Thoughts on digital technologies for language teaching John chalk

Introduction

I’m an English teacher at the British Council in Naples and I’m about to start an online course at the University of Nottingham in digital technologies for language teaching. I’ve decided to try and keep a record of my experience here, to help me with my studies and provoke discussion on some of the ideas that come up.

This part of my blog will mainly focus on the fifteen or so books I’d like to get through over the summer. However, I expect I’ll probably only read about four or five… This is also a chance for me to try out WordPress as a blogging platform. I’m not aware of any blogging etiquette, so I’ll just make it up as I go along. That being said, please don’t hesitate to contact me if I’m doing anything particularly strange.

Reading 

I’ll start by commenting on an old book I’ve just finished reading called Language, Learners and Computers by John Higgins (Longman,1988). Here’s a link to his homepage John Higgins

I thought I’d start with an old book to see how things had changed, but to my surprise it’s still very relevant and thought provoking! I will only focus on a few themes from the book which I have divided into three sections. Roles, the computer as servant and ZORK.

Longman 1988
Longman 1988

Roles

Current computer use in education seems to be mainly about fostering communication and building networks between learners with learning platforms like Moodle and Edmodo. This is great news for advocates of the communicative approach to language teaching who can take advantage of the affordances of recent technological devices and the internet. It also creates a multitude of opportunities for authentic communication beyond the confines of the classroom.

On the other hand, this book (Language, Learners and Computers) starts out by exploring the idea of computers substituting human teachers in their various roles.  Higgins makes a distinction between the human teacher as ‘magister'(master) and ‘pedagogue'(slave), or the teacher with authority and control versus the teacher as a facilitator or assistant. However, he does point out that there is a lot of crossover between these roles and teachers need to change roles within lessons.  Higgins then goes on to discuss how well computers (in the 80s) could perform these roles.(Higgins,J 1988)

The computer as ‘magister’ is good at presenting language, giving examples and questioning students without losing patience. This often falls inline with learner expectations and can be an appropriate approach with lower levels. The computer as ‘pedagogue’ serves as a provider of information on request, a translator or a scribe.(Higgins,J 1988) This sounds strikingly similar to the role search engines like Google play in our lives in the present day.

So, at this point a few questions come to my mind…

What other roles can computers play today?

Can computers be more effective than human teachers in some circumstances?

And if so, in what areas will computers one day replace humans in education?

The the computer as servant

I especially relate to the way Higgins describes formal education as magistral with learners in a passive role, only needing to answer questions. On the other hand, he argues that the use of computers requires a shift in attitude from the learner, inviting them to experiment and take a more active role.(Higgins,J 1988) This reminded me of a great video on YouTube from BBC Two in 1989 by Douglas Adams entitled ‘Hyperland’. Here’s a link Hyperland

In this video Adams makes the distinction between the passive TV viewer and the potentially active ‘Hyperland’ user. This video was made well before the internet became a part of our everyday lives but it is still quite accurate. What’s interesting is that the computer interface in this video is portrayed as a servant, very similar to the ‘pedagogue’ idea.

As education becomes more and more computer based, learners will be obliged to develop their ability to ask the right questions of their ‘servants’. They will also be under pressure to critically analyse the seemingly endless amount of information that they receive in return. Learners will therefore need to take on a more active and autonomous role while educators will need to equip students with a new digital skill-set for language learning.

What is this digital skill-set for language learning?

ZORK

Higgins goes on to discuss whether computers can effectively replace textbooks and classroom readers for developing reading skills. Without going into too much detail the part I found most interesting focused on ‘dynamic story-telling’ or text adventures. The great thing about these types of interactive stories is that they can make reading exciting and motivating through the use of gamification. (Higgins,J 1988)

One of the text adventures mentioned in this book is ZORK, written around 1977 by Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling. I have particularly fond memories of this adventure because I studied it at primary school in the 80s. After trying to the complete the adventure (without success) we took part in a project to make an interactive representation of the adventure in the assembly hall. Participants would enter the space and navigate the hall through a web of nodes. At each node there would be a child who presented a choice or problem solving task. The aim of the activity was to get from one side of the hall to the other. I think I can pretty much trace my love for reading back to this project as I remember soon after digging an adventure story out from the school library. the school and the library have long since been knocked down and turned into luxury apartments but ZORK is now available as a downloadable app and as a web adventure. Check it out. ZORK.

So, just a couple more questions.

If this text adventure was created way back in 1977, what kinds of interactive text adventures exist today?

Would language learners still find these types of text adventure motivating?

Final quote

As a final point I’d just like to quote Higgins on his view of the potential success of the computer as a learning aid.

“The answer depends not on the nature of the machine but on how people decide to use it. We can swamp computers with exposition and exercises, using them to carry an outdated and discredited form of teaching, or we can use their power to extend and satisfy our own natural inquisitiveness and desire to communicate.”(Higgins,J 1988)

References

Books

‘Language, learners and Computers’  by Higgins, J. Published by Longman, 1988.

Videos

‘Hyperland’ written and performed by Douglas Adams, directed by Max Whitby, broadcast on BBC Two in 1990.

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