New Technologies and Language Learning: theoretical considerations and practical solutions

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New Technologies and Language Learning: theoretical considerations and practical solutions.

Bernd Rüschoff

Anglistics, Applied Linguistics and Technology Enhanced Language Learning

University of Essen

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Abstract: This paper discusses the challenges to language learning and its methodological principles posed by the new technologies. It will be argued that the integration of new media into language learning is a necessary step ensuring the acquisition of the kind of language skills and competencies needed for living and working in the knowledge society. Innovative use of such technologies will lead to more flexibility in the content and organisation of learning; new media must be looked at not simply in terms of traditional self-study materials but rather in terms of tools for learning. New information and communication technologies and their role in language learning processes are the topic of this paper, but constructivism as the appropriate paradigm for language learning in the coming millennium will also be discussed. In addition, the paper proposes a typology and an evaluation of technology-enhanced materials for language learning, and presents a few examples.

New technologies have become the predominant influence on the way we live and work at the beginning of the new millennium. Some view the changes effected by global networks and information technologies with some apprehension. Others consider the innovative potential of world wide co-operation via e-mail and internet as well as unprohibited access to information and digital resources by means of telecommunications and other forms of electronic publication to be of benefit for both the professional and the educational world. Our society, which has now become what is best described by the term knowledge society, is undergoing tremendous changes. Such changes are linked with challenges which need to be met not just by business and industry but even more so by educational institutions at all levels. New technologies as tools of almost any trade also need to be exploited in order to initiate changes in the way we teach and learn. A principled approach is needed in order to translate the potential of new technologies into new methodological approaches and changing organisational frameworks for the learning and acquisition of any subject. This is true even more for the learning of foreign languages, as language competencies and intercultural skills will more than ever be part of the key qualifications needed to live and work in the knowledge society.

Consequently, the principles of the knowledge society in terms of its basic characteristics and the resulting challenges for (language) learning need to be discussed. New information and communication technologies and their role in language learning processes are the topic of this paper, but its initial focus will be an assessment of constructivism as the appropriate paradigm for language learning in the coming millennium. Also, Papert’s concept of constructionism will be discussed as a possible basis for putting theory into practice and defining a set of criteria for assessing different kinds of models and materials with regard to using new technologies in language learning. A discussion of new technologies and their potential cannot be restricted to a mere description of technical features or existing courseware and software tools. In addition to the social context, the theoretical principles and the methodological framework for materials development and the implementation of technology-enhanced language learning scenarios need to be addressed
Following a discussion of the aspects mentioned so far, new information and communication technologies will be discussed in an overview and an assessment of existing applications in language learning. In addition, a typology of technology-enhanced materials for language learning will be proposed and examples of good practice referred to in order to show how new technologies can contribute to the innovation of language learning. Key factors with regard to this are the flexibility and authenticity of content and of the learning process itself. The paper will conclude by discussing a few perspectives concerning future trends in TELL (Technology Enhanced Language Learning). These concern developments both on the technological and theoretical levels.
The knowledge society

New technologies have become the dominant feature which influences living and working at the beginning of our millennium. The resulting challenge to education has been discussed by Costa and Liebmann who explain „that with knowledge doubling every five years - every 73 days by the year 2020 - we can no longer attempt to anticipate future information requirements. If students are to keep pace with the rapid increase of knowledge, we cannot continue to organise curriculum in discrete compartments, ... the disciplines as we have known them, no longer exist. They are being replaced by human inquiry that draws upon generalised transdisciplinary bodies of knowledge and relationships.“ (Costa & Liebmann, 1995: 23). When discussing this challenge, it is often said that we need a radical change in our approaches to teaching and learning in order to best prepare future generations for living and working in tomorrow’s world. Our society has become a knowledge society, where information globally networked and more freely accessible than ever before needs to be processed and transformed into knowledge by those working within a technology enriched environment.

As a result, the traditional skills of information gathering and storing as well as the mere learning of facts will no longer be sufficient in order to live, work, and learn in the coming centuries. Consequently, the ultimate aim of teaching and learning will be to assist learners in their need to develop strategies of knowledge processing. Therefore, the traditional transmission model of learning must be replaced by models which emphasise information processing and knowledge construction as acts of learning most suited for the acquisition of the kind of skills needed for the knowledge society. Education and teaching in the knowledge society can no longer be reduced to „the act, process, or art of imparting knowledge and skill“ as Roget’s Thesaurus proposes, but learning must be recognised as an act in which a learner plays the role of an active constructor of knowledge. Criteria based on such principles need to be considered when evaluating the effectiveness and value of technology enhanced materials for language learning.
Language learning and constructivism

Language learning has often be described as one of the most impressive mental operations of the human mind in view of the complexity of grammatical structures, the size of the mental lexicon, and the multiple functionality learners of any language are confronted with (e.g. Schwarz, 1992: 102). As a result, much controversy has arisen as to how a language can best be learned. Various theories of learning and cognition have influenced numerous approaches to language learning. In the past, scenarios built around acts of learning as opposed to processes of acquisition have dominated foreign language learning for a long time. Knowledge construction as a further aspect has only recently been added to the concepts discussed, but cognitive approaches had already begun to focus on building a learner’s experiences and providing challenging learning tasks which can function as „intellectual scaffolding“ (Roblyer et al., 1997) to help learners learn and progress through the different stages of a curriculum.

However, purely cognitivist theories are now being challenged by an approach which is not solely based on the findings of SLA (second language acquisition) research. In addition, this approach - constructivism - is fully integrated into cognitive science, constructivist philosophy, neurology and biology as well as computer science. This approach „perceives students as active learners who come to ... lessons already holding ideas ... which they use to make sense of everyday experiences. ... Such a process is one in which learners actively make sense of the world by constructing meaning.“ (Scott, 1987: 4) Briefly put, such an approach regards active learning in terms of knowledge construction rather than traditional instruction as essential for the development of a coherent conceptual framework in a learner’s mind, much needed in order to be able to cope with the mental challenges posed by the knowledge society.
Learning is viewed as an active, creative, and socially interactive process and knowledge is regarded as something children must construct and less like something that can be transmitted or transferred (e.g. Florin, 1990). Learning based on constructivist principles will allow learners to tap into resources and acquire knowledge rather than force them to function as recipients of instruction. Such approaches are meeting with growing approval and are regarded by many educational thinkers as a suitable theoretical framework for the language learning environment of the future as well as for the development of appropriate technology enhanced materials for the learning of foreign languages. It also means that making use of new technologies in language learning simply in the format of computer-based instruction packages with traditional grammar and vocabulary drills is not the best way of exploiting their real potential for innovation. Unfortunately, the majority of materials available to date follow a traditional, often even behaviourist drill and tutorial paradigm, which – quite understandably – leads a number of colleagues to reject the use of technology enhanced courseware.
Innovation by means of new technologies in language learning needs to search for other kinds of applications and follow more accepted models of learning. As far as foreign language learning is concerned, research into the processes of language learning and acquisition suggests that mere training in structural (grammatical) and vocabulary knowledge will not result in real linguistic competence and language proficiency. However, apart from basic communicative competencies, favoured in the communicative classroom of the 80s, strategies of language processing and learning competence as well as language awareness are regarded as an essential part of the overall aims of any language curriculum. The basic principles and aims of language learning can be visualised by the following graph.:

Such competencies, often discussed in the context of learner autonomy, are of utmost importance for language learning. Therefore, the constructivist paradigm is seen as an important methodological basis for a real innovation in foreign language learning. Within this paradigm, new technologies need to be exploited in such a way that the acquisition of communicative competence as well as language awareness and learning competence is ensured. Language learning as well as learning in general should be described as an interactive, dynamic process, in which new knowledge is most fruitfully acquired when learners are placed in a situation where they can explore sources and resources rather than in a context of mere formal instruction. In such a scenario, learners combine new information with previous factual (declarative) and procedural knowledge and draw new conclusions from this process. Such a process-oriented approach to learning will not simply lead to a better understanding of linguistic facts (e.g. structure and vocabulary) and more effective acquisition of language proficiency; it will also lead to more learning competence as well as language awareness. These are the issues that need to be considered when looking at the use(fulness) of new technologies in foreign language learning.

Constructivism and constructionism

The question remains, however, of how the theoretical framework discussed above can be put into practice. i.e. how the principle of „learning without being taught“ as proposed by Piaget (cf. Papert, 1980: 7) can be integrated into a technology enhanced learning environment of the future? Within the scope of this paper a full discussion of this issue is not possible, but a few issues need to be touched upon briefly. For a start, I would like to refer to the term constructionism as introduced by Papert in 1991. He defines the difference between constructivism and constructionism as follows: „We understand ‘constructionism’ as including, but going beyond, what Piaget would call ‘constructivism.’ The word with the v expresses the theory that knowledge is built by the learner, not supplied by the teacher. The word with the n expresses the further idea that this happens especially felicitously when the learner is engaged in the construction of something external or at least shareable ... a sand castle, a machine, a computer program, a book. This leads us to a model using a cycle of internalization of what is outside, then externalization of what is inside and so on.“ (Papert, 1991: 3)

Consequently, the trick to a successful transfer of constructivist theory onto a constructionist (possibly technology-enhanced) platform can be described as finding appropriate tasks which get the learner „engaged in the construction of something shareable“. One way of doing this is by means of problem-solving tasks, and tasks that encourage hypothesis formation and validation. Consequently, constructionism puts much emphasis on task-based learning. Also, constructionism favours play and experimentation, involving self-structured and self-motivated processes of learning. Both declarative and procedural knowledge need to be developed, thus adding to and increasing the cognitive apparatus of the learner, constant cognitive growth and cognitive flexibility being of the utmost importance for living and learning in the knowledge society. As far as a rich and rewarding technology-enhanced learning environment is concerned, Florin (1990) proposes the creation of information landscapes, of virtual towns, or intellectual amusement parks, an intriguing metaphor for the learning material for the future. Some of the more recent materials are beginning to follow such a line of thought, when translating adventure games or similar edutainement formats into language learning software.
As far as learning materials are concerned, an additional option for turning theory into practice is the use of so-called cognitive tools, particularly when using new technologies in language learning (cf. Jonassen & Reeves, 1996: 693). Typical and often quoted examples of cognitive tools for language learning are concordancers and authoring tools for creating class-based learner dictionaries or similar data-bases. These will be described in greater detail later on. Quite often this way of integrating the use of new technologies into language learning necessitates the exploitation of tools which originally were not designed for the learning of languages but with regard to learning tasks in general. An interesting example of this is MindManager, a tool for collecting thoughts and organising content. When advertising this package, recent catalogues actually do refer to its potential applicability in innovative learning scenarios for vocabulary building. The use of word processors with appropriate add-on features, such as integrated dictionaries or style-checkers is another example. In addition, word processors with integrated templates for thought collection or brainstorming and organizing ideas and vocabulary as part of text production tasks is a further possibility of putting into practice a tools-based approach to materials design very much in line with the theoretical framework discussed above.
On the basis of such ideas, I would like to briefly refer to the term template-based learning, which I have discussed in greater detail in previous publications (cf. Rüschoff, 1999). Such a concept goes somewhat further than just using any tools, such as electronic encyclopaedias or pure word processors as part of the learning process. It entails the principle that any material we provide learners with should be open and flexible, but should also provide learners with a frame to assist them in structuring and co-ordinating acts of knowledge construction. Templates can be designed in the format of advanced organisers as well as tools and tasks which encourage on-the-fly recording of thoughts and impressions while examining learning materials.
Such templates provide „the potential for students to reorganise or revise their thoughts to better 'make sense' of what they see and hear. Students are able to document their emerging ideas in support of an investigation or problem solving exercise whilst viewing different media. This provides support in the formulation of new schemata in the process of accommodating the new information.“ (Harper, 1996) In my opinion, the principle function of template-based learning is to provide a framework for gathering information, stimulating recall of prior knowledge, and for guiding processes of knowledge construction, a concept visualised by the following graph.:

Using template-based learning as a metaphor for designing computer tools for language learning, it is my opinion that such tools will facilitate the implementation of a constructivist methodological framework and contribute to solving a large number of practical problems, particularly in the area of exploiting authentic resources. After all, authenticity in content, task, and classroom interaction is “a crucial issue” in language learning methodology (cf. van Lier, 1996: 123). It can therefore be argued that educational technologies based in the broadest sense on a template-based metaphor are the perfect aid assisting teachers in their “need to broaden their scope for creative pedagogical initiatives.” (Little et al., 1989: I)

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