These are free digital tools I recommend for online ESL/EFL teachers in their language classes.
Why use digital tools in online language teaching?
You can use digital tools to create engaging and interactive content. You can also use them to provide feedback to students and track progress. Most important, you can help students to connect with other language learners and to enjoy learning. I was struck by this comment from a student: “I continued to learn Spanish because I made some Spanish friends and found them quite fun.” The two words “friends” and “fun” stayed with me and become part of my foundation pedagogy.
What is a teacher’s role in language teaching?
Yes, a teacher must teach vocabulary, grammar, reading and writing skills. But when every online language teacher does that, how do I differentiate myself? That was the key question I asked myself when I set up my language teaching business. I needed to tell a parent why my approach was different in a few words. That positioning question took me four months to answer. Eventually, I landed on the brand “Creative Chinese Club”. Creative to make learning language fun, Club to connect students to be friends. The use of digital/tech tools is to support this teaching mission and pedagogy.
Although the club teaches Chinese, the method and tool recommendations can be applied just as well to online teaching of English and other languages.
What (free) digital tools to use in online language teaching?
Here are some (free) digital tools I use to make learning a foreign language fun and collaborative.
Visual Collaboration Platform
Miro: online collaborative whiteboard platform for distributed learners
Before my class, each student is set a challenge to create a drawing on a topic to be discussed in class. To inspire them, I use Whiteboard Miro to display examples done by previous students. See the example below, with drawings for covers of ‘My Story’ books.
With the free version of Miro, you can create 3 boards. If you want to continue creating new boards, you can still stay at the free level, but your previous boards become view-only.
The paid version of Miro costs US$30 per month, to edit more boards and invite members.
Alternatives to Miro for visual collaboration
Alternatives to Miro include ClickUp and Conceptboard. Each has different features and pricing. Most have free versions, so you can try out with your students. You can read more details and choose one suitable to your teaching purpose and budget via this link – https://clickup.com/blog/miro-alternatives/
Video Collaboration Platform
Flip: video discussion platform for distributed learners
Listening and speaking skills are essential to gaining fluency in a foreign language. It is important for students to practice these skills outside of online class time. A great way is to connect the students with their native peers. This not only gives students an immersive language environment but also helps build cultural connections and friendships. Video is the ideal medium to engage students and provide ‘ear training’.
Flip is a video-centered social platform I’ve explored. It is a completely free Microsoft product. Users need to sign up for the platform to upload videos and engage with each other using video as a medium.
My students watch videos made by native peers so that they can hear the authentic pronunciation and sentence formation. They can respond by making their own videos talking about the same topic.
Videos made by native peers are subtitled with highlighted areas.
Alternatives to Flip for video collaboration
Flip requires users to sign up in order to view videos and this can create friction. An alternative is Trello.
Trello does not require signup to view. However, in order to respond or upload your own message (picture, video, text), you need to create your account. The comment and reply buttons of Trello really make social interaction easy and engaging.
The free Trello plan provides you with unlimited personal boards (viewable only by a single individual) and 10 boards (projects) per workspace.
Artificial intelligence (AI) for language teaching
One tech area that will have a huge impact on teaching and learning or education, in general, is Artificial Intelligence. Some amazing resources (many currently made free to the public) could transform education.
Dream Studio: AI-generated art
Dear Studio is a magic tool to help teachers design our lesson plans or websites. If you are worried about copyright issues using images from others, now you can create your own images, defining the topic, style, size of image you want.
This is an image I use for my website homepage. I simply typed the phrase ‘concept art of a teacher with students of the world with bright color’ to Dream Studio to generate this image. The intellectual ownership of this image belongs to me.
You can use Dream Studio to generate 200 images for free.
Alternatives to Dream Studio for AI-generated art
This link provides 13 AI art generators (free and paid)
Story Machine: AI-generated essay
Many of us use stories to teach a language. Automated story writing presents both a huge opportunity and a challenge in education, including online language teaching.
Story-Machines.net is a website empowered by AI technology to generate stories (best in English, but it will generate stories in other languages). The following story is generated by the website when I typed in the title ‘tech tools to engage online ESL learners’
You could use this tool in class to compare the writing by AI and the writing by your ESL/EFL students. Or ask your students to critique and improve a story written by AI. Or students and AI can co-write a story, taking turns to write. Try adding some words to the end of a story created by story-machines.net, then click CREATE again.
How to use digital tools in online language teaching?
Tech tools, in some ways, are like the genie in the lamp. Once released, it shows great power. But we need to use this power with caution. These are the Dos and Don’ts in using digital tools in teaching and learning.
Do: let tech serve pedagogy
Very often, we might get bogged down by the tool itself and overlook the goal – pedagogy. Every tool, tech, prop, and flashcard we use should serve only two goals – good learner experience and teaching effectiveness. If there are other non-digital tools that do this better, let’s use those. Even if they might not come with hype or a fancy name. Stay true – enhance learning.
Do: remember the ethics
There are many ethics to consider in the digital space, for example, data privacy and social media protocols. As online language teachers, we also bear the responsibility to provide a safe environment for our students.
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