CALL On the Line: Beyond the Potential of the Internet: A Case of Inflective Czech

Lukeš D. CALL On the Line: Beyond the Potential of the Internet: A Case of Inflective Czech. In: Teaching Slavonic Languages Ab-Initio. Glasgow; 2000.

 

Abstract

This paper makes the case for the utilization of the internet and internet technologies in language teaching. It outlines the possibilities brought forth by the development of the latest internet technologies and contrasts them with existing trends in CALL.
 
The possibilities described are illustrated on the case of a system for supporting Czech classes at SSEES in London.

CALL for the language teachers

CALL is a handy acronym to use but what it stands for may lead us to misunderstandings. Computer assisted language learning is typically interpreted as something which will help students with tasks such as memorizing vocabulary list or practicing specific language structures. This would certainly be accurate but it takes an extremely narrow view of what language learning is all about. For example, it completely neglects the ‘administrative’ aspect and communication between teachers and students. On the other hand, the term (however narrowly used) may raise expectations about what computers can do for the student. The resulting frustration then often precludes the more obvious use of computers.
Teachers (and especially language teachers) often fall prey to two misconceptions about using computers in general and the Internet in particular to assist their teaching.
  • Computers and the internet are trying to replace the teacher (and this is impossible).
  • Computers cannot yet do what we want them to. Let’s wait for technology X.
These worries are often fuelled by equally uninformed administrators but teachers can save themselves and their students a lot of unnecessary chores by embracing the technology. Here are several articles of faith necessary to make the leap across the abyss of fear gaping in front of the digital world.
  • Computers will not replace teachers (at least not in the next three generations).
  • Computers will save the teachers a lot of unnecessary chores.
  • The technology doesn’t change the nature of the tasks involved in teaching.
  • The technology is already powerful enough to save teachers and students time.

Looking back

Using programmed machines to assist teachers is an old concept dating back to behaviorists in the late nineteen fifties and the nineteen sixties. Ever since then they have faced much, often fierce, opposition from people with little or now understanding of what machines can and cannot do to assist all participants of the educational process. Therefore, it may be instructive to take a quick look at what purpose the founding father of CALL saw in employing what he called ‘teaching machines’. The following quote shows incredible insight into the potential of CALL as well as a fair degree of naiveté (or was it perhaps a shrewd marketing strategy?) about the processes of educational funding.
“Will machines replace teachers? On the contrary, they are capital equipment to be used by teachers to save time and labor. In assigning certain mechanizable functions to machines, the teacher emerges in his proper role as an indispensable human being. He may teach more students than heretofore—this is probably inevitable if the worldwide demand for education is to be satisfied—but he will do so in fewer hours and with fewer burdensome chores. In return for his greater productivity he can ask society to improve his economic condition.” (p. 55, The Technology of Teaching by B. F. Skinner, 1968, New York: Meredith Corporation.)
Skinner makes an incredibly important point here. While at the same time putting to rest teachers’ worries over their job security (in as much as that can ever be done) he emphatically declared the machine to be a replacement of the teacher only at moments when she is behaving as one, and freeing her to use the indefinable human property which the machine can never give.
Of course, Skinner, himself believed he understood the learning process better than subsequent research has proved and much of that learning could be facilitated by a careful programmed mechanical contraption but even he acknowledged the importance of human contact. Contrary to popular misconception he took into account the affective aspect of learning (although the term did not come into vogue until much later). For example, one of the benefits of programmed instruction identified by him was the reduction of stress which would be achieved by …. He also makes extremely progressive and insightful comments about motivation (but this is outside the scope of the present paper).
Elsewhere he states that for the foreseeable future, the programming of these teaching machines will remain an art. And indeed, after more than thirty years, producers of CALL materials have to rely mainly on their intuition when designing effective materials alongside a precious few tried and tested rules.

The problem of high expectations

The expectations made of CALL are often too high and look too far into the future and therefore tend to overlook the potential of what is available here and now. As a result, labs dedicated to computer-assisted learning lie unutilized while students and teachers have to fight for the use of computers not earmarked for this purpose.
The legacy of the 1980s and early 90s is still with us in the form of standalone machines with applications requiring a particular system to run. Sun’s recent war cry ‘The network is the computer’ has found little response in the CALL community. As a result CALL applications are unpopular with network administrators because they do not support remote management.
Another issue is the nature of learning versus the nature of computers. While computers rely on algorithms for performing their actions, tasks performed by teachers are not as easily captured. Certain teaching/learning activities lend themselves to algorithmic interpretation more easily than others. Filling short gaps and answering multiple choice questions can be easily replicated using computers (or even less sophisticated machines) but more complex and/or open-ended tasks such as essay writing are beyond the powers of even the most sophisticated computer available.
Most current CALL applications use proprietary technology and focus on one aspect of the learning process only. For example, GapKit can only be used for the creation of various cloze exercises which can only be completed on a PC with the student program installed. Apple computers are typically not supported. Other well-known programs such as WinCalis are similarly limited. They all share strong platform dependence but perhaps more importantly focus primarily on transferring textbook exercises into a digital format.
A second possibility are closed multimedia systems which are commonly commercially available for languages such as English, French, Spanish or German but the creation of which will never be profitable for smaller languages such as Polish or Czech. Of the languages of Central and Eastern Europe only Russian has enjoyed limited attention from multimedia developers. Platform dependence is again a prominent feature and, furthermore, teachers have, no or very limited, options to expand and supplement the material provided.
At the same time, the potential of the Internet and technologies which the Internet has brought about is being largely overlooked. In the meantime, the technologies have outgrown their teething pains and easily support a wide range of languages, a feature which has to be painstakingly programmed into specialized applications. Internet also provides the one important tool to teachers and students which has so far been rarely associated with CALL, namely communication. Indeed, CALL of today cannot but adopt the war cry of Sun computers “The Network is the Computer”. The age of standalone machines is drawing to a close and it would be fatal for CALL to overlook this. Networks will inject into CALL a new spirit of enhancing rather than replacing the textbook and the teacher. It will show that CALL has never been about replacing the student-teacher relationship with a student-computer one but rather enhancing it by providing new means of communication and freeing face-to-face time for meaningful interaction.
The possibilities go far beyond that of digitizing textbook exercises. Much more complex language learning activities can be developed, including games. Both the student and the teacher can receive online feedback and build learning portfolios leading to more complex assessment. A commercial product from Question Mark (http://www.qmark.co.uk) provides some of this functionality. Its Question Mark Perception allows for creating and delivering tests over the web.
One last advantage the Internet brings is ready and free access to a vast array of real resources from full up-to-date publication of newspapers in the target languages to discussion boards and company store-fronts.
Another aspect of the present CALL discourse begs clarification. The terms Internet and Internet technology have been used freely and interchangeably, a habit which often causes confusion even in specialist circles. Internet is used in the usual sense of a world-wide information network to which anybody can connect either privately or through an institution. In today’s discourse Internet is used synonymously with World-Wide Web, although that is only one of the many services available, albeit the most popular. It is important to realize in the institutional context of a university that access to segments of material published on the internet can be protected by password, responding to issues such as copyright and providing specialist services.
In contrast, Internet technologies describes the tools used by the hundreds of thousands of content developers on the Internet. The needs of these people world-wide have contributed to the creation of an incredibly powerful platform which is equal to and, in fact, more powerful than the specialist CALL technologies described above. The implementation of these technologies is moreover not bound by the restrictions on types of computer or network. They can be used on a standalone computer, be it Macintosh or IBM-compatible running Windows or Linux. They can be distributed online or on a CD-ROM. And most importantly everybody will soon know how to use them. The relevant technologies include HTML, Dynamic HTML, Java and CGI scripts.

Possibilities of the internet for teaching languages

Taking it to the internet and back

The internet has provided a universal (and compatible) platform for people to share information. Many questions have been raised about the quality and reliability of the materials to be found there but with every passing day the resources for the language teachers and students are getting richer and better. Most issued such as those of non-ASCII-friendly scripts have now been solved and teachers as well as students can now focus on the real task at hand.
References to many examples can be found on http://www.cuni.cz/~dlukes/ceelanguages.
However, even if we continue to question the suitability of what is on the internet at large (and arguably for less-commonly-taught smaller the materials are not unlimited) we must be excited by the possibilities brought forth by the technology.

Making communication with students easier

http://www.cuni.cz/~dlukes/teaching99
  • Course outlines
  • Reading lists
  • Additional course materials
  • Homework
  • Course progress notes
  • Discussion boards
  • Online tests
  • building portfolios

Providing additional materials

http://www.cuni.cz/~dlukes/czechlanguagematerials
  • Dictionaries
  • Exercises
  • Readings
  • Tests
  • Games
  • Photographs and pictures More than fun: http://www.lukes.fsbusiness.co.uk/sseeslu