Introduction:

As technology increasingly pervades all aspects of daily life it is logical that it also offers a wide range of material for educational purposes including the teaching of languages. The language laboratory was one application of technology to language teaching while video has been increasingly used to the point that the most language schools will have some video facilities and the majority of course books include accompanying video material. Recent years have seen a new flood of computer-based material, primarily multimedia CD-ROMs but increasingly, internet centred activities and services.

Despite these advances technology and its implications has often been relegated to second place. From teacher training courses to normal teaching practice, video usage is often regarded as an occasional "extra" rather than as a regular tool which teachers have been taught to use wisely in their given context. Maley (1988: 3) points out that all new tools tend "to generate a wave of euphoria, rapidly followed by a trough of frustration and disillusionment." Multimedia material has been greeted by many with similar reserve: many institutions and teachers see it as something which will shortly fade into the background and "normal" teaching will continue as it always has. The result is that many schools have retreated from the financial investment and many teachers from the challenge of obtaining the required skills.

Teaching practice, theory and technique are, however, continually changing and whatever initial scepticism may greet the latest technological product it seems inevitable that teachers and language learners will be using computer-based technology more and more in the foreseeable future. Pennington (1996: 1) puts the argument for computer assisted language learning (CALL) clearly and strongly: "The power of CALL in language learning and language teaching is to introduce new types of input, from both a quantitative and qualitative perspective. The added quantity of input leads to a richer language learning environment, while the unique quality of CALL input means different possibilities for accessing and developing information" .

Pennington (1996: 4) identifies seven phases in the evolution of computers in education with the first four stages seeing a general move from computer usage by elites only to mass access and acceptance. Phase five is seen as the point where educators develop the skills and become competent enough to take "possession of computers" and stage six is that in which "universal computer literacy" can be observed eventually leading to the final goal of "networking the world". At the moment Pennington sees stage six taking over: computers are widely available and both learners and teachers have increasing experience using them. The challenge now is to understand how they can be best used in the field of education and language learning.

What follows is an outline of how recent computer technology has been implemented within a specific language teaching context. The experiences support Penningtonís outline of how computer use is evolving and also serve to highlight some of the most important issues which need to be taken into account and explored when using technology in language learning.

 

 

The context:

English Language Institute (E.L.I.) is a leading private language academy in Seville, Southern Spain which has five centres and over 2000 students. The school provides extra, paid tuition for these students. The school caters for all levels from beginner to Proficiency and ages four years up. The majority of students, however, are within the eleven to fifteen age bracket and between pre-intermediate and upper-intermediate level.

Over the past four years computer usage has developed to the point that each centre has a dedicated computer room with six to ten multimedia computers which are networked and connected to internet. While material is available for self-access, the computers and computer based material are used above all as a complement to normal classes and courses. At least twice a term all classes use the computer room. A wide range of multimedia CD-ROMs, word-processing and desk-top publishing programs are available. Pre-prepared material, worksheets and lesson plans, for these programs and for internet usage has also been developed.

 

 

The students:

Paul Brett (1998: 6) correctly highlights how multimedia, through its varied input of text, sound, video and their combinations, can lead to learnerís senses being "highly aroused and stimulated" and thus "add to learnerís interest and motivation." Working within the private sector the cost of computer hardware and software is a serious consideration. In this particular school the money has been invested continuously in direct response to positive student reactions. Students at the school demand more and more computer access and appear to be stimulated and to find the experience challenging and profitable. In a recent survey with a cross section of our students over 90% said they had enjoyed the experience but more importantly over 80% made a comment highlighting the fact that they had also seen the computer classes as helping improve their English. This is, of course, personal reflection, but student perception is important and positive reaction from learners to material and stimulation in class undoubtedly aids the learning process.

There are many reasons why multimedia material creates such a positive response. Eastment (1998: 1) gives three reasons why it can be powerful and popular: because it is interactive, it reinforces and it provides context. The variety of material and sources, the combination of text, image and sound working together and the studentís freedom to move through the material, make the experience highly stimulating. Observation of students at work unequivocally confirms Penningtonís (1996: 8) claim that "the presentation on computer is an especially memorable form of input that can assist both conscious and unconscious intake and uptake of information." Pennington also stresses the motivation which stems from the new freedom learners have when faced with computer material: they are now working within "a private workspace where they can take risks and experiment in ways that might be psychologically threatening in a classroom or real-life communication situation."

Experience at the school support these points. Teachers have often commented on the fact that students in the computer room seem to be undaunted by challenges (in terms of language or task difficulty often because they are dealing with authentic material) which in the classroom would frequently have been frustrating rather than motivating. One simple example of watching students practice their listening skills with CD-ROM material also illustrates these arguments. When listening on the computer, rather then having a teacher controlling the class cassette recorder each learner is free to listen as many times as necessary, or to decide it is too easy or too difficult and to move on; the learner is equally free to make mistakes in privacy while rewarded by the computer for positive results.

The computer can thus lead to a learning environment in which the students are highly independent while at the same time active in selecting, making decisions, choosing themselves what they may wish to learn or practice. Ashworth (1996: 82) sees this interactivity as "a key term in hypermedia" while Fox J, Labbett B, Matthews C, Romano-Hvid C & Schostak J (1992: 19) go so far as to say that hypermedia is a natural way of moving through information as it "mimics an important way we try to retrieve information when discussing with other people, largely through association."

Not all computer-based material at the E.L.I. is based on multimedia CD-ROMs. Generic programs such as word-processing packages are also used. Indeed with teachers they are frequently the most popular: writing on paper, in class or at home, tends to be seen by students as a chore but writing on the computer is perceived by them in a positive light. The result is that many writing projects, at one point or another, pass through the computer in what is often a logical application of the theory of process writing. Teachers have agreed that students spend more time and take more care over material which is typed and then printed off the computer.

Typing does, however, highlight one remaining problem when computers are used: they do require certain skills from students. Multimedia programs tend, in general, to be easy to use and require little apart from mouse co-ordination the lack of basic typing skills, however, can make writing on the computer a slow and torturous process. In the survey referred to above 76% of students at the school had used computers outside the language academy, 90% had them at home. These statistics clearly support Penningtonís claim that we are progressing from stage five to stage six as students have more access to computers and more and more computer literacy. It is equally clear, however, that stage six has not been completed. Literacy is not yet universal (the majority of students who had used internet for example, had used it at E.L.I.) and any use of computers in language learning has to consider the demands it may make of studentsí computer skills.

Overall, experience at the E.L.I. has been extremely positive. Students find the challenges provided by computer based material and the new learning context it stimulates to be rewarding and motivating and certainly indicate that it is far more than a passing fashion and that universal computer literacy is clearly in process.

 

The material:

Referring to the material available Ashworth (1996: 80) accurately points out that "Because hypermedia is a new medium, it has suffered from the same problems as all new media in the beginning Ė unbridled development with little attention to quality of content." Numerous multimedia programs have been quickly put together, often using material originally developed for another medium, and then marketed as an easy and enjoyable means of learning or improving your English. They may indeed offer some aid but they are not always developed around any solid pedagogical principles. As Ashworth (1986: 92) continues to stress, multimedia is a medium not a method of teaching and therefore it has to be incorporated into the overall teaching and learning context. In a language academy the material for use with classes as a complement to normal courses has to be carefully selected taking into account the overall syllabus, course book, level, age and previous experience with multimedia material. Ashworth (1996: 82) identifies three principal uses of multimedia material, the first two of which have been particularly exploited at the school: for reference, for language instruction and for research into student activity.

Reference material can provide an attractive and motivating context for students to develop their language skills. Taking authentic material as a starting point a large range of levels can use this to accomplish clearly defined and graded tasks from answering a series of simple questions for lower levels to more research based options for higher levels. Through pre-teaching of vocabulary, prediction and later feedback, correction and other extension activities, the computer based element can easily be incorporated into normal class procedures and can frequently be linked to course book and syllabus in terms of theme or language focus.

Material developed specially for language instruction can also prove useful although care has to be taken when selecting programs: as outlined above some material has little pedagogical value and students can be quick to question the value of material if they think class time is being used inappropriately. While there are some well designed programs for grammar and vocabulary exploration it is felt at E.L.I. that they are better suited to self-access in most cases as using computer based grammar or dictionaries, while attractive, seems to strike students as unprofitable use of class time: they have access to paper-based dictionaries and grammar reference during all classes.

Language instruction programs have, however, been extensively used when they apply to practising a particular skill (listening for example) or when aimed at younger learners. Selecting material for children is particularly difficult. Authentic material is rarely useful as it is very difficult to match language requirements with the age group the material is designed for. A six-year old learner in Spain may have the English level of a native three year old but will not be satisfied with authentic material aimed at this age group. Children, however, benefit greatly from multimedia based language instruction packages. Jones & Fortescue (1991: 24) say that the computer can "provide endless and varied practice which, though boring for a teacher, can be extremely motivating and useful for a learner" especially a younger learner for whom the computer can provide as Brett (1998: 7) describes: "endless repeatability, never getting tired like us teachers." The addition of a scoring system, for any level but particularly for younger learners, further stimulates learners to do well as Higgens (1995: 90) indicates. Language instruction material has easily been incorporated into the normal syllabus and indeed often complements course books directly.

A scoring system is one example of how student activity can be recorded and provide feedback for both student and teacher. Many programs, particularly those designed as self-study courses, also keep records of student progress. In self-access situations this is particularly useful for students to keep track of their progress. With classes, the ability has been greatly under-used by teachers at E.L.I. partly from lack of familiarity but more importantly from the practical complications of large numbers of students using different computers. As students are accompanied by a teacher at all times in the computer class, teachers further feel that computer records are secondary to "live" feedback as the lesson progresses.

Overall, the key is to carefully select material for a given context bearing in mind what Hagen (1993: 21) says: "If software adds a new and interactive dimension to language learning, it is likely to yield better results than when it simply replicates a paper and pen exercise." The essence and power of multimedia material is that it doesnít replicate but takes the material and learner a step forward in the process of language acquisition.

 

The teacher:

Despite an increasing variety of material, from encyclopaedias to entire courses, it is vital to remember what Hardistry & Windeatt (1998: 6) points out: "The most important point is that computers are not very good at teaching by themselves. How efficient computers are in the classroom will therefore depend on the way teachers and students use them, and in this respect they are no different from any other medium." Students are the first to make this point: computer classes are motivating and perceived as useful when learners are doing something stimulating, something that adds a new dimension to what they were doing in class, something that gives them increased freedom but also something which remains under the control and observation of the teacher. The teacher is central in E.L.I. for extensive and profitable use of computer material. The teacher remains active, a guide, an organiser and expert when there are questions and doubts. In that respect the teacherís role doesnít change when computers are used in a language learning class. Nevertheless, in other ways the teacherís tasks and responsibilities are greatly altered.

As Brett (1998: 7) and Fisher (1993: 73) point out, in the computer room the teacher is to a large extend freed from traditional class management and has much more time to provide individual attention aiding those who voice problems or questions and those the teacher senses are having difficulties or are weaker students generally. Thus, while the student is in a new independent learning environment, the teacher is equally freed but with a new role and set of responsibilities. The teacher becomes a manager as Robinson describes (1993: 118-119) guiding students through both communal and individual processes. Teachers do, however, need to be aware of their altered position while simultaneously considering the new learning context students find themselves in. As Criswell (1989: 10) correctly highlights, teachers may calmly stand with arms folded if not encouraged to recognise they can provide a lot of individual attention as the students work away at the computer.

 

Robinson (1993: 118-119) notes that apart from the changing teacherís role in the class this new environment generates a number of further teacher concerns over issues of control, competing priorities with curriculum, external exam pressures, integration into classroom life, teacher collaboration and resource issues. All of these have been experienced at the E.L.I. combined with initial fear of technology and the fact that while some are in the process of moving into Penningtonís stage six other teachers may still be in stage four or five. This is, however, rapidly changing. New teachers, especially when younger, arrive at the school with the necessary basic skills. Even older teachers are increasingly buying computers for home use and thus gaining skills outside of the educational context. The move to universal literacy is indeed fast and clearly underway.

Notwithstanding, computer literacy is only one (and an increasingly less important as it becomes more available) teacher concern. The others listed above are all valid and many will remain for some time although as a recent survey with teachers has shown, even if reluctant, teachers in general believe technology will play an increasingly prominent role in the language classroom. The key to resolving teachersí doubts and problems is one of training and back-up.

The school has had an extensive teacher training program which, quite logically (as teachers gain experience), has moved from exploring the computer mechanically to discussing how exactly it can be incorporated pedagogically into classroom usage. Even still, the majority of lessons have been pre-prepared by one person requiring little preperation from individual teachers before taking a class for a computer-orientated lesson. As confidence and experience have grown teachers have been developing their own lesson plans but only on an irregular basis. The adaptation, exploration and development of new technologies for day to day use can be very time consuming for an already busy teacher as Fox, Labbett, Matthews, Romano-Hvid & Schostak (1992: 11) point out. Nevertheless, as we move further into universal computer literacy teachers will increasingly develop what Eastment (1998) refers to as "core skills", the ability to search for material, evaluate, create and integrate CD-ROM or internet materials which are relevant and useful for their particular context or needs. Development of these core skills will, however, depend on training which is all too frequently not considered when institutions draw up budget for new computer soft and hardware.

 

The future:

While multimedia material and computers in general may be a tool which some schools invest more heavily in than others, internet is beginning to define a future which will demand computer access and usage of all language learners and teachers. In Seville the majority of teenagers have still had very limited access to internet but among university students and working adults use of internet is quite extended. Indeed, within these groups it is quite clear that the first thing these students will read outside of the classroom in English will be on the World Wide Web while their first authentic English writing will be in the form of an email. To an extent the internet is increasing the demand for knowledge of English and will certainly require schools and syllabuses to deal with the English skills necessary for internet manipulation. Experience at E.L.I. proves Eastment (1999: 3) correct when he says that "Internet access is becoming the rule, rather than the exception" within the ELT community.

Nevertheless, despite a lot of experience using computer-based material EL.I.ís experience with internet remains limited for various reasons. Firstly, the speed and quality of the connection make it difficult for teachers to be guaranteed an efficient class. Secondly, accustomed to CD-ROMs both students and teachers are reluctant to wait for internet pages to load and also daunted by the scope and extent of the material available on the world wide web. Even with a lot of material pre-prepared students and teachers find web based activities more demanding in that decisions have to be made about where to move, what to look for and what information to make notes of. It is much easier prepare a worksheet for the static environment of a multimedia CD-ROM than the stimulating but infuriating ever-changing world of www. More efficient use of internet therefore requires both an improved service and better developed student and teacher skills, both of which will come with time.

On the other hand, watching students intently chatting on line is the clearest indication of just how powerful the internet is as a tool of communication and for that reason it will remain part of the long term future of language teaching and learning. Hagen (1993: 55) is completely correct when he sees the internet as aiding the communicative approach to language learning as it "directly reflects the real life and culture of the target language." Atkinson (1998: 1 & 6) would agree but makes equally valid points, supported by experience at the E.L.I., when he speaks of the disadvantages along with the advantages of any authentic source: the material has to be vetted for quality, suitability, ease of access etc. Similarly, Townshend (1997: 9) when discussing the value of penfriends through email stresses that they can die out, they will not work automatically and again this is something the schoolís experience supports. All this emphasises once more the role of the teacher as manager, as an intermediary and organiser of the learning process. At E.L.I. email projects monitored and guided through topic etc. by a teacher have proved far more beneficial to all concerned than uncoordinated efforts.

We are undoubtedly reaching Penningtonís final stage of a networked world but the process will require further development of skills and approaches by both learners and teachers in an ever changing environment. Hoffman (1996: 55-56) eventually sees networks as providing language learners with a variety of teachers and the "capability to exploit communication more fully in support of language learning." That is both the challenge and the attraction.

 

Conclusion:

As we approach the networked world Higgins (1995 :1) is undoubtedly correct in predicting that computers will become more unobtrusive and unimportant as they get better and more importantly as we learn to use them. The teacher is not, however, about to disappear but can look forward as Skehan (1985: 2) to "sustained employment". The teacherís role is changing but the amount of information resources will require an equally impressive array of organisational and pedagogical skills in order to use it effectively within, also changing, language teaching contexts. Phillips (1986: 5) stresses that computers are not an impartial delivery system but one that brings into question classroom, curriculum, control and materials and, as has been discovered through four years experience in southern Spain, it is ultimately the teacher who will be critical in defining and resolving these questions.

David Crystal (1999) predicts a revolution in English as a world language in terms of how it is spreading and being forced to adapt and incorporate multiple influences and changes as it does so. This revolution is technologically driven to a large extent. English language teaching must take this into account. The context is changing and moving through stages very much as Pennington has outlined and will possibly continue to do so to the extent that Hardistryís (1998: 145) prediction that CALL will cease to exist as a separate branch of methodology may not be far away. Many questions remain unanswered, many areas require research and understanding but the day is still not far off when "get out your laptop" may be as common as "get out your notebooks" in a standard language class. Unaltered, probably, will be the teacherís voice uttering the instruction. As experience at E.L.I. has shown, while there are many factors involved in the successful application of technology to language learning and teaching the key to being prepared for the challenge lies in teacher training and development.

Bibliography:

Ashworth D (1996) "Hypermedia and Call" in Pennington M (Ed) The Power of CALL

Atkinson T (1998) WWW The Internet London; CILT

Brett P (1998) Foreword in Sharma P CD-ROM: A Teacherís Handbook

Criswell E (1989) The Design of Computer-Based Instruction New York; Macmillan

Eastment (1998) English Teaching and the New technology: The Next Five Years on www.eastment.com

Fisher E (1993) "The Teacherís Role in Language" in Scrimshaw P. (Ed.) Language, Classrooms and Computers

Fox J, Labbett B, Matthews C, Romano-Hvid C & Schostak J (1992) New Perspectives in Modern Language Learning Learning Methods Branch of the Department of Employment, University of East Anglia

Hagen S. (Ed) (1993) Using Technology in Language Learning London; CILT

Hardistry D and Windeatt S (1988) CALL Oxford; OUP

Higgins J (1995) Computers and English Language Learning Oxford; Intellect

Hoffman R (1996) "Computer Networks: Webs of communication" in Pennington M (Ed) The Power of CALL

Jones C and Fortescue S (1991) Using Computers in the Language Classroom London; Longman 1991

Maley A (1998) Foreword to CALL Hardistry D and Windeatt S

Pennington M (ed.) (1996) The Power of CALL Houston; Athelstan

Robinson B. (1993) "Communication through computers in the classroom" in Scrimshaw P. (Ed.) Language, Classrooms and Computers

Scrimshaw P. (Ed.) Language, Classrooms and Computers London; Routledge, 1993

Skehan P (1985) "Computers In English Language Teaching" in Brumfit et al (Eds) Computers In English Language Teaching ELT Documents 122

Sharma P (1998) CD-ROM: A Teacherís Handbook Oxford; Summertown Publishing

Townshend K (1997) E-Mail London; CILT

 

Appendix 1.

Survey and results at English Language Institute, June 1999