Innovations in Learning Technologies For English Language Teaching

Gary Motteram

In this early part of the 21st century the range of technologies available for use in language learning and teaching has become very diverse and the ways that they are being used in classrooms all over the world have become central to language practice.

We are now firmly embedded in a time when digital technologies are what Bax has referred to as ‘normalised’ (2003, 2011) in daily life in many parts of the world, although not amongst all people as there are digital divisions everywhere (Warschauer, 2003), and still not always in the world of education.

However, digital tools have long been a feature of the world of education (Bates, 2005), and particularly language education (Salaberry, 2001). These digital tools are, of course, central in what I would argue is the established and recognised field of computer assisted language learning (CALL), but are also increasingly a core part of English language teaching (ELT) in general.

People continue to debate the use of the term CALL itself, asking whether it is still relevant. Levy and Hubbard making the argument for (2005), whilst Dudeney and Hockly (2012) are rather less convinced.

In a world where we increasingly see laptops, tablet computers, or mobile phones as the technology of choice, it might be argued that we are at a tipping point when this common term will soon disappear.

A useful definition of CALL comes from Levy: ‘the search for and study of applications of the computer in language teaching and learning’. (1997: 1) CALL has its origins in the development of the first mainframe computers (Levy, 1997; Beatty, 2010; Davies et al., 2013) and articles about the use of computers in language education started appearing in earnest in the 1980s, over 30 years ago, at the same time as early desktop computers started to make an appearance.

English Language Teaching Journal (ELTJ), arguably one of the most influential practitioner oriented journals in the TESOL field, in a recent special issue has an article by Dudeney and Hockly (2012) in which they review the 30 years of technology in language teaching, and Nicky Hockly continues a tradition started by David (Diana) Eastment in each issue of producing a short article on technology in language learning.

In the special issue of ELTJ just mentioned, the topic is mobile learning. CALL has then moved from being a niche field practised by a few early adopters, to being mainstream and arguably having significant impact with two of the journals mentioned above, Computers in Education and Language Learning and Technology being ranked in the top 20 most influential journals in education.

The diversification of CALL

CALL is no longer one subject; in fact, Arnó-Macià (2012) has argued that we are now in the realm of a definite division between computer mediated communication as one branch of the world of educational technology and ELT and CALL, as another. I would argue for further sub-divisions of CALL, for the teaching and learning of specific purposes languages as well as CALL for younger learners.

We can also appreciate these developments in the creation of special interest groups in organisations like EuroCALL and CALICO. In very recent times we have also seen a growth of overview articles in journals that address these very specific domains.

In Language Teaching there has been a recent review of CALL for young learners (Macaro, Handley and Walter, 2012); in the Modern Language Journal there was an overview of ESP (Arnó-Macià, 2012), which acted as an introduction to a special issue.

We have seen for a while more specificity in books too, with Kern and Warschauer starting the trend with Network Based Language Teaching (2000), Dudeney on the Internet and the Language Classroom (2000 and 2007), an ESP book on technology (Arnó, Soler and Rueda, 2006), O’Dowd on online intercultural exchanges (2007), a book on social media in language learning (Thomas, 2009), Mawer and Stanley on digital games (2011) and an expected glut around mobile learning in the next few years.

However, there are still influential general books in the field, for example, Levy and Stockwell (2006), Thomas, Reinders and Warschauer (2013), this latter forming part of a series which is always a good sign of a healthy field, as are second editions, for example Beatty (2010).

Most of the books that have been published so far are general introductions, collections of more formal reports of research conducted by a series of writers, or resource books for teachers which give ideas about how teachers can engage with technology often based only on classroom practice, with little or no connection to language teaching theory.

Teachers then take these ideas and adapt them to their own classrooms, but we very seldom hear how these adaptations went, or what happened to the teachers when they tried out these ideas.

Since computers started to be introduced in language learning (and in education in general) people have rightly asked whether the investment we are making in these technologies gives us value for money. As digital technologies have taken a hold in society in general, this particular question is not asked quite so often, but it is still important to make sure that the technologies that we have available are used effectively.

People are always tempted to try to make an argument for technology having an impact on the development of pedagogy and in many cases we can see that the use of technology has enabled teachers to re-think what they are doing.

We also see people trying to populate this domain by talking about notions like the ‘flipped classroom’, ostensibly a methodology that sees input as occurring at ‘home’ and physical classrooms being used as spaces to explore what has been presented in the input.

This is far from being a new idea, but these agendas are pushed for a while and then disappear again.

What is a contender for a methodology that is central to the world of technology and language learning is that of blended learning (Motteram and Sharma, 2009).

We see this methodology still being developed, but when handled best it is the most likely candidate for a starting point for getting teachers to work with technology in their practice.

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