The Role of the Computer in Foreign Language Learning

I taught my first FL class—Spanish 1—at UCLA, Fall 1972. Of course there was no such thing as a personal computer at that time. I got my first IBM PC with 64K RAM and two floppy disk drives in 1983 because I had been typing text materials on a typewriter and had had it with changing text with liquid white-out and those rolls of narrow strips of white paper with sticky on the back that you could type on to replace a whole line. I also used my first PC to write my dissertation on. Obviously, computers revolutionized word processing early on. I didn’t get a computer with a modem until 1995. So I learned to teach way before computers with online capabilities became popular. At that time, all of classroom language teaching/learning was human to human, textbook to human. Homework was handwritten. And the eager students learned easily and well. And the not-so-interested students passed the course and seemed satisfied. Fast forward to the early 2000’s. I’m still teaching without recourse to the computer but starting to feel insecure about it. In one class I had an amazing computer geek (I use the term lovingly). One day I asked him after class if I was way behind the times and should be using the computer in class and requiring that the students use the computer outside of class. His answer went something like this: “What we do in class is great. Keep doing what you’re doing. We’re on the computer so much that a course like this is refreshing. If you want to incorporate computer use I would suggest only that you put practice exams online so we can see the types of things we need to know for the unit exams.” I recently taught Italian 1 using the textbook Sentieri, which requires extensive use of the computer and the publisher’s website. I myself did some of the computer activities that I had assigned to the students, mainly fill-ins and matching as I recall. My impression was that the students really needed to compose sentences, both oral and written, as soon and as often as possible. The sorts of things the site was having them do was kind of like teaching a person to do crossword puzzles instead of write essays. Fun (maybe?), but definitely not necessary. Also, I know from having done private tutoring that students can have a more advanced student or a native speaker (or their tutor!) do their online homework for them so they can get all the answers right and get the maximum number of “points.” In the class in which I used Sentieri students would complain that they couldn’t do their homework because the site was down or wouldn’t respond to their clicks. I myself was having trouble finding out if they’d done their homework or had even paid the fee to use the publisher’s site. Once I asked several students why they had not done the online assignment. They replied that they had indeed done it. I later found out that the site had put most of my students on one list but that little group on another list that I didn’t know existed. The whole experience was intensely frustrating for me and the students. And in the end it’s all about points, points, points. Points mean nothing to me. The question is “Did they learn more of the language, something useful for communicating real-life thoughts and feelings?” I’m not sure a machine can make that happen. End of rant! What are your thoughts? Is this sort of use of the computer superior to interaction between instructor and students and between student and student? Is extensive use of computers dehumanizing? Do students appreciate a “rest” from computer use? Should computer and video be used during classroom presentations? How about Power Point (what is Power Point?)? Constantly or occasionally? What do you think of using cyber-sources such as Wikipedia and YouTube for enriching and enjoyable online input? I think they’re awesome (Even though I resisted for a long while, I have finally included the word “awesome” in my personal vocabulary). My students can see beautiful travelogues of Italy and watch videos of Italian songs and sing along. The students can be assigned to do a report on any facet of Italian culture that interests them: motorcycles, the Renaissance, fashion, architecture…anything Italian! You want to inspire a student to study Italian? Let them investigate what they’re passionate about! Now that’s the best use of the computer for our purposes I can think of. What do you guys think?

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