21st century English Teaching: Embracing the Digital Age in your Classroom

This past week I had the pleasure of holding a workshop aimed at helping English teachers to integrate digital tools and learning technology in their language teaching. At the 10th annual English Teachers‘ Day at the University College of Teacher Education in Vienna, Austria, several hundred educators gathered to further their professional development and deepen their knowledge on how to use different methods, strategies and activities in their teaching practice. I was eager to exchange experiences with my fellow educators. What would this trip outside my personal „bubble“ reveal? 

It is of course impossible to gauge the extent of which English teachers use software or hardware during their classes. In Austria we are, relatively speaking, better off than in other countries, most schools have wireless internet access, most students have smartphones and many schools (especially the vocational ones) are equipped with laptops, computer rooms and learning software. Still, teachers in all subjects are free to use whatever methodology they deem suitable for their situation.

In my late afternoon session, a group of 15 teachers listened attentively while I went through my slides, arguing the whys and wherefores of technology-enhanced teaching and demonstrating different apps and platforms. While the feedback was positive and the participants largely open-minded, a few observations I made clarified why there is such a gulf between those who do and those who don’t teach with technology.

Why embrace learning technology?

One of the main aims of my presentation is to explain how paramount it is to adapt language teaching practice for the digital age. After all, our students hail from a different generation, born in the Information Age. They do not know a world without Google, Wikipedia or Youtube. Many or most own expensive portable computers in the form of smartphones and tablets. Being on the internet for many hours in a day is normal for them. Our students – whom we may consider to be our “ customers“ – are used to accessing information and entertainment 24/7 while mobile. „Anytime, anywhere“ should apply to learning as well, right? Right?


Many language teachers I’ve met are reticent about integrating apps and digital tools in their teaching practice. Based on their frank feedback, I’ll summarise three of the common arguments below.

  • „I don’t know how and I don’t have the time to find out how“ 
  • „I don’t believe it’s good for the kids“ 
  • „It’s not necessary, you can teach without technology and get good results“ 

It is very important to address these concerns, as teachers are the ones who must bear the responsibility of innovating in the classroom. If they are unwilling to do so, then our efforts to train teachers will be in vain.

Let’s take a look at the argument: „I don’t know how and I don’t have time“.
Anyone who has spent time in teacher staff rooms or in classrooms in recent years has clearly seen how reforms have meant extra hours of work for teachers, across the board. Teachers have a myriad of extra jobs, extra forms to fill out, extra administrative tasks, new examination forms to get used to etc etc. Contrary to popular belief, most teachers work 40 to 60 hours a week, some even 80 hours. We prepare on weekends and in the evenings after coming home from school. Scraping out time to invest in gaining know-how in digital literacy sounds improbable and unreasonable to many.

Still, we should never stop learning and developing ourselves professionally. The willingness to learn new things is what we’d like to install in our students. Should we expect less of ourselves? Research into how we learn continues to be done. We teachers did not stop learning when we finished our training. Those who are willing to take risks, try out new things, and see what happens when they press „click“ will be those who will move out of their comfort zone and experience unexpected outcomes.

What about those studies that show that increased screen time is harmful for children and teenagers? Some teachers genuinely feel that „(too much) technology is not good for students“. They feel guilty about creating more opportunities where kids are connected and feel that youngsters are already addicted to their devices. Many cite studies, researchers, as well as personal observations that seem to prove that when kids are glued to their screens, they are incapable of interacting socially and personally with others, without technology. How fair is this assessment?

Source: Specialised Assistive Technology Centre

To answer this, it is imperative to ask the question: What are we using technology for? Simply speaking, we use apps and digital learning tools to enhance and support learning that is harder to do when using analogue methods. One example should serve to illustrate this point clearly.

Technology is being used worldwide with children with special needs to improve their quality of life and to enable them to learn in new ways. No doubt, few would accuse teachers of these young learners of harming them with the use of technology.

In similar fashion, those who teach with technology are using tools for specific tasks and activities to help promote competencies on every level. Purposefully done, the application of technology in the classroom provides easy ways to differentiate and personalise learning, aiding student-driven learning scenarios and supporting the development of creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking. Here students switch from being passive consumers to creative producers of learning artefacts. For 21st century learning to happen, teachers introduce technology selectively to create learning environments that are challenging, motivating and problem-based. The question is not either/or but when and what for.

Slideshare Link

What about the argument „it’s not necessary, you can teach without technology and get good results„? Yes, you can. But if teachers are unwilling to use innovative methods, they risk missing out on rewarding learning AND teaching experiences. One example may serve to show what I mean.

Millions of teachers around the world use the Flipped Classroom model to reinvent how learning works within and outside of their classrooms. Switching the input phase to home allows quality time for teachers to spend next to students, directly helping them solve problems, grasp concepts and practice skills. Flipped learning looks completely different from the traditional classroom. The teacher is not the centre of attention, the students are. Using video or audio to provide inputs prior to class truly enhances the teacher role. To find out more about how Flipped Classroom works, simply do a Google or youtube search. There is ample research on the method, as well as guides and tutorials available.

Technology can support learning for many jobs in the English language classroom. Here are just a few suggestions:

How to find tips on tools for the language classroom? For example, I follow groups on social media, educators on Facebook and blogs centred on educational technology. There are too many to list, but here are a few:

In the end, each educator should make his/her own decision about how to integrate technology as a tool for learning in the classroom. The tips I’ve given here are just the tip of the iceberg. 🙂 The important thing is that educators stay open-minded and willing to explore ways to innovate in their classrooms.


Picture source: flickr.com