When does technology aid language acquisition?

C_Cavage Christina Cavage

If you are like me, you are probably willing to try anything to engage your students and help them make significant gains in their language learning. Maybe you have jumped on some bandwagons like myself—early CALL trends. Back in 1992 when I got my first teaching job, I used to create ‘interactive’ lessons using HyperCard on Apple 2es. I spent laborious hours making copies for my students on floppy diskettes, just so they could line up in our one lab to try out these lessons. Even with those early HyperCard lessons, I saw how students reacted when something was new, engaging and different. Those light bulb moments kept me digging deeper into not only the impact technology has on learning, but also the most effective and valuable ways to incorporate technology into my classes.

As you can imagine, a lot of technological trends have come and gone in the field, some more successful than others. However, when you look closely at some of the successes, you will clearly see a pattern. Technology aids acquisition when it extends the learning experience, offers tailored solutions that allow students to self-direct his or her learning, and is a source of fun, feedback and friends! What have I found that does all of the above? Blended learning.

Blended learning means many things to many people. At the heart of blended learning is the thoughtful, interdependence between a face-to-face classroom and a digital environment. I have found the real key lies in the thoughtfulness and the interdependence. Creating an interdependence between what happens in the classroom and what happens in the digital environment extends the learning experience. That is, the digital tool isn’t simply reinforcement of what is done in the classroom, it is a ‘place’ where additional learning or multiplicative learning can occur. And that is exactly where the thoughtfulness comes in. This thoughtfulness is the foundation of the FLIPped classroom. What can and should be done in the classroom? What can and should be done outside of the classroom? (More to come on this in the next edition!)

Offering tailored solutions is just as critical as the interdependence. For technology to really aid in acquisition it must adapt to students’ strengths and weaknesses. In other words, the tool you use should make students aware of those areas that they are weak in. Students should be presented with options based on their successes (and failures). Nothing makes me happier than when I see a student who has completed an online activity ten times—each time scoring better than the previous one. It not only shows me that the student is finally mastering the content or skill presented, but more importantly it illustrates the fact that the student directed his or her own learning. They made choices based on their comfort (or discomfort) with the material.

Lastly, who is actually going to spend hours working on something that isn’t fun, doesn’t provide feedback or way to connect with friends? No one. Fun, feedback and friends is a phrase I heard a speaker mention once relating to educational gaming. However, the same is true here. Students need to enjoy the activities; they need to be engaging. They need to receive some feedback on how they are doing. I don’t mean just “Great job!”. But, feedback that helps them to better direct their own learning. And, lastly, our students today have the expectation to be able to connect with their friends and classmates in the digital environment. Being able to ‘see’ or ‘reach out’ to friends may not be important for their language learning, but it is definitely critical for their engagement.