The Internet TESL Journal

More Productive Use of Technology in the ESL/EFL Classroom

Michael Morgan
University of Detroit Mercy (Detroit, Michigan, USA)

The digital age challenges teachers to use technology in ways that facilitate language learning.  ESL/EFL teachers must decide how—and how not—to use technology in the classroom.  This article examines the role of technology in the ESL/EFL classroom and offers three methods to help teachers meet their own English Language Teaching objectives.


Bits (binary digits) can be used productively or unproductively in the ESL/EFL classroom.  Users who are bit literate (Hurst, 2007) recognize when technology is unproductive.  ESL/EFL teachers should achieve “bit literacy” (Hurst, 2007) because it would allow them to reclaim their classroom from any technology that interferes with English Language Teaching.  It is becoming easier to equip students with technology.  Central to making technology more productive is to know how it will equip ESL/EFL students with the skills they need.  Technical skills are no substitute for language skills. ESL/EFL students are empowered when teachers harness new technology in ways that promote language learning.  

Buyer Beware

It is not impossible to overload an ESL/EFL class with electronic information.  The wares of the digital age are manifold.  Adding new technology to the ESL/EFL classroom poses some similar issues that ordinary buyers consider before making personal purchases.  But for teachers, the issues affect their students.  One issue is compatibility.  An ordinary buyer may want to know if a new device or software is compatible with other devices.  ESL/EFL teachers must know if a new device or software is compatible with English Language Teaching objectives.  There are no tech-miracles waiting for teachers when they go shopping for an ESL/EFL class.  New technology can turn out to be a valuable resource or a disappointing failure.  Teachers should not let the novelty of technology replace its real purpose in the ESL/EFL classroom.  That purpose should be decided by ESL/EFL teachers, not by manufacturers of technology or publishers of software.   In addition to the educational setbacks of poorly chosen technology, teachers operating under budget constraints may be held accountable for squandering money.  Schools benefit when teachers are shrewd judges of technology for the classroom.

Productive Use of Technology

There are three strategies ESL/EFL teachers can follow to ensure that technology fits their needs.   First, investigate new media to see if it is suitable for classroom use.   Then identify how new media changes TESOL.  Finally, set English Language Teaching objectives before selecting any tools of technology.

Investigate New Media

A thorough investigation of a new medium may reveal a teaching tool that provides students with important bits of information or expose it as a needless communicative activity.  Fused into any new medium are other media that are not new.  Ironically, Marshall McLuhan, famous for embracing new technology, provides teachers with this starting point to investigate new media.  McLuhan’s famous aphorism, “The medium is the message” is deceptively simplistic.   He explored new meanings of content (Levinson, 1999, p. 2).  To McLuhan, “The content of every medium is always another medium” (McLuhan, 1995, p. 151).   For example, “the content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph” (McLuhan, 1995, p. 151).  PowerPoint® evolved out of slide and overhead projectors.   Speech, radio news reports and cassette players are the predecessor media for podcasts.   Logs, diaries and editorials are recast on the Web as blogs.  Letters and fax machines are the predecessor media for e-mail.   Video games descended from Pac-Man®.  At the high end are Internet browsers which have absorbed most of the media that predated them--everything from print to TV and movies.   Teachers would be remiss not to include the World Wide Web as part of ESL/EFL instruction.  Still, teachers must guard against replacing instruction with Web searches.  

Colaric and Jonassen list three faulty assumptions that can entangle instruction in the Web:
  1. That the World Wide Web is a vast library that can be used to convey knowledge.  
  2. That searching and finding information on the Web equals learning.
  3. That hyperlinking is good instruction. (Bates, 2003, p. 198)
Too much focus on the Web obscures the deeper processes of learning ESL/EFL.  Sometimes teachers should “let the bits go” (Hurst, 2007, p. 167).

Identify How New Media Changes TESOL

Scale, Pace and Pattern

Once ESL/EFL teachers identify the predecessor media within a new medium, they have a better grasp of how to implement the new medium, or if it should be implemented at all.  To paraphrase McLuhan, the “message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into TESOL (McLuhan, 1995, p.152).”  PowerPoint did not pioneer the display of large print on a screen, but its bullet-point lists changed the pattern of print used on overhead projectors (OHP) from complete sentences into chunks that are formatted to appear and disappear quickly.  Whether the message of PowerPoint and its bullet-point lists have improved upon the complete sentences on OHP gels or Word® handouts should be a factor in a teacher’s decision to utilize PowerPoint.  Teachers can click through bits of information at a faster pace, but content becomes less meaningful.  E-mail introduced a rapid pace of message delivery, and E-mail’s scale has changed the delivery by allowing students and teachers to send to many contacts at once. The pace of text-messaging is speedier than e-mail, but the pattern of text-messaging shorthand hardly resembles English.  Worse, the pace and pattern of texting in class activities lures students to embrace texting as a manner of communication and steers them away from face-to-face communication so crucial to language learning.  Scale, pace and pattern help teachers identify how new media changes TESOL.  The changes may or may not be helpful.

Set the Objectives before Selecting the Technology

Technology Contributes to Specific English Language Teaching Objectives  

Setting English Language Teaching objectives before selecting the technology safeguards the objectives.   For instance, identifying main ideas, listening for details, or giving opinions are three objectives that might work with a podcast, but English Language Teaching objectives should not be compromised to fit technology.  Making students listen to a podcast just because it is a new medium diminishes any English Language Teaching objective added as an afterthought.  However, if the selected objective is, for example, to encourage self-conscious students to express their opinions, then teachers can consider how to exploit technology to achieve the objective.  It can be achieved through Web-based software learning systems which upgrade student-to-student as well as student-to-teacher communication.  Some Web-based software learning systems have features that enable students to engage in threaded discussions.  Students from certain cultures that discourage public disagreement discover a freedom to disagree provided by the impersonal nature of technology.  Threaded discussions free them from embarrassment.  Voices are not raised and nobody’s face turns red.  Threaded discussions change the scale and pattern of student-student interchanges. It is a unique way to acculturate foreign students so they are able to engage in lively discussions.  Meanwhile, teachers can monitor the threads to advance a discussion or reign in dead-end digressions or inappropriate interjections.

Form-Focused Instruction Supported by Technology

When objectives are set to focus on form, technology offers powerful support.   Renewed interest in form-focused instruction has led to a “preemptive focus on form” (Ellis, 2001, p. 413).   One way that “preemptive, teacher initiated exchanges” occurs is when the teacher models a “linguistic form” for students (Ellis, 2001, p. 422).  The technology of PowerPoint’s templates offers an excellent way to model chunks of grammar, vocabulary or anything else that doesn’t require content-based instruction.  The pattern and pace of teacher-student interchanges increases.  To illustrate, PowerPoint introduces adjectives impressively through font size, color and animation.  Students are eager to focus on form when the slides show vocabulary/adjectives that are Big, small, red, and beautiful (with animation).   Also, aiming the projector at a whiteboard can provide blanks for students to fill in their own answers (Morgan, 2008) when, for instance, correcting comma splices. On one slide the independent clause “Make sentences correct” joined by a comma to the independent clause “fix them with periods” can be displayed right above two blank lines that each end with a period.  Students then write two complete sentences for the blank lines.   On the next slide “Jill went to the store” joined by a comma to “she bought a coat” can be shown directly over a line that contains nothing but a comma followed by the conjunction “and” in the middle point of the line.  Again, students supply the answer.  

Because PowerPoint’s electronic templates are minimalist, they force ESL/EFL teachers and students to keep their exchanges simple, focused and comprehensible.  

The Objective: English Language Teaching or Technology?

Effort, time and money can be invested or wasted in technology.  Some ESL\EFL text books are sold to instructors with advertisements that promote gratuitous assistance, such as online programs, student websites, and online handbooks that might require a subscription. They are really advertisements to change the scale of student practice to include many bits. Does all this technological assistance accomplish the teacher’s objective or has technological assistance become the objective?   If the explanatory text in the book is good, teachers should not bury it under technology.


Instead of supplying ESL/EFL teachers with undirected bits, the digital age challenges us to use technology in ways that facilitate language learning.  Pressures from schools, society, and technological companies weigh upon teachers to buy the latest software or gadgets.  Teachers must ignore the pressure and resist the sale of technology as fashion accessories.  When teachers use technology responsibly, when they accept that it is okay sometimes to “let the bits go” (Hurst, 2007, p. 167), then teachers and students will benefit from technology in its supporting role in the ESL/EFL classroom.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 7, July 2008