Using technology for language learning is neither a panacea nor an antidote. There are gains and losses in every choice that teachers make (Burniske & Monke, 2001; Jung, 2003), and while educators think about CALL’s benefits for language learners, they also need to think about the opportunities that using technology might take away from them. Twenty years ago Bowers (1998) noted that computers inherently amplify or reduce certain aspects of experience and that software designers determine the thinking patterns used in the software that they develop; not only is this still true, but the ubiquity of social media use has also increased pressure from peers and even strangers. Teachers and students can study these phenomena together and develop ways to evaluate and improve their experiences using technology..
More specifically, a teacher’s choice to use, for example, voice chatting over the Internet to help students practice listening and speaking also means learners participate in an oral activity devoid of the pragmatic examples that they need to develop effective language skills. Although it is not always possible to foresee what incidental gains and losses teachers and students will experience from using technology, teachers should view technology in language teaching and learning with critical vigilance. In fact, if they take a careful look at how they might best prepare language learners for their futures, they might discover that learners do not need to use or know a whole host of technologies but rather need the focus on new literacy skills that will serve them regardless of the task or tool.
► Teachers’ Voices
I would like to present two scenarios that occur frequently in my job. Scenario 1: A third-grade boy has horrendous handwriting—it is big and has incorrect size (capitals and small letters look the same), has little or no spacing and spelling is terrible—invented at best. He hates writing stories or anything because it is so labor intensive. His handwriting is starting to interfere with his school work and he has great ideas but refuses to write because it is so challenging. Learning to keyboard is presented as an option but then the question of do we abandon handwriting altogether always comes up. The quandary, do we use the technology or is it a crutch?
Scenario 2: A student is proficiently using an Alphasmart (a word processing device). The student is a terrible speller. For reports he is allowed to use spell check. He uses it on a regular basis but he is still taking spelling tests to learn to spell. It is [standardized testing] time. The student is allowed to word process on his computer but not spell check because it would allow the student an unfair advantage because no one else can spell check any words. The story has to be scribed into the booklet by someone else. All students can use a dictionary to correct or check spelling. Does the technology give an unfair advantage? Should the technology be an option for all students? Does the technology rob the students of the opportunity to learn to spell?
There is so much information out there that it sometimes becomes a hassle to use the Web. Furthermore, I noticed that there is a lot of outdated info online. I was trying to find information on out of state school districts and found that some sites have not been updated since 1998! So besides checking to see if the site is still up, check the date when it was made. I’d rather find no info than outdated info.
Computer use does take some time, especially when first getting started. I agree that ‘baby steps’ are needed when first starting out. This can even be in your creating documents on the computer just to get yourself familiar with using it. There are so many things that can be done on the computer that it can be overwhelming if you try to take them all on. It might be good to pick just one program that you could use. Get really familiar with it yourself; then gradually create a lesson that will allow your students to become involved with it too. You can start out teaching a small group of students how to do whatever activity you want them to try out, and let them teach others in the class. Maybe set a goal for yourself of creating documents for your students to use this year, and then next year creating one or two lessons that will involve your students actually using the computer.
You do want the use on the computer to be effective and efficient, so don’t feel that you have to use it all the time. For right now, you might be more efficient and effective in many lessons without it. (But don’t let that stop you from learning how to use the computer.) The other thing is you don’t want to use the computer to the exclusion of other activities that are better suited for a particular learning objective. . . . For example, if I wanted to take my students on a virtual field trip to a place they would not otherwise be able to go to, then the computer is a good vehicle for that. Where I think computers can be overused is when they are used for illustrating or teaching things that could be better done without them. We learn through our senses, and the more senses we can involve in a student’s learning the better. The computer just doesn’t involve as many senses as we can when we allow students to smell touch, taste, etc. The other thing is we learn best when we touch with both hands (and utilize both sides of the brain), and the computer leaves some of that out. Also computers can limit creativity. They can also enhance creativity—depending on the activity. So you need to pick activities carefully.
We have used Word, PowerPoint, Publisher, and Excel this year, almost exclusively. The Usborne software (First [Thousand] Words) is pretty cheap, and my kids (past years) have really enjoyed it. I used that this year with a monolingual student I had. He used that as a guide and made a Spanish- English dictionary to ‘help me learn my Spanish.’ The other software I have used for remediation and for enrichment. I also have had a computer schedule for kids. They are required to do “x” number of activities on a particular piece of software. I have a time when the rest of the class is doing independent work and the assigned students may use the computers, or they may use them during any free time periods they have. Many kids also like coming in the room early to use the computers. Last year I had an after school time when kids could stay to do homework and use the computers when they were finished. Other than that, I have a math review time when 1/3 of the class is on the computers doing specific math lessons with worksheets (or external documents) to guide them, another group is working with me, and another group is working with a parapro.— I agree, I don’t like to just ‘plug them in,’ but for those free time periods, and periods before school starts, I have let them explore some of the software, and I think it has been OK.
We also have a standard form that goes home at the beginning of the year. If students don’t bring it back then they can’t use the Internet. The permission form also serves as an agreement to use technology appropriately. I haven’t had any parents not allow their child to use the Internet at school. Our district also has many sites blocked. Sometimes sites that shouldn’t be blocked are, which is a bit frustrating, but MUCH BETTER than the alternative of having nothing blocked. Even when we think we’re being safe something will show up, students will giggle, and I’ll rush over to find an exposed belly button. OH MY :-). Anymore you can’t go online without having something questionable pop-up. We just have to educate our students about what is acceptable and appropriate and help them become mature and responsible individuals.
There are a lot of potential barriers when it comes to using and having computers in the classroom setting. I think that by starting with those barriers that can be changed is a good beginning point. For example, we can’t change that all of our students don’t have equal opportunities and experience with computers before they come to us, but we can change our current level of knowledge and training in computer skills, etc. This can also be done relatively inexpensively. Most of us know quite a few computer savvy people who would be willing to meet with us once a week to work on some skills, etc. Also, a lot of it is just taking the time to “mess around” on the computer and become familiar with different software programs. At least for me, once I feel comfortable with something, then I’m more willing to try and search out ways to implement and practice my knowledge and skills. I see quite a few barriers, and yes, they can be frustrating, but I also see ways that some of these can be broken down.
I agree that time is a key factor in computer skills and work. Also not everyone will bring the same level of prior knowledge or skills with them to the classroom. This is especially true in [my school district], where many students come from low-income families. As teachers, what can we do to ensure that everyone has “equal access” to computers? We can’t necessarily change the home environment or situation, but we can make accommodations at school or within the curriculum. It is important to ensure that all students get their turn at the computer. Timers, assigned roles or tasks can help with this. Also, for those students who naturally need more exposure, giving free-time during lunch to work on the computer or maybe before or after school can be one way to help “boost” those students. I know quite a few schools are beginning to have computer labs that are open before and after school, and also during lunch for students to stay and work on their assignments, etc. I think that is a great idea.
I have taken my adult ESL students to the public library in the past to show them the free computers available to them. Once I have taught them how to use the Internet in my classroom, I show them how to access it using the public library computers. They know how to access it when the college is not in session or when they are not able to attend classes anymore. Hopefully they will feel comfortable accessing the many resources I have shown them on the Web, like Mapquest and others…