FAQs and Fictions about Computers and Language Teaching

by Dennie Hoopingarner


This is an interesting time for language teachers to be using computers. On the technology side, the continuing trend is for computers to get more powerful and cheaper, for software to do more—and do it better, and for our students to have access to more information. On the teaching side, the computer has largely ceased to be an add-on to the curriculum. It is no longer an extra that we include if time permits, or as a special treat for the students. For more and more of us, the computer is an essential part of our working day, and has become an integral part of how we teach.

Many teachers use the computer to keep grades, type lesson plans, tests, and homework assignments, and communicate with students and parents over email. As useful and practical as these functions are, the computer is not just a tool for managing instruction. For many years, teachers have shown that the computer can play an active role in language teaching and learning, and various professional organizations (e.g., CALICO, WorldCALL) and journals (e.g., Language Learning & Technology) have been established with the intent of establishing and promoting best practices. There is a large and growing base of literature documenting technology-enhanced language learning success stories.

In spite of this rich literature on effective and recommended uses of the computer, technology has been widely distributed among teachers with little formal training or instruction in effective uses. As a result, the wheel has been reinvented time and time again, and while the same good ideas were stumbled upon independently by teachers throughout the field, many of the same less-than-ideal implementations have found their way into the classroom as well. This may be why so many misconceptions about using technology in the language class still exist today.

These misconceptions often manifest themselves in the form of loaded questions. I would like to share some of the frequently asked questions (FAQs) that I have heard regarding technology and language teaching over the years. As a way of answering the questions, I will discuss the misconceptions that may underlie the FAQs, and try to dispel some of the myths that still linger.

Language is a social phenomenon. How can the computer, a nonhuman, possibly assist the language learning process?

Language is very much a part of being human. Despite our best efforts over 50 years, still can't teach the computer how to function in human language like a human being does. Despite amazing  advances in artificial intelligence and computational linguistics, and promises of products that we see on the market, we will probably always be reliant on humans to negotiate language. This is good news for those of us involved in the language teaching business - our jobs as language teachers are certainly secure. No one who knows what he or she is talking about suggests that the computer can take the teacher's place.

The computer would be a failure as a lan­guage teacher. So would a textbook. But both the textbook and the computer have valuable contributions to make to the lan­guage learning process. It's hard to imagine teaching a language without the benefit of a textbook; for my part, I can't imagine teaching without the benefit of a computer.


Why should I use technology in my class?

No one is claiming that if teachers do not use technology in their classes, the students will not learn. Many generations of students learned quite contentedly and effectively before the advent of the computer, and continue to do so all over the world. So why is there such a strong push to use technology, especially computers, in the language class?

As a partial answer, we can look at the potential of the computer to do much more than any other technology to date. The theme of the book How people learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Bransford et al, 1999) is that technology can enhance instruction:


What has not yet been fully understood is that computer-based technologies can be powerful pedagogical tools—not just rich sources of information, but also extensions of human capabilities and contexts for social interactions supporting learning. The process of using technology to improve learning is never solely a technical matter, concerned only with prop­erties of educational hardware and software. Like a textbook or any other cultural object, technology resources for education—whether a software science simulation or an interactive reading exercise—function in a social environ­ment, mediated by learning conversations with peers and teachers.


The authors observe that computer tech­nology can allow people to learn by doing, to receive feedback, to refine understand­ing and build new knowledge, to visualize difficult concepts through modeling and visualization software, and gain access to a vast array of information. In short, the computer can do many things that the textbook can't do, and research findings (Kern, 1995; Chun &: Plass, 1997; Chun, 1998; and Jones, 2004) do show that technology-enhanced language learning achieves results.


In addition to its unique benefits to learn­ing discussed above, another reason to use technology in your class is for the positive effect it can have on your stu­dents. The field of instructional design claims that getting students' attention is a necessary prerequisite to learning (e.g., Gagne, 1985), and the computer is a great attention-getter! Many years ago, in a class on educational technology, one of my students coined the word "cybertropism." He noticed that just as plants naturally turn to face a light source, a phenomenon known as phototropism, so students are drawn to the computer. Cybertropism is another reason to use the computer in your class. Simply placing the computer in your classroom will not result in higher student learning, but including the com­puter in your syllabus can certainly set the stage for learning.


Technology is unreliable. Doesn't that mean it isn't ready for prime time?
Many of us have experienced having to change or even scrap a lesson plan when a power or network outage occurs. Computer problems can cause major problems for lessons that incorporate technology. Not long ago, I was leading a workshop for high school teachers on CLEAR-developed web-based teaching tools. About an hour into the workshop, there was a major disruption in the Internet. I eventually had to postpone the rest of the workshop. It was an embar­rassing situation indeed, and I would not like to repeat the experience. But does this mean that I made a mistake in relying on the reliability of the Internet?


It would be a mistake to assume that if something doesn't work on a given occa­sion, that it is unreliable. While progress has undoubtedly given rise to a batch of new problems, I'm glad that I live in this age, where technology has extended my life expectancy, and given my children more opportunities than even I enjoyed. I don't think that I made a mistake in counting on being able to use the Internet for my workshop. Rather, I am reminded of the lesson that all good teachers know: have a contingency plan.

Can the computer teach?

This is a loaded question, and one for which there is no simple answer. We can approach it by looking at some of the background.


The American psychologist B.F. Skinner (1954) made a strong case for using what he called "teaching machines" to replace the human teacher for some kinds of teaching. His goal was efficiency of the educational enterprise, specifically to address the growing teacher shortage in the I950s. His position was that learning some kinds of content does not need to happen in a teacher-fronted situation ­some kinds of learning could be automated. These materials that are conducive to programmed instruction are factual mate­rial such as the times tables in mathemat­ics, or word definitions in language arts, and expositional material such as scientif­ic concepts. By having students do some of their work independent of the teacher through programmed instruction, Skinner proposed, the teacher's time could be freed up to handle more students, devote more time to other subjects, or even shorten the school day.


Real-world experience with programmed instruction and teaching machines revealed some fundamental problems with this approach, and the approach has largely fallen out of favor. Nevertheless, the concept of somehow dividing the curriculum into independent work and teacher-fronted work endured, and is even showing a greater prominence with the advent of distance learning foreign lan­guage courses (McDonald et al, in press).

Skinner's position was that teaching can be reduced to a mechanized activity, but this is only part of the story Even Skinner acknowledged that learning is much less predictable than teaching, and that the teacher is indispensable. Even proponents of self-instruction approach dismiss the idea that a teacher is unnecessary as "naive" (Dickinson, 1987).

Maybe it would be more fruitful to approach the question from the student's perspective. Perhaps we should ask whether students can learn as a result of using a computer. I doubt anyone can dispute that students can learn from interacting with technology. As a parent, I limit what my children can view online, and watch on television, because I have real—and I believe justified—concerns about what they might learn. If computers offer the opportunity to learn something that we don't want students to learn, isn't it rea­sonable to assume that computers also

carry the potential for them to learn something that we do want them to learn?


What's the best way to use computers?

This question has been posed in many dif­ferent forms: what is the role of technolo­gy in foreign language teaching? How should we as language teachers be using computers to get the best use out of the technology? How can we make sure that we're getting the maximum return on the investment in technology? What tech­niques should we be employing so that our students will benefit from using com­puters? Behind this line of questioning is the mistaken assumption that there is a best application of technology.


One way of addressing the role of the com­puter in the class could be to ask what is the role of the textbook, or the black­board. Most people would agree that the textbook and the blackboard do have valuable roles in teaching. In addition, there are certain established uses for them. However, it may be a futile effort to define most effective use of these elements of teaching. The conclusion that I draw is that the textbook, blackboard, and com­puter are all tools. Tools should be used to help do a job, not do the job for us.


So, what should I do with the computer?

Introducing the computer into the language class opens the door to a wide range of possibilities. A confusing aspect of com­puters is that they are so versatile. With so many options, how is a teacher to decide what to do?

One of the initiatives of the International Society for Technology in Education (http://www.iste.org) is a set of standards and rubrics for using technology to facili­tate learning. Similar in scope and design to the standards for language learning that were established by ACTFL (http://www.actfl.org), ISTE's standards are meant to be part of a pre-service teacher education program. The goal of the standards is to establish benchmark competencies, and help teachers learn how to use technology to plan effective learning environments.


It is difficult to give a blanket recommen­dation for specific applications of technol­ogy to language teaching. However, we can explore some general principles:


1. Don't think of the computer as a book.
Reading on the computer is qualitatively different from reading a book. Of course, the computer can duplicate all of the functions of the book. Using the right software, students can access the same print information as in a book, take notes, make bookmarks, and jump directly to a random place in the text. Of course, the computer can do much more than merely mimic a book. Information access via the computer has exploded with the advent of the World Wide Web, and now we face the problem of information glut. It is difficult for us to isolate the information that we want from the irrelevant informa­tion that is available. We as educators now have a new skill set to teach students - critical assessment of information that is accessed online.


2. Use the computer as a tool

Rather than some sort of smart teacher's aid that can assume some of the teacher's duties, we should see the computer as one more tool at the teacher's disposal. This tool is multi-functional, and more applications are being added as the soft­ware gets better, the network gets faster, and the hardware gets cheaper. It might be useful to see the computer as a Swiss army knife that you can add blades to.


Many older technologies are converging onto the computer platform. Where we used to need separate tape recorders, laser disk players, filmstrip projectors, typewrit­ers, audio consoles, and calculators to do our jobs, now all of those tasks can be accomplished on the computer.


3. Take advantage of the computer's strengths
We have moved beyond the idea of the computer as some sort of substitute teacher, or a teacher's aid. The computer can do much more than present our students with multiple-choice quizzes. Students' time can be much better spent creating rich media presentations on the computer, recording and editing their own audio and video projects, and exploring the world through the target language online. Research done by Swain (1985, 1993) suggests that learner output is a critical factor in learning to use the language pro­ductively. The computer allows students to more easily create, revise, and share written texts, chat with fellow speakers and post ideas and comments to Internet bulletin boards - all of which allow learners to maximize their production of output. Additionally, Long and Porter's (1985) work on task-based learning sug­gests exciting possibilities for students to work on projects collaboratively on the computer. Thus, the computer is an added tool for the language teacher to use in pro­viding learners with the best opportunities to use languages and "push" themselves to greater proficiency.


4. Recognize that some students will benefit less than others

It is commonly accepted that students today have taken to technology en masse, that they are completely comfortable with technology as part of their everyday lives. While it might be true that a greater per­centage of students are computer literate than those of us in higher age brackets, we can't assume that all of our students are at the same comfort level with technology, and we can't assume that they will all be willing to be heavy users of technology in their language learning. Issues of the digital divide and differing learning styles should be taken into account when we are making the leap into technology-enhanced language teaching.


A disclaimer

While computer technology has tremendous promise for making foreign language class­rooms more effective and stimulating, it is important to remember that technology is not a methodology The computer is a powerful tool that can be used to support discredited, unfashionable teaching methods just as it can be used to support effective and engaging teaching methods. The onus is still on teachers to teach. Technology can combine with good ideas and creativity to create catalysts for increased student learn­ing, motivation, and ultimate achievement.



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