Digital Technologies: Friend or Foe for the World Language Teacher

[Please note: This is my inaugural article for the monthly newsletter of the National Capital Language Resource Center. Please look for my  Technology Tips article each month in the newsletter.]

I recently read about schools using a popular software program as the sole means of language instruction for their students. You may have, too. The language community is buzzing with the news. The idea that computers can replace teachers is an old one. One that routinely proves unfounded, at least with currently available technologies. But cash-strapped school administrators are often forced to make difficult decisions based on dollars rather than, well, sense. School budgeting is often a balancing act with too much pressure and too few dollars.

But in terms of dollars and cents, investments should yield some type of return. In the case of schools, that return should be measured by student learning. What are schools using computer instruction getting for about $100 a student? What would the return be if the class was taught by a highly effective teacher? Better yet, what would the return be if that teacher had adequate access to and training in these technologies and used them appropriately? These are questions we should be asking these schools, technology developers, and ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m an advocate for educational technology. Used well by highly skilled educators, digital technologies have the potential to yield higher learning returns for our students than when not using them. But like those technologies that came before them, the teacher plays a pivotal role in making sure they are used in the most effective way to benefit the students.

This article provides some background on the use of technology to support language instruction. Subsequent articles in the Tech for Teachers section of this newsletter will continue to explore the best uses of technology in language instruction so that we all benefit from the highest return possible on our learning investments.

Digital Technologies and the Flattening World

Educators are frequently reminded of the notion of the increasing “flatness” of our world and the need for our students to be better prepared to live, work, play, and thrive in a global society. Thomas Friedman shares compelling stories and experiences in his book, The World is Flat, that I find especially relevant for me as an educator who works in the field of educational technology. I hope you’ll oblige one more article that borrows his popular thesis.

As we chat on our smart phones, find our ways using global positioning systems, go home to play on our Wii interactive games, or catch up with the news from our friends and the world through online news services, e-mail, and blogs, we may not stop to realize the impact that digital technologies have had on our lives. These technologies have transformed how people across the globe interact. These technologies have helped to change the way we do business, which industries are successful, where they are located, and the reach they have to clients across the globe. New technologies account for much of this flattening of our world.

Schools: The Last Frontier?

I’d like to say that the digital revolution has also had tremendous impact on the ways we teach and the ways our students learn. In some places, it has. I’ve been able to visit some of those schools—schools with exemplary technology-using teachers and administrators—and I hope to hear more about others from you.

But too many schools have just barely stuck their toes into the tidal wave of change that digital technologies can offer. I visit too many schools where computers are never turned on, labs are locked, and high-priced interactive white boards are used as room dividers. In some of these schools, I do run across some reluctance to integrate technology, but more often I find a lack of awareness or understanding of how new and emerging technologies can help us meet the needs of students and prepare them to live and thrive in this ever-flattening world.

Computers in Schools: Looking Back

Education has seen many movements to use new tools to solve old problems. When the first personal computers began to appear in classrooms across the nation in the 1980’s, there was much speculation that teachers would become obsolete, that the computer was going to replace the teacher. The same learning problems were going to be solved by a high tech version of an old tool.

Early learning software was often glorified drill-and-practice games, many of which provided little more feedback to students than whether an answer was right or wrong. Feedback was rarely personalized or customized, and there was little scaffolding provided to students with different needs. In every classroom, the learning problems still existed. The rudimentary learning software available at the time didn’t go far towards moving the computer as teacher idea very far towards fruition. Luckily, these applications evolved.

It took decades to simply develop a critical mass of teachers who understand how to operate these new technologies. Indeed the first technology standards for students and teachers, the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) developed by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in the late 1990’s, emphasized basic skills so that we would learn how to use computers. While there are still some educators reluctant to use these technologies in their teaching, we have reached a point where we may be seeing a critical shift. Teachers have embraced a range of powerful new technologies and are using them to address what it means to teach and learn in a flat world.

Today: Language Skills for Flourishing in the Flat World

The world has very real and complex problems to solve that will take creativity, innovation, communication, collaboration, and a good deal of critical thinking and decision-making. This means the problem of what our students have to learn has changed, as has the way we have to teach them. The tools and methods we once used are no longer the most efficient, effective, or successful.

The new standards created by ISTE nearly a decade after the first version no longer emphasize basic operations and skills. Instead, skills related to creativity, innovation, collaboration, higher-order thinking, and problem solving top the list. These skills, while always important, become ever more important in a global economy where the failure of banks in one part of the globe impacts economies the world over and where jobs and entire industries no longer take place down the street but across the globe. Now, schools are offering language instruction in Mandarin, Arabic, Kiswahili, and a host of other previously less commonly taught languages.

The National Standards for Foreign Language Learning published in 1999 raised the bar for teachers of world languages beyond building grammar and helping students listen to, read, and write languages. These standards encourage the use of higher-order skills in which students “provide and obtain information, express feelings and emotions, and exchange opinions.” They are required to “demonstrate an understanding” of cultural practices, perspectives, and products as they relate to their learning of a language. They require students to engage in their own and other cultures through language.

These standards go beyond even these complex skills by encouraging students to “connect with other disciplines” through their language of study. Using languages to acquire information, reason, and ultimately learn concepts and skills in other disciplines requires a significant level of proficiency. And, perhaps of great boon to the concept of living and thriving in a global society, these standards push students to “develop insight into the nature of language and culture.” Students who will be able to demonstrate these understandings about language and culture will certainly be better prepared to meet the demands of living in a global society.

To achieve these complex cognitive and social skills, students will require opportunities to interact with others and develop their language skills within learning contexts that utilize technology. The same technologies that have transformed business, government, entertainment, and the arts hold the potential to do this.

Embracing Change

This is why I am excited about teaching today. Most teachers have access to powerful technologies that can help address the complex skills and knowledge identified as being important in both national technology and language standards. Highly effective teachers outfitted with these technologies have the potential to yield higher learning returns than either on their own.

I’ve interviewed many exemplary technology-using teachers over the past 10 years and they often describe how using commonly available digital technologies changed their teaching. In classrooms where teachers master these technologies, where they understand that learning is bigger than memorizing discrete bits of information, the way they teach changes. Technology facilitates this change. They report their students learn more, too, developing deeper knowledge.

These technologies allow for greater communication and collaboration—both during and after the school day and within and outside the classroom. They are able to tap experts to enhance their students’ learning experiences. These experts may be in the homes or communities surrounding the schools or may come from museums, business and industry, or other agencies both near and far.

In the case of language instruction, networks of native speakers can be connected with learners in real-time communication, and many of these experts are students with similar interests. Teachers are able to bring in artifacts from cultures and countries where languages being studied are spoken. They are able to address real problems using real information that can encourage students to express feelings and emotions, to exchange opinions, and do so in a way that uses language to communicate information, ideas, and concepts and that develops insight into the nature of language and, perhaps most importantly, culture.

Teaching in the Flat World: Learning Together

To apply Friedman’s phrase, what it means to be a teacher in a “flat world” must be different than, well, when I was in school. One of the reasons our world appears flatter is because of the ways that digital technologies have connected us. Most of our students have already mastered them outside of school. They play games online—participating in gaming communities with others from across town or across the globe. They share pictures and send instant messages using devices more powerful than those personal computers that started the digital technology wave in education a couple of decades ago. What they already do outside of school, and what they will be required to do to live and thrive in a global economy is different too.

Together we can address the lack of awareness of how to use these and other digital technologies to address the different problem of what our students need to know and be able to do. Putting students in front of a drill-and-practice tutorial, no matter how engaging the graphics may be, is an attempt to solve an old conception of the problem of what it means to learn a language. Trying to automate language instruction by isolating students in a language lab is yet another.

Let’s stop using new tools in old ways and use them instead to generate new solutions. It’s not the technologies you use that matters, it’s how you use them. And we are close to seeing these powerful technologies being used in ways that address the needs of living in our ever-flattening world.

Over the next few months, I’ll explore the ways technology can support world language teaching and learning. Some of the technologies are common to most schools and some may be unique. I also hope to hear from you about the technologies you use, the challenges you face, and how we can overcome them.

I look forward to hearing from you and learning along with you.