In the minutes before your next class is set to begin, take a quick look over your students as they come in and get settled. How many do you see with laptops, tablets, and phones? A quarter of the students? Half? More? No matter the age, circumstances, or geography, this much is true: it’s more than it was five years ago, and significantly more than the five years before that. The proliferation of screens into every aspect of our lives (including the refrigerator) has the effect that students seem to want to learn digitally. I’ve even heard teachers joke that students would pay more attention in class if they simply prerecorded their lectures so that they could show students a video of the lesson.
Digital learning materials are only going to play a larger role in language classrooms all over the world, so obtaining digital content is becoming a priority. This article will focus on three of the most popular methods that educators are using, after looking at the drawbacks of traditional materials.
The Problem with Textbooks
In the past, decisions about what materials to use for any class were as simple as “Which textbook?” and that was that. Teachers often had no say in the decision, and if the textbook didn’t match a student’s needs or a teacher’s preferences, there was no recourse. The only option was to make do and supplement with whatever other material a teacher or school happened to have on hand.
Today, the widespread availability of internet materials means educators have near-instantaneous access to resources on an unprecedented scale. It’s a stark contrast to textbooks, which are time consuming and costly to produce and impossible to update. Textbook publishing companies (indeed, the entire print industry) are now reworking their business models around digital material to take advantage of benefits like increased production speed, ease of updating, and lower production cost.
Making Digital Content
Schools around the world are making the switch to digital content, and one of the most popular ways to do this is for educators to create content themselves. It’s easy to understand why many institutions start this way because it comes from the ground up. Many teachers, as they gain experience, start to create their own personal “digital portfolios” of lesson content. Teachers eventually discover a method of teaching any given subject that “works for them,” and they hone this method over time, creating supporting content. It’s then easier to simply digitize this methodology so that it can be reused rather than having to work around whatever textbooks or teaching materials are provided in a given year. This is how it starts on an individual level. Colleagues at a school then tap into the resources that its teachers create. Teachers are often proud to have something they’ve created gain more widespread use. And unlike a textbook, this material is classroom-tested in the very institution where it will be used.
It can also start on a school-wide level. School administrators, especially those at schools where they are free to determine their own educational methodologies, can ask their more tech-savvy teachers to create digital content for their own students that can then be reused again and again. By combining these two methods, a school grows its digital library over time.
Though it can take a while, there is a definite benefit to this approach. If all of the educators working in a single institution or group of institutions create digital content together, in addition to speeding up the creation process, it’s possible to generate content that’s a custom fit for your needs. Something you build in-house will generally be just what you need and can meet those needs well into the future without you having to continually outsource content.
However, the downside is that it can be a big, time-consuming project and can put a strain on everyone involved. Teachers, stretched notoriously thin as it is, may not be able to take on one more project, especially one that requires a new skill set. Even if everyone is on board, this is a process that can require someone to manage and organize the project to ensure progress and prevent duplication of labor.
At schools where it is decided this is worth pursuing, the first step is to get buy-in from the teachers who will be doing the actual digital content creation. It can be framed as a way to document what they’re teaching digitally to save everyone time in the future. To ensure consistency, supply teachers with a presentation template that standardizes best practices like fonts and text sizes (see references for a classroom-tested template).
Put someone in charge of collecting, proofing, and organizing the completed files in a way that will make sense to use later. With this approach, it’s also critical that you take your time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor will your institution’s digital content library be. Maintaining this process over the course of even a single academic year will yield improved outcomes for both students and teachers, as well as a lot of content.
Finding Digital Content
While creating an in-house library of digital content can provide an invaluable resource, not everyone can pull it off. For those who want the benefits of a custom digital library without the burden of creating it, collecting already-existing materials can be a viable alternative. It skips the most time-consuming step—content creation. Those who wish to go this route will find no shortage of materials.
It’s possible to learn almost anything online, and this is especially true for languages, particularly English. There are literally millions of resources, so it can make sense to avoid reinventing the wheel and just use what’s out there. However, this is sometimes easier said than done. There are numerous pitfalls to this approach, such as copyright, quality control, and organization.
Let’s start with copyright. It’s one thing to find a perfect resource, but using it legally may be another. Schools and private companies sometimes choose to make the resources they’ve created publicly available online, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can use them in your situation. Always consult applicable copyright laws and err on the side of caution.
Quality control is no less of an issue. Describing the amount of freely available language resources that exist online as “overwhelming” would be an understatement. There’s more information than one could sort through in a lifetime. Finding teaching material that’s high quality and meets your specific use-case is like looking for needles in a never-ending haystack.
Even if you’re able to sort through the copyright and quality-control issues, there’s still an organizational hurdle. One thing you’ll absolutely want to have before you get started is a way to organize all the websites that you’ll want to reference later. Take it from me: bookmarking isn’t enough! Pages change, links break, and your folder hierarchy can quickly get confusing: “Does this go in the ‘advanced’ folder or the ‘idioms’ folder?” There are dedicated bookmarking tools (such as Diigo and Pinterest) that have features like browser extensions, tagging, and annotation options, and they work well. Or, at a bare minimum, you can create a document with links and notes to help organize your information. Exactly how you do this isn’t important—what’s important is that you have a system in place from the beginning.
Buying Digital Content
For those who are dissuaded by the drawbacks of the creation and curation processes, the third option is to purchase your digital content. There are a number of ways to go about this, and there are some excellent benefits. The first and most obvious benefit to purchasing content is that it solves nearly all the problems of creation and curation. Purchasing means you get high-quality content and you get it fast. For schools that are just starting off or otherwise on a time crunch, purchasing can be an especially attractive option.
Another benefit of purchasing content is that the textbook industry is now catching up with the digital revolution, and book publishers are increasingly offering digital versions of their materials that carry all of the benefits of their printed materials (and sometimes even at a lower cost). Those looking to purchase material have ever-increasing options.
However, buying content has its downsides as well, starting with the obvious—it can be expensive, especially when compared to creating or curating. Essentially, the choice has to be made between spending money or time.
Another drawback is that it can be difficult to find the right material (or combination of materials) that fits your circumstances. Sure, the material might be high quality, but there can be logistical and technological issues, and remember that all of your digital systems have to be able to work well together.
If this is an avenue that you’re interested in exploring for your institution, the key is to take your time and get to know your options. Search the internet, ask colleagues at other schools, or check the booths at your next expo—no matter how you teach, chances are good that there will be multiple content suppliers that will be very interested in working with you.
In conclusion, it’s important to point out that the three options outlined in this article are not mutually exclusive. In fact, many teaching organizations (both public and private) combine creation, curation, and purchase (and even add a dash of textbook) for their school’s distinct content mélange. An institution’s content is always a work in progress, and just as it is for student outcomes, one-size-fits-all solutions are rarely the most effective.
Chris Rush has been a full-time ELL teacher since 2012, and he has worked in schools, for private companies, and for himself. He’s the teacherpreneur in residence for Off2Class (https://www.off2class.com/), where he helps teachers reach more students.