As the school year comes to a close for students across the United States, some districts are planning and purchasing technology to incorporate into instruction. Purchases may include new devices for teachers such as interactive whiteboards, tablets or computers, as well as devices for students such as computer carts, tablets or other devices.

These additions range from one to several devices per classroom, to implementing a one-device-per-student ratio. Other districts are implementing a "bring your own device" (BYOD) program where students may bring their own electronic devices to use during instruction.

In each of these scenarios, there are certain considerations districts, schools and teachers should take into account when implementing technology and the multitude of educational websites and apps that are available today.

Instructional purpose

Perhaps the first consideration is the instructional purpose of the lesson, and how the technology will enhance that purpose or help students to achieve the goals and objectives of the lesson. Of course, technology can be used for a variety of purposes, including building background knowledge or activating prior knowledge, introducing, reinforcing, practicing or extending knowledge and skills, and engaging students with a tool they find interesting and useful.

When incorporating technology, teachers should consider carefully how the use of the technology will enhance the lesson and lead students to meeting the goals and objectives listed. Just as a worksheet can be used to help students practice specific skills in a lesson, or can be a task that has little relation to the lesson and is essentially "busy work," so too can technology be used to enhance a lesson or be a distraction that draws students away from the lesson's purpose.

If not carefully implemented, technology has the power to distract students from the instructional purpose. Many teachers have experienced this when asking students to design a PowerPoint presentation, for example. If not carefully structured, students may spend an inordinate amount of time deciding on the background of the slides, the font and the color of the font to be used for the presentation.

While these points can enhance a presentation, students will often fixate on the aesthetic qualities of the presentation rather than the content. In cases like this, the technology may become more of a toy than an instructional tool. When students spend too much time on color choices (with the exception of an art lesson, perhaps), get distracted by unrelated websites, social media or games that do not relate to the topic at hand, precious instructional minutes are lost.

Depending on the devices being used, and the programs or websites being used, another consideration teachers need to make is how the technology will be employed: whole group, in small groups or individually.

Interactive whiteboards are often used in whole-group instruction, and can add an engaging aspect to the lesson, getting students out of their seats as they come up to the board. Whole-group instruction that incorporates individual use of technology such as tablets and laptops can be challenging to manage as teachers need to be sure students are following the lesson and are not distracted by other uses of the technology.

Management may be easier when working with students in small groups, and can be a powerful differentiation tool. In small groups, teachers can help students practice skills they have not yet mastered or delve deeper into a specific topic of interest.

Students can also be assigned to individually use computers or other technology to practice skills, learn about topics and other purposes as part of a center or individual practice time. In any of these cases, the consideration should always be the purpose of the lesson and how we are meeting the students' needs with technology.

Whether we have students working in small groups or individually, another consideration is what the rest of the class is doing. If some students are working independently in a computer program, for example, we must analyze and determine what the other students in the class are doing.

Are the students utilizing the technology missing important instruction, or are the other students also working in small groups or individually? If the students working with the technology are English learners, students with special needs or other potentially marginalized groups, what instruction are they missing when working with the technology? Are they utilizing the technology and the time they have most effectively? These questions should in part drive our use of technology in the classroom.

Technology, as mentioned earlier, has the power to increase student knowledge and skills in various content areas. Yet another consideration that must be taken into account when working with English learners is how the technology is increasing academic language knowledge and skills.

It is critical, then, that teachers take into account not only the content goals and objectives for the lesson, but also the language goals and objectives as well as the linguistic demand of the tasks students will need to accomplish in the classroom.

Principles to consider with English learners

As we review technology tools to implement in a classroom with English learners, we should take into consideration a number of principles that are unique to their needs. Websites and applications (apps) that will be used with these students should be reviewed carefully.

A recent research report from Claude Goldenberg indicates that generally effective practices — such as clear instruction, effective modeling of skills and strategies, active engagement and frequent assessment — benefit all students, including English learners.

However, English learners need additional instructional supports or scaffolds, including providing students with necessary background knowledge that other students may possess, using graphic organizers, pictures/visuals, demonstrations and realia, and providing redundant information and differentiated instruction based on students' language proficiency level.

When researching various technology tools, it is critical that we investigate how the tool addresses these principles. Some sample questions to ask when reviewing websites and apps include:

  • Does the site help fill in potential gaps in background knowledge, or help students link to prior knowledge and experiences?
  • Does this app contain language scaffolds such as pictures or video that will help lower the linguistic demand while helping students to learn and understand important, grade-level content knowledge and skills?
  • Is the site or app helpful in differentiating instruction based on students' language proficiency level?

There are many useful tools that help students learn vocabulary in an engaging way, or share their ideas meaningfully through digital storytelling and other writing activities. Technology can also be used for comprehensibility purposes.

Videos can be a helpful and engaging tool for English learners to develop content knowledge and skills. It can also be used by the whole group to add sketches and drawings or visuals to add a level of concreteness to abstract concepts being taught. Students can also interact with other students through the use of technology resources, in the classroom and around the world.

Technology can also be used to harness the power of students' native languages. Because technology is used all over the world, students have the power to connect with others who speak the same language they do, and are learning the same concepts. Students can share ideas in their native language, view video clips, read native language texts or bilingual books, and more. Several websites and apps offer translation as well.

A word of caution here, though: beware of simply using technology to translate for you. Translation should be used judiciously in the classroom. It can be a useful tool at times, but if teachers or students rely too heavily on it, it partially eliminates the need to listen to directions or participate in activities in English.

The use of technology in the classroom is quickly becoming not only commonplace, but also essential for helping students gain the 21st-century skills they will need to be successful in the future.

English learners, like all students, have a wide variety of experience with using technology. Some may have high levels of expertise and experience using technology from an early age. For others there may be a significant digital divide. Some students may lack experience with technology and its use.

In any case, when implementing technology in the classroom, an important component of instruction is to teach students how to use technology effectively and responsibly. Students may need guidance and instruction on how to use technology appropriately given the task and learning at hand, how to avoid distractions with technology, and how to effectively navigate the digital world.

With a bit of thought and an analytical eye, teachers can build technology into their instruction with English learners in an effective and engaging way.