Taking part in the EdTech revolution

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It all started with Nick Robinson’s IATEFL presentation in 2015. I could clearly see the how EdTech was starting to affect ELT and I wasn’t going to resist it or surrender to it. Instead, I wanted to get engaged.

The question was HOW?

I couldn’t agree more that in the EdTech world there is a massive gap between the Ed and the Tech. I loved the fact that when ELTjam ran its EdTech startup weekend, out of 65 people who showed up to pitch their EdTech ideas, there was only one practicing teacher and she won.

I wasn’t surprised at all.

As a teacher, I’ve always been interested in using technology in my classroom. Despite limited budget and resources available in my medium-size language school in Brighton, I’ve constantly tried to experiment with different EdTech products. But none of them really met my teaching needs. Using most of the apps resulted in my learners working with their heads down, fully immersed in their world and not communicating with each other. Many apps were either locked into a particular course book or had content which was irrelevant to my students. Plus they were a nightmare to use: they bombarded us with ads, used ridiculous registration procedures or were quite expensive.

I wanted an app that would make my life in the classroom easier, something I could have up my sleeve, something that would make my lessons communicative and fun. I’ve realised that EdTech has been focusing on solving learners’ problems and practically ignoring teachers’ problems. Big data, artificial intelligence, adaptive learning – these are great developments but far too inaccessible for an ordinary ELT teacher trying to manage a class of 15 foreign students.  

So, I could see the problem. My question was how to solve it. I didn’t have any innovative ideas that would revolutionise the ELT world and I was doubtful I could come up with one any time soon. I didn’t have any financial resources. Also, I couldn’t code. Then one day I came across this quote by Robert McLarty, the editor of Modern English Teacher.

‘What is particularly striking…is how many of our basic pedagogical ideas underpin the new technologies’.

So, I’ve started thinking about old-fashioned methods that worked in the classroom but could be improved with technology. The first thing that came to mind was the good-old Back to the Board activity. Used as a warmer or filler, it lifts testing off the page and is a fun and communicative way to consolidate new vocabulary. I’m sure many of you used it in the classroom. But I had two problems with it. First, no matter how much I vary the activity, only a limited number of students talk at the same time. Second, some students really don’t like to be put in the spotlight, especially if they can’t remember the word on the board and have to painfully wait until the other team gets it.

Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if students could do the same but with their mobile phones. They could work in pairs and if they can’t remember or explain the word, they could just skip it and go to the next one. A bit like the party app Heads Up! but with word sets that a teacher can create based on previously studied vocabulary and share with the whole class. This is great, I thought. All students can be involved, they would rely on each other rather than me and I would have an opportunity for monitoring and error correction.

My problem was that I had no idea how to make it, let alone the money to fund it. However, I wasn’t going to give up. With an idea so simple, I was sure I could find someone to help. I researched all the local digital meetups, local university web-development courses, made a list of all my friends who code. In the end, it was my husband Alex who got involved and this is how the exPLAYn app was born.

From the first time I started testing the app, I couldn’t believe how effective it was. It really made my life as a teacher easier and became my life saver. Whenever I had time to fill at the end of the class or when my students were tired and lacking motivation, I would get my phone out, generate the code for the particular vocabulary set, share it with the class and BOOM – everyone was involved and communicating.

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I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. I used a basic pedagogical idea and technology helped me to modify and redefine it. When I just started teaching, I used to have what I called a “magic box” full of learning aid tools to help me in the classroom. There were things like mini-white boards, laminated flash cards, pictures etc. These days, I wish to have this “magic box” on my phone – a collection of easy-to use EdTech tools to make my experience in the classroom easier.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s us, teachers with active recent classroom experience, who should be the driving force of the EdTech revolution. We know best what works and what doesn’t and if current EdTech products fail to solve our problems, we need to get involved and do something about it. You don’t necessary need to know how to code to bring your expertise into the ELT world. I am lucky to have a partner who codes, but if I didn’t, I’m positive that with my simple idea I would be able to find a recent IT graduate or a digital startup who would be willing to help. At the end of the day, what I had to offer is the exposure of their relatively new brand to a massive ELT market.    

My exPLAYn app might never become a commercial success, but it truly became my “magic wand” in the classroom and that counts for a lot. Plus it made me feel a bit like an EdTech revolutionist.

Anna Neil is an ELT teacher and teacher trainer based in Brighton, UK. She is passionate about educational technology and aims to deliver fun, dynamic and interactive lessons using  the latest EdTech tools and trends. 



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