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Please Check Your Baggage: Considering Cultural Biases and Critical Issues in the Adult ESL Classroom when Using Computer Technology (2004)
by LaurieAnne Rosenblatt, ESL Teacher

This article presents the critical issues in need of consideration when using computer technology in an adult ESL program. When considering using computer technology in the ESL classroom, take some time to evaluate your assumptions regarding the use of computers and evaluate other issues which may affect the use of technology in your classroom. Some critical issues in need of consideration include age, gender, and individual and culturally specific learning styles. In addition, the purpose and effectiveness of the technology itself is important to evaluate.


As I write this paper it is the winter holiday season and I think of all the people preparing for air travel. For many people, including myself, a lot of preparation goes into packing our bags for a trip. We have to consider where we are going and what we will be doing and choose the appropriate clothing and gear. When we arrive at the airport, depending on the departure point and individual airport security measures, we will be asked if we packed our own bags, what the contents of our bags may be, and our bags may even be searched. When using the Internet in an adult ESL classroom, the same considerations should be taken. The teacher needs to consider where the students are "going" when they use a computer lab, and what they will be doing once they are there.

Just like traveling, before taking students on a techno-journey, the teacher should take the time beforehand to examine his or her "baggage." Some issues to be considered by the teacher are his or her own cultural biases, assumptions, knowledge, and ability of using technology in the classroom. For example, when I began teaching my advanced level adult ESL class, and after we started using a computer lab, I found myself forced to acknowledge that I carried an assumption that most everyone owned a personal computer, just like myself, and knew how to use it. I also assumed that most people would be just as excited about using technology as I was. Of course, this turned out to be a mistake. As the saying goes, "When you assume, you make an ass out of "u" and me." I soon discovered that most of the forty students enrolled in each of my two classes did not own a computer and that many of my students had never used a computer. Before beginning our techno-journey, I should have examined my personal assumptions and cultural biases, or "checked my baggage." According to Gorski, it is important to engage in a self-reflective process in order to explore the ways in which identity development impacts the way we see and experience different people..He also encourages teachers to sacrifice the safety of their comfort zones by building processes for continually assessing, understanding, and challenging our biases and prejudices and how they impact our expectations for, and relationships with our students.1

After examining his or her baggage, the teacher should move on to examine the student’s "baggage" before beginning the journey. As I found out after being the only teacher in a computer lab with forty students, and having my high expectations and well-thought out lesson plans slap me in the face when the reality of my situation hit. My students were ill prepared to use the computer lab in the way that I had expected. The issues to be considered by the teacher before beginning to use a computer lab include the attitude of the students regarding the use of a computer. The teacher should examine the individual student’s beliefs regarding the worthiness of computer skills in his or her own personal life. Some students may believe that they will never need to access a computer, so why learn how to use it? Some may think that the computer is too impersonal. Others may believe that they are too old to learn how to use a computer, or that their English language skills are not good enough. Also, whether or not the student knows how to use the computer is a critical issue. A lack of basic knowledge and skills such as turning on a computer, logging on, accessing programs, and typing and using the mouse can inhibit a student’s learning and spoil the "journey." In the beginning, I often found some students just sitting in front of the computer not even knowing how to turn it on and too shy to ask for help. Some didn’t know how to type and/or were unfamiliar with an English keyboard while others were clumsy with the use of the mouse, often dragging the mouse off the mouse pad, or jerking the mouse while clicking on icons. Others may only have access to a computer when they come to school and each week that we went to the computer lab posed a challenge because they had to constantly review basic skills such as turning on the computer and accessing software programs. So, one can see how important it is to take the time beforehand to prepare for such a journey. A little preparation ahead of time could save a lot of headache in the future.

When considering using computer technology in the ESL classroom, take some time to evaluate your assumptions regarding the use of computers and evaluate other issues which may affect the use of technology in your classroom. Some other critical issues in need of consideration are age, gender, and individual and culturally specific learning styles. In addition, the purpose and effectiveness of the technology itself is important to evaluate.

The ESL classroom population is naturally diversified by the means of its purpose. Students who speak other languages are there to learn English. For some, it is a second language, while for others it may be a third or even a fourth language. Students are also learning English for a variety of reasons. Some to gain employment while others hope to advance in a job they already have. Some are stay-at-home mothers with a desire to help their children with homework. And then there are the older students. They are retired and have no plans to work while in the United States, yet they have a strong desire to learn the language of their new country. Their age sometimes can be a barrier to learning the new language and when using a computer.


When using computer technology in the classroom, it is important to consider the age of the students using the computers. Statistics show that individuals 50 years of age and older are among the least likely to be Internet users. The Internet use rate for this group was only 29.6% in 2000. However, while these individuals may be less likely to be using the Internet, they are experiencing the highest rates of growth in Internet usage of all age groups: 53% from December 1998 to August 2000, compared to a 35% growth rate for individuals nationwide.2 While these statistics may not reflect the ESL student population, they are still significant enough to keep in mind when reflecting on using technology with the older student population. Older students may have formed negative personal opinions regarding their ability to learn how to use a computer, or have been influenced by others. That old saying "You can’t teach an old dog new tricks"comes to mind. The truth is that if a teacher has and demonstrates high expectations for all students3 then those students can and will learn "new tricks." Help the older student recognize the advantages of computer skills in learning English and with everyday activities that may be of interest to them. For example, many of my older students like using the English for All website 4 and other such websites5 for additional English practice at home. They enjoy the ability to go at their own pace which may sometimes be slower than the pace in the classroom at times. Some things to consider when using computers with older students may be impaired vision, impaired hearing, or problems with manual dexterity. Take the time to identify older students in the classroom who may have one or more of these difficulties. Encourage the student to pair with another student who can do the screen reading or keyboarding. Demonstrate to the student how to use the audio equipment, if any, and adjust individual volume controls for their comfort. Taking the time to acknowledge the older student and the barriers to learning he or she may encounter will go a long way in making the learning experience an enjoyable one.

In my ESL classroom we use a computer lab once a week for approximately 2- 2.5 hours. Our computer lab has 20 computers with one being the "Teacher’s" computer, it is separate and apart from the others. On any given day, approximately 16-17 of these computers are functional. This means that 30-40 students are often working at computers in self-selected pairs, and sometimes trios. I’ve noticed that, with the exception of one pair of students, the remaining students prefer to stay in same gender groups. Even when there are enough computers available for each person to use, which is only the case if many students are absent on our computer day, there are a number of female students who prefer the cooperative nature of working together to solve a problem, whether it be technical related or language related, and discussing the computer assignment. Male students tend to prefer to work alone.


The preferences, in my classroom, of female students preferring, or simply liking, the collaborative aspect of pair work, and male students preferring the individual aspect of computer work certainly influences the nature of the assignments that I give in the computer lab. While I respect the preferences of my students, I also like to encourage them to step beyond their comfort zones and challenge themselves. So, if I see one student in particular who always insists on working alone, I devise a way to get that student working with another. It may be under the premise that the other student needs help navigating the program or needs someone to check the work for accuracy. Likewise, if I have a group of women students who always sit together and work together, I encourage them to split up and try to work on their own for part of the allotted time. Another gender-related factor to consider is the different reasons for students wanting to use the computer.

Prior to the year 2000, there was a disparity in Internet usage between men and women. In 1998, 34.2% of men and 31.4% of women were using the Internet. However, by August 2000, those numbers had climbed to 44.6% of men and 44.2% of women.6 Women are now more likely to use the computer recreationally to pursue hobbies and personal interests related to travel, health and cooking, while men use the computer largely to further professional endeavors like on-line investing.7 I believe that in the ESL classroom the latter statistic could be proven false. Of course, most, if not all, of my students use the Internet to supplement their language learning in the classroom, but some of them also use the Internet to keep up to date on current events and communicate in their native language. One older female Chinese student uses her computer at home to track her on-line investments.

Still, though the fact that more women may be using the Internet is a meaningful step forward this century, a deeper look would reveal that the Internet poses more of a risk to women than men and I try to communicate this fact to my students. Most of the gender inequities in society and other media are, unfortunately, replicated online. There is an ever present threat of cyber-stalking and it is relatively easy for sexual predators to attain personal information about women online, making the Internet a potentially hostile and dangerous environment for women.8 I remind all of my students, regardless of gender, to be very careful when using the Internet and to never give their personal information over the computer unless they are able to verify that the site they are using is reliable.

Individual Learning Styles

Becoming proficient in a new language is a process which can be frustrating, difficult, and sometimes painful. Students learning a new language need as much support as possible. The teacher needs to provide a variety of language experiences in order to help the student with language acquisition. Students need to hear the new language, write the language, speak the language, and read the language.9 The methods by which the student learns the new language should be varied, interesting, stimulating, and incorporate the theory of multiple intelligences10, and different learning styles. In all classrooms, regardless of the subject being taught, there will be students with multiple learning styles and intelligences. An effective teacher will change his or her own teaching style and strategies in order to provide a variety of activities to meet the differing needs of the students. The computer offers one of the easiest methods of addressing this issue. Using the computer and the Internet in the classroom, the teacher can appeal to many, if not all the intelligences. For example, the primary intelligence engaged while using a computer is the Bodily/Kinesthetic. One must use their hands to manipulate the mouse and type on the keyboard. Also, students often write words or phrases that they see on the screen. Another intelligence engaged while using the computer is the Linguistic. A great deal of reading is required when using the Internet. A third intelligence engaged while using the computer is the Musical. If sound is part of a software program being used by a student then their Musical Intelligence is engaged.

There are also a number of different learning styles. Kolb is one of the best known for his "catalogue" of the ranges of learning styles. Kolb shows that learning styles can be seen on a continuum running from 1)concrete experiencer: being involved in a new experience; 2)reflective observation: watching others or developing observations about own experience; 3)abstract conceptualization: creating theories to explain observations; and 4)active experimentation: using theories to solve problems, make decisions.11 For the teacher using computer technology in the classroom this means:

1. For the concrete experiencer–hands on work.

2. For the reflective observer–utilize brainstorming activities, logs, or journals.

3. For the abstract conceptualizer–use lectures.

4. For the active experimenter–use the computer to solve problems or do research.

Zhenhui puts it into more simplistic terms. Zhenhui catalogues learning styles in the following manner: analytic and field-independent, visual, thinking-oriented and reflective, and concrete-sequential.12 Regardless of the individual learning styles present in the classroom, the teacher should make a conscious effort to include the various intelligences and learning styles in the curriculum planning. This will ensure that the classroom is a lively and fun environment which makes learning more appealing and interesting to the student.

Culturally Specific Learning Styles

Just as learning styles can be identified in individual students, there are some culturally specific learning styles that can be identified as well. According to Zhenhui, a learning style is a consistent way of functioning which reflects cultural behavior patterns. And just like other behaviors influenced by cultural experiences, learning styles can be revised as a result of training or changes in learning experiences. For example, according to Zhenhui, an important aspect of instructional style for many Korean students is rote learning and it might necessary to wean them from a rote repetition style of learning to slowly guiding them into real communication in authentic language situations. Some students from particular cultures may be reluctant to express their opinions in an open forum. Another example of culturally specific learning style preference is Taiwanese students. In Taiwan, most students remain silent even when they want to ask questions and participate. These students are very conscious of making errors in front of their classmates. Another reason behind their silence is the fear of punishment. Some students in Taiwan actually experienced physical punishment by teachers because of poor performance13. Another example, given by Lin and Warden, applied to language learning in China, students are reluctant to air their views for fear of losing face or offending others. There are even several sayings which discourage people from speaking up: it’s the noisy bird that is easily shot dead; a real man should be good at thinking, but weak at speaking; keep your mouth shut but your eyes open. Utilizing computer technology, the teacher can encourage these students to communicate through electronic mail or chat rooms, thus giving the students the opportunity to express their views, or raise questions in a more private forum. By learning to recognize the different learning style preferences and culturally specific learning styles, the teacher can adapt strategies and provide activities which address the needs of the different styles. In this way, students will be more likely to be successful language learners.

Purpose of Computer Technology in the ESL Classroom

The ESL student can be viewed as a marginalized student. Shrader defines marginalized students as inhabiting a different world where they are unvalued.14 ESL students who may be deficient in their English language skills are often left feeling unvalued in the new society which they find themselves in. Being unable to communicate fully in English they may believe that they can have no impact on the world. According to Shrader, marginalized students need to be empowered. The process of empowerment involves helping the learner become aware that he or she can have an impact on their environment, and can exert some control over their circumstances. One of the most important responsibilities as a language teacher is to help the students become aware of how they can use language to influence the world around them, thus empowering them. The computer and the Internet are tools which the ESL teacher can use to empower students. In addition to the learning and communication benefits of the Internet, the Internet can be used to retrieve and access information. It is a readily available source of information for the language learner.15 In the ESL classroom, the Internet can be used to communicate via e-mail. In such a context, the language learner can communicate with native speakers, or other language learners. Thus, allowing the students to learn and use the target language in an authentic setting. Students can access information on the Internet. They can read online newspapers and journals in the target language, listen to authentic recordings with a variety of accents and dialects in the target language as well. Students can also learn about the target culture through use of the Internet. The resources and possibilities seem endless. However, I would be amiss if I neglected to mention the pitfalls of using computer technology in the classroom.

Effectiveness of Computer Technology in the ESL Classroom

There are many products and websites available for a teacher to use in the classroom.  It is the teacher’s responsibility to look at these products and websites with a discerning eye. It is important that the technology add sound educational elements to the classroom and build on what the students are learning in the classroom, not act as a substitute for good teaching. It is also important to have criteria by which to select the technology that will be utilized by the students. Some things to consider first before bringing a new technology into the classroom:

1. Will the technology enhance the educational experience of the students?

2. Will the technology build skills for the future?

3. Will the technology be motivating to the students?

4. Will the technology be delivering content that is accurate and appropriate?

From a multi cultural education framework, it is not enough to ask the above questions, but to also reflect on what roles the various technologies will be playing in education and to ask if the technology will be contributing to education equity or supporting current systems of control and domination16  When evaluating the effectiveness of computer technology in the ESL classroom, first of all, it is necessary that the teacher be familiar with utilizing the technology before sending the students on their cyber-journey. For example, the teacher must become familiar with using an e-mail program, or chat room, before instructing the students in its use. Before sending students to a website for learning English, the teacher must become familiar with the functions and capabilities of the program. Also, some programs, such as the English for All website that I use in my classroom, have a student records management system. This system tracks the students progress within the program. It is necessary for the teacher to follow through and check the student’s progress periodically. In addition, some e-mail programs such as ePals17require the teacher to set up individual email addresses for students. It’s also advisable to periodically check the student’s email accounts for unsolicited mail and mail which can be deleted. This can be quite time consuming, but well worth the effort. Also, the nature of the Internet itself can provide some bumps in the road for students who are unfamiliar with how it works. Lines get busy and the system slows down which makes accessing information or browsing the Internet difficult. Some students may not understand this and they continue to click, click, click, with no results and then become frustrated. Students sometimes can’t differentiate between the pop-up advertisements and dialog boxes. By accidently clicking on a pop-up advertisement, the inexperienced student can be led off into cyber-oblivion. For this reason, it is important for an ESL teacher to be available to monitor computer activity so that the student can be instructed on what to do when such a situation arises, how to recognize an advertisement, and how to avoid such pitfalls in the future.

Programs in Use in My Own Classroom and their Effectiveness

Despite the pitfalls and the time that is required to set up and maintain such programs as mentioned above, using computer technology in my ESL classroom is probably one of the most exciting aspects of teaching. I see a lot more "aha" moments in the computer lab then with anything else. Some of the programs that I use and have had success with in my classroom are ePals,,, and Epals is an email program designed for classroom and student use. Once set up, students can e-mail each other, or other students throughout the world. The teacher can set up "pen pals" from other classrooms, giving language learners the opportunity to practice their English writing skills and e-mailing skills with other language learners in different parts of the world. However, the teacher needs to be careful when assigning pen pals. Students who share the same native language will often revert to corresponding in their native language.

The ompersonal website is very useful for native Spanish speakers who are studying English. It offers a variety of methods of learning English including listening exercises, reading comprehension, and grammar. The site can also be used by students who do not speak Spanish, but may be confusing if they don’t understand beforehand that some instructions are provided in both English and Spanish. My Spanish speaking students find the grammar explanations exceptionally useful.

The website is a great site for all levels of learners. It offers a variety of skills practices at the beginning to advanced level. There is also an e-newsletter that students can subscribe too. However, for many of my students it is somewhat difficult to navigate the newsletter because it contains information for both teachers and students.


The Internet and the World Wide Web are a pervasive technological influence on education. In considering the role that computer technology will play in the ESL classroom, the teacher is faced with a number of challenges including how to respond to the technology and then how to use it to the advantage of both the teacher and the student. But before doing so, it is imperative that the teacher examine his or her personal cultural training (upbringing), belief system, biases, and assumptions in order to determine which "baggage" is going to be taken on the "trip" and which is going to be left behind. Then consider what "baggage" your students are bringing along. After careful consideration and realization of what you will be traveling with, you can ready yourself and your students for the journey. But be sure to buckle up because it will be a bumpy, but exciting, journey.

Computer Resources

1. Americans in the Information Age. U.S. Dept. of Commerce study examining which American households have access to telephones, computers, and the Internet, and which do not. < >

2. Cultural Diversity in the Classroom.

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3. Digital Divide. A PBS series that looks at how computers have widened social gaps.

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4. English website for ESL students.

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5. English for All. English website for ESL students.

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6. English website for ESL students.

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7. English for speakers of Spanish.

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8. Multicultural Pavilion: Lists, Tools, and Fact Sheets

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9. Multicultural Pavilion: Resources and Dialogs for Equity in Education

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10. U.S. Dept. of Education. The Digital Divide.

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Gorski, Paul C. "The Digital Divide in 2000: A Fact Sheet." The Multi cultural Pavilion.

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Gorski, Paul C. "Understanding the Digital Divide from a Multi cultural Education Framework." The Multi cultural Pavilion.

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Gorski, Paul C. "10 Ways I Can Be a Multi cultural Educator in the Technology Fields." The Multicultural Pavilion.

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Gorski, Paul C. "20 (Self-) Critical Things I Will Do to Be a Better Multicultural Educator." The Multicultural Pavilion.

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Gorski, Paul C. "Six Critical Paradigm Shifts for Multicultural Education (and the Questions We Should Be Asking)." The Multicultural Pavilion.

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Herington, Rupert. "Teaching EFL/ESL Students How to Use Search Engines and Develop their English." The Internet TESL Journal, vol VIII, no. 12, December 2002. < >

Imel, Susan. "Using Technologies Effectively in Adult and Vocational Education." Practice Application Briefs no. 2, ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, Center on Education and Training for Employment, College of Education, the Ohio State University, 1999. < >

Imel, Susan. "Promoting Intercultural Understanding." Trends and Issues Alerts, 1998. ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, Center on Education and Training for Employment, College of Education, the Ohio State University.< >

Imel, Susan. "Informal Adult Learning and the Internet." Trends and Issues Alerts, no. 50, 2003. ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, Center on Education and Training for Employment, College of Education, the Ohio State University. < >

Imel, Susan. "Technology and Adult Learning: Current Perspectives." Digest no. 197, 1998. ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, Center on Education and Training for Employment, College of Education, the Ohio State University. < >

Knowlton, Todd. "Evaluating Classroom Technology." Teaching the Profession of Programming, Spring, 1999. 

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Lin, Hsiu-Ju and Warden, Clyde A. "Different Attitudes Among Non-English EFL Students." The Internet TESL Journal. < >

Lincoln, Kirsten. "Teaching Search Engines to ESL Students: Avoiding the Avalanche." The Internet TESL Journal, vol IX, no. 6, June 2003.

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Mynard, Jo. "Introducing EFL Students to Chat Rooms." The Internet TESL Journal, vol. VIII, no. 2, February 2002. < >

Shrader, Stephen R. "Learner Empowerment - A Perspective." The Internet TESL Journal, vol IX, no. 11, November 2003. < >

Singhal, Meena. "The Internet and Foreign Language Education: Benefits and Challenges." The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. III, no. 6, June 1997.

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Ybarra, Renee. "Using Technology to Help ESL/EFL Students Develop Language Skills." The Internet TESL Journal, vol IX, no. 3, March 2003.


Yetman, Roberta. "Unearthing our Future: Something to Think About." The Soundbone Newsletter, September 1997. < >

Zhenhui, Rao. "Matching Teaching Styles with Learning Styles in East Asian Contexts." The Internet TESL Journal, vol VII, no. 7, July 2001. < >

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