How can IT help you learn languages more effectively (provided you know how to use a computer, of course)?

At the IATEFEL COMPSIG Conference, Gliwice 2001. Grażyna Studzińska (2nd left), the organiser, and some participants.

Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) is becoming increasingly popular in the Teaching English as a Foreign or Second Language (TEFL/TESL) world. Perhaps this is what prompted the Computer Special Interest Group (COMPSIG) of IATEFL Poland to organise a conference in Gliwice in June to look at Teaching English with Technology.

The delivery of learning material with IT (information technology) solutions can either be through CALL Multimedia or Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC). CALL multimedia involves presenting ELT material on CD-ROMs, via school or company Intranet, or the Internet. CMC, on the other hand, offers a more general approach, using IT literacies such as e-mail, word processing, presentation, and chat as teaching tools.

Popular publishers offer several successful course-books and dictionaries on CD-ROMs. The first thing that strikes the eye is the graphical user interface of these pieces of software. They are made as user-friendly as possible, so users can move around with great ease. The student does not have to waste time looking for page after page, and this keeps the focus on the lesson.

A big plus for electronic teaching materials is the skills integration. Audio and visuals work together seamlessly at the speed of a single mouse-click. Some of the inevitable classroom hitches like a stuck cassette - or when the teacher cannot find the correct section of a video - are eliminated. By clicking on options, the user can read a text, watch a video in a popup window in the corner and listen to the conversation while answering questions, for example. This is a new approach to the learning process and much of the stress within the old classroom setting is a thing of the past.

The producers of electronic materials properly address one of the often- neglected aspects of the English language - pronunciation - in an interesting way. Students can record their voice and compare it with "standard" recordings. They can even take part in dialogues. Shortcomings can be worked on again and again until the student can comfortably produce the difficult sounds.

Some of the available products extend the learning environment beyond the spatial constraints imposed by classroom walls. Live links can take the students to an Internet chat room for interaction with other students who are studying the same material.

Electronic versions of dictionaries are not all that different from course-books. However, it is the speed of searches that is crucial here. Even when the correct spelling of a difficult word is unknown, wildcard searches will not only locate the word but also add several related words. Additionally, word games and other vocabulary exercises take the use of dictionaries to a completely novel dimension.

In spite of the above, though, there are huge problems. Research into the effectiveness of using CALL multimedia tells a different story. At the IATEFL conference in Gliwice, Clive Newton of the University of Liverpool in his presentation quoted P. Brett: "More media does not mean better recall". Put simply, exposing students to several media at once might have a negative effect on the learning process.

Unless the computer is modern enough the multimedia aspect cannot be appreciated sufficiently. There are problems with the sound recognition technology. It has been noted that even many native speakers cannot produce "correct" sounds according to the software that analyses sounds.

At centres offering IT-based courses, it was observed that students often lose interest after as little as 15 minutes into a lesson. Learners tend to forget about using their CD-ROMs at home, and there were high dropout rates from specially designed IT-based courses.

These contradictory behaviour patterns can be attributed to different things, but it is clear that CALL multimedia might not have any significant impact on the learning process. After all, tapes and VCRs were thought to be revolutionary in their early days. Links to chat rooms often do not work because either the links take the student nowhere or the chat room is empty!

Nonetheless, using CALL multimedia the student is in control and can learn independently. The teacher has less work to do. The most important thing, though, is that both teachers and students are excited about using these tools. Meanwhile, the question of their usefulness or the methodology of using them remains unanswered.

- Deji Akala