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The evolution of classroom technology by Dan Schulstad

“You don’t need to use technology to be a great teacher”. I agree. Unfortunately however, aside from decision makers grappling with how many interactive whiteboards or tablets to purchase for their school, or teachers in specific and uncommon circumstances, this argument has already passed us by. The consensus, supported by growing statistical evidence, is that technology is playing an increasing role in our lives, in our students’ lives and by extension in the English as a Second Language (ESL) classroom.

Back in 1913 Thomas Edison, in the context of his development of motion picture machines, declared that within 10 years books would become obsolete in public schools (NY Dramatic Mirror 9 July 1913, p.24). Those of you who are tablet-resistant and eBook adverse will find comfort in Edison’s prediction not coming true, while perhaps simultaneously wondering if he simply got the time period wrong by a zero plus some.  History is peppered with similar proclamations of the revolutionary, landscape-changing power of technology; each new thing is a “game changer” and for that we can partly thank the snake oil sellers that market their products. The reality is that evolution, while feeling like it has sped up, has been steady and constant throughout the modern educational age.

Much of the classroom technology in the 17th and 18th century (NY Times 15 September, 2010) also doubled as classroom management aids – paddles and pointers not only helped you learn more quickly, but they also kept you paying attention. Could a corporal punishment tweak help us zap our students off Facebook and back to the lesson? The issue of when, how and “permissible use” is an enduring one for teachers today.

Visuals made their way into the classroom by way of the “magic lantern” in 1870, while slates (imagine wooden iPads) made mistakes disappear, and chalkboards reigned supreme until the arrival of glowing screens. The breakthrough of the sliding chalkboard cannot pass without note, as more information was visible to the learner for longer. Ready availability of pencils at the turn of the 19th century saw the demise of the slate (and the facilitation of passing notes), and the 1920s saw filmstrip projectors and radio enter the fray. Each new development arrived with clear positive educational impacts, and classroom management disadvantages.

The overhead projector, another beloved technology tool, began to be widely adopted in schools from the 1930s, while the mimeograph helped teachers (literally) crank out copies in the 40s. The audio-linguists lived in the “language lab” from the 1950s, sticking students in cubicles to talk to recordings, and Skinner’s famous “Teaching Machine” pioneered the use of machines in the classroom – “…a device which create[d] vastly improved conditions for effective study” (Borges, 2007). Educational television gathered momentum in the 1960s as, again, educators attempted to leverage the popular entertainment use of a medium, and take most of the fun out of it by adapting it for educational purposes (“Let’s start a Facebook group with our class!”).

The use of hand-held calculators in the 1970s was accompanied by concerns that this use of technology would eliminate the need for a solid foundation of knowledge. The potential for electronic “live” translators in the next 10 years is likely to have a similar effect. In the 80s computers started becoming more common in public schools, along with CD-ROM technology. In the 90s students started bringing handheld electronic dictionaries to class, surprising us with the occasional robotic repetition of a word. Just as with traditional dictionaries, teachers had to regulate and moderate their use.

1999 saw computers, projectors and whiteboards come together as a technology trinity: Interactive Whiteboards. “Early adopting” teachers lived up to the label, while undertrained and unconvinced teachers left their brand new whiteboards more inactive than active, lending support to Larry Cuban’s (2001) assertion that classroom technology had been “oversold and underused”. In 2005 instant polling technology made a brief appearance, a function that has since been largely supplanted by mobile technology. The now familiar tablet computer, in the form of an iPad appeared in 2010, and the ghost of Edison made an appearance as the “end” of the text book was heralded and publishers where left nervously scrambling to adapt or perish. Carts of iPads, multiple Interactive Whiteboards and laptops/netbooks were purchased, marketers excited to not only sell educational services, but also a slice of the future. Some teachers were left holding the whiteboard marker in the middle of the classroom as the technology whirlwind blew all their materials about, and professional development programs played catch up.

In 2010 in the United States, the National Technology Education Plan (2010) laid out a bold vision for the future of the American educational system, where technology would address not only overall performance, but also bridge traditional socio-economic divides. “Mobile learning”, including wireless access through smartphones, has been an important developing area in recent years. Mobile Learning is seen as a way to leverage the omnipresent nature of  the smartphone to impact on overall learning time. “Anytime, anywhere” is the latest call to education, where “downtime” turns into “learning time”. In the US last year 60% of American adults went online wirelessly with a laptop or mobile device and the trend is upwards (Fox, 2012). Amongst traditionally low frequency technology using groups, smartphone and cell phone use is high; a Pew survey showing that over a third of teens use their Smartphone as their primary access point to the Internet (Fox, 2012).

So if mobile technology holds the key to more and more equitable educational opportunities for everyone, then why is it banned in so many classrooms? In the US 69% of schools have total bans on cell phones (Faure and Orthober 2011). Smartphones in this way suffer from their association with their previously unsmart incarnation: the cell phone.

Classroom management issues are a common reason for non-use of technology in the classroom. The onus lies on teachers to create a classroom environment and develop a rapport with their learners where measured, timely and strategic use of smartphone technology is permitted. It’s a BYO technology world, and teachers and institutions, wary of losing control, search for ways of circumventing it. What’s it like in your school?


(2010). Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology. U. S. D. o. Education. Washington, D.C., ED Pubs

Borges, H 2007 Skinner and teaching machine online video 2nd of April viewed 4 May, 2013 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXR9Ft8rzhk

Cuban, L 2001, Oversold and Underused, Harvard University Press, Cambridge

Faure, C. and Orthober, C 2011, ‘Using Text-Messaging in the Secondary Classroom.’ American Secondary Education 39(2): 55.

Fox, S 2012, The Power of Mobile, Pew Internet and American Life Project, viewed September 09, 2012 http://pewinternet.org/Commentary/2010/September/The-Power-of-Mobile.aspx

Smith, F 1913, The Evolution of the Motion Picture: VI – ‘Looking into the Future with Thomas A. Edison’ The New York Dramatic Mirror, 9 July, p.24

Wilson, C., Orelllana, M. & Meek, M. 2010, ‘The Learning Machines’ The New York Times, 15 September viewed May 4th http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/09/19/magazine/classroom-technology.html?_r=0

Author’s Bio:
Dan is the Center director at International House Boston and does allow smartphones in the classroom. As a CELTA trainer and in-service classroom technology trainer he struggles to get everyone’s attention, deals with ringing phones, binging text messages and frequently has to repeat himself and ask students to pay attention. He is interested in the blurring boundaries between learning in the classroom and outside of the classroom and predicts that in 20 years paperback books will make a comeback, just like the vinyl records he collects.

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