Technology bridging the world

Fukuoka International Congress Center, Fukuoka, Japan, 6-8 August 2008

The theme of WorldCALL 2008, the five-yearly conference now being held for the third time, was “CALL bridges the world”.  With participants from over 50 countries, and presentations on every aspect of language teaching through technology, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Key themes

Key themes of the conference included the need for a sophisticated understanding of our technologies and their affordances; the importance of teacher involvement and task design in maximising collaboration and online community; the potential for intercultural interaction; the role of cultural and sociocultural issues; the need for reflection on the part of both teachers and students on all of the above; and, in particular, the need for much more extensive teacher training.

There was a wide swathe of technologies, tools and approaches covered, including:

  • email;
  • VLEs, in particular, Moodle;
  • web 2.0 tools, especially blogs and m-learning/mobile phones, but also microblogging, wikis, social networking, and VoIP/Skype;
  • borderline web 2.0/web 3.0 tools like virtual worlds and avatars;
  • ICALL, speech recognition and TTS software;
  • blended learning;
  • e-portfolios.

With up to 8 concurrent sessions running at any given moment, it was impossible to keep up with everything, but here’s a brief selection of themes and ideas …

Communication & collaboration

In her paper “Mediation, materiality and affordances”, Regine Hampel considered the contrasting views that the new media have the advantage of quantitatively increasing communication but the disadvantage of creating reduced-cue communication environments.  She concluded that there are many advantages to using computer-mediated communication with language learners, but that we need to focus on areas such as:

  • multimodal communication: we need to bear in mind that while new media offer new ways of interacting and negotiating meaning, dealing with multiple modes as well as a new language at the same time may lead to overload for students;
  • collaboration: task design is essential to scaffolding collaboration, with different tools supporting collaborative learning in very different ways; there is also a need to make collaboration integral to course outcomes;
  • cultural and institutional issues: this includes the value placed on collaboration;
  • student/teacher roles: online environments can be democratic but students need to be autonomous learners to exploit this potential;
  • the development of community and social presence at a distance;
  • teacher training.

Intercultural interaction

Karin Vogt and Keiko Miyake, discussing “Telecollaborative learning with interaction journals”, showed the great potential for intercultural learning which is present in cross-cultural educational collaborations.  Their work showed that the greatest value could be drawn from such interactions by asking the students to keep detailed reflective journals, where intercultural themes and insights could emerge, and/or could be picked up and developed by the teacher.  They added that their own results, based on a content analysis of such journals from a German-Japanese intercultural email exchange programme, confirmed the results of previous studies that the teacher has a very demanding role in initiating, planning and monitoring intercultural learning.

Marie-Noëlle Lamy also stressed the intercultural angle in her paper “We Argentines are not as other people”, in which she explained her experience with designing an online course for Argentine teachers.  After explaining the teaching methodology and obstacles faced, she went on to argue that we are in need of a model of culture to use in researching courses such as this one – but not an essentialist model based on national boundaries.  She is currently addressing this important lack (something which Stephen Bax and I are also dealing with in our work on third spaces in online discussion) by developing a model of the formation of an online culture.

Teacher (and learner) training

In their paper “CALL strategy training for learners and teachers”, Howard Pomann and Phil Hubbard offered the following list of five principles to guide teachers in the area of CALL:

  • Experience CALL yourself (so teachers can understand what it feels like to be a student using this technology);
  • Give learners teacher training (so they know what teachers know about the goals and value of CALL);
  • Use a cyclical approach;
  • Use collaborative debriefings (to share reflections and insights);
  • Teach general exploitation strategies (so users can make the most of the technologies).

In conclusion, they found that learner strategy training was essential to maximise the benefits of CALL and could be achieved in part through the keeping of reflective journals (for example as blogs), which would form a basis for collaborative debriefings.  As in many other papers, it was stressed that teacher training should be very much a part of this process.

In presenting the work carried out so far by the US-based TESOL Technology Standards Taskforce, Phil Hubbard and Greg Kessler demonstrated the value of developing a set of broad, inclusive standards for teachers and students, concluding that:

  • bad teaching won’t disappear with the addition of technology;
  • good teaching can often be enhanced by the addition of technology;
  • the ultimate interpretation of the TESOL New Technology standards needs to be pedagogical, not technical.

In line with the views of many other presenters, Phil added that we need to stop churning out language teachers who learn about technology on the job; newer teachers need to acquire these skills on their pre-service and in-service education programmes.

Important warnings and caveats about technology use emerged in a session entitled “Moving learning materials from paper to online and beyond”, in which Thomas Robb, Toshiko Koyama and Judy Naguchi shared their experience of two projects in whose establishment Tom had acted as mentor.  While both projects were ultimately successful, Tom explained that mentoring at a distance is difficult, with face-to-face contact required from time to time, as a mentor can’t necessarily anticipate the knowledge gaps which may make some instructions unfathomable.  At the moment, it seems there is no easy way to move pre-existing paper-based materials online in anything other than a manual and time-consuming manner.  This may improve with time but until then we may still need to look to enthusiastic early adopters for guidance; technological innovation, he concluded, is not for the faint of heart and it may well be a slow process towards normalisation …

Normalisation, nevertheless, must be our goal, argued Stephen Bax in his plenary “Bridges, chopsticks and shoelaces”, in which he expanded on his well-known theory of normalisation.  Pointing out that there are different kinds of normalisation, ranging from the social and institutional to the individual, Stephen argued that:

A technology has arguably reached its fullest possible effectiveness only when it has arrived at the stage of ‘genesis amnesia’ (Bourdieu) or what I call ‘normalisation’.

Normalised technologies, he suggested, offer their users social and cultural capital, so that if students do not learn about technologies, they will be disadvantaged.  In other words, if teachers decide not to use technology because they personally don’t like it, they may be doing their students a great disservice in the long run.

At the same time, he stressed, it is important to remember that pedagogy and learners’ needs come first – technology must be the servant and not the master. Referring to the work of Kumaravadivelu and Tudor, he suggested that we must always respect context, with technology becoming part of a wider ecological approach to teaching.

There were interesting connections between the ecological approach proposed by Stephen and Gary Motteram’s thought-provoking paper, “Towards a cultural history of CALL”, in which he advocated the use of third generation activity theory to describe the overall interactions in CALL systems.  There was also a link with my own paper, “Four visions of CALL”, which argued for the expansion of our vision of technology in education to encompass not just technological and pedagogical issues, but also broader social and sociopolitical issues which have a bearing on this area.

Specific web 2.0 technologies

In “Learner training through online community”, Rachel Lange demonstrated a very successful discussion-board based venture at a college in the UAE, where, despite certain restrictions – such as the need to separate the genders in online forums – the students themselves have used the tools provided to build their own communities, where more advanced students mentor and support those with a lower level of English proficiency.

In Engaging collaborative writing through social networking, Vance Stevens and Nelba Quintana outlined their Writingmatrix project, designed to help students form online writing partnerships.  Operating within a larger context of paradigm shift – including pedagogy (didactic to constructivist), transfer (bringing social technologies from outside the classroom into the classroom), and trepidation (it’s OK not to know everything about technology and work it out in collaboration with your students) – they effectively illustrated the value of a range of aggregation tools to facilitate collaboration between educators and students; these included Technorati,, Crowd status, Twemes, FriendFeed, Dipity and Swurl.

Claire Kennedy and Mike Levy’s paper “Mobile learning for Italian” focused on the very successful use of mobile phone ‘push’ technology at Griffith University in Queensland.  In the context of a discussion of the horizontal and vertical integration of CALL, Mike commented on the irony that many teachers and schools break the horizontal continuity of technology use by insisting that mobile phones are switched off as soon as students arrive at school.  Potentially these are very valuable tools which, according to Mellow (2005), can be used in at least three ways:

  • push (where information is sent to students);
  • pull (where students request messages);
  • interactive (push & pull, including responses).

Despite some doubts in the literature about the invasion of students’ social spaces by push technologies, Mike and Claire showed that their programme of sending lexical and other language-related as well as cultural material to Italian students has been a resounding success, with extremely positive feedback overall.

Other successful demonstrations of technology being used in language classrooms ranged from Alex Ludewig’s presentation on “Enriching the students’ learning experience while ‘enriching’ the budget”, in which she showed the impressive multimedia work done by students of German in Simulation Builder, to Salomi  Papadima-Sophocleous’s work with “CALL e-portfolios”, where she showed the value of e-portfolios in preparing future EFL teachers as reflective, autonomous learners.

Beyond web 2.0 – to web 3.0?

As Trude Heift explained in her plenary, “Errors and intelligence in CALL”, CALL ranges from web 2.0 to speech technologies, virtual worlds, corpus studies, and ICALL.  While most of the current educational focus is on web 2.0, there are interesting developments in other areas.  It seems to me that, to the extent that web 3.0 involves the development of the intelligent web and/or the geospatial web, some of these developments may point the way to the emergence of web 3.0 applications in education.

Trude’s own paper focused on ICALL and natural language processing research, whose aim is to enable people to communicate with machines in natural language.  We have come a long way from the early Eliza programme to Intelliwise‘s web 3.0 conversational agent, which is capable of holding much more natural conversations.  While ICALL is still a young discipline and there are major challenges to be overcome in the processing of natural language – particularly the error-prone language of learners – it holds out the promise of automated systems which can create learner-centred, individualised learning environments thanks to modelling techniques which address learner variability and offer unique responses and interactions.  This is certainly an area to watch in years to come.

On a simpler level, text to speech and voice processing software is already being used in numerous classrooms around the world.   Ian Wilson, for example, presented an effective model of “Using Praat and Moodle for teaching segmental and suprasegmental pronunciation”.

Another topic raised in some papers was virtual worlds, which some would argue are incipient web 3.0 spaces.  Due to time limitations and timetable clashes, I didn’t catch these papers, but it’s certainly an area of growing interest – and in the final panel discussion, Ana Gimeno-Sanz, the President of EuroCALL, suggested that this might become a dominant theme at CALL conferences in the next year or so.

The final plenary panel summed up the key themes of the conference as follows:

  • the importance of pedagogy over technology (Osamu Takeuchi);
  • the need to consider differing contexts (OT);
  • the ongoing need for conferences like this one to consider best practice, even if the process of normalisation is proceeding apace (Thomas Robb);
  • the need to reach out to non-users of technology (TR);
  • the need for CALL representation in more general organisations (TR);
  • the professionalisation of CALL (Bob Fischer);
  • the need to consider psycholinguistic as well as sociolinguistic dimensions of CALL (BF);
  • the shift in focus from the technology (the means) to its application (the end) (Ana Gimeno-Sanz);
  • the need to extend our focus to under-served regions of the world (AG-S).

The last point was picked up on by numerous participants and a long discussion ensued on how to overcome the digital divide in its many aspects.  A desire to share the benefits of the technology was strongly expressed – both by those with technology to share and those who would like to share in that technology. That, I suspect, will be a major theme of our discussions in years to come: how to spread  pedagogically appropriate, contextually sensitive uses of technology to ever wider groups of teachers and learners.

Tag: WorldCALL08

3 Thoughts.

  1. Hi Mark

    Thanks for your summary. Much appreciated as I couldn’t be there. It gave me a nice feel for what went on.

  2. Hi Karen, nice to hear from you! The conference proceedings are due out in October, I believe, so you’ll be able to read up on any of these papers in a bit more detail then. Cheers, Mark

  3. Pingback: TrainyBrainy » Blog Archive » Posts about Cool Learning Materials as of June 19, 2009

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