As part of our 25th anniversary of designing for the ELT industry, Sarah Hemfrey takes an in-depth look at some of the major technology changes which have not only impacted our work but also that of the ELT classroom.

The classroom in 1990: A cold wasteland full of aged books with out-of-date pictures? No, the landscape of the 1990s classroom isn’t as different from the classroom of 2016 as you might think. There is no broadband internet, there are no iPads or virtual learning environments. Those are all to come over the next 25 years. This classroom is full of their predecessors. The cassette is in the tape player on the shelf and still enjoying its heyday. An overhead projector is in the middle of the classroom, casting a slightly shaky image on the whiteboard; clear plastic with coloured diagrams sits on top. Somewhere in a locked room rests the school’s only TV, a video player, loaded with three hours of educational programming, sits on the lower shelf of the trolley.

The change in technology used by ELT teachers has been rapid. The outlook is very different now with almost all of the technology in this classroom outdated by today’s capabilities. In this post we have charted the major changes in classroom technology that we have seen and been part of creating materials for over the last 25 years.

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1991: Cassettes are old hat in ELT learning of the 1990s. Already popular in the 1980s, they are the primary method for introducing audio listening into lessons. Students can hear and interpret native speakers. Already present before the 1990s. Educational programming is very popular in the 1970s and ’80s but is waning by the time we enter the ’90s. Video (a resource book for teachers) supporting using video as a learning tool was published in 1991 by Cooper, Lavery and Rinvolucri and sees a re-emergence of video as a tool in ELT. At the time, VHS is the most modern way for teachers to incorporate video into their classroom.

The first interactive whiteboard (IWB) is developed as early as 1991 with the release of the aptly named SMARTboard. Interactive whiteboards are originally developed for businesses and do not come into education until the early 2000s.

1992: Overhead projectors are an easy way to convey information on the board without having to write it every lesson. Lessons can be prepared in advance and the ability to add to the plastic film during the lesson allows some degree of flexibility and interactivity. They are gradually replaced with LCD projectors, which lasts longer. They remain popular in schools until the interactive whiteboard becomes more widely used in the mid–late ’90s.

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1993: Although considered a given when discussing advances in technology, the rise of the computer is probably the single most important technological leap in education. Over time it has radically changed the number and type of resources available to the ELT learner. Over the last twenty years the dominance of the personal computer and the subsequent developments in technology has a major impact on society as a whole, including education.

1994: DVDs, commercially available in 1994, are not adopted in classrooms until a few years later. The DVD fails to replace VHS as a format to offer educational programming for many years due to the need to buy new (and expensive) equipment to use them.

1995: Along with the computer the introduction of the internet (as we know it) changes the way we see the world and has exponential potential in ELT. Without the internet we wouldn’t have VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) or MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that have become the cornerstone of many ELT environments of today’s world.

1997: The term ‘weblog’ is coined and spurs a whole new area of online culture. Blogs have been widely used in education since the emergence of blogging, with forward-thinking teachers getting their learners to create their own. Teachers use them as a platform to share ideas and methodology practice.

1999: The launch of the first version of Adobe InDesign takes over from the old PageMaker, which only has a 5% share of the production market compared to its rival, Quark. It revolutionises the production process of publishing, allowing for more user-friendly, dynamic publishing and time-savings for those developing the materials.

High speed internet is also starting to make an entrance, but internet-connected classrooms are still a way off yet!

2000: IWBs are invested in heavily and rapidly enter UK schools over the next years. Writers and publishers need material to adapt to this new addition to the classroom environment. A new wave of ‘digital’ materials are developed, allowing the teacher to use technology interactively in lessons more than ever before. According to Pete Sharma in his introduction for the Beginner Global Digital user guide, they are still relatively new technology to many schools in 2007.

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Although CDs are introduced in the 1980s, they do not replace the cassette tape for many years. The popularisation of the personal computer plays an important part in the adoption of CDs in ELT in the early 2000s. An early adopter of the CD is Headway, which offers CDs alongside audio cassettes as early as 2000.

2001: DVD players and DVDs become more affordable. This denotes the beginning of the end for VHS. DVDs better picture quality but are less commonly offered in ELT courses than cassettes. This is probably because ELT is a wide marketplace and many countries have yet to adopt DVD technology.

2002: InDesign becomes the first Mac OS X native desktop publishing software. It is accessible to a wider range of users than Quark and becomes more appealing to the wide base of Mac-oriented production departments.

2003: 3G technology comes along and whilst we’re still a few years off the smartphones we know and love today, internet-enabled devices are able to browse pages and make video calls on the move. Not yet widely used in education, the seeds are sown for the m-learning (mobile learning) revolution.

2004: Cassettes are offered by many courses right up until the mid-2000s. In the mid 2000s, ELT publishers offer both old and new with cassettes and CD-ROMs. Cassettes are more familiar to use and queue up in preparation for classes than their more modern counterparts. However, they do not offer the audio quality delivered by later methods. It suggests the demand for cassettes is still high but the emergent new technology is slowly taking over.

The podcast comes into being around 2004 and becomes a popular way to record audio for the internet. They can be used for listening exercises and the episodic nature of some podcasts lends them to continual learning rather than a teacher finding relevant podcasts for every lesson. Their availability also allows teachers to easily assign listening as work outside of the classroom.

Personalised learning becomes an official UK Government policy but doesn’t really start coming into the materials that Publishers create until the late ’00s/ early ’10s.

2006: One of the last books we could find offering both audio CDs and cassettes is Fun for Starters first edition from Cambridge University Press. While the audio cassette is no longer produced in ELT today many teachers still have cassettes in their school’s educational inventory.

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2007: Smart technology allows learning, particularly language learning, to become more flexible. With the iPhone comes the birth of apps, initially offered by Apple only. We also have the release of the first generation of Kindles and Amazon’s self-publishing platform. As more self-publishing platforms emerge, teachers and material authors get the chance to create and publish their own materials. This gives teachers an even wider choice of materials as well as increasing competition for the established Publishing houses.

2008: Publishers released Student Books on CDs for teachers to put up on the whiteboard. These digital editions contain more interactivity and are developed to allow teachers to engage more with the material in the classroom. For example, Macmillan’s Global Digital embeds audio and visual material within the digital version of the Student Book, giving an all-in-one experience. These resources also give the teacher more freedom to create their own digital lessons and resources. Today these resources have grown to include photocopiables, worksheets, specially selected articles and more, all delivered digitally.

MOOCs was coined as a term in 2008 and starts the OER (Open Educational Resources) movement. For the first time the teacher can easily be in a different place or even country from the student, opening up access to education on a scale not seen before now.

In 2008 the App Store is officially launched giving way to a new era of delivering 3rd party applications.

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2010: Becoming increasingly popular in schools since the release of the iPad in 2010, governments around the world have invested in tablet technology to allow students to use current technology in their classes. Despite this, only a fraction of students use tablet technology in their classes because it is so expensive for schools to purchase. With iPads in the hands of every child (in some countries anyway) there is now wider scope for personalised learning to take effect from the materials and software being used by teachers and learners.

2011: Apps for both phones and tablets are now becoming much more commonplace as supplementary English resources and standalone learning products. Apps have given students the ability to learn more outside the classroom, but also allow enterprising schools and teachers to develop lessons engineered to new smart technology that is beginning to enter classrooms.

2012: Adaptive learning is not a new thing, it’s been used in computer-based testing since the 70’s. However, in the early 2010’s we start to see it being more widely used in educational settings as part of moving towards more personalised and tailored education. The first major uptake within ELT is from Pearson Education who joined up with adaptive learning providers Knewton to create the first version of MyLab.

2013: Developing countries such as Kenya announce their intention to give students laptops. Computers have gone from being a specialised device to a luxury home item to a boon to education in every country.

2014: HTML5 is published as the 5th version of the HTML standard enabling interactive and multimedia content to be fully enriched.

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The 2016 classroom: Books lay on desks beside digital tablets. Tablets are open to the course-connected app, it shows a mini quiz which will be marked digitally and the results delivered to the teacher. On the interactive whiteboard the teacher presses a link that leads to a podcast. Down the hall there is a computer lab full of top of the range technology. Here students use their VLE to upload their coursework. Attached to the ceiling is an LCD projector, not used much nowadays but is a good back-up.


The use of technology in the ELT classroom wasn’t a new concept even in 1990, and older technologies have been amalgamated into new devices. Where before we needed a cassette player and a VHS, now the IWB covers many of these old technologies. The timeline reveals an interesting trend that seems to be taking place in educational technology. While it takes time for current technology to be adapted into ELT materials, this timeframe is shortening considerably as the demand to use current technology in teaching continues to grow.

It is nice to see that although the tools are different, the principle is the same: to find new and interesting ways to educate and engage students through technology. What has remained constant, and is imperative in the future, is the hugely important role of the teacher – which hasn’t changed that much in the last 25 years.


2018 update: Since writing this article technology in the classroom has developed even further. We are now seeing the growth of cloud based learning and the benefits of virtual reality becoming more accessible. The challenge of today is how to integrate this technology into the classroom. Despite this, the possibilities for technology based learning is an exciting new opportunity for schools, teachers and those who develop educational resources.