heart felt post. I echo much of what you are saying (especially regarding how lame some teachers use technology and it is mostly lame because they use technology in the same fashion they’d use a book – as you mentioned.).

      You end with – I should ask Why will I use technology with these learners?

      That’s where we should start. I started years ago thinking of this and looked intensely at tools / apps that were developed for the disabled. Simple, functional. Then I asked, how can I transfer these to benefit learners (not teachers). Examples include subtitling (developed for the deaf), text to speech (for the blind), touch pads (for the developmentally disabled) etc…. Out of this I came up with ideas that learners could use 24/7. Technology is to support learning anytime / anywhere / anyhow. (an example would be the karaoke I promote for teachers to make/use).

      I think a lot of tech doesn’t transfer down into student use and that’s a pity. Anything a teacher does in the classroom should simply transfer and be available for the student to use on their own (IWBs don’t work in this regard, pity). I also believe that teachers don’t have adequate exposure to how simply technology can enhance the classroom experience and knock down those 4 walls. Training is key and I’ve been combing (and actually taking!) many TEFL certificate courses and WOW – they lack , lack, lack technological training in classroom delivery. I’m actually stunned by this, given how we have access to technology in our classrooms these days. I hope to remedy this – this is my philosophy – find something done poorly and see if I can fix it.

      But to return to your Why. I think we should use technology for 3 reasons.

      1. It enhances the learning experience. (multimodal – with voice/text and brings “real” into the classroom).
      2. Our students individually can use it outside the classroom to practice.
      3. It prepares students for the future. We don’t just teach language.

    • It’s a tough job this one, isn’t it Richard? If blue dragons and fountains can be dull… what’s left?
      And there’s more – if people just want super-fun-stuff-make-me-learn-without-knowing-it-because-I’m-bored kinda things, well … go to the circus and learn how to clap your hands to ugly clowns – and let me be. lol
      that’s the spirit!


  2. Sabrina says:

    Hi willy,
    I totally agree with what you say here. I believe that we have to use technology as a solution to a problem, and not just because we want to start using it in our classroom without a clear purpose. Technology should become invisible as I pointed out in this post As Gros Salvat put it: “Let’s look at the teachers and students, and let the objects become invisible”

    • A solution to a problem – I like that Sabrina!
      So, what are the problems we usually have in the classroom that cannot be solved without tech??
      Isn’t it a great question? Wouldn’t it spare so much trouble and why not, save much money?

  3. DaveDodgson says:

    Hi Willy,

    This is a great post and an enjoyable read.

    The thing with technology is the same as the thing with coursebooks, whiteboards and pretty much anything else at our diposal in class – a great teacher will find ways to get the students egaged, thinking, LEARNING; a crap teacher will try to remain in control of everything, concerned with covering the ground above all else.


    • interesting thought…
      if I went two steps ahead in this reasoning then I would say that teacher need to know how to dogme before they use tech. Ain’t that right?

      >Control – that’s the word, that’s an important focus. Glad you mentioned it!

  4. Golly, Willy!

    And before I comment properly, thank you so much! I was so worried about another edtech fail (as had one at BESIG) that I completely forgot to think about whether or not my presentation made sense/ was too overwhelming -given I didn’t have my students blogs and forum posts on auto-video… and then in all that worry, forgot to show two of the most interesting examples of critical thinking which was driven entirely by the students themselves.

    Am so glad you got something out of it!

    Anyway, enough gushing.

    I emphatically agree with you and in my reading up on the use of technology in the classroom, whether with IWB or mobile technologies – I’ve learned that one of the important things to consider is that the medium is indeed different and we can’t ignore this – no matter how normalized we let it become (and I agree with Sabrina that it should become invisible) however in order for this to happen the content should fit in with the function.

    Once an understanding of that is solidly in place, then the second step is to treat the “tool” as nothing more than an evolution of whichever tool was before (conversation live = chat; debates = forums; essays/exercises/notebooks = blogs)… so many ELT publishers are really, truly not getting it, I agree – slamming a coursebook into a pdf and callig that an innovation is ridiculous!

    p.s. Kudos on your beautiful poster – it was definitely the most beautifully presented item of academia I’ve ever seen!

    • Thank you!

      re: your talk – I’ll tell you what, it would’ve been great to see more of your students’ critical thinking, but mainly because it was part of the abstract, so it was ‘expected’. But in fact I was quite happy with not so much of it, I was more interested myself in the web 2.0 things, regardless of being critical or not. As I told you right after your talk, we tend to have more materials and slides and everything than we actually have time to present. I felt some people in the audience (me included) wanted to go deeper in the things you were showing, chats for instance. We’ve all been to chatrooms and talked to other people, but I guess very few actually moderated one, and I mean, taught English via chatrooms.
      Nings too. Some of us are users, but how does a teacher set up a Ning for students in a way that they are more likely to enjoy it? How about time, how long are we (learners included) expected to work on it in order to make it an environment that is as conducive to learning as a classroom? Of course these things are it depends on xyz, like anything else, so… it would be nice to hear these from you. In another talk maybe ; )

      >> Hey! Thanks for those kudos — made the hundreds of hours put in a lot more … well… rewarding!

  5. Candy van Olst says:

    Hi Willy

    Great post – and I’m sorry to say that for all the reasons I dissed the CELTA are here too. Dull is dull whether it is wrapped up in a wickedy wicked whiteboard/iPad/digitised yakkety yaddayadda. The latest reason I was given for buying and installing IWBs? Because “they can print out your page DIRECTLY!!” A photocopy by any other name is ……well …..a photocopy. Give me real live students – they are more advanced and a greater resource than anything an IWB can bring me and they are originals which CAN’T be printed out directly!


    • Richard says:


      While agreeing that IWBs are not perhaps as great as some people would have us believe, I thought that the ability to save/print your board work and pass it on to the learners was actually quite good! Not that I would recommend purchasing them just for that, mind you! ; )

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