11 August 2013

Technology in the English Classroom: Black Box or Black Hole?

The ‘Digital Divide’ is a term originally coined by Lloyd Morrisette to “describe the growing gap, or social exclusion, between those who have access to the new services of the information society, and those who ­do not” (P2P Foundation, Nd). As an educator in today’s world, I see this Digital Divide concerning also an understanding of the benefits of using technology in the classroom. There is a pull between seeing technology “as a magic black box with the potential to create a learning revolution or a black hole that consumes resources that might better be devoted to traditional classroom activities” (Jenkins, Purushotma, Clinton, & Weigel, 2006, p. 7). I agree that technology can sometimes be used for technology’s sake, and that sometimes, learning is best supported through ‘traditional’ paper and pen. Sometimes though, learning is advanced through both low-tech and high-tech choices. This can provide those with different learning styles the chance to shine (or to challenge). On the other hand, sometimes technology is the right tool to advance learning. Knowing the difference avoids a ‘black hole’. Being able to make informed decisions on how best to advance learning is essential for educators to create the ‘black box’ that comes from successful lesson planning and technology integration.

To come to an understanding of how to make such informed decisions, I surveyed three Language Arts / English teachers - Abena, Claudia, and Peter - on their use of technology in the classroom. Questions were designed to reflect the thinking I went through in the design of my own lesson plan, ‘Gadgets R Us’, as well as on the learning I have from this course. These educators come from the USA, UK, and Australia, with a combined 51 years of teaching experience. 35 of these 51 years include heavy use of technology, and all have received and led training on using technology. I also evaluated two online lessons plans: ‘Animate that Haiku’ (Wickline, 2013) and ‘Audience and Purpose: Evaluating Disney’s Changes to the Hercules’ Myth’ (Kimrey, 2013). These lessons are from ReadWriteThink.org, a website which aims “to provide educators, parents, and afterschool professionals with access to the highest quality practices in reading and language arts instruction” (International Reading Association, 2013).

All educators have a responsibility to address any gaps in education and deliver a “technologically infused curriculum [that] can develop multiple essential literacies: technological literacy, visual literacy, informational literacy, and intertextuality” (Smolin and Lawless, 2003, in Bedard & Fuhrken, 2013, p. 8). English teachers are traditionally responsible for enhancing literacy. If we see “technology itself as a literacy”, English teachers have to provide opportunities for learners to read and write across a spectrum of formats because “it is essential that learners be masters of it as much as any other literacy” (Abena, July 16 2013). Technology can be used to address literacy needs by teaching learners how “use their devices to read, write, and intelligently interact with their worlds” (Claudia, July 15 2013); learners of English, for example, can be supported in finding a variety of tools to support their language acquisition (English Language Support Website, Peter 2012). By finding and critically analysing blog posts on contemporary and significant topics (‘Analytical Essay Writing’, Abena 2013) for example, learners’ writing improves from their being empowered to find the “appropriate online tools that develop their literacy needs” (Peter, July 17 2013).

The English teachers I surveyed believe that technology has, overall, led to an increase in literacy in terms of reading, particular concerning the amount and frequency of reading. Learners are constantly engaging online, which is primarily text-based. However, the consensus was that sustained concentration on longer texts in particular, is less likely. This might be addressed by increased use of e-readers or the use of mobile technologies (Claudia, 15 July 2103) and this may be something I could introduce into my lesson to enhance reading. The ‘Gadgets R Us’ lesson plan I designed involves the reading of a novel in print form - a more traditional idea of literacy. However, the learning for this novel is delivered using Google Sites, requiring technological literacy. The creation of a specifically designed website intends to fully immerse learners into the genre and world of the novel, to enthuse and encourage a passion for reading through technology. Claudia uses technology to create “multi-media mash-ups” to encourage reading. In a ‘Dystopian Novel Project’ (2013), one of the options is to relate the moral or warning of the book to our world “ by ‘mashing up’ information and entertainment from our world” with that of the novel in a multi-media project. Learners are still reading, but are encouraged to demonstrate learning through creativity and technology.

This blended approach is a great way into integration that addresses multiple literacy needs and allows educators and learners to move into the digital realm. The ‘Audience and Purpose: Evaluating Disney’s Changes to the Hercules’ Myth’ (Kimrey, 2013) lesson plan lesson offers a great opportunity to increase literacy by blending together traditional and technological reading through print and film. This lesson uses technology at the ‘Entry’ level of integration, where educators “use technology tools to deliver curriculum” (Florida Center for Instructional Technology, 2013). The use of both print and visual stories, and the options to use interactive plot diagrams or Venn diagrams (Kimrey, 2013) to organize thinking, offers choices between traditional and technological methods. Choice is always preferable in addressing all learning needs, and helps move gradually and smoothly into more infused technology integration.

The intention of technology in the ‘Animate that Haiku’ (Wickline, 2013) lesson is to advance learning in poetry by making it seem more ‘fun’ and accessible. Learners create presentations to share their poems using Animoto (Animoto Inc., 2013). One of the major benefits is that is gives learners essential “opportunities to share their own poetry” (Parr & Campbell, 2006). Through videos shared online however, this sharing can go beyond the classroom, providing learners “an authentic audience for their writing and increase their collaborative writing opportunities” (July 15 2013). Technology opens up a whole world, flattens classroom walls and links learners globally. If Vygotsky’s assertion that “learning occurs through interactions with others” (Roblyer & Doering, 2013, p. 269) is true, then effectively integrated technology and sharing can enhance learning.

By “allowing [learners] opportunities to find their own ways to show their learning, they are afforded creativity as well as the ability to choose to either play on their strengths or develop their weaknesses” (WebTycho Week 5 Conference: ‘Reflective Teaching and Educational Philosophy’ June 20 2013). The Animate that Haiku’ (Wickline, 2013) lesson offers no alternative option or room for learner choice. This suggests that this lesson operates at the ‘Adaption’ level of integration, where the “teacher facilitates students in independently exploring and using technology tools” but the lack of choice keeps it from ‘infusion’ level (Florida Center for Instructional Technology, 2013). Allowing choice of tool would improve this lesson and help learners feel more responsibility for their own learning. My philosophy of teaching includes the thought that “by co-constructing learning opportunities that meet the curriculum needs as well as their own, I hope that learners see how we can adapt and be innovative in our lessons”. My hope is that this then mirrors in their behaviour.

Both lessons offer benefits through the use of technology but in different ways and at differing levels of integration, making them suitable for teachers with differing levels of experience. The ‘Animate that Haiku’ lesson would be more suitable for the grade level for which I designed my lesson plan. The level of integration puts the technology at the fingertips of the leaners and the use of Animoto really enhances the teaching and learning of poetry. The use of both ‘traditional’ and technological methods creates a blended learning environment that seamlessly integrates technology to showcase the work of leaners in a format that is easy to share (though the limited trial means that videos cannot be downloaded and access is lost after 30 days). Animoto is a tool I would suggest for my learners to use to share their work in the ‘Gadgets R Us’ lesson. They would be able to take photos of their gadget designs to use as the images (negating a copyright issue, which is not addressed in the lesson). The ‘Audience and Purpose: Evaluating Disney’s Changes to the Hercules’ Myth’ (Kimrey, 2013) lesson plan lesson offers a great opportunity to use technology at a less intrusive level for older exam-based classes – who have to write traditionally more often – and would aid in their literary appreciation and analysis in the same way as Abena’s ‘Analytical Essay Writing’ (2013). While operating at different levels of integration and addressing different skills, both ReadWriteThink.org lesson plans effectively integrate technology to advance the teaching of English.

Whilst technology can enhance learning, it has to be carefully planned. It has to help learners come to an understanding of the essential content standards. When asked, “How much do you think learning is enhanced by the use of technology in your classroom?” on a scale from 1 (not much) to 10 (extremely), all teachers surveyed rated 8 or above. However, teachers felt very strongly that the success of any technology is conditional on HOW technology is used. Learning should be transformed by technology rather than simply augmented to replace pen and paper. This is something I intend to focus on this year; I want to ensure that the technology opportunities I provide are transformative and adaptive rather than simple substitution. To help integrate technology successfully and help educators determine if technology is appropriate and enhances learning, evaluative models such as Tech-PACK/TPACK and TIP (Roblyer & Doering, 2013), as well as recognised standards, such as those defined by ISTE (ISTE, 2012) can be employed.

Of the teachers surveyed, two refer to and/or have ISTE standards embedded as part of their planning and teaching. Peter stated that they are “appropriate for not only my professional development but for also for learners needs” (July 17 2013). Two of the three teachers surveyed had heard of the TIP Model, and two of three had heard of TPACK, though none use either model for planning. This could be because they have not been trained to do so; that it is not part of the way they learned to plan. Alternatively, their experience and technology training could mean that they evaluate tools according to these models in an implicit way. For example, when asked how they choose the relevant tools, the teachers stated that decisions are made in conjunction with the learners, and have to “promote engagement” (Abena, 16 July 2013). Teachers also ask themselves whether a technology “is actually going to be beneficial … over a non-ICT method in terms of the learning outcomes” (Abena, 16 July 2013). They also ask which “will most enhance the lesson and maximize student engagement without being a distraction or time-waster in terms of ease of use and reliability” (Claudia, 15 July 2013). Teachers are also reflecting on their technology use by observing learner engagement and mastery of outcome, as well as by asking for feedback and adapting lessons accordingly.

The lessons on ReadWriteThink.org do not list any technology standards but the plans are thorough enough that experienced teachers could easily overlay appropriate ISTE standards. To support the move into technology integration and to help teachers determine the relevance of the technology, the inclusion of a drop-down menu for NETS*S would make this site even more useful and appropriate for today’s digital lessons. Perhaps the world of education has not yet caught up with these standards, or at least has not yet embedded them into a culture of teaching and planning, which could explain the Digital Divide I identified at the start of the paper. I wonder how different this will be in five years, when technology is even more prevalent and more the norm for teaching.

To address the Digital Divide concerning the use of technology in the classroom, we need to keep in mind that successful technology integration and effective teaching requires a focus on technology AND content. In ‘Gadgets R Us’, I employed both NET*S (ISTE, 2012) and the English National Curriculum (Department for Education, 2012) for English content standards and skills. ReadWriteThink.org lessons are designed to address essential English skills (in this case, ‘poetry’, and ‘purpose and audience’) and have drop-down menus for both Common Core and State standards. Use of content standards is an established practice and any English or Language Arts curriculum standards will contain ‘poetry’ and ‘purpose and audience’. All English teachers will have knowledge of certain content skills even if using different curricula (such as the teachers surveyed who work in three different countries). It is essential that teachers have a strong grounding in what they teach before thinking about how to use technology to do it. To ensure the technology supports the curriculum and advances the learning – that ‘black box’ we seek - we also need to ensure we refer to foundational standards of content and of pedagogy

The ‘Audience and Purpose: Evaluating Disney’s Changes to the Hercules’ Myth’ (Kimrey, 2013) lesson uses technology to teach traditional literature skills of critique and evaluation through classical mythology. These are essential English skills and are found on any curriculum. They have been taught for years, however to bring these skills to life and to bring them up to date, these essential English skills are addressed using both paper and film resources. The lesson employs both hard copy diagrams and interactive online organisers. It teaches learners how to analyse in a traditional sense but also addresses media literacy to create learners able to cope with the online world they inhabit on a day-to-day basis. It also teaches essential 21st century literacies by helping learners become “critical consumers of the media that surrounds them”. It teaches them to “evaluate the media that surrounds them as opposed to accepting it as fact” by exposure to learning that “media producers, including trusted sources such as Disney, will make changes based on purpose and audience” (Kimrey, 2013). This directly addresses the varying literacy needs of today’s digital world.

‘Animate that Haiku’ (Wickline, 2013) uses technology to enhance the understanding of poetry. The ‘theory behind the practice’ suggests that English teachers need to “find low-anxiety methods to teach poetry that allows students to delve into poetry” (Parr & Campbell, 2006). Technology can provide “activities around reading can be enhanced which in turn might have a positive impact” (Abena, July 16 2013) as a way to help learners access skills that they may have struggled with using traditional methods of teaching. Learners are often comfortable with and enjoy using computers, which “leads to them feeling motivated to break out of the box” (Abena, July 16 2013). I personally have found that learners are more willing to take risks on computers and they are more willing to revise and edit as they can easily erase mistakes. Abena advocates that technology helps the writing process, as “Apps like Google Docs allow for continual reflection, discussion, redrafting and allow learners to achieve more when they engage with the process” (July 16 2013). Technology integration here complements traditional literacies. Learners learn about and create both poetry and film, allowing them opportunities to develop skills that may help them in their future, as well as essential English content. The original haikus produced by learners are made into videos and the use of images and music reinforces the understanding of haikus as ‘snapshots’, as poetry as photographs, or as moments in time, making it a great technological choice to enhance learning.

The choices and “differentiation tools available through ICT do allow practice and feedback on particular strategies both synchronously and asynchronously” (Abena, July 16 2013). Pedagogically, the use of technology offers opportunities for different kinds of learning and supports learners into greater understanding. Both ReadWriteThink.org lessons help learners approach an understanding through scaffolded activities such as modeling on the board, shared reading and group work. Where specific strategies, such as Think-Pair-Share are used (Wickline, 2013), links to strategy guides are provided, which is really useful for both new and experienced educators in gaining understanding of and skill in a variety of strategies. My lesson also used a variety of activities but in the future, I would include include links to strategies and readings, to enhance educator learning and understanding of pedagogy, content and technology. It is important to remember that technology can be a ‘black box’ for us too; as educators we should USE technology to learn and deliver lessons effectively to enhance learning.

Teaching in a 1:1 school has revealed a very clear idea of what technology can do to enhance teaching and learning; it has also opened my eyes to the reluctance, fear and misunderstanding surrounding it. Most in the community would acknowledge the help technology provides for those who need particular assistance – such as the freedom of expression afforded by Dyspraxic learners using laptops (WebTycho Week 11 Conference: Assistive Technology, August 3 2013). However, I think there is still reluctance in acknowledging a need of technology for all learners and I believe age, experience and culture play a part in some ingrained beliefs about technology and its purpose (WebTycho Week 11 Conference: Digital Equity, August 8 2013). Many parents know one way of learning – the way they learned at school, with pen and paper. They wrote in books, they did spelling tests – this is what they think of as English teaching. When they see this happen for their child, they believe they see English learning. Their experience of technology has come to them later in life and is detached from a notion of learning and school. Technology to them is not to do with learning; technology is used to play games, shop or send emails.

This year, I want to focus on communicating with parents to help them understand and see the benefits of technology in the English classroom. My principals of technology integration echo my constructivist ideas of learning. We should use technology 'to foster creative problem solving and metacognition' (Roblyer & Doering, 2013, p. 50). We should use technology to teach transferable skills that make life-long learners and ‘support efficient, self-paced learning' (p.49) (WebTycho Week 5 Conference: ‘Educational and Technology Integration Philosophies, June 21 2013). I want to help parents see our laptops as the ‘black box’ that opens up a world of possibilities for their child, providing “opportunities, experiences, skills, and knowledge that will prepare [them] for full participation in the world of tomorrow” (Jenkins, Purushotma, Clinton, & Weigel, 2006, p. 3).

Returning to the metaphor of the Digital Divide as either black box or black hole, consider this: I could not have completed this essay without technology. The teachers I had organised to interview fell though. My knowledge of technology allowed me to be able to create a cloud-based survey created on Google Forms to send out via Twitter to the contacts I have made. These also happen to be two tools I identified as having the greatest impact on me (WebTycho, Week 2 Conference: Understanding the Landscape of Technology, May 31 2013 and Weeks 9-10 Conference: Web 2.0 Is Me, July 23 2013). My knowledge of technology allowed me to solve my problem. I strongly believe that if we do not know how to use technology effectively and do not provide opportunities to learn how technology can help solve problems, communicate, and learn, then we are putting children at a disadvantage. Without this experience our children “will be left behind as they enter school and the workplace” (Jenkins, Purushotma, Clinton, & Weigel, 2006, p. 3). If educators know how to use technology effectively, learning will and can be advanced. If we are debating whether technology is effective in enhancing teaching and learning in the English classroom, the best question to ask might be – if we do not bring technology into the English classroom, are we actually creating a ‘black hole’ in the education of today’s learners? If we do not bring technology into the English classroom, are we preparing our learners to be truly literature, or are we setting them up to fail in a 21st century digital world?


Animoto Inc. (2013). Animoto.

Bedard, C., & Fuhrken, C. (2013). When writing with technology matters. Portland, MA: Stenhouse Publishers.

Department for Education. (2012, May 22). Schools: English: Key Stage 3. Retrieved June 16, 2013, from Department for Education: http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/teachingandlearning/curriculum/secondary/b00199101/english

Florida Center for Instructional Technology. (2013). The Technology Integration Matrix. (U. o. College of Education, Producer) Retrieved June 30, 2013, from The Technology Integration Matrix: http://fcit.usf.edu/matrix/index.php

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ISTE. (2012). NETS for Students. Retrieved June 03, 2013, from International Society for Technology in Education: http://www.iste.org/standards/nets-for-students

Jenkins, H., Purushotma, R., Clinton, K., & Weigel, M. (2006). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. McArthur Foundation.

Kimrey, R. R. (2013). Audience & Purpose: Evaluating Disney's Changes to the Hercules Myth. (I. a. NCTE, Producer) Retrieved from ReadWriteThink: http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/lesson-plans/audience-purpose-evaluating-disney-30720.html

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Roblyer, M., & Doering, A. H. (2013). Integrating Educational Technology into Teaching (6th Edition ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Wickline, K. (2013). Animate that Haiku! (I. a. NCTE, Producer) Retrieved from ReadWriteThink: http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/lesson-plans/animate-that-haiku-a-30872.html