Efficient use of new technologies in language learning:

a case reflection

C. Lai

0. INTRODUCTION

Following the impact of global technologization, many educational institutions have been tempted, and have attempted, to technologize their campuses (cf Bigum & Kenway 1998: 375) while teachers have tried hard to acquire the latest computing knowledge and skills (cf Bigum et al, 1987, cited in Bigum & Kenway 1998: 376), which they hope will benefit their teaching and thus improve their students’ learning. Based on my previous experience as a language-teacher and teacher-trainer, however, I have observed that this fad has produced several negative effects. Firstly, some institutions tend to conform to this trend, without much detailed planning before computerizing their schools. While these rich institutions might be in the minority, there are some other institutions which may not have sufficient funds and resources to support their technologization (cf Bigum & Kenway 1998: 388) and thus claim that it is hardly possible for them to use new technologies. Secondly, I have also found that some teachers, perhaps especially those from arts subjects, tend to find it difficult to keep their computing skills up-to-date (cf ibid 1998: 390), and in fact even able teachers might not easily find time to do so (cf Okan 2001: 49). Thirdly, while many students nowadays might have wide access to computers at home as well as in schools, there are some other students who gain little access to computers outside schools (cf Bigum & Kenway 1998: 391). Teachers or schools therefore have to attend to this problem in order to avoid the situation that some students become disadvantaged simply because of their lack of access to computers (ibid). The situations described above do seem fairly common, and yet unfortunately not many educational technologists are very keen, or perhaps able, to offer any practical help or advice. This paper will thus try to introduce the concept of educational efficiency in order to help institutions and teachers re-consider the use of new technologies in educational settings. A case reflection (cf a case study), based on a genuine experience of the writer’s, will be used below in order to illustrate this concept.

            This introduction will be followed by some (1) background issues, which will explore the concept of efficiency as it is related to education, and which will also explain in certain detail why a case reflection is being used. After this will be (2) a literature review, in which previous work on using new technologies in language learning will be critically discussed. (3) A case reflection and (4) a critical discussion will then follow before (5) the conclusion, in which the concept of efficiency will be further examined.

1. BACKGROUND ISSUES

First of all, this section will try to clarify the concept of efficiency as it is used in education. While effectiveness considers outputs only, efficiency involves both inputs and outputs (Lockheed & Hanushek 1994: 1779), which means that “what is effective is not necessarily what is most efficient” (ibid: 1780). In other words, the concept of efficiency includes effectiveness, but it takes a step forward in order to consider the best possible relationships between input and output, i.e., what is invested in any production process and what is gained from it. Moonen (1997: 68), on the other hand, has distinguished four parts of any production activity (including education): input, process, output and outcome, and he thinks that outputs are more ‘direct and immediate’ (such as knowledge/skill/attitudinal changes) while outcomes are less so (such as career-prospects or life-fulfilment) (Moonen 1997: 69). Thus the introduction of ‘efficiency’ is by no means to deny the importance of ‘effectiveness’; on the contrary, the concept is indeed built upon, and further developed from, effectiveness. When related to education, efficiency would mean maximizing desired outputs (and hopefully outcomes too) while minimizing certain inputs, those that are not absolutely necessary, during the whole learning process; applying specifically to learning with new technologies, it would mean the best possible enhancement (+) of:

(1+) the flexible use of resources,

(2+) the quality of learning, and

(3+) the quantity of learning,

despite the common constraints (-) of:

(1-) accessibility to resources,

(2-) teachers’ capability to handle resources, and

(3-) students’ ability to use resources.

Resources can include both human and material properties but in our present context will mainly be computing facilities, either software or hardware. The explanation above will provide a conceptual framework for the critical discussion in section four.

            Having explained the concept of efficiency, I will now justify the use of my own case reflection. Firstly, it would not be possible to persuade educational practitioners into believing and practising the efficient use of new technologies if no real cases were presented. Thus the case below is a genuine and ordinary experience so the details to be provided are not imaginary or idealistic! Secondly, the course is EFL (English as a Foreign Language) type, which is based on communication skills, rather than on subject knowledge so (electronic) communication technology (CT), in this case email, is needed, especially because EFL circumstances, unlike those of ENL (English as a Native Language) or of ESL (English as a Second Language), typically require more opportunities for interaction not only (1) between students and teachers but also (2) between students and students, and (3) between students and English-speaking people. The uses of CT, though not uncommon in some language classrooms today, tend to demand too much time-consuming preparation or co-operation alike, which quite often entails unrealistic communication. Therefore the case here, following the theme of efficiency, would try to minimize the use of unnecessary (1) resources and (2) computing or subject knowledge and yet try to maximize the production of authentic communication, i.e., spontaneous or natural interaction (cf Graddol 1994, cited in Kramsch et al 2000: 81). Thirdly, the class is at tertiary level, which according to Light & Light (1999: 162-3) is a fairly under-explored area although a few recent and latest studies on both sides of the Atlantic, among others, have been attempting to fill this gap (e.g., Kirkley et al 1998, Barnes 2000, Breen et al 2001). In terms of the three major reasons given above, the case reflection below will be my own experience of using email for EFL learning in a higher-education setting.

2. LITERATURE REVIEW

Before the major sections of case reflection and critical discussion, this section will critically examine some relevant studies on the use of new information and communication technologies (ICTs), mainly in language-learning settings. Due to the space limit here, however, only a selective review can be made.

Townshend (1997) and Warschauer (1995) have provided some detailed discussions and suggestions on the use of email in language learning. Their focus, however, tends to be effectiveness (rather than efficiency) as many of their suggestions require substantial inter-school or even inter-national co-operations. While effectiveness, as discussed above, is important, efficiency, built on effectiveness, should be considered and developed since their suggestions would almost certainly entail a major demand for inputs, some of which might not be necessary, and in addition I would doubt the authenticity (Kramsch et al 2000) in this kind of communication process since both parties are psychologically and physically prepared to undertake so-called ‘authentic’ communication, such as the case reported in Fedderholdt (2001), where the cross-cultural students’ email-exchanges were undertaken simply or mainly because “[t]he Japanese and Danish teachers agreed that both groups should begin by exchanging introductory emails” (ibid: 275); in addition, their exchanges seem to have been made according to some fairly rigidly pre-arranged times and topics too (ibid: 276). Therefore, the paradox here is that technologists or teachers themselves often tend to spend much effort and resources exploiting the many ‘affordances’ of ICT, here email, for classroom language learning, which means that they tend to like attempting, sometimes ‘over-attempting’, different uses of ICT in language learning but somehow forget the value and importance of its “original affordance”, i.e., “one-to-one communication” in the case of email (Barnes 2000: 240), which arguably is what language teachers should in fact try to aim at (among others) when providing learners with opportunities for natural  (electronic) interactions. Indeed, the papers included in Davis & Samways (1993) and Hogan-Brun & Jung (1999) have also described and discussed different ‘affordances’ of ICTs, like developing projects involving different classes, institutions or even countries with some huge consumption of both human and material resources, i.e., with concern over effectiveness alone, and O’Malley (1995) and Warschauer & Kern (2000) report some older and later studies, which also tend to neglect the benefits of the original affordance as far as language learning is concerned.

The major theme of efficiency is to draw both technologists’ and teachers’ attention to a more ‘considerate’ approach to using technologies in educational settings, which is not only to do the best (effective) but also to use the least (efficient) of both human and material resources. Thus, the concept of ‘efficiency’ is not to dismiss ‘effectiveness’; rather, ‘efficiency’ is introduced here in order to advance ‘effectiveness’, considering the limitations commonly found in many education contexts and making the best use of what is available in a specific context. A critical discussion of this theme will follow the case reflection below.

3. CASE REFLECTION

Background

Sometime ago the writer was given an opportunity to teach a course ‘Social English’ to three classes of first-year undergraduate students. Two of them were pre-service student-teachers while the third was a group of in-service teachers. There were certain differences between the first two and the third. The former were all young would-be teachers, in their late teens, while the latter were generally experienced teachers, most of whom were around thirty years of age.

            The two groups of young student-teachers were receiving initial teacher education, but very few of them were prepared to become English-language teachers although some of them came from English-medium schools. Their English level varied greatly because quite a few were from Chinese-medium schools. However, their computing knowledge was fairly similar as many of them had the habit to use the internet for information and communication.

            Those experienced teachers, on the other hand, taught mainly in Chinese-medium schools so virtually all of them had no opportunities to use English in their work and in their daily lives, and only two of them were English-language teachers in primary schools. The English proficiency of this group, therefore, was rather low in the sense that many of them were not able to write or speak a continuous discourse in English. In addition, only some of them had used computers before so their computing knowledge was also rather weak.

            The instructor (i.e., the writer) had learnt computing as part of his undergraduate studies but was obviously not a computer specialist. He had been using the internet to search for information and to communicate with overseas scholars for several years, during which he had also joined some staff computing training courses on WebCT, powerpoint, webpages etc.

            His job as an instructor was to acquaint students with some basic English communication skills in general social situations. He had consulted lecturers who had taught this course and read their course syllabi, which tended to focus on speaking skills, which were quite normal in most, if not all, social English classes, but he tried to maintain a balance between speaking and writing skills because EFL learners, he believed, typically had more opportunities to write than to speak although both were invaluable to them for communication purposes. The syllabus was roughly built on task-based learning with both functional and topical approaches, and one of the topics was ‘asking for information’, where dialogues in daily situations were introduced, but one of the major tasks was to let them ask for information on study opportunities or on summer courses at overseas universities. The task involved the use of email, a reasonably popular communication technology today (Biesenbach-Lucas & Weasenforth 2001: 136).

Facilities

There was a computer laboratory for all students in the department, but no computers were available in classrooms. As computing classes had the priority to use the laboratory, it was not quite feasible to ask students to perform the task during class. The instructor therefore tried to incorporate the use of computers into ‘out-of-class’ activities, and it was also necessary to do so in order to allow a period of time when they were able to obtain replies from the institutions of their own choice.

Procedure

The instructor told the students that they could try to use email to ask for information on summer courses in English-language skills as the summer was approaching. Many students seemed to be quite interested, and so the instructor asked the students whether they had ever used email to communicate with friends or foreigners, but not all of them had this experience so the instructor introduced a way to write email messages. The focus, however, was more on the content or stylistic details than on the techniques for sending messages, which were dealt with in their introductory computing classes. This introduction to writing email was made possible by means of a website on the topic which the instructor had found before class. In addition to in-class explanation, which had to be brief due to the time limit, the instructor encouraged the students themselves to read the information on those webpages so that they could have more details about writing email messages. A few of them had no email accounts so the instructor asked them to open their own on any public service. The students were then provided with a ‘portal’ website where they could gain access to all the university homepages, from which they could choose three to five overseas institutions from which to ask their own desired information.

            During the second class, the students brought their printed messages to the class for discussion. Some of them, after a week’s time, had already received one or even two replies from their chosen institutions while the others had not yet received any. The instructor asked them to get into groups of four or five to share their messages, and during this part, the instructor tried to join their discussions by checking what they had written and what they had received. Those who had got no replies tended to be the ones who were not able to write proper questions or who still had some language problems. Therefore the instructor tried to provide some more focused guidance for these learners and on the other hand encouraged them to write another message. Those who had got replies were requested to send another message to ask for further details about the summer courses or study opportunities from their selected institutions.

            Before the third and last class, virtually all of the students had received one or two replies. Some of them had even got three, but the instructor was not going to judge their performance in terms of the number of replies. Instead, he was looking for two major parts: (1) whether their enquiries had been made accurately (in linguistic forms) and appropriately (in communicative contexts) and (2) whether the institutions provided the relevant information they had requested. These two parts formed a complete communication process and provided a natural interaction opportunity for these EFL learners by means of email.

Results

This was a communication task for only a few weeks’ time and yet the students really used their English to communicate with genuine English-speakers, for instance, by asking questions about those overseas courses they were interested in; more importantly, they did it according to their own needs, i.e., asking for the information they wanted (e.g., tuition fees, application procedures, etc). This situation provided them with a natural language-context which was closest to their daily language-use circumstances not only because they communicated with genuine English-speakers but also because these English-speakers had never (psychologically or physically) prepared for all these interactions beforehand. In addition, many of the students’ messages, after some further guidance, were eventually written in some reasonably clear English. Although no concrete data were collected and reported as in a formal case study, these results could suggest that the students had achieved certain ways to use English to ask for some study information they wanted and needed. A critical discussion of this case reflection will be provided below.

4. CRITICAL DISCUSSION

This section will discuss the case described above in terms of the major theme of efficiency. We have mentioned that efficiency is concerned with (1) the maximum production of desired effects (outputs or outcomes) and (2) the minimum use of resources (inputs) which are not absolutely necessary or which are not readily available. From the case above, we could find several points which were successfully minimized (-). For example, (1-) the need to access computers, (2-) the use of the teacher’s capability to handle new technologies and (3-) the use of students’ ability to operate computers. On the other hand, several crucial effects were skillfully maximized (+). For instance, (1+) the flexibility of the use of technologies, (2+) the quality of language learning (i.e., communication authenticity and language formality) and also (3+) the quantity of language learning (i.e., in-class and out-of-class interactions), all of which will be discussed below with illustrations drawn from the case above.

(1-) Accessibility to computing facilities

As described above, there were computers available in the department; however, they were used mainly by computing classes so there were several problems involved in the accessibility of students to computing facilities. Firstly, this implied a serious financial problem, which meant that the instructor could not ask students to buy or bring their own computers merely because of this inaccessibility. Secondly, the spatial limit was another problem because it was not possible to find another computer laboratory which was close to all of the students, especially most of whom had different classes elsewhere before and after. Thirdly, a temporal problem was considered here in this case because not all of the students had 24-hour access to computing facilities so a reasonable period of time had to be allowed before any adequate learning could be achieved. Therefore, this case has considered and thus minimized the financial, spatial, and temporal problems due to their inaccessibility to appropriate resources.

(2-) Capability of teachers to handle new technologies

Language teachers are not computer specialists and so it is not reasonable to demand too advanced computing knowledge and skills from them, and it is also not feasible to ask them to do various computing courses after hours’ of heavy workload each day. Indeed it is argued here that some basic use of computing facilities, if given some careful thought, could be able to benefit language learning, as in this case, where the instructor had no crucial need to make use of any advanced computing techniques and yet he could still create some reasonable computer-mediated language-learning. Also, language teachers’ cyberphobia could then be minimized. The instructor had no major feelings of nervousness or anxieties because he was simply exploiting the computing knowledge and techniques he already knew, without some great pressure to learn a great variety of knowledge or skills which might be beyond his mental, emotional or physical constraints.

(3-) Ability of students to operate computers

In addition to teachers’ capability, students’ ability has to be considered because we have to be clear that the use of computers in language learning is for mediating or supporting purposes so it is not reasonable to ask for too much computing knowledge from the students either, and here in this case the instructor tried not to introduce computing skills that were unnecessary for them to perform the task. It was important especially when the instructor had to assign the same task to the group of in-service teachers who had some weak computing knowledge. In order to avoid their situation as disadvantaged learners, the in-service teachers were given the chance to approach the instructor either in person or by email, which provided another realistic, and perhaps less intimidating, means by which they could try to use English to ask about the task that they had to complete.

(1+) Flexibility of the use of new technologies

It was shown that the task did not require prolonged planning and preparation, which tends to be the case in much of the literature reviewed above. In addition, the process and the output could be completed within a reasonable period of time because they did it at a time outside class which was best suitable for their own individual schedules. It involved few rigid arrangements as they were given sufficient time to write and obtain messages. This was necessary particularly in the case of in-service teachers, who had their own work during the week and could use only their time after class to complete any coursework; hence it seemed a more flexible and thus useful arrangement especially for them.

(2+) Quality of language learning: authenticity and formality

In addition to flexibility in time arrangements, the quality of language learning could actually be enhanced. The task, though rather simple, involved some reasonable language, activities, and interactions. Because the students were asked to communicate with people working in higher-education institutions, they could have access to some clear formal native English, which was invaluable to them as EFL learners, who had few opportunities or needs to communicate with educated English-speakers. This chance provided them with a genuine need to talk to English users by means of email. In addition, the task-based activities, though with an explicit focus on written language (writing emails to English speakers for some fairly formal information), implicitly involved substantial authentic spoken language partly because email writing is based on spoken as well as written language (Biesenbach-Lucas & Weasenforth 2001: 136) and largely because they had to share their messages with (1) their fellow classmates as well as (2) their instructor. It is argued here, therefore, that the quality of language learning could still be enhanced without too many pre-arrangements.

(3+) Quantity of language learning: in-class and out-of-class interactions

Apart from the enhancement of the quality of language learning, the quantity of communication and interaction could also be increased because there were in-class opportunities for students to discuss their use of email communication and also out-of-class chances to use email to communicate with native English-users and their instructor. Communication, therefore, was not limited to the in-class exposure but drastically expanded to part of their daily lives as they had to use English to ask their instructor about the task as well as to perform the task per se. Some high-level mutual and natural relationships between in-class and out-of-class interactions were then established. The quantity (as well as quality) of authentic communication mediated by email here became quite possibly not lower than that produced in inter-institutional or even cross-cultural projects (e.g., Townshend 1997, Fedderholdt 2001).

5. CONCLUSION

The sections above have discussed and illustrated the major theme/concept of educational efficiency, which is built on and developed from educational effectiveness. In applying the concept of educational efficiency, however, one has to be careful in minimizing the right items. For example, here in this case reflection, the main point was to enhance language learning, both quality and quantity, and email was for mediating purposes only so the instructor considered the constraints of (1-) access to computing facilities, (2-) teachers’ and (3-) students’ (advanced) computing knowledge and skills as they were not readily available, nor were they absolutely necessary for the successful completion of the language-learning task. Thus the major point would be eradicating those items which are not crucial to any successful learning. If, however, something (like the computer) is crucial but not readily available, an instructor will then have to consider flexibility in using it, such as adapting certain learning activities so that students would not have to rely on it in a specific place or period. Therefore, institutions and instructors should try to consider the major theme of educational efficiency before investing their funds and time in acquiring further computing facilities and skills while the actual outputs (or outcomes) may not be substantially greater or better.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This paper has benefited significantly from the detailed, critical comments and suggestions given by Professor Rosamund Sutherland, to whom I am most grateful. Thanks are also due to several other scholars who have provided their help.

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ITFORUM PAPER #77- Efficient Use of New Technologies in Language Learning: A Case Reflection by C. Lai. Posted on ITFORUM on January 6, 2004. The author retains all copyrights of this work. Used on ITFORUM by permission of the author. Visit the ITFORUM WWW Home Page at http://itforum.coe.uga.edu/