Should we go high or low?: A Few Tips on Using and Choosing Technology Wisely

IBM vs PENCILLet’s start with ACTFL’s position statement on the use of technology as an initial step when deciding to go high or low tech in a lesson or activity:

The use of technology should never be the goal in and of itself, but rather one tool for helping language learners to use the target language in culturally appropriate ways to accomplish authentic tasks. Further, all language learning opportunities whether provided through technology or in a traditional classroom setting, should be standards-based and help develop students’ proficiency in the target language through interactive, meaningful, and cognitively engaging learning experiences, facilitated by a qualified language teacher.

Rather than polarizing our thinking (e.g., “I’ve got to use all this great technology” or “All this technology is too overwhelming”), we should focus on making a conscientious decision based on our students’ needs and our pedagogical goals.

Backward design: What do we want students to be able to do at the end of the unit or lesson? Determine the goals and objectives first, then decide what the best medium and tools are to achieve them. Here are two examples of assessments from a unit on poetry.  Objective (Interpretive Communication):  “Students will be able to illustrate 4 to 6 consistent themes in poems they have read.” Medium (differentiated):  students can choose high tech (e.g., Sketchpad, Penultimate) or low tech (e.g., colored pencils, water colors). Objective (Presentational Communication): Students will be able to explain how the themes are reflected in their illustrations to a variety of audiences, making appropriate cultural and lexical choices. Medium: first low tech (present to small group, entire class, or other classes/parents/community), followed by high tech (present to distance learners or globally connected classrooms).
Digital Natives: Are our students being inundated with technology day and night? Choosing a hands-on activity can help them ground themselves through human-to-human interaction. For example, during a unit on art, my students love when I pull out the memory game I brought back from Spain. When they make a match with cards featuring the same Spanish artist, they describe the artwork (style, genre, subject matter, colors, foreground, background, etc…) and share their opinions about it. It’s hands-on, communicative and interpersonal.

The Five C’s: Since we live in the world in high and low tech ways, we should learn in both contexts as well: Communication, Cultures, Communities, Connections, Comparisons take place in both grounded and virtual realities. Make sure your activities and lessons reflect this situation. One approach is to begin with low tech activities that function as scaffolding to prepare students for a summative high tech performance assessment. Students in my art unit ended up creating a virtual art gallery using Google Slides that they shared with other classes and the community. Each slide analyzed a work of art, providing information on the artist and describing the personal connection the students had developed with the piece.

Games/Gaming: Through playing games, students can learn high frequency vocabulary that is rarely covered in textbooks. Valuable language practice occurs when following game rules and negotiating meaning. Often low tech games are more effective. Recently, as a review, I have been trying out an online game Kahoot! with my students. While they appeared to be very engaged and LOVED using their smartphones, it struck me that there was very little negotiation and interpersonal communication happening in the target language. The format made it more of an interpretive activity (which I feel is still useful depending on que liothe content, given that a review is only as good as the questions being posed). Last week I changed it up and went back to a semi-low tech game (¡Qué lío!) that is loosely based on a hybrid of Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. (Originally I made the game using index cards in a chart, but now I have it on my interactive white board.) During this activity, student interaction and collaboration, as well as target language use, increased exponentially as you would imagine! It became clear to me that the online gaming choice I had been using almost exclusively encouraged a degree of passivity among the students in comparison to the more active offline gaming choice.


Ultimately the technology choices we make, low and high, should be guided by what is best for students in the long run. Given all of the options available and the great variety of contexts that we teach in, I can’t simply tell you what to pick or when to pick it. Hopefully the examples above will be helpful as you make sound pedagogical decisions about using technology. Let’s be mindful of the importance of differentiation and remember that we’re modeling for our students how to use technology effectively and how to choose the right tool for the task!

Want more information and examples? Come see us at ACTFL in San Diego on Saturday, November 21 at 8 am! 2015 ACTFL Convention Program

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