Classroom Technology : Tool or Toy?

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Teacher’s toolbox series

Teachers blogging about their favourite tools

By Tim Thompson

The novelty factor

When I talk to educators who are excited about incorporating technology into their classes, I often hear words like “neat” and “cool”. When this happens, my first question is automatically “Neat for whom?”.  Technology in an educational setting, and especially second and foreign language classrooms, generally falls into two categories: tools and toys. As teachers, we need to make sure the technology we bring into our classrooms serves as a tool for the teacher, a tool for the students, or a toy for the students, but not a toy for the teacher.

The biggest danger when choosing technology for your classes is the novelty factor for the teacher. Deep down we are all still children wandering through toy stores and gasping at all of the shiny, new things we can play with. Before bringing new apps and websites into our classes we need to make sure they serve a practical purpose and are not merely “neat” and “cool”.

Two examples of what I would personally classify as “teachers’ toys” are Prezi and randomizing apps. Do you remember the first time you saw a presentation using Prezi? You zigged and zagged and rode a roller coaster while transitioning from slide to slide. It was amazing. Then you saw another one.  Was the thrill gone? You may or may not have seen pedagogically sound uses of Prezi, or you may have thought, in hindsight, that they could have just used PowerPoint. Needless to say,  it’s important to be critically aware of the pedagogical reasons for using your own chosen tools.

Similarly, while observing some demo lessons by English education majors, I watched as a student-teacher typed each student’s name into an app in order to randomly divide them in groups. There were more efficient ways to put students in groups without using technology and using this app wasted precious classroom time. It was the novelty factor that made it appear attractive and that is a quickest way to recognize a teacher’s tech toy.

Efficiency and motivation

For students, technology can serve to make learning processes more efficient or be used as a motivational tool. For young learners, Google image searches can help students visually process new vocabulary since it is often more efficient to show than to tell. Websites such as ScratchJr  can be a fun way to introduce students to programming skills. Animoto and Adobe Spark are excellent online tools for helping students create videos and allowing them  to practice using their L2 at almost any level, since they can vary their output from typing in single words to recording full narrations. After introducing these websites and demonstrating how to use them, students are then able to delve into topics that interest them and begin learning and producing output autonomously.

Educational games can serve as a fun way to practice and interact with the target language. Such ‘“toys’” are a great way to break the monotony of using a textbook and can help teachers move away from language classes that are heavy on target language input. Simple games, such as hangman, where the students can win or lose and Jeopardy -type games, where students answer questions for points, can bring out students’ competitiveness and inject some much-needed excitement into ELT classrooms. Apps such as Animal 4D+ can also put a new spin on flashcards by incorporating augmented reality to bring the animals to life. It adds a toy-like element to a tried-and-true learning tool.



A good example of a tool for teachers would be something that solves a problem. Many of us have tried a comprehension or vocabulary-checking activity where the first person (or team) that answers a question correctly gets a point. The problem is how to determine who raised their hand first. A website such as Kahoot!, together with its mobile app version, lets teachers input their questions and add possible answers in a multiple choice format. Students can log in and race to select the correct answer on their phones or tablets. There is an interactive leaderboard which keeps everyone interested and on task. No more scanning the class trying to see who was first and arguing about it. It’s useful for checking knowledge and understanding but can also be used, by doing a ‘blind’ Kahoot!, for pre-testing it.


For teachers who track student attendance and scores on paper, a learning management system (LMS) can serve as an online tool for keeping track of grades. More advanced LMS users will create online quizzes that can automatically be graded and set up chatrooms for students to discuss projects and assignments. Even though it takes some time to set up a course in an LMS, it will save you time if you teach the same course again in subsequent semesters.

Online plagiarism checkers such as the subscription-based or free services, such as Grammarly, can help teachers identify students’ plagiarism. In the case of Turnitin, by having your students submit their work through the website, you will be adding to a database of work that will help you stop plagiarism from unpublished sources; ie. copying from someone’s paper in another section of the same course taught by another teacher, or that was submitted in previous semesters.

Asking the right questions

When choosing educational technology to use with your students, ask yourself what purpose it will serve. Will it save you time? Will it make learning more interesting for the students? Will it allow the students to continue learning after the class is finished? Teachers can also feel stale and unmotivated after teaching the same courses repeatedly, but bringing tech into their classes simply because it is shiny and new may be a waste of time and, ultimately, a disservice to the students.



Tim Thompson taught in Korean universities for a decade and a half before launching Archer English Consulting before launching Archer English Consulting in February 2016.. Tim is a seasoned teacher trainer and presentations skills instructor. You can read his blog here 


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