Tech for Tech’s Sake

I have about 15 minutes to write a post before I head off to the airport to meet one of students who is, even as I write this, winging her way back to Japan.  She’s spent the past year in Australia, shopping at the super marker just across from the Australian campus, eating dinner with her home stay family, heading up to the gold coast for Friday surfing lessons.  English is the language she breathes as she moves from day to day.  But not all my students are so lucky.  Most of them are trying to learn English here in Japan.  If I chat with my students on the train after school, we invite a certain amount of scrutiny, the stares falling on us like tiny hammers.  It can take a lot of courage to use English here in Japan.


Lately there have been a number of presentations at conferences and blog posts about how technology is a tool, how it should meet the needs of the students and enhance what happens in the classroom.  Most people seem to be of the opinion that tech for tech’s sake isn’t very useful.  But what if you really have no idea how students are going to react to a new web site or novel ways to explore English with their smart-phones until you give them the space to try it out in class?


For the past three years I’ve been working with my students to develop their vocabulary through the use of vocab cards and vocabulary note books.  I was pretty much of the opinion that opening up a notebook and dashing down a word, a meaning, and a sample sentence was the easiest way to go.  A notebook doesn’t run out of batteries, you don’t have to find a hot-spot, you can hand a friend your notebook and quiz each other.  I couldn’t see how spending class time to get the students to learn and use Quizlet, the on-line flash card site, could further the goals of the program.  But after reading some posts by Sandy Millinand catching a Tweet from Leo Selivan、I decided to give it a try.


I wrote up a set of 24 words drawn from Paul Nation’s modified General Service List, booked an hour of computer lab time, and then spent the time necessary to introduce the site to the students.  This meant that I had to watch as students sweated over their username (because a username to a high school student is absolutely not an easily remembered combination of their first and last name, but an expression of personal identity) or forgot to check and fill in certain boxes insuring they had to start over again.  Halfway through the 20 minutes it took to get every student signed up, I had decided that this was a terrible mistake.  And once students started working with the card set, I didn’t change my mind much.  Most of the students ignored the sample sentences, which I had checked against COCA to ensure I was using the vocab in a way that might actually be useful.  They would listen to the word pronounced once by activating sound, but once they thought they had gotten the pronunciation, they basically ignored the sound in general.  I spent some time working with individual students to help them use shadowing techniques when using and listening to the cards.  But if I really wanted the students to get more out of Quizlet, I realized I would have to book at least another hour or two in the computer room.  Vocabulary notebooks and word cards in conjunction with electronic dictionaries with a pronunciation button were looking pretty good to me.


But then one of my students, S-chan, suddenly shouted out, “I got 100%.”  She had just taken a Quizlet test on the word cards she had been studying.  In all the chaos of getting students logged on to the system and struggling to get them to use the site more effectively, I hadn’t noticed S-chan working her way through the cards.  She had her headphones on and had been completely silent.  Maybe that’s why she shouted so loudly.  I watched as she pulled out her cell phone and snap a picture of the computer screen.  “I’m sending this to my mom,” she said.  She said it to the whole class.  She said it to herself.  And she said it with a kind of joy she rarely shows in class.


I’m not sure that S-Chan’s 100% success makes using Quizlet 100% worthwhile.  But it made me rethink why I should or should not use tech in my classroom.  Sure, I have ideas of what I want to see happen in my classroom.  But those goals and my ideas for class are like the lopsided world maps of early cartographers.  We never quite manage to sail over the sea of learning the way I think we will.  My learners chose what and when they learn.  For some of them, tech is going to give them the best chance they have for learning.  Whether I think the tech enhances what happens in class or complements my goals is superfluous.  So maybe there is a case to be made for using tech for tech’s sake.  Not all the time.  But sometimes.  Maybe all that wasted time with passwords and broken internet connects and the like can be worth it.


I’m going to meet my student at the airport in 10 minutes and counting.  English was the language she breathed for the past year.  But not all my students are that lucky.  Tech for tech’s sake.  In an EFL environment like Japan, maybe there is no such thing as tech for tech’s sake.  Every new site, every way to explore language or get exposed to English in different ways has a value that can’t be measured in what I see as wasted class minutes.  Maybe for some of my students, tech might mean learning.



12 thoughts on “Tech for Tech’s Sake

  1. Interesting post, Kevin, and made me reflect on a similar recent experience. When I introduced VoiceThread to my beginner-elementary students in an effort to provide more opportunities for individual speaking practice, I was at first wondering if it was worth it. Like you I found that setting up accounts wasted a lot of time, and this even extended into the second and third sessions. But throughout my 5 weeks of VT sessions, there were enough S-Chan-type successes to make me realise it had been worthwhile persisting! I got a bit carried away while I was composing a comment for your blog and it turned into a blog post of my own. You might be interested in reading more of my story here: Not Tech for Tech's Sake. Not an Experiment


  2. S-Chan's reaction to the 100% brought tears to my eyes Kevin. What makes this episode so touching is the fact that for that particular person that event was so important that made her do things, like you said, she hadn't done before. I feel that sometimes I fail to recognize what is important for each one of my students, so now I am trying to pay more attention to this and finding ways to match their needs and desires. When comes to technology however, it isn't the same for everyone. I remember last year when we used StoryBird ( ) one of my students (who were a beginner) was more interested in the artwork provided by the website, if he could create similar ones for their stories and if it could be posted in the website. Creating the story and using English was the least of his concerns. He is in the second semester now, and last class he stopped by my desk and saw a sketch of a portrait around it and that led us to my old art website so he could see my artwork. At the end of the class when I asked for a feedback from them, he said the best part of the class was checking out my art blog. He has tried to give up to the English classes a number of times, but family forces him to stay. In this case, I am wondering if technology can engage him with English learning and how. Thanks for writing this post. I'm off to read Lesley's now. :)I'd appreciate if you guys could point out what presentations at the conference dealt with this topic. I couldn't follow the conference online at all. 😦


  3. I forgot to mention that I have just started using Edmodo and quizlet, so I appreciate you writing about your experience with Quizlet. I need to check out the blogposts you mentioned in your post. I'm sure I will learn a lot from Sandy and Leo. Thanks!


  4. Hi. Nice post. I have been using Quizlet for many years now with mixed feelings and mixed results. I like that you can orgnaize vocab there, practice spelling and listening (a little, anyway),combine lists, print out cards, and access vocab practice via smartphones. The downside is the focus on individual words (the system really doesn't work well for strings or even collocation pairs), and the need for typing skills to get the most out of it. That said, of all the websites and resources I introduce to high school teachers here in Japan, Quizlet is usually the one (often the only one) they really embrace. I think it fits with the current culture of learning for many students and teachers. So like you said, maybe tech for tech's sake, but definitely better than nothing for many learners.


  5. Hi Kevin,Thanks for sharing your ideas, always a great invitation to reflect. I have used Quizzlet in my classes and I have this feeling that they take the exercises as games, which brings like more fun. But I still wonder if they really learn the lists of vocabulary we provide them, I ask them if they ever go back and check their Quizzlet lists and the answer is simply NO. We also use notebooks for vocabulary record, and also google docs. I like when they are able to create their own examples using the words we choose together (most of the time).But S-Chan feeling excited about her accomplishment makes me value the time you spend in the lab. I sort of have made a picture of her in my mind and I love it!Debbie


  6. Hi KevinThank you for the mention. I am glad that I helped ignite your interest in Quizlet. You said that your wife has been an avid user too :)I have a private student who is about 60 – sorry I don't mean to sound ageist. Although she works for an educational institution that is involved in developing educational technologies she confessed she has been somewhat skeptical about technology in education – she works as an editor – that is until I introduced her to Quizlet. Now she's totally hooked; she sends me emails all the time asking me to add new sets and, most importantly, she says that now she has understood the power and potential of technology for learning!I liked reading your post and might even include it as suggested reading on the learning technologies courses I teach.L


  7. Hi Lesley,Thanks for the comment. I jumped over and read your post. It seems that you are really willing to seek out, play with, and think about how a piece of technology can fit into your class. The truth is, the longer I think about something like Voice Thread (which is next up on my list), the more reasons I find for not trying it out in class. This year I carved out 1 hour every Friday just to introduce new tech to students. It's a Study Skills Building Class and it starts from this week. I'm hopping that having that 1 hour a week is going to make it a lot easier to get over my hesitation about certain Web tools. Hopefully it will let some other students have their own S-chan moments. Thanks again for the comment, linked post, and much to think about. Kevin


  8. Hi Rose,Thanks for the comment. I love the story of your artistic student and his reaction to StoryBird (a site I love and have used after school for English club). I think you are so right, students will react to technology in highly personal ways, and some of those ways will not necessarily lead to much language growth. It sounds like your art loving student got a whole lot more English practice out of visiting and talking about your art blog than he did out of StoryBird. But who really knows. Perhaps by using StoryBird in class and not pressuring him to produce lots of English, you proved to him that you too were an art lover and maybe that's what let the whole art blog conversation take place, Just as there might be moments when tech for tech's sake is justified, there are probably even more reasons to encourage individual expression for individual expression's sake, regardless of the amount of English used to do so. Please let me know how Edmodo is working out. It's been on my radar and I would really hearing about how your students are reacting to it. Kevin


  9. Hello Marcel,Thanks for dropping in and sharing some of your experience of how teachers react to Quizlet. I'm pretty curious to know what other sites the teachers were interested in (even if the interest was magnitudes lower than that in Quizlet). I' also want to add that I dig your blog. It's great to know that there are thoughtful teacher trainers helping Japanese teachers of English adjust to the every shifting demands of MEXT as well as the changing needs of our students. Kevin


  10. Hi Debbie,Thanks for the comment. My students love the game aspect of quizlet. The matching game is especially popular. And they also seem to enjoy taking the test as well. The fact that they can generate a new test any time and see their scores improve in a short span of time really helps them see something useful about using the site. I haven't thought about getting the students to use Google Docs to make a vocabulary record. It's a great idea and I'll probably add Google Docs to our Friday study skills class. Thanks again for the feedback and helping round out my bag of tricks for Friday afternoons.Kevin


  11. Hello Leo,Your Quizlet card sets are an inspiration. I think the way you build different types of card sets and use the cards to help students explore chunks of language and idioms is simply amazing. It's probably the sheer variety and depth of your Quizlet sets which makes the site so attractive to your students (and my wife is a self-confessed Leo Quizlet Card Addict). Thanks for thinking about including this post on your suggested reading list for your students. It would be great to hear from other teachers about how they are using (or thinking about using) Quizlet in their classes.Kevin


  12. I'd like to know how teachers compare using Edmodo to non-built-for-educators websites/blogs. I resist Edmodo because I think of it sorta like a 'textbook' instead of an 'authentic' source. I've been using a 'REAL' website with my students, which they blog and share on, and use the mobile apps for, and copy/paste to, etc. it is a bit of a hassle from time to time, and I wonder if I'm just way-overreacting to the "schooliness" of Edmodo, or whether what I'm doing is worth the occasional extra hassle?


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