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Does Your Technology Make the Grade with English Learners? New ED Guidance Can Help

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October 30, 2018

The numbers of English learner (“EL”) students is rising throughout the country, even in small, rural districts. A similar rise has been seen in the use of technology in the classroom. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced the release of two toolkits that address the intersection of these two areas of growth. The materials reiterate the importance of having a handle on your school community’s use of technology with students receiving special services, including students learning English and students with disabilities, to ensure that such use adequately considers their needs.

The Department’s Office of Educational Technology published two toolkits, an educator toolkit and a developer toolkit, addressing technology use with EL students. The toolkits are based on the findings of the National Study of English Learners and Digital Learning Resources conducted by the Department’s Policy and Program Studies Service on behalf of its Office of English Language Acquisition and Office of Educational Technology. The documents include suggestions, real world examples, and resources for educators and developers using technology to help EL students—the fastest growing population of students in the country—gain proficiency in English and meet academic goals. Specifically, the educator toolkit, identifies “five guiding principles” for educators to apply when using technology with EL students: (1) understand what educational technology offers for instructing English learners; (2) discover the types of educational technology available; (3) maximize the supports that educational technology offers English learners; (4) seek out hands-on, instruction-focused professional development; and (5) learn more about English learners and educational technology.

The materials raise some important legal issues that educators and school leaders should consider when using technology with EL students, both in general education and when working on language skills. First, the Department reminds us that when educators use technology in the classroom for academic instruction, they must consider whether EL students are able to fully participate. The Department suggests that educators ask themselves whether they are keeping the needs of English learners in mind as they seek out and explore educational technology, including searches focused on resources for general education instruction. For example, an educator might ask whether the resource will support the specific languages of her English learners or their levels of English language proficiency and whether the resources are culturally appropriate. The press release announcing the release of the toolkits suggests that many districts now require that supports for English learner students be available in any educational technology they purchase, but in our experience district-wide guidelines are still lacking in most school districts.

The toolkit also highlights the importance of protecting student privacy when using technological resources. Although not specifically discussed in the toolkits, educators must consider the special privacy concerns that face students with any special status, including status as an English language learner or recipient of special education.  

The developer toolkit, although not directly applicable to educators and school leaders, provides interesting insight into what the Department believes should be included in technology used with EL students. The toolkit refers to gaps in the educational technology available to address the needs of EL students and their teachers. For example, currently much of the educational technology for English learners focuses on English language acquisition, rather than providing support for learning all academic content. The Department also identified a shortage of technology to meet the needs of older beginner English learners while providing grade-level content and design that is appropriate for them as middle and high school students (i.e., not childish or simplistic in their activities and images). The Department encourages developers to partner with teachers, schools, and districts to help design products. Of course, we remind our clients and friends that any such partnerships should take care to consider and protect student privacy and comply with relevant student records laws such as FERPA and the Illinois School Student Records Act.

Although the tone of the Department’s toolkits is very helpful, the issuance of any new guidance is always a signal of the Department’s interest in or focus on a particular area. Because the Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces the federal law that prohibits discrimination against EL students, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is particularly important for educators and school leaders to understand their legal responsibilities when educating EL students. Reviewing the toolkits is an important place to start. School leaders should also consider auditing their technology use and policies, particularly in environments that include students with unique needs, such as students learning English and those in special education, to ensure that there are clear guidelines for educators who want to use technology in the classroom about how to avoid running afoul of the laws protecting those students’ rights.

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