Is Technology Beneficial in the Language Learning Classroom?
Does technology help or hinder in the classroom? To take part in this global debate, I will address three pros and three cons to integrating technology into curriculum, specifically in the context of minority language classrooms.
Pro #1: Technology Can Support and Enhance a Teacher’s Efforts
The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) called technology “a tool” that can “support and enhance classroom-based language instruction” (p. 1). Ideally, a language teacher will have a variety of tools in their toolbelt, but technology can provide a way for learning to continue outside of the classroom. For example, the beginning language student often needs endless repetition to become familiar with basic terms. Rather than using up precious time in the classroom to repeat these basics ad nauseam, a teacher can encourage the student to review a language’s most used terms via the Lingvist app at home or at work. Thus, technology furthers learning even when a teacher is not present and it can make actual classroom time more efficient. In this way, technology is used as a “complementary tool” (Rosell, n.d., para. 2.).
Pro #2: Technology Can Diversify Curriculum
Technology has the potential to provide diversity to even the most mundane curriculum. For a teacher who is restricted by standardized testing, language learning platforms can expand the horizons of their students with videos of the target language being used in a variety of everyday scenarios worldwide. For example, as a sign language teacher, I can direct my students to visit the InterSign University platform to explore sign languages used in Mongolia, Ghana, Brazil, etc.
Pro #3: Technology Can Connect Students with Native Speakers
Like several countries in the last decade, the Japanese Ministry for Education (MEXT) has begun “placing more emphasis on students becoming communicative” in second languages, with “listening and speaking” promoted rather than the traditional “lecture style” approach in the classroom (Forsythe, 2014, p. 1). Language exchange apps such as Italki or Bilingua provide opportunities to communicate with native speakers. Technology can ensure that language courses are inseparably connected with the minority language community (and not academic isolates).
When used responsibly, technology can make language classrooms more efficient and effective. However, there are also cons to using technology in the classroom.
Con #1: Technology Can Distract
Just as with any tool, technology can be a distraction from overarching learning goals. For example, seeing one’s students make their way through each level of Rosetta Stone can feel deceptively productive but unless students use what they learn to communicate and connect with people around them, they are no closer to learning a language (in its truest sense) than a student who is simply memorizing grammatical rules out of a textbook. As Ellis (2017) makes clear in his article “Which Comes First, Curriculum or Technology?” we must first “take the time to identify...how students may have to demonstrate mastery...as working adults” and pinpointing these priorities make it “very easy to identify which technologies should follow” (para. 5).
Con #2: Technology Is a Pitiful Substitute
Rather than moving towards the bigger goals of the course, technology can provide convenient ‘busy work’ for the unmotivated teacher. Unfortunately, technology too often becomes the classroom babysitter or the stereotypical detached long-term substitute teacher. ACTFL (n.d.) warned against permitting “technology to drive the language curriculum” and expressed their concern with institutions of learning that are using it to even “replace certified language teachers” (p. 1). Technology is a poor replacement for interactive language learning in the hands of a skilled teacher. Language is inherently social and learning language requires face-to-face interactions (with the inherently unexpected twists and turns that regularly occur in conversation). Thankfully, there are an increasing number of platforms providing this in-person interaction with native speakers across the globe such as HelloTalk and Tandem.
Con #3: Technology Can Engender Passive Learning
Ironically, as much as appropriate technology can bring diversity to curriculum, technology can also make learning stagnant if it replaces the stimulating exchanges that happen when students and teachers are exploring new ideas together. Some technology platforms offer passive learning opportunities that do little to move a student forward toward their long-term language goals. While useful to varying degrees, if a teacher utilizes an app like DuoLingo in their course to the exclusion of other language learning tools, it will result in students having a disjointed and incomplete knowledge of a language. After studying over 50 language platforms, Heil, Wu, Lee & Schmidt (2016) identified three trends: “first, apps tend to teach vocabulary in isolated units rather than in relevant contexts; second, apps minimally adapt to suit the skill sets of individual learners; and third, apps rarely offer explanatory corrective feedback to learners.”
Technology is increasingly used in the language learning classroom. While there has been “a pedagogical shift toward more communicative approaches to language learning,” too many language learning platforms are “behaviorist in nature” (Heil et al., 2016). As educators we must remember to use technology carefully as it has the potential to nurture progress or negate it if used irresponsibly or excessively.
American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). (n.d.) Role of Technology in Language Learning. [PDF]. https://www.actfl.org/sites/default/files/caep/AppendixM-ACTFLStatementRoleOfTechnology.pdf
Ellis, B. (2017, January 30). Which comes first: the curriculum or the technology? Technotes. https://blog.tcea.org/comes-first-curriculum-technology/
Forsythe, E. E. (2013). Autonomous language learning with technology. Jalt Call Journal, 9(3), 329-327. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1107992.pdf
Heil, C. R., Wu, J. S., Lee, J. J. Schmidt, T. (2016, September). A review of mobile language learning applications: trends, challenges, and opportunities. The EUROCALL Review, 24(2), 32-50. https://polipapers.upv.es/index.php/eurocall/article/view/6402/7212
Prensky, M. (2008). The role of technology in teaching and the classroom. Educational Technology. https://marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky-The_Role_of_Technology-ET-11-12-08.pdf
Rosell, C. D. (n.d.) 5 benefits of using new technology in language learning. CAE Innovative Learning Solutions. https://www.cae.net/5-benefits-using-new-techonology-language-learning/