Heard on the Web, Spring 2000

Computer Technology: Is it Worthwhile in TESOL?

Compiled by Deborah Healey

The following is the extended version of a column that appeared in the Spring 2000 version of Heard on the Web in TESOL Journal. All material is used with the permission of the original authors.

Computer- and Internet-using teachers are always asking themselves whether their use of technology is appropriate. What follows is an edited version of a lengthy exchange of ideas on TESLCA-L during October, 1999, about why we use technology and why not to. David Tillyer starts off the conversation with queries posed in October 1999 at a conference on "Virtual Higher Education? Critical Perspectives" by Neil Postman:

Date: Sat, 16 Oct 1999 19:26:40 EDT
From: "David Tillyer, CUNY"
Subject: Neil Postman

... I thought I'd pass along six questions that Neil M. Postman posed at the morning session (he's a professor and chair of media ecology at New York University). After he told the very-connected crowd that he did not own a computer or a cell phone and refused to use email OR the Internet, he suggested that we ask these questions before we whole-heartedly embrace any new technology:

1. What is the problem to which this technology is a solution?

2. Whose problem is it? i.e. Who will benefit and who will pay?

3. What new problems may be created as a result of the new technology?

4. Which people and what institutions may be most seriously affected by the new technology? (He said: New technologies always produce winners and losers.

5. What changes in language are being produce by the new technologies? (He chuckled at new meanings of words such as "community".)

6. What sort of people acquire new political power as a result of the new technology?

David A. Tillyer, Westchester Community College, City College of New York, USA


Date: Sun, 17 Oct 1999 14:52:11 EDT
From: Anthea Tillyer
Subject: Disadvantages of technology

...In our own field, I think that technology is creating HUGE problems, and the people who are benefiting are not the students or the teachers...it is big software and hardware companies (and their shareholders) who are pulling in the millions. As far as I can see, the money that is spent on acquiring, equipping, and maintaining even one computer lab would be better spent on hiring and training one or two new teachers, maybe even three or four. Or the money could be spent on paying the existing teachers better or on making part-time teachers full-time teachers. I truly believe that this will provide better learning opportunities for students than any number of computers will.

I believe that this is an issue of dramatic importance for developing - the so-called "third-world" - countries and big cities like New York, where many people are poor and non-English speaking....with class sizes of up to 35 and with an administration setting aside huge sums of money to "wire" every school. Imagine the cost of equipping a school with computers in, say, Nepal, in comparison to the cost of paying a teacher, or training a teacher or bunch of teachers. Moreover, the money that is spent on computers usually goes out of the community - frequently to the USA - while the money paid to teachers stays in the community for generations.

Anthea Tillyer City University of New York (USA)


Date: Mon, 18 Oct 1999 07:02:44 +0000
From: Felicity O'Dell
Subject: Technology and elephants

...We should, of course, be aware of all the problems that technology can bring and should not imagine that it is going to solve all our problems, or even perhaps all that many of them. But [technology] has had one enormous and very beneficial effect, I believe. Online education enables courses to be taken, and information to be easily accessed, by people who are tied to the home for a variety of reasons - for reasons of health or physical fitness, because of age or family commitments or simply because they live in the back of beyond. Such people can enjoy and learn from courses, which do indeed allow them to be and to feel part of a learning community (and I use the word in a way that I feel deserves no ironic chuckle).

Thus, education becomes much less the preserve of the young and the able-bodied and the free and that I think is a major advance, which we should not ignore when we are, quite rightly, looking at all the limitations and problems of the new technologies.

Felicity O'Dell, Cambridge, UK


Date: Mon, 18 Oct 1999 13:45:13 +0300
From: Mark Warschauer
Subject: Re: Disadvantages of technology

No, there are no studies showing that computer-enhanced language learning is conclusively better than blackboard learning, nor are there any studies that conclusively show that library-enhanced learning or book-enhanced learning is any better than blackboard learning. It all depends on how these things are used. Yet society has developed a consensus that access to a library is an essential part of an education and is developing a consensus that access to computers is also an essential part. And computers are a part of education that I believe developed countries can afford. I think that this is especially important in communities in the US where people lack home access to computers. ...Kids in low-income communities need opportunities to learn to use computers in schools to develop computer-based research, communication, collaboration, and analysis skills required for full and successful participation in business or academia today.

As for developing countries, I think that Anthea makes a good point, but I also think that there must be a balance between short-term and long-term needs. Over the long run, with the price of computer power and Internet access coming down, and the importance of computers increasing (due to greater amounts of information and people online), computers will be an important part of education in an increasing number of countries. It is wise for developing countries to participate now in the process of learning about computers in education, in a measured way, so that as they afford more technology they will be able to draw on early lessons learned in their own countries (rather than relying on the experiences of what's been done in developed countries.) This can come through well-designed pilot projects, or use of computers in a one-computer classroom, etc. The choice is not between zero use of computers and equipping every classroom in Nepal with a 20-station computer laboratory, but rather of selecting cost-effective ways to become part of the international learning experience in this important area.

Mark Warschauer, http://www.lll.hawaii.edu/markw


Date: Mon, 18 Oct 1999 08:32:21 -0700
From: Kristina
Subject: Re: Disadvantages of technology

...Technology (and the Internet) are tools, like chalk and textbooks, and not the be-all and end-all that we are being pushed to believe they are. The informal "Poll of the Month" on tesol.net seems apt:

"The Internet as a tool for language instruction is:"

As expected, the second has by far the most "votes," at 44%, but the third and fourth together also combine to about 44%. Such polls are certainly not scientific, but I find it interesting that this one seems to support attitudes I see often: i.e. that the Internet in and of itself is a good teaching tool *regardless* of the teacher. I find this a bit disturbing, especially in light of Anthea's comments and the overall trend I see of pushing technology without regard to whether the teachers are trained in its use, or, in fact, if it has any proven use at all.

Kristina L. Pfaff-Harris, ESLoop Webmaster,


Date: Mon, 18 Oct 1999 21:42:04 +0200
From: Robertson
Subject: Re: Technology

...One of the "advantages" of computers is that they do cost less than teachers in many cases. This seems to be the case in England where colleges are cutting down on teaching hours and replacing them with autonomous learning in self-access labs. And a growing number of administrators here in France would like to go the same way, both for financial reasons and for the "prestige" a computer lab bestows on the school. Whether it is cost-effective in the long run seems to be of little importance. Whether the money might be better spent on hiring and training teachers - and cutting down on class sizes as well - is seldom the subject the subject of debate.

Bruce Robertson, Lycee Paul Cornu, Lisieux, France


Date: Tue, 19 Oct 1999 11:30:20 +0200
From: William Stowe
Subject: Technology replacing Teachers

It's great to hear someone who gets it. Is it mere coincidence B. Robertson also works in Europe where the investment in computers *may* have a different face than in the States? *We* all know Anthea is right when she says training a couple of good teachers is better for students than buying x number of computers. But *we* don't usually have ultimate control of the purse strings. Besides computers don't get sick or leave you to have babies. They do get outdated, but a replacement policy is easier to manage than humans are with all their foibles. Is it cheaper? Personally I have my doubts in the long run.

I hear from many different sources that teachers should not worry, computers will never replace them. My message is different. Teachers are never going to be replaced *completely* by machines, but they are already losing precious paid hours to them. For one example, this year our school installed a CD-ROM server with 25 computers, just so they could reduce the teacher/student ratio. This does not make any English teachers happy, nor do we for a minute think it is in the interest of the students.

This has negative consequences on the quality of English teaching any place this happens. But like it or not, we will integrate machines to replace the humans who guide, instruct, encourage, and *explain* answers (instead of giving them as most books and computers do). And the more we do to help machines teach, the more we advance this process.

Bill Stowe, Laval, France


Date: Tue, 19 Oct 1999 22:54:44 +0900
From: Jim Bertelsen
Subject: Re: Disadvantages of technology

...I travel from company to company teaching English to small groups of adults. In every lesson, I use a video projector to put the image of my laptop's screen on a whiteboard. I use Microsoft Word as my "chalkboard", and the projector enlarges the monitor image to cover the entire whiteboard. At the beginning of each lesson, I start a new document that has a monthly calendar that shows attendance, which is cut and pasted into the next day's document. The lesson plan is just below it.

Using this method, I can type anything on the whiteboard in a fraction of the time it would take me to write by hand, and with far greater legibility. I can change the color of words instantly when comparing parts of speech. I can highlight words and phrases, and move (or copy) them to other areas of the board without making a mess. I can make nice, neat tables quickly. I often use PowerPoint for presenting graphics, video, etc. ... I have instant access to a dictionary, thesaurus and encyclopedia which everyone can see clearly. Using flash card software, I can make flash cards on the spot, reviewing any new words at the end of each lesson, in translation, fill-in-the-blank, and multiple choice formats. ... Writing assignments can be sent to me via email, corrected anonymously in class, and sent back to the writer after class. In this way, the students assist in correcting their own work. At the end of each lesson, I have a complete record of virtually everything we did that day. This makes it very easy to get a high degree of continuity from one lesson to the next, or to print out written reports of each lesson.

This is, of course, by no means a high tech use of computers. It simply replaces some of the traditional teaching tools to give me greater productivity on-the-fly, and to store comprehensive records in one location. After using this method for two years, I wouldn't trade the laptop/projector/whiteboard combination for the traditional tools ever, if given a choice. I guess I would say it's like using interactive, multimedia transparencies that keep their own records of everything you do in a class. And they all fit in one neat little box.

Jim Bertelsen (Japan)


Date: Tue, 19 Oct 1999 16:36:09 GMT
From: David Catterick
Subject: Dis/Advantages of Technology - some metaphors

...On the negative side, technology can sometimes be seen by some as a Trojan horse. This metaphor suggests that the "powers that be" have an ulterior motive for promoting technology, namely savings on staff costs (the old fear of computers replacing teachers). As someone who has used technology to run online courses my perception is that staff costs involved in setting up the programme, administering it and keeping it up-to-date roughly equals the time investment in face to face teaching (hence, on the surface at least, no savings in staff costs). Another metaphor people might use is that of a bandwagon (the so-called "Because It's There Phenomenon"). Undoubtedly, technophiles can allow their enthusiasm for a new piece of technology/software to cloud their judgement about its true pedagogical value but balance does inevitably come in the long term. The key, I feel, is to be hard-headed and to try to be pedagogy-minded rather than technology-driven.
The technology of online learning is still in its infancy but it is already showing potential. The technology is still particularly limited in terms of language teaching because of the poor multimedia and interactive capabilities of the technology. One thing I think we should remember, though, is that the technology revolution is virtually unstoppable. Is it best to bury our heads in the sand and pretend it's not there or to have a hand (if possible) in shaping the technology to suit our (language teaching) needs?

David Catterick, Lecturer in EFL, University of Dundee, Scotland


Date: Wed, 20 Oct 1999 00:09:57 -0500

From: Michael Barlow
Subject: Technology replacing teachers

By chance I have been thinking about this topic of technology and teachers recently and talked a little about it in a presentation I gave at my university a week or so ago. In that talk I admitted that I, like many others, told people in the mid-eighties that computers would never replace teachers because computers could never be as good as teachers in the classroom. I have to say that I still believe the latter statement, but not the former.

Maybe I am having a mid-life crisis. I am responsible for technology and language learning at my institution and I have a commercial interest in technology and language learning, and yet I have some misgivings about where the trend towards increased technology use, which I have helped to promote over the past decade, is leading to in terms of the status of academics.
I am afraid that there is a definite possibility of fewer hirings and of downgrading of teaching positions over the next decade. Most of the current activity on the web is business-related or is simple information transfer, but I think that in four to five years there will be institutional changes as a result of an increased use of the web for teaching/training. I don't have any advice about how to deal with the powerful market forces operating in today's society---only to not be complacent. ....

Michael Barlow, Department of Linguistics, Rice University, www.ruf.rice.edu/~barlow


Date: Wed, 20 Oct 1999 14:27:45 EDT
From: Anthea Tillyer
Subject: All or nothing

What we need to remember is that with technology it is not a question of take it or leave it, all or nothing. Obviously, there are many wonderful ways in which technology assists us as teachers, and I doubt that anyone will argue with that.
An example of someone who is a principled believer in the value of technology to help human progress and the human sprit is Tim Berners-Lee, the guy who created the World Wide Web. Berners-Lee immediately saw the potential for both good and evil of his invention, and he simply gave away the technology and the code in order to prevent profit making and the unholy concentration of power that would accrue to whoever owned it. Tim Berners-Lee made a conscious decision NOT to make billions, which is why we are all free to use and abuse the WWW today, without paying fees or dues or having it controlled by any government or company. If Berners-Lee had been a different person, we might be in the hands of Microsoft even more than we are. Tim Berners-Lee thought about the impact of all this, and we should too. No technology is without disadvantages, and the technology itself can't make decisions about the humane and ethical application of itself ...it is up to us as humans (and especially as educators) to see that we are not complicit in promoting technology that enslaves and dehumanizes some while enriching others. In short, I think we all should learn from the Luddite movement and be critically aware of what is being done to us and our students in the name of technology. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't use or buy technology.....of course not!....merely that we be alert and ethical practitioners.

Anthea Tillyer City University of New York (USA)


Date: Thu, 21 Oct 1999 10:04:44 -0700
From: Maggie Sokolik
Subject: Postman, Luddites, and Critical Thinking

... Rather than seek to answer Postman's questions,... I'm going to question his premises in asking them. In particular, the first one--what problem is solved by technology, is again, a 'glass half-full' way of looking at it. This question implies that we should only try new things, be creative, and experiment, if a priori we define some problem. This assumption encourages very little growth. I see nothing wrong in looking at a new tool and asking "What can I do with this that I *may not have imagined before*? This is opposed to the approach that says, "I have problem X and tool Y will solve it." In the latter case, in the absence of an identified problem, there is no reason to experiment with a new tool.

The other problem I find with the whole list of questions is the implication that we mere mortals are not using tools critically, thinking about what we do, and trying to do our best while both solving problems and being creative. Every teacher I have observed using new technology has been trying his/her best to bring motivation and creativity into the classroom. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail... but the same is true every time we try a new grammar book, conversation technique, or group activity. Most of us evaluate our failures, learn from them, and become better for it.

Maggie Sokolik, UC Berkeley


Date: Thu, 21 Oct 1999 14:29:31 -0400
From: "Ana L. Bishop"
Subject: Re: technology and language teaching

...Never should computers or any form of technology take the place of human interaction. In fact, I usually recommend that even in language learning, students share a computer with another student so they reinforce the verbal interaction that is so needed and often ignored in some of the labs.

Another thing I cannot emphasize enough -- quality of teaching (or technology) is more important than anything else. A poor teacher is just as bad as a poor software program...or poorly used technology. Combining the two does not yield better results, though giving a poor teacher good training and use of a good software program might make a difference, and often does. Conversely, a good teacher can sometimes overcome poor software with his/her creativity and efforts. If not, he/she should chuck the technology and go back to the older methods. All technology can do is really accelerate and support, not ever take over the entire teaching role.

Ana Bishop


Date: Fri, 22 Oct 1999 14:40:06 -0700
From: Maggie Sokolik
Subject: Re: Postman, Luddites, and Critical Thinking

...One need not give up traditional technologies to make room for new technology. I still read good old paper as well as electrons. I can make a cake from scratch *and* make a web page (also from scratch!). In a pinch, I could make soap, grow a garden, or even bind my own books (yes, I learned how to do that once, too). The power company was "fixing" lines on campus recently, blowing out the power out in my classroom. Class was held, students read, talked, and learned. I think you're right, people are afraid of being too dependent on an unreliable source, but how dependent we become depends on our own choices. If one's class is so dependent on a computer lab that it must be canceled if a network crashes, then it's time to rethink the plans. But again, you don't need me to tell you that.

Maggie Sokolik, UC Berkeley, http://www-writing.berkeley.edu/TESL-EJ


Date: Fri, 22 Oct 1999 23:49:51 +0100
From: Teresa Almeida d'Eca
Subject: more on technology and language teaching

...I became a fan of the use of technology in language teaching (I teach English in the greater Lisbon area) after doing my Master's diss. on NetLearning and then embarking on my first email project with a group of seven students -- start small! So far my ventures in the integration of technology into the curriculum have been limited to email cultural exchanges (one per school year) between my students and American students. Both parties have been extremely engaged, committed and highly enthusiastic, especially the students, for two basic reasons: the novelty of the medium, certainly (at least for mine), but above all because through it (email) they have the opportunity to widen their worlds/horizons/perspectives by exchanging ideas about everyday things, life, etc., with colleagues from another continent and another culture.

Through this kind of project work, we develop what I believe is one of the greatest advantages of technology in language learning -- direct and immediate communication between peers while using (or trying to use) genuine language as best they can to talk about things that they 'relate to'.

When and how to introduce technology into the learning process is a choice that we, teachers, must wisely make, as we so often do regarding other media and/or methodologies in our everyday teaching life. As happens with most things in life, 'balance' and 'moderation' are the keywords for using this tool as effectively and meaningfully as possible. I am still at the stage in which technology is just another tool -- though a very stimulating one for students, and for myself. And I sincerely believe we must take advantage of it as best as we can for our students' sake. In so doing, I guess we can say we are sort of 'mixing business with pleasure'. In other words, while contributing to our students' improvement of their language skills and the broadening of their horizons, we are also helping them acquire technological skills they will need for their active life in a way that really appeals to them, according to my experience. In the medium/long run, I hope that technology-based exchanges will also generate more understanding, solidarity and tolerance, thus, a better society on the whole.

Obviously, new technologies are not the solution to the many problems of Education worldwide, but they have the potential to bring about changes for the better. They have also made possible an extraordinary exchange among peers, which will certainly contribute to more comprehensive and wiser choices on our part. If it weren't for these new communication tools, how could we in TESLCA develop such interchange of ideas, experiences and knowledge? Listservs are a fabulous means of worldwide communication and step forward in both our individual and collective development as teachers of both this real and virtual 'community' (?!) we are a part of.

Teresa Almeida d'Eca, Escola EB 2,3 de Sto. Antonio - Parede, Escola Superior de Hotelaria e Turismo do Estoril


Date: Fri, 22 Oct 1999 21:19:46 EDT
From: "David Tillyer, CUNY"
Subject: pedagogy drives technology

Thanks to Maggie (I can bake and cake and put up a web page) Sokolik for reminding us that we don't need to have the network up and running to be able to explain the present perfect. Actually, where I come from, being a Luddite means not wanting to use the OHP. ... I've enjoyed this discussion enormously and have delighted in the fact that we've been saying in many ways that pedagogy should drive the technology and not the other way around. What was so ingeniously annoying about Neil Postman's speech last week was that he made me want to grab his arm and hustle him into the nearest computer lab to show him how many ways computer technology can enhance traditional language teaching. He really got me thinking about the point of creating a class web site and the purpose of providing lessons to distant students, etc.

He warned us to ask about the problem that would be solved by the solution of technology. This is really a good admonition: What are clever technologies to help students with certain pronunciation problems? How can I get my students to edit their work more carefully? How can I graphically show the word shift for question formation so that it becomes crystal clear? How can I highlight words that need to be stressed as students read them? What clever ways can I think of to help out with new vocabulary in novels? How can I do this without anticipating what words students won't know and allowing them to come up with problem words themselves and then create some kind of practice themselves?

Hmmmm. I'm glad I live in the age that I do. I worry about agitating for more funding for computers in a school that is eliminating remediation and won't add sections of classes for monetary reasons. However, these are interesting times and our options are enhanced by the technology.

David A. Tillyer, Westchester Community College, City College of New York

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Last updated June 14, 2000 by Deborah Healey. Email Deborah.