Controversies in using technology in language teaching

In his first article for TeachingEnglish, Pete Sharma considers some of the controversies surrounding the use of technology in and out the classroom.

Controversies in using technology in language teaching - speaking article - guest writers

'Interactive whiteboards are great!' 'Interactive whiteboards are expensive!' There are many controversial issues in the area of technology-enhanced language teaching. This article explores some of these areas of disagreement; it concludes by revisiting four key ‘principles’ which can help teachers incorporating ICT (information and communication technology) in their courses.

One thing that I have noticed is how terms can have different definitions. For example, the phrase ‘blended learning’ means different things to different people. In language teaching, the classical definition is a combination of face-to-face classes (same time, same place) and web-based training. However, this definition excludes using CD-ROM, since they are not delivered over the internet. What this means is that when teachers begin discussing concepts such as ‘blended learning’ they soon discover they are arguing about completely different things! Even the term ‘f2f’ can now be qualified as ‘f2f online’ when used to describe teaching via tools like Skype.

For some people, the term 'blended learning' has a positive connotation: 1+1 is more than two. In other words, the best of the teacher plus the best of the technology could result in positive learning outcomes. For others, blended learning has a negative connotation: it is the worst of both worlds. On a blended course, the students who love the classroom do not contribute to the knowledge-building on the forums. The students who spend their time on-line hate crossing the busy city to attend the face-to-face lessons. The course ends up pleasing no-one! So, when someone mentions the ‘virtual’ classroom, what connotation does it have? For one person it’s exciting; for the next, it’s scary.

Using technology for different areas of language study
While technology has had a major influence on the teaching and learning of languages, a lot of disagreement surrounds areas such as the teaching of grammar, vocabulary, language skills and testing.

The increase in the number of interactive exercises on CD-ROM and the web has undoubtedly benefitted the analytical learner. Students can practise 24/7 and receive instant feedback. However, many teachers and material writers would argue that this kind of practice is based on an outdated, stimulus-response methodology. These grammar exercises ‘skewer’ the language, so on-line practice focuses on ‘crisp’ areas of language at the expense of ‘fuzzy’ areas. Here’s a good example of this distinction:

Crisp:   Is 'I went there': (a) Simple past? (b) Present perfect?
Fuzzy:   What’s the difference between (a) 'I did it' and (b) 'I’ve done it'?

Arguments are currently raging about the use of electronic translators. These provide many benefits, allowing students to cross-check between bi-lingual dictionaries and mono-lingual dictionaries, and encouraging them to review language. Yet, when used for production, they seem to encourage the selection of the wrong word in English, and teachers can quite easily spot an essay written with the help of one of these small machines. They also inhibit fluency if students take them out in discussion classes – which they frequently do.

In the area of the receptive skills, listening and reading, the effect of technology has been huge. The Internet has provided a vast range of material, offering many more opportunities for exposure to authentic materials, both audio and text. At the same time, much of this material is clearly unsuitable for language learners. The debate continues as to how useful YouTube is and to what extent is technology ‘responsible’ for the rise in plagiarism in EAP (English for academic purposes).

The influence of technology on the productive skills of speaking and writing is, arguably, less. If you wish to improve fluency, many students would argue that nothing is better than a face-to-face language lesson, a discussion class with the teacher. Can the same be said about taking a fluency class using Skype, a web-based program such as Illuminate or a class in the virtual world, Second Life? What value does ‘Voice recognition’ have? Wikis enable students to compose an essay together at a distance, making them a suitable medium for collaborative writing. However, not all learners wish to learn from each other, and prefer only the teacher to correct their work, rather than a peer.

There has been an explosion of on-line testing in the last few years. Such test materials use the same formats as multimedia materials: gap-fill, multiple choice etc. Is this a match made in heaven? Some would argue that on-line tests actually favour students who use computers, and ignore the assessment of ‘affective factors’ such as personality and learner type.

The digital divide
Almost no other technology symbolises the ‘digital divide’ as much as the interactive whiteboard (IWB). Those with access to this technology are currently exploring how best to exploit it in the classroom; detractors suggest it can be a way of going back to ‘teacher-centred’ approaches. In some parts of the world, using such technology is a distant dream.

Theory vs practice
This is a world which is driven by technology. The innovators innovate, and later, pedagogy plays catch-up, as teachers try things out. The world of theory (of evidence and research) is, arguably, lagging behind what is happening in the classrooms. In other words, if you wait for a case study to justify whether or not Twitter has value, you may be waiting a long time, and the technology will have moved on by the time the research has been done.

I think that there are many controversies in the use of ICT in the teaching and learning of languages. This article has just touched on some of them – there are many more:

  • Do we accept text-talk when we mark writing? (cu l8ter)
  • How effective are language classes in Second Life?
  • Can students learn using a mobile phone?

In our book ‘Blended Learning’, my co-author and I discuss four key principles which can help teachers implement technology. These are:

  1. Separate the role of the teacher
    It is important to understand the respective roles played by the teacher and the technology in the learning process; the teacher could deal with the ‘fuzzy’ areas mentioned above, for instance.
  2. Teach in a principled way
    Whenever a new technology emerges (such as, say, podcasting), it is important to go beyond the ‘wow’ factor and think about the pedagogical reasons for using it.
  3. Use the technology to complement and enhance what the teacher does
  4. 'It’s not what it is, it’s what you do with it.' (Jones 1986.) So it is not the interactive whiteboard per se which could improve the learning experience, but how it is used.

As I listen to the various arguments about all these controversies, I frequently revisit these principles and still find them helpful in ascertaining my role. In the first part of my time as Guest Writer, it would be interesting to learn what people are doing, how they are using technology, and exploring these issues further. So what technology related issues have you encountered in your classroom?


  • Barrett, B and Sharma, P (2007) Blended Learning – using technology inside and beyond the language classroom Macmillan
  • Jones, C (1086) ‘It’s not so much the program, more what you do with it: the importance of methodology in CALL’ System 14 / 2, 171-178



Submitted by carladelia on Thu, 04/09/2009 - 13:25


Dear Pete,

I have really enjoyed reading your article. I'm a technology enthusiast and I use it daily with my students and also to prepare my classes. However, I have felt that many times teachers use technology without actually exploring the real relevance of what they are teaching. Using technology just because it's a trend does not lead the teacher to a successful and effective class.

I believe that the first thing a teacher should think about is the relevance of what he/she is teaching and then choose the best approach to do so, by using technology or not. Many zero-resource classes can be as effective as a high-tech class. Technology is supposed to add value to your class, not distract the student from the real purpose of the class.

Thank you for sharing your precious thoughts on the matter.

Best wishes, 

Carla D'Elia - English Teacher

Hi Carla

Thanks for sharing this thought.

One word I often use in connection with technology is 'appropriate' - an appropriate use of technology. This seems to echo what you say about relevance....

I notice with envy that you work in Brazil - I was lucky to be in Sao Paolo to do the technology plenary at LABCI-ABCI two years ago. Many teachers were very technology-savvy - a most exciting trip.

Good luck with your teaching!


Submitted by eladia on Fri, 04/10/2009 - 15:17


Dear Pete

Very interesting article, with useful tips, especially for one who´s starting to use ICT in the EFL classroom. Technology is part of our Argentinian students' lives and we can´t put off any longer taking profit of it in our teaching English. however, I am aware I need to work more on my skills to deal with it, before working together with my students and using it as one more teaching-learning resource.



Submitted by Pete Sharma on Mon, 04/13/2009 - 20:46

In reply to by eladia


Hello Eladia

Thanks for your kind words. Also, for sharing your thoughts. I admire the way you say: "I need to work more on my skills" - I hope I also share this willingness to develop.

One great thing is how our students are usually willing to help us, the teachers, and show us things about the technology!

I cannot wait for July and the LABCI conference in Buenos Aires...then I hope I shall see for myself how Argentinian students are learning to embrace technology.

Best wishes on your odessey of learning!


Submitted by annFor on Fri, 04/10/2009 - 16:34



I really agree with what both you and Carla say about reflecting on what you use technology for. I started off using blogs with my classes some 3 or 4 years ago and have gradually learnt how using them and other web publishig resources can really improve my teaching practice. What I really like is that they get students negotiating with the real word: using their language skills in an authentic context and producing results for all the world to see that they can feel proud of.

I use blogs as a class organiser, I set a task for my students, usually one where they themselves can choose the content that interests them, and while they are working on that, I make use of the time to talk to them individually about how they did the previous task. In that way I become, as you say, a type of facilatator, helping them to express themselves in the way that feels right for them.

If you are interested in seeing the results, two current class blogs are:

Thanks for starting up this really interesting discussion.


Ann Foreman - Teacher and ICT Coordinator for Bilbao BC


Hi Ann

Thanks for writing about blogs in relation to task-based work. It must be great for students to know that the world may look at the results of their work. I enjoyed looking at their work. I am someone who has never actually uploaded anything to YouTube. I must say that both sites look most impressive! I am running a course this weekend on Blended Learning, and participants may well like to see your students work as examples of what students can achieve! Do tell your students that they have another admirer in the UK! Best wishes

Hi Mona,

Very glad you like the 2 blogs.

You can follow the instructions of how to set up a blog in this tutorial.  At the bottom of the post you'll find this link Download – which is a step-by-step guide for setting up a class blog with instructions for your students on how to become a blog authors and ideas for getting them to generate their own class material.

I regularily set tasks for my students and put them as a post on the blog itself – you can find ideas for these on the 2 blogs you've mentioned.

Also you can get your students themselves to create their own tasks or projects. For example, here's a blog created by 2 students about Space. They decided on the project themselves and set themselves weekly tasks, all I did was to monitori their progress and givie them help when they needed it.

Good luck!


Submitted by Helena Meyer on Fri, 04/10/2009 - 17:45


Hi, Pete!

Another hello from Brazil! I really enjoyed the balanced view in your article.

Yes, technology is here to stay -- nobody can deny this. Our kids (young and not-so-young) breathe it,  eat with it, sleep with it... And blind resistance will take us nowhere. On the other hand, uncritical adoption of technology just because it's fashionable might lead to unprincipled teaching -- which, in my opinion, is the greatest sin of all. This is one of the strongest points in your argument. Most of all, a teacher should know why he/she is doing things, and also be aware of the several alternatives (tech or no-tech) there are to reach a pedagogical objective.

To me, it seems innovation is there to be resisted, especially among teachers. I remember when, quite a long time ago, tapes started to be used for listening comprehension. Some teachers said that they were of no use, because they did not allow for real interaction between listener and speaker, thus did not reflect a real life situation. And today no one could conceive a course without an audio component (be it video or CD or podcast or whatever). Maybe this is what will happen with all this new technology.

As a teacher, I try to use the technology I have available, in a balanced way, but if I'm teaching in a situation where technology is not part of the resources I have, I go back to the 'old ways', with no loss of quality (but with a considerable use of more time preparing lessons).

As a trainer, I come across teachers who have already jumped in the band-wagon, and won't teach a single class without a fancy technological device. And also deal with those who say:" Im a good teacher and have done without it all my life, so why bother to change?" To both, I encourage a review of beliefs, and, as you well mentioned, to think about sound pedagogical reasons for using (or not) technology.

As a language consultant, working with school owners who are extremely anxious to purchase the latest gadget or to adopt the latest  technology, just not to stay behind their competitors, I recommend that they first look at the quality of the teaching that goes in their schools.

I agree with you, and allow me to quote Jones again: 'It’s not what it is, it’s what you do with it.' (Jones 1986.) After all, it's always been this way, isn't it?

Helena Meyer

ELT Teacher, Teacher Trainer, Language Teaching Consultant

Salvador, Brasil

Hi Helena

What a lovely post! Thank you. You most paint a most balanced picture!

I know that we do need those innovators who love and relish new technology, but at the end of the day, the gadgets and gizmos which come to be used are those where the teachers are convinced of their pedagogical value. I remember when podcasts were frowned on, as they just seemed to be like the ‘radio shows’ from the past. Then, it was realised that one great advantage was that they were portable, and students were able to listen ‘on the move’. Now, they are rightly popular in practising listening.

I am a great believer in what Jones wrote….he seems to be proved right time and time again!

Best wishes

Submitted by Niranga Abeyakoon (not verified) on Mon, 05/25/2009 - 10:12


Niranga Abeyakoon

Dear All,

people are entited to have their own opinions regarding the use of technology in class room activities. In my view, we have to explore the potential of using the same material in different ways to maximise the student's learning process. For example, when using the smart boards, it saves a lot of time in giving feed back to students and the teacher can use the materials other than to teach the target language (in reading or listening materials) to introduce them to the day to day vocabulary and other infoermation, phrases in English language, collocations in the language etc, without ignoring them thinking that is not in the course book to teach.

In my opinion, a teacher should be resourseful in introducing the language to the students, specially in means of communication which I believe is the main purpose of learning a language. Therefore, the teacher should explore using technology without just sticking to the course books.





some interesting points

I love the way you can save digital flipcharts and then re-use them later. Opens up many possibilities for recycling, re-using and honing lessons.

I agree that it is good for teachers to be resourceful. I think 'flexible' too. It is good to fall back on such resources if technology goes wrong..



Submitted by fatima zahraa on Thu, 05/20/2010 - 14:10


Dear Pete,

Thank you for this article it contains an important skill to talk about.

What I have enjoyed to read is 'It’s not what it is, it’s what you do with it'. That is right; teachers and students as well should know how to use technology in learning language.

Thank you

Submitted by elizi on Mon, 07/05/2010 - 15:25


Dear Pete,

I find your words inspiring. The minute a teacher stops asking questions is when problems start. The questions you invite us to ask are at the heart of the matter, and you put them in a clear and accessible way.

Having attented your talk at the LABCI in São Paulo in 2007, I can say that besides the sanity in your voice, I also admire your courage!

All the best,

Cesar Elizi


Research and insight

We have hundreds of case studies, research papers, publications and resource books written by researchers and experts in ELT from around the world. 

See our publications, research and insight

Sign up to our newsletters for teachers and teacher educators

We will process your data to send you our newsletter and updates based on your consent. You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the "unsubscribe" link at the bottom of every email. Read our privacy policy for more information.