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A relatively new area of second language teaching and learning has been termed CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning). Up until relatively recently, CALL mostly meant word processing and the use of relatively crude, commercially designed software programs. Since then the explosion of the Internet has given teachers and learners an almost unlimited database of authentic materials for study, a vast collection of specialist language learning sites that have been developed by experienced teachers, bulletin boards, email, chat rooms, etc, for the most part free of charge. As well as all this, there are now available new and sophisticated software programs like 'Planet English' and TESS (Tertiary English Study Skills). CALL, as Paramskas points out, in less than four decades has become 'to the delight of some, but to the dismay of others, a vital tool in second language learning' (Paramskas, 1999:13). The dismay Paramskas refers to is clearly palpable in many teachers of ESL (English as a Second Language) when asked to teach CALL and is a major cause for concern for administrators and teacher trainers, not to mention the teachers themselves. This paper begins by describing the modern language classroom in terms of prevailing methodologies and approaches. It goes on to highlight the differences between teaching CALL and regular classroom language teaching that are perhaps the cause of some of the feelings of 'dismay' for many teachers. This is followed by a plan of action that offers practical suggestions to assist the non-specialist and/ or part-time CALL teacher, to gain in confidence and perhaps transform those feelings of dismay into delight.
Some teachers become anxious when they are allocated a CALL class, and seek from those with known expertise in CALL, pre-prepared lesson plans or activities that minimise the role of the teacher, what Johnson (1989:12) calls a 'teacher proof' curriculum. CALL specialists if available, or those who are experienced or skilled in CALL, may not be allocated time in their workload to help colleagues with their lesson planning. This then creates anxiety for those teachers too.
Importantly though, this kind of compensatory spoon-feeding by 'experts', leads to a de-skilling of the role of the teacher, (Pennycook, 1989:610), and combined with the ever-increasing complexity of technology, forms a cycle of dependence that becomes self-perpetuating (see Fig. 1). As Prabhu argues, (Prabhu, 1992:225) '...it is naive to think that specialists can formulate a good teaching method and then get teachers to implement it in their classrooms... classroom teaching can improve only to the extent that teachers themselves act as specialists.' Prabhu is referring to the specialist ability that is language teaching, but I would argue that this applies even more so in the further specialisation that is CALL.
Figure 1: The de-skilling cycle
What I think is needed then, is a way to make teachers more comfortable and more confident with teaching CALL without being over prescriptive about exactly what they should do in the classroom. With this end in mind, I first would like to look at how CALL teaching is different from regular ESL classroom teaching. This task is more difficult than it at first seems, as there is wide debate about what constitutes the best approach to regular ESL classroom teaching, therefore it is perhaps necessary to begin by taking a brief look at some of the prevailing approaches to ESL curriculum.
A further refinement of the communicative approach has been labelled, 'task'. Defining the idea of task is problematic in that there has been some debate about what the term means exactly. Kumaravadivelu defines it as '...meaning-focused activities in which learners are preoccupied with the process of understanding, extending or conveying meaning and cope with language forms incidentally and as demanded by that process' (Kumaravadivelu, 1993:78).
CALL is not a methodology in itself, and there will probably never be a single generally accepted language learning/ teaching methodology in which it could be defined (Legenhausen and Wolff, 1987:5). In fact, there is no reason that teachers should not see the networked computer as just another resource for teaching. For example a planned excursion can now be researched for points of interest and itineraries can be discussed and professionally printed, or a topic can be read about or listened to from a wide range of authentic viewpoints and learner opinions can be exchanged through e-mail or bulletin boards. In a survey of 104 specialist CALL teachers, Levy (Levy, 1997:128) found that the overwhelming majority of teachers identified the role of the computer in language education as being a tool and a complement to classroom work, whilst the least nominated role was as a surrogate teacher. So, if CALL is just a tool like any other classroom resource, why do teachers have a problem with it? Well, there are some significant differences between a regular ESL classroom and the CALL laboratory.
Probably the most important and confronting difference for many teachers, is the need for technical knowledge to access or utilise the language learning resources. Even navigating a web site is not a skill that can be taken for granted, and even in the simple excursion example above there is a need for technical skills that many teachers, or learners for that matter, may not have (eg. copying and pasting between applications, saving files to disk, etc).
A second difference is that of lack of homogeneity of learner abilities. Nunan states that 'one of the greatest problems for the teacher as curriculum developer is having to construct a coherent programme for inappropriately grouped learners', (Nunan, 1988:52). The learners in the CALL class have all been grouped on language ability not computing ability and it is not unusual for a CALL class to contain learners who have little or no experience of computers alongside learners who already have qualifications in information technology.
A third difference is the actual presence of the computer itself. While personal computers have been around for a while now, they are not so familiar, (for many people anyway) that they can be easily ignored. Computers still have a dominating presence that is different from that of other classroom resources like textbooks, whiteboards or overhead projectors. Learners in the CALL laboratory often seem mesmerised by even a static page of text on the computer screens in a way that would not happen with other resources. I will call this the 'awe factor'.
A fourth difference is the potential for distraction. Just to mention a few things, the networked computer can become: a direct communication to relatives and friends, a games console, a stock ticker, a radio in Chinese, a newspaper in Turkish etc. In the regular classroom, there is usually only the teacher and what the teacher wants to focus on. Potential for distraction perhaps arises out of the learners' expectations of CALL. Many learners have perhaps never experienced a CALL class before, or perhaps have had a lazy or inexperienced CALL teacher and consequently have formulated few expectations. A lesson of writing (email) messages in their native language to family and friends is something that the learners themselves would find intolerable if it was deemed a legitimate activity in a regular class, yet I have seen teachers who will allow this in the CALL lab.
The final difference I shall outline in this paper is specific to the situation where non-specialist CALL teachers find themselves only teaching CALL at certain times during the school year, resulting in a lack of continuity. Specialist CALL teachers have the advantage of continuous and extensive experience and investigation into their own teaching. They are therefore in a much better position to identify learner needs and curriculum goals and remedy any mismatch between what is intended and what is actualised. 'Coherence can only be formally demonstrated and mismatch remedied to the extent that the processes and products of decision-making are accessible to investigation' (Johnson, 1989:23). Specialist teachers, because of their greater experience, are also in a better position to assess the pedagogical worth of CALL activities that are not part of the regular classroom repertoire, 'Successful teaching depends to a large extent upon confidence and upon responses atomised by experience' (Johnson, 1989:11).
To summarise, the main differences between CALL and regular classroom teaching are:
A suggestion to overcome the awe factor is to break the spell of the computers. Have the learners move away from the terminals from time to time, create discussion groups in another part of the room (if there is space) or even take the learners outside. The need to do this could also be part of a language learning activity. These things might seem obvious things to do, but many teachers, I think, seem to forget everything they know about the psychology of teaching when they walk into the CALL laboratory, perhaps themselves victims of the awe factor.
A tactic that in my experience never fails is to turn the computers or monitors off! To the non-specialist or inexperienced teacher this might seem a drastic action, (the awe factor again). However, the atmosphere of the CALL laboratory will change dramatically into one where the teacher is the centre of attention. This of course is a familiar feeling for every teacher. I would advise doing this several times in every lesson. There also exist network programs that blank out the learners' screens, a very worthwhile investment.
The project's title was 'Turning the Tables' and its aim was for learners to interview some of their teachers, record the interviews and publish the results on the Internet. The learners were placed into small groups and teachers were found who were willing to cooperate. Each teacher nominated a topic from the broad categories of 'travel' and 'hobbies'. The learners were then given time in a CALL class to use the Internet to research their chosen teacher's topic. The groups then met to discuss their research. From this point on the plan of the project was open to continual revision by the learners themselves. This was a deliberate tactic to maintain student involvement, (Richards, 1996:287) as the entire project occupied about 30 hours of classroom time over one month.
In summary, the project involved the following:
The learners were extremely motivated by the prospect of publishing their work and consequently became very concerned about their accuracy. As Burke asserts, 'Writing for real life audiences provides a real incentive for learners to spend time reworking written texts' (Burke, 1990: 52) and one might add, or preparing for spoken texts.
For other projects I have directed in this vein, see:
ESL Radio: http://www.eslradio.net/
UFO Stories: http://www-muelc.general.monash.edu.au/UFOStories/
Some teachers, it seems, approach CALL with the idea that computers will do the work for them, and indeed, there are some commercially published applications that attempt to be a surrogate teacher. However, even with these programs, the current limitations of computing technology in recognising contextual factors (Levy, 1999:89), is clearly apparent when it comes to tutoring learner output (speaking and writing). We still need teachers and, I believe, will continue to need them, but perhaps only those who are willing and able to embrace new technologies. As communication technology gets smaller and more portable, there will be a greater demand by learners to integrate computers in all areas of the curriculum. It's quite possible that in the not too distant future, a term like 'Computer Assisted Learning' will be as absurd as 'Book Assisted Learning' would be now.
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|Author: Stephen Lock, Monash University English Language Centre. Email: email@example.com
Please cite as: Lock, S. (2002). IT and language teaching: Building teacher confidence. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/2002/lock.html