Tech Overview: Highlights From TESOL 2014

CALL took center stage at this year's TESOL International Convention & English Language Expo in Portland, Oregon. Sessions were packed with the tech-savvy, the technophobic, and everyone in between as educators from around the world learned more about using technology in the classroom. Having attended many of these sessions, I want to share some trends, exceptional sessions, and predictions for the future.

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Between the regular sessions, Electronic Village, and Classroom of the Future, there was no shortage of sessions on technology, and the variety of formats ensured that everyone would find what they were looking for. Technology for collaboration, isolated skills practice, and mobile devices were popular topics. TED Talks, apps, learning management systems (LMSs), Google Drive, Quizlet, VoiceThread, and Prezi were all given their time to shine, but there were four trends that I could not help but notice and they may not come as a much of a surprise.

Flipping the Classroom

Directly or indirectly, flipping the classroom was part of many discussions. There were several sessions specifically about this topic and it was referenced by a number of presenters talking about technology. The premise of this arrangement is that students can prepare for activities before class and then do those activities during class time. Instead of lecturing in class, teachers are looking for ways to deliver the content of their lectures to students while they are at home and use the time spent in class on more engaging, interactive activities. Technology has really made this an enticing option to many educators and it is changing the way classes are taught. Presenter Thomas Healy suggested that using Facebook as an LMS and YouTube to deliver content might be the simplest flip setup, so that might be a good place to start.

Mobile Tech and Apps

Mobile technology was also heavily featured alongside the BYOD (bring your own device) model. Presenters discussed the benefits of apps that revolutionized not only how they could use their smartphones in the classroom, but also how students could use their devices for learning both in class and outside it.

Some of the most memorable apps mentioned include Polls Everywhere and Reflector. Geocaching, scavenger hunts, and other activities using the GPS features of mobile devices encourage students to interact more with the world around them and take students away from traditional, stationary learning spaces.

Self-Directed Learning and Production

While there has always been a production element to language learning, the focus has been primarily on language production in the past, and, in Portland, many presenters talked about far more elaborate production by students including videos, multimedia presentations, games, and more. In these types of projects, students are producing not just language, but so much more—and, from the sound of things, instructors are leaving the learning of technology primarily to the students, and they are flourishing. Some students may be more adept at learning new technology than others, but in a supportive classroom environment, students can mentor each other in this area.


Finally, iPads. There were a lot of sessions about iPads: not tablets in general, but iPads. Teachers are really enjoying using their iPads in the classroom. With the right apps, an iPad can turn a computer, whiteboard, and projector into something like a SMARTboard for more interactive classroom activities. iPads can also be used as one or more stations for independent work in the classroom, providing time for teachers to focus on individuals or smaller groups. Additionally, teachers can use iPads to record student work, such as presentations, and reference the recordings when providing specific feedback.  With the prevalence of iPad sessions and ubiquity of smart-technology users, I was definitely in the minority by not using a smartphone or tablet to photograph or record the sessions I attended.

If the teachers and presenters I spoke with are to be believed, iPads are a miracle tool that every teacher should have, and if you already have one, there are unlimited ways to use it in the classroom. Having seen all week what mobile devices can do, I am ready to jump on the bandwagon and get a tablet, but I’ll do my research before committing to a specific brand, and suggest you do the same!

Session Highlights

There were many wonderful sessions that I would like to share; however, I will limit myself to three of the best, one from each part of the convention.

Accessing Learning: BYOD in Language Class

The best regular session on technology that I attended was titled "Accessing Learning: BYOD in Language Class." It was presented by Jane Curtis and Susanne McLaughlin from Roosevelt University in Chicago and did they ever pack a lot of information into 45 minutes. First off, their session was tech-heavy; they had QR codes, polls for attendees, and, luckily for us, all of their materials online.

During the session, they covered their transition from a ban on devices to BYOD. Some of the challenges of BYOD include the fact that students have a variety of devices, so you have to be mindful of that when preparing your materials. Teachers should also be mindful of access relating to both bandwidth and whether or not students remember their devices, and time (tech-related issues and planning using this new approach both take extra time). Overall though, they were very positive about the experience and this was not the only tech session these two presented this year, so look for their materials on the convention website and keep an eye out for them in Toronto.

Interactive Mobile Tools for the Next Generation

In the Electronic Village and Technology Showcase, the session I enjoyed the most was Interactive Mobile Tools for the Next Generation. It was a long one at the end of the day on Saturday, but well worth the time. Several presenters, one a self-proclaimed technophobe, delivered various takes on the theme and shared their experiences with mobile educational tools. MIT App Inventor, ARIS, Camtasia, Ingress, SCVNGR, and Socrative are just a few of the many apps, websites, and programs that were mentioned. While there is no way to share everything in this article, I suggest you access the materials online and explore the features of those resources to start your own adventure into the use of interactive mobile tools. (Read more about the session and access the recorded webcast on the CALL-IS Wiki.)

The Future Is Here and It Is Digital Games

I stopped in at the Classroom of the Future section of the expo hall for a session titled "The Future is Here and It Is Digital Games" by Josh Wilson. While the session did not directly give me anything to take into the classroom, it was thought provoking. The focus of this presentation was why digital games make great learning tools.

Firstly, players are empowered. Players are autonomous, engaged, and confident due to a high-stakes, low-risk environment. Secondly, games are an excellent example of situated learning where players learn information just in time or right when they most need it. The third point, my personal favorite, is that games are simply well-crafted problems that do not actually need to be solved and rather than being “fun” as players will have you believe, they are mostly frustrating. Perhaps this is what makes games so engaging. Anyone who has ever played Angry Birds understands. Finally, games provide really good instantaneous feedback not just to the player, but also to the developer, teacher, and anyone else with a stake in it. Now we just need some exceptional teachers to start developing games…

Predictions and Wish List

Despite its popularity at this year's TESOL convention, I do not think that technology will become an over-discussed topic anytime soon, as people are constantly finding newer and better ways to use technology for teaching and learning. Additionally, some educators are still just getting into the swing of things where technology is concerned. By next year, there will be new websites, software, apps, and devices, too. While some resources may lose their popularity, there will be others to take their places. I predict even more tech sessions and a larger Electronic Village in Toronto in 2015.

My Wish List

Increased User-Level Clarity
It would be nice if all sessions could show what level of technology user would benefit most from the content. Is it a no-tech, low-tech, mid-tech, or high-tech session? There need to be some sessions that call out to absolute beginners, and others directed toward an instructor that already integrates a lot of tech into his or her teaching.
Heavier Android Focus
I’d like to see a few sessions with an Android focus to balance out the Apple-focused sessions. Because I do not own an iPad, I did not even bother reading the descriptions of the sessions with iPad in the title, although I imagine that much of what can be done with an iPad would work with another tablet, too.

Even More Practical Tech Workshops
There could more technology workshops, where attendees bring their own devices. This would allow instructors to try out new resources on the spot and have something to take into class the following week.


In conclusion, the annual convention had a lot of information on technology and that is likely to be true for many years to come, but if you are not using technology for teaching now, do not worry. It can be overwhelming to think of all the things you could be doing in your classroom, but if you decide to make a change, large or small, make a plan with manageable steps. Flipping all your classes is not going to happen overnight, and if you previously banned cell phones, starting to integrate them into your classroom environment may take some time. Be patient and stick with it; the rewards will come.


Tara Arntsen currently teaches in the Intensive English Program at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota. She completed her Master's degree in Teaching-TESOL at the University of Southern California and has taught ESOL in China, Japan, and Cambodia as well as online. Her primary interests are communicative teaching methods and the use of technology in education.

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