Technology and Foreign Language Instruction: Where We Have Been, Where We Are Now, Where We Are Headed.


Jean W. LeLoup

Robert Ponterio



Technology today has an impact on almost every part of our lives, and it has changed many aspects of the way foreign language (FL) teachers function in our profession. This chapter will discuss the role of technology in FL instruction: past, present, and future.  We will explore 1) a definition of technology, 2) the national mandate for technology implementation across the curriculum, 3) how technology has been used heretofore in FL classrooms with some caveats about its implementation, and 4) how it might be used in the next ten years.   A rationale for using technology in language instruction and learning will be offered that discusses some theoretical underpinnings and briefly touches on the research base for its implementation in the FL curriculum.  Finally, the chapter will address the use of technology for assessment and evaluation of student learning. 



What is technology?


A simple dictionary entry defines technology as follows: 


noun (pl. technologies) 1 the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes (Compact Oxford English Dictionary).


From this very general definition, two words stand out:  practical purposes.  The emphasis during the past two decades on communicative competence has underscored the need to develop language learners who eventually can use the language in practical real-life situations.  Technology can be seen as a useful tool providing precisely those learning scenarios that simulate real language use and, consequently, leading to meaningful learning. The shift to greater emphasis on actual language use has done much to ameliorate the general public criticism that one can study a language for years in high school but not be able “to say a thing.”  Language learners now want to be able to employ the language successfully in practical situations that they may be likely to encounter in real life.  They are not content with memorizing dialogs (delivered, by the way, technologically via tape recorders) or repeating drills with no follow-through to connect these activities to practical language use.

The following statements, taken from the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards,[i] expand on this initial dictionary definition and encompass much of what teachers perceive as the definition of technology:

·        Technology may be defined as the process by which human beings fashion tools and machines to change, manipulate, and control their environment.

·        Technology is the technical means people use to improve their surroundings.

·        Technology is the knowledge of using tools and machines to do tasks efficiently.

·        Technology is people using knowledge, tools, and systems to make their lives easier and better.  (Brzezowski, 1998; italics added)


            Technological advances in the past twenty years have increased exponentially, making the learning curve for mastering these new tools steep or even a vertical line. Technology has certainly changed our teaching and our lives; whether or not it has concomitantly improved or made our instruction easier, better, and more efficient is open to debate.  Nevertheless, many teachers make a concerted effort to keep up with the innovations that will enhance their students’ learning, though sometimes ruing the day “technology took over.”  But technology is certainly not new to the FL teacher or classroom: we have been using many technologies for years in the forms of tape recorders, overhead and opaque projectors, the language lab, the VCR and videos, slide carousels, film strip projectors, laminators, photocopiers, the 16 mm movie projector, even short wave radio, newspapers and magazines, and the old blackboard.  These are all modes of technology that teachers have used regularly to manipulate and change the learning environment, to make teaching more efficient, easier, and better, and to improve learning.  Nevertheless, FL instruction today subsumes a plethora of newer technologies such as computers, CDs, DVDs, LCD projection, flatbed scanners, digital cameras, distance learning, and the World Wide Web (WWW) along with a host of other Internet tools.  Most FL teachers would argue that these technologies are absolutely necessary now to deliver their curricula and create an optimal learning environment for their students.


Technology Across the Curriculum


            The impact of technology is manifest in every educational venue. The question no longer is whether technology should be integrated into the curriculum across the board but rather how best to do so.  Use of technology for instructional delivery and effective learning is seen as beneficial in all subject areas, not just within the FL domain. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) is a leading proponent of improving teaching and learning in all subject areas by advancing the effective use of technology in K–12 education and teacher education. Within ISTE, the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) project has laid out a set of Technology Foundation Standards for students (NETS for Students, 1998) in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade as well as for teachers (NETS for Teachers, 2000). This multiyear project describes the conditions needed to support the use of technology for learning, teaching, and institutional management across the curriculum (National Educational Technology Standards, 2000). Nearly every state has directly adopted or adapted their state technology plans for teacher certification and/or licensure with the NETS standards (NETS and the States).

In concert with the NETS project, the Standards for Foreign Language Learning includes technology as one of the principal elements in the "curricular weave" of language learning and instruction.  The intent is for language learners to be able to take advantage of new technological advances that could enhance their language learning experience (National Standards Project). Clearly, the perception is that technology, at the very least, improves instruction and may even promote language acquisition.  The concern that technology might replace the classroom teacher is not the issue.  Rather, the question is how FL teaching will be different because of the use of technology (Brecht, 2001).  Evidence of the burgeoning interest in and inclusion of technology-driven materials is ubiquitous:  the number of computer applications, communications technologies, and sheer volume of offerings on the Internet has grown at an amazing rate over the past 15 years, and many FL educators, heeding instinct, common sense, and anecdotal information, have embraced these new tools as useful instructional tools.  Indeed, most all new FL instructional materials are accompanied by multimedia software requiring the latest technological advances; these ancillaries are often the deciding factor in materials adoption (Cubillos, 1998). 

But do these “bells and whistles” really move the learner along the continuum toward successful language acquisition? There is a small but increasingly vocal cadre of second language acquisition (SLA) researchers who question whether the use of new technologies in language instruction truly furthers second language acquisition (Chapelle, 1997; Cubillos, 1998; Ervin, 1993; Garrett, 1991). Researchers lament the lack of sufficient empirical evidence to support this general belief (Burston, 1996; Salaberry, 1996) and have attempted to collect such evidence through literature reviews and calls for principled and theoretically based studies (Chapelle, 1997; Liu, Moore, Graham, & Lee, 2002; Warschauer, 1997; Zhao, 1996).  Clearly, the starting point must be to work from an acceptable theoretical framework of SLA.


Theoretical underpinnings for technology use


Although there are several competing theories of SLA, much of the research supports an interactionist position, underscoring the concomitant effects of the external linguistic environment and internal individual learner variables on language acquisition (Ellis, 1994; Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991). The tenets of comprehensible input, intake, output, negotiation of meaning, and attention to both form and meaning are posited to have an impact on a learner’s interlanguage progression. In addition, sociocultural perspectives on language learning, as influenced by the work of Vygotsky (Lantolf & Appel, 1994; Warschauer, 1997), provide a complementary position that considers language learners in direct relation to their social and cultural surroundings and condition. This theoretical background—reflecting both interactionist and sociocultural perspectives on second language acquisition—gives rise to some generally accepted premises regarding second language acquisition (Zhao, 1996): 


  1. Language learners must have meaningful L2 input.  In other words, they must be exposed to L2 input that is comprehensible to them and delivered in context.  (Ellis, 1985, 1994; McLaughlin, 1987)
  2. Language learners need to interact with the TL.  They need to engage in meaningful activities that have them manipulate the L2 and negotiate meaning.  (Doughty and Pica, 1986; Long, 1985)
  3. Learning the culture of the TL is an integral part of learning the L2.  (Lambert, 1968;  Seelye, H., 1984; Seliger, 1988)
  4. Motivation, although not completely understood in light of SLA, is nevertheless an important factor in L2 learning.  (Lambert, 1968)
  5. Language learners need exposure to authentic materials in order to be able to function in a TL environment.  (Ellis, 1985)


How and where does technology fit into the above tenets of SLA?  More specifically, how can we implement technologies in a principled manner to effect positive L2 learning outcomes? 


Caveats for Technology Implementation in the FL Curriculum


First, we need to agree that it does need to be implemented into the FL curriculum.  The National Foreign Language Learning Standards includes technology as an important component of language learning and instruction.  This is an essential first step.  Heretofore, as Garrett notes (1998), the use of technology for language learning has essentially focused on the enhancement and improvement of individual courses.  She advocates broadening the focus at this point to overall curriculum development, using collaborative projects and research designed to produce generalizable results. 

Second, technology should fulfill a need, not create one (Ervin, 1993).  Again, technology for technology’s sake is a disastrous approach.  We first ought to assess our language learning and instructional needs.  Then we can see what technologies help meet those needs.  Administrations will quickly begin to look askance at requests for technology funding if they perceive a lack of use of the equipment purchased. 

Third, while technology can be a timesaver in some senses, in many others it simply is not, perhaps even taking time away from more beneficial tasks.  Much of the new technology takes time to master.  While FL teachers can use a tape player or VCR with relatively little anxiety, such is not necessarily the case when one sets about teaching with new communications technologies.  People begin to address technology implementation in their classrooms with all levels of acumen.  Faculty development and training is an absolute necessity when considering an investment in new technologies.  Not only do people need to see that they will eventually be able to master these technologies, they also must see that this mastery will be well worth their time in terms of instructional productivity and language learning outcomes.

Fourth, the pedagogical soundness of technologically delivered materials must be the first consideration.  Technology itself is not a methodology.  It is a tool.  Therefore, it relies on the effectiveness of the materials it delivers to justify its use.  Some essential questions to ask are: what will the use of technology add to the curriculum, the lesson, the activity in terms of specific pedagogical goals?  Is it a facilitator, a hindrance, or just a superfluous exercise?  We need to identify what the learning activities should be and then decide whether or not delivery via technology is the optimal situation (Wang, 2005). For many years, much instructional software was akin to an electronic workbook, replacing drill and practice exercises on paper with mechanical ones on the computer that did not provide significant helpful or useful feedback to language learners, taking real advantage of the adaptive potential of the new medium.  Little, if anything, was added by transferring these mechanical exercises from paper medium to a computerized one.  Even today, one must judiciously examine all so-called multimedia ancillary materials that accompany a possible new text.  Many still provide little more than “fun and games” activities that amount basically to a waste of students’ and teachers’ time. 

Finally, we need to look at the research base in order to inform our classroom practice. Operating solely on anecdotal evidence is not a sound way to proceed when making pedagogical decisions that affect our students.  It is imperative to base as much instructional planning as possible on empirical data gathered under stringent research methods. The end goal is to “connect theoretical knowledge about second language acquisition and performance with research methods in a manner that can advance practice” (Chapelle, Compton, Kon, & Sauro, 2004). 

Any use of technology in the classroom today must also take into consideration several unfortunate realities of the Internet. Children may be bombarded with inappropriate messages or images through email, the web, or instant messaging, but they and their parents have a right to expect that school activities will not be a source of such unacceptable materials. To this end close supervision of students and teacher oversight of technology based communication are essential to maintain the trust that we need for our schools to function.  Spam, virus, and content filters will continue to improve, making this supervision easier, but they will never replace the classroom teacher’s vigilance and care taken to structure assignments to prevent the intrusion of such abusive content, for instance by screening all messages in an email exchange with another school.

Teachers already face problems of students trying to use translation software to do their composition homework for their language courses. Though the quality of such translations is abysmal, we expect such software to continue improving.  Without even considering the fairness of students obtaining grades based on a machine’s work, it is clear that the student who uses this software is getting no learning benefit at all from the activity. Low tech solutions may be the best bet to address this high tech problem. Original writing of early drafts of at least essential parts of an assignment under the teacher’s supervision may go a long way towards showing the student that he can do the assignment without the aid of machine translation.

Numerous web sites now provide online “help” that does a student’s homework, writes papers, etc.  In addition, more and more students seem inclined to copy text from web sites and then add it to their paper as if it were their own.  There are tools and services available to help the teacher detect such plagiarism. Here too though, a greater focus on the steps in the writing process with more supervision at each step rather than placing too much emphasis on the final product can help.  Being aware of the dangers is essential for anticipating problems and structuring activities to avoid them.


Bottom line:  The benefits


One of the most acknowledged advantages to using technology in the FL classroom is the access it affords to real target language (TL) input and authentic materials.  The Internet has opened so many doors to us as FL teachers.  We can read current TL newspapers on-line daily.  We can listen to and record for later use TL news broadcasts and even see them through the technologies of streaming audio and video.  We can engage in synchronous and asynchronous conversations with native speakers (NSs) of the TL in written, audio, and video formats on a regular basis. . . and so can our students.  The ancillary materials currently available on CD-ROM, DVD,  and the particular Internet sites that coordinate with FL textbooks are rife with authentic materials, NS input, and a cultural richness that were absent for so long from traditional texts and workbook versions.  These materials contain digitized audio and video segments that expose the language learner to real-life situations, contextual language instruction, and embedded cultural information that clearly enhance the language learning experience.  Digital media formats provide for lower costs, more flexibility, better integration with lessons, and hence the potential for improved pedagogical uses (over the old audio and video cassette formats) and greater availability for students.  Access to authentic materials and NS input is a powerful argument in favor of the implementation of technology in the FL curriculum. Indeed, it is underscored by this statement from the New Jersey World Languages Curriculum Framework:


"The latest instructional technologies, particularly the most interactive technologies such as computer-assisted language learning and advanced telecommunications, enhance the possibilities of providing world languages for all students, while bringing languages and cultures into the classroom in an immediate and authentic way. Technology transforms the world languages classroom by recreating the multidimensional nature of language as it exists within the visual, social, and cultural world."

(NJ World Languages Curriculum Framework, 1999, Ch. 3, p. 9)


The South Carolina Foreign Languages Curriculum Standards document also touts technology as a major resource for FL teachers and lists a number of benefits to students and teachers when it is used effectively:


The use of new technologies creates experiences that are compelling for language learners. Multimedia is a way of managing and presenting the kinds of resources increasingly needed for effective language teaching, as new insights into language acquisition are developed and curricular goals are expanded. The benefits of using technology include:


• access to authentic language and culture,

• active student learning through interactive technology,
• student self-pacing and sequencing,
• cooperative learning environment,
• access to the community outside the walls of the school, 
• access to various instructors and to less commonly taught languages through interactive distance learning, and
• access to up-to-the-minute materials. 

(SC FL Curriculum Standards, Chapter 6, p. 4)


All of these benefits are worthy of mention, but we should underscore a few in particular. 

First, the accessibility of languages to all learners in school districts with distance learning technology is crucial to maintaining FL study in the U.S.  It is important to view distance learning technology as a way to share resources and provide language learning opportunities that otherwise would not exist.  While some may look to distance learning as a way to save money, in fact the technological setup and time invested are quite costly and, in the end, distance learning will probably not eliminate jobs.  Rather, we can use this technology to promote the sharing of resources, link FL colleagues (Cubillos, 1998), and offer FL courses that otherwise would fold or simply would not be offered due to low enrollments or scarcity of teachers (AP Language courses, Less Commonly Taught Languages, etc.).  In other circumstances, decreased school budgets and concomitant elimination of teaching positions have threatened the very existence of FL programs in some districts.  Distance learning could save those programs in some circumstances by pooling resources and combining expertise and community needs in different districts (Pitkoff and Roosen, 1994).

Second, the benefit of access to the community outside the school walls directly relates to several of the national Standards goal areas:  Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities.  Through technology, language learners can explore products and practices of the TL culture and investigate the perspectives related thereto.  They can then make reasonable and educated comparisons between such products and practices from the TL culture and their own. By using their language skills, learners gain access to materials and information available only through TL media (newspapers, radio, TV), much of it readily available on the Internet.  Only in this way can one truly tap the perspectives held by members of the TL culture, a “must” for the dedicated language student.  Additionally, exploration of these resources can continue long after the termination of formal language study, possibly leading to involvement in a TL community and hopefully leading to life-long learning.


Sample technologies of today


            Already mentioned above are several of the technologies that FL teachers can implement to enhance their instruction.  Discussing all of them in depth is well beyond the scope of this chapter, but we will treat a few as a representative sample of the technological possibilities that exist presently.  Computer technology is clearly the dominant resource, with the WWW playing a major role.  Web sites exist in the millions, and certainly quite a lot are not worth the trouble of perusal.  However, many quality sites exist and can serve as useful adjuncts to well-constructed TL lessons[ii].  The trick, of course, is to locate these good sites with minimum time expenditure and maximum results.  One way to go about this is to use a powerful search engine and to develop good search strategies: selecting useful keywords to narrow the options, searching in the TL rather than English, and using TL search engines (such as http://fr.yahoo.com/ or http://es.yahoo.com/ ). Another way to avoid spending hours searching is to utilize collections of web pages already generated by FL teachers.  Many folks have already invested much time doing this, so there is no need to duplicate efforts[iii].   

Use of electronic mail (email) is pervasive in our lives today.  Many FL teachers have used email in their classrooms for a variety of activities. Virtual Connections (Warschauer, 1996) contains 125 examples of projects that FL teachers have carried out in their classrooms with various electronic communications technologies (including email).  Email provides an easy way for language students to practice their TL skills, whether it be with other language learners—through a discussion format, their teacher—through dialog journaling, or even NSs--through a penpal or keypal arrangement or project (Knight, 1994; LeLoup, 1996).     

Electronic discussion lists and Usenet groups permeate the Internet. A list is an email discussion group on a topic of common interest to the subscribers. Literally thousands of lists exist on the Internet and, in actuality, hundreds are dedicated, or related in some way, to FL learning and instruction (Bedell, 1993). Email lists can be valuable resources for FL teachers. Through participation in the discussions on these lists, teachers can become involved in a professional dialogue about any aspect of teaching or language they wish. Exchanges abound, ranging from theoretical discussions to practical suggestions for enhancing classroom activities, to comments on textbook series, to advice about travel companies for student trips. This collegial exchange is a way for FL teachers to participate in on-going professional development and networking (LeLoup & Ponterio, 2004).  

An alternative to joining email lists is participation in USENET newsgroups, if your service provider offers that option. Postings are read via a news reader, which keeps track of what messages have or have not been read in a particular thread or discussion topic. You can log on, select a thread, find the new messages, and read them. You can also initiate threads and post responses, much as you would post something on a bulletin board--another name frequently used for these groups. Participation in newsgroups is a popular way for many people to access information about a desired topic because it does not fill the user's mailbox; the only information stored on the user's computer is a log of which messages have been read. Ironically, this advantage also becomes a drawback at times. Ease of participation allows readers to come and go from topics in an irregular fashion, and a collegial or supportive atmosphere often does not result. Web-based discussions abound as well.  Here all communication remains within a web page rather than passing through email or a newsgroup, thus allowing easier set-up and greater privacy.

Authoring programs exist to enable teachers to develop materials particular to their own texts and curricular goals.  These programs typically are organized into templates that include a variety of answer/response formats such as multiple choice, true/false, matching, cloze, scrambled words or sentences.  Many of the programs provide for inclusion of multimedia—digitized video and audio.  Teacher authors can then tailor-make activities that coordinate with the text or topics they are covering in their class.  Examples of these authoring programs are Libra (Southwest Texas University; Macintosh videodisc), WinCalis (Computer Assisted Language Instruction for Windows, Duke University; Windows platform; supports all world language texts), and Dasher (University of Iowa; both platforms), and the xMediaEngine Template Series (Middlebury College, Macintosh).

Online instructional software applications such as WebCT and TopClass provide an environment for teachers in which entire classes can be conducted asynchronously.  These web-based programs can be used to conduct a complete class online or just to publish supplemental materials and resources for the class.  Other web-based programs such as Hot Potatoes and Quia are software applications that enable teachers to create interactive and personalized activities to coincide with their own particular teaching materials.

Conferencing systems are also available through the Internet via commercial packaging.  Such systems as Daedalus or the FirstClass Conferencing system allow teachers to set up private discussion groups limited to a particular class.  These systems are relatively easy to administer and tend to be of the client-server variety.  They also typically support extended character sets so necessary for FL exchange.  Another advantage of these conferencing systems is their moderation by a teacher, who can regulate and direct the discussion according to the class needs and curricular demands.  While they are generally meant to be for asynchronous interaction, they may have provision for synchronous dialog exchange.

We also find opportunities for synchronous TL conversations.  Internet Relay Chat or IRC is one such application. . IRC is a very popular program that presents a series of "channels" rather like a CB. By entering a channel, you can "talk" to all of the other people on the channel, no matter where they are in the world. Everything that you type will be seen instantly by all of the other people there, and you will see anything that they type. Channel names usually reflect the topics discussed, so entering a channel called "français" might be interesting for a French class, especially if you have made an appointment to meet some other Francophiles there at a specific time. IRC and similar programs do have a great potential for worldwide, interactive communication and also hold promise for small-scale TL conversation practice.  You can even create private channels for your own students with the software available. 

Messenger programs for real-time discussion and interchange are ubiquitous on the web.  “Instant Messenger” from AOL-Netscape, “Yahoo Messenger,” “ICQ,” and “MSN Messenger” are but a few of the applications commonly available that allow synchronous exchange of messages, photos, and files with friends, family, and colleagues. 

Commercial presentational software is very popular and includes such programs as Microsoft PowerPoint, Hyperstudio, and Visual Communicator.  These programs have the capability of combining text, graphics, and video.  Though not specifically designed for FL use, some language support is available—ie., diacritics.  However, some of the world languages are not currently supported, notably right-to-left languages.  These programs can be used to create rich cultural materials and presentations for and by language learners.


Looking ahead


Trying to predict the future of technology has all the scientific accuracy of tarot cards, tea leaves, and chicken entrails, none of which is as dependable as the good old crystal ball.  However, what we can do is to examine the question through a survey of some of today’s improvements and advances we can now see appearing. By extrapolating how they will change the tools that are currently available, we can anticipate the potential modifications that might have specific pedagogical applications for the FL classroom.

The fundamental and oft-cited rule of thumb of advances in computer engineering is Moore’s law, stipulating a doubling of processing power, or at least of the number of transistors in a given area of a circuit, every 18 months. While at first glance an increase in speed that stems from this transistor density might not seem terribly important to the typical FL teacher, we should note that it is not just a question of doing things faster. The consequent rise in processing power leads to improvements in the quality of everything we see and hear and can have a profound impact on our overall impression of computer-mediated communication.  For instance, we have gone from the beep of the first PC to CD quality audio; from the bouncing dot in the game of Pong to DVD quality video; from the long wait as we search for a word in an electronic dictionary to transparent real-time spell-checking; from email messages that appeared on our screens at a rate of less than a sentence per second to email with embedded audio and video, not to mention real-time desktop videoconferencing.  Will all this power make speech recognition and human-like artificial intelligence providing negotiated meaning in simulated discourse for beginning language learners a practical working reality in the FL classroom?  Probably not tomorrow. 

Along with continuing improvements in audio and video quality thanks to better compression of higher quality original materials, we can expect to see several additional changes thanks to a few other basic improvements in computing infrastructure. Networks, including the Internet, will continue to get faster, allowing us to move larger and larger amounts of information around more quickly. This means that we will be able to access images, audio, and video from remote locations far more quickly. Wireless networking is also likely to have an impact on the way we work Whereas fast networks make it easier to interact with remote locations (for example a remote digital language lab), wireless makes it easier to carry our tools around with us (for example a teacher moving from one classroom to another while carrying all materials in a laptop that takes no time to set up).  Another expected change in hardware is the continuing increase in the size and speed along with a decrease in price of memory available both for long term storage: hard drives, memory sticks, optical (such as CD and DVD formats) and for internal RAM memory. Larger memory storage devices suggest the ability to store more and larger files; for the language teacher this means especially authentic audio and video. In addition to these technical changes, we shall certainly see software evolving in two opposing directions, as is often the case. Features are frequently added to software, making tools more powerful and capable of performing more functions, though simultaneously rendering them more complex and difficult to learn to use. But on the other hand, software designers also try to simplify their product interfaces to make them easier for typical users.  This evolution generally leads to popular features that eventually do become easier to use. How might we reasonably expect such changes to impact the FL teacher? Many of them may make our lives easier, or in other cases perhaps more complicated, but they won’t necessarily all have a direct effect on language teaching. We will examine some of the changes that we believe could have direct pedagogical importance.

Internet access to real-time audio and video programming, for instance radio and television from other countries, is already being used in many language classes. Students can see and hear authentic language use by NSs. The quality of video and audio streams has been steadily improving, and today many, but not all, sources of these materials work well enough to be acceptable for use in the classroom.  As such services continue to improve, we can be sure that many more sources will appear and more of them will be of satisfactory, even superior, quality. Eventually excellent audio and video will be the accepted norm from broadcast sources, but also from school sites where teachers are able to make specific selected audio and video available to their own students. All this works today but is often too complex for the average teacher to manage alone and still doesn’t always work as dependably as needed for pedagogical use.

In addition to the centrally distributed audio and video discussed above, two-way interactive audio and video are also now coming into their own. Most instant messaging systems, described in a previous section, now allow for audio and often video chats, and the quality is sometimes acceptable for personal communication but not necessarily for classroom use as exposure to authentic language. Too often configuration and bandwidth problems tend to degrade this interactive audio and video, but when it works, it is quite impressive. Here too as improvements continue to be made, high quality and functional transparency will become the accepted norm. At that point, classes and individual students from around the world will be able to meet virtually and use their language skills with real NSs. Kids from many countries are already doing this to some extent on their own with audio features of online roll-play games where they talk to each other while playing.

One of the problems that teachers encounter when using audio and video in instant messaging systems is that both participants in the discussion need to be online at the same time. These messengers do allow the users to leave text messages for their contacts who happen to be off-line, and a few also allow users to leave voice messages, though generally of limited length.  This feature might be viewed as a sort of Internet based voice mail system.  Some email programs also allow the easy attachment of voice messages or even video clips to email.  Expansion of such services will make it easier to exchange higher quality audio and also video messages with conversation partners who may not be on-line at the same moment. Such features are still in their infancy but could facilitate audio and video exchanges with classes and students in different time zones.  Even when the time difference is not a problem, classes at different locations often may not meet at the same time during the day.  An asynchronous message makes the communication far less interactive, but it does make interaction possible in cases where it is not practical due to scheduling conflicts.

Managing, editing or creating audio and video materials can be daunting for the technically untrained foreign language teacher. Much of the software for capture and editing of a/v content has become easier to use in recent years, but technical questions of resolution, compression (quality vs. file size), sound volume, selecting recording devices, along with many other decisions that must be made routinely by anyone managing audio, video, and even image files, can still be a nightmare.  Most teachers are far too busy to spend much time figuring out such things. Software for basic functions needs to and certainly will become more transparent. Following the “Fair Use Guidelines for Educational Multimedia,” teachers have plenty of leeway in terms of extracting video and audio clips, capturing and using such clips for classroom related lessons, editing out inappropriate content, and selecting only material that supports learning goals. Ability to do such things as slow the speed of a recording without lowering the pitch can turn meaningless gibberish into comprehensible input. All of these things are possible today for the technically sophisticated, but as the software gets better more teachers will be able to take advantage of the tools that best meet their needs.

High network speeds from gateways at large institutions to broadband at home have made online image archives a reality, but waiting time for many images to appear is still often too long for comfortable browsing. As networks continue to improve, these waits will be significantly reduced. This should make exploring such archives seem more like browsing one’s own hard drive. The resulting ease of use will lead to better interactive access to centralized data sources for images, audio, and video collections. By effectively eliminating download waits, such sources should become more attractive, giving us easier access to additional authentic and teacher produced materials.  The Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTL) project is already working with this basic technology and will certainly benefit from the expected network improvements.

One of the problems of distance learning is the cost of telecommunications. In one case of an Arabic class at SUNY Cortland, the telecommunications costs were as high as the teacher’s salary. Higher speed Internet will allow distance learning applications to use lower cost networks making distance learning for LCTLs more affordable and also simultaneously sending multiple channels of high quality data streams to students over the Internet, for example: images, audio, multiple video views, and comments by other students. In addition, the expansion of broadband access and higher broadband speeds will facilitate the extension of higher quality distance learning into the home. We already see this reality for one-on-one audio communication, which has replaced telephone office hours in many distance learning settings.

Language is about using real tools for real communication. We have long seen tools that help students learn to write better in the FL. Continuing improvements to word processor built-in grammar and spelling checkers have now integrated such support into the same programs that we use to write in our native language. Over the past ten years these tools for spell checking and grammar checking have gone from laughable to useful, but only when used with great care. Although these features sometimes give misleading information, missing basic errors or flagging well-formed sentences as wrong, overall they continue to be one of the best tools for helping students learn to write sentences in the FL with fewer spelling and grammar mistakes. More importantly, when used well, they can help students learn correct structures by providing immediate feedback showing better, more accurate forms. The built-in thesaurus can also suggest alternative vocabulary choices, helping students to expand their vocabulary. We expect these to continue to improve so that fewer misdiagnoses will crop up and more accurate alternative forms will be suggested to writers. 

New tools are becoming available for readers as well. Reading is one of the best sources of vocabulary development and authentic language that can be digested at the reader’s own speed, but limited vocabulary is a major hurdle to the novice FL reader. Some turn to very bad machine translations of online texts to try to get the gist, but this does not often work well and it certainly does not help one improve language skills. Better, i.e. more transparent, integration of bilingual dictionary help for electronic reading materials puts glossing decisions under the reader’s control. Dictionaries both online and installed on one’s personal computer may be set to allow instant lookup of words in either a bilingual or monolingual dictionary simply by clicking on the unknown word. Rather than providing a translation that might be no better than a wild guess, these give complete dictionary entries allowing students to interpret the word according to the context. This practice improves the comprehensibility of the authentic text for the student, as long as there are not too many words that need to be looked up.  A major advantage of these systems is that they do not require any advance preparation of the text by a teacher, such as adding glosses. By making the lookup interactive and instantaneous, the interruption of the reading process is reduced to a minimum, thus improving the overall quality and benefit of the reading experience (LeLoup & Ponterio, 2005).

The operating systems now being developed include improved tools for organizing content, not only text, but also audio, video, and images. For instance, a song in the TL can be tagged with searchable comments about the topic, the grammar structures present, the level of difficulty, links to additional online information, images, lyrics, audio, in essence any information that the teacher or student might find useful. All of these things are then found at the teacher’s fingertips when needed, either in class or when preparing a lesson. Currently teachers need to organize such materials in folders, but not everyone has good organizational skills and even so the folder model does not allow multiple organizational criteria, such as by book chapter, topic, grammar points, class level, etc., all at the same time. Few teachers know how to make good use of databases for this purpose. Although the integration of advanced search features in the operating system is not truly a  FL-specific tool, the enhanced ability to search for audio and video materials by pre-defined criteria is of particular use to the language teacher who often needs to locate authentic language samples meeting specific criteria for a particular lesson.

The USB memory stick is also a device that does not really have a specific FL application, but as they become easier to use and grow in memory size and speed, it is becoming possible to carry all of the materials one might ever need in one’s pocket. This is a boon to any teacher who travels from classroom to classroom or prepares materials at home for use in school. The memories of these devices, at least in their upper range, are now becoming large enough to carry audio and video as well as other files. In cases where Internet access to student audio recordings is not possible, this can now be a satisfactory option for accessing these recordings outside of the lab. Of course, they can also be used much like a writable or rewritable DVD disk to bring digital a/v materials, captured from a variety of outside sources, into the classroom, for instance current mp3 players. But they are easier to use than rewritable data DVDs, appearing to the teacher and functioning just like an external hard drive.

Ten years ago, using a portable computer for a presentation in a school or at a conference was often a nightmare. It was always likely that something would not work, and teachers could often be seen scurrying around trying to find a technical guru to solve the inevitable problems. Today the integration of different devices tends to be more and more standard, so we can usually count on everything working after we connect a few fairly simple standard cables.  Yet every new feature seems to yield another potential incompatibility. In the future, we may expect such connections to be wireless, eliminating the need to make cable connections, though some security will certainly be required to ensure against outside intrusions and to be sure that the presentation in room 12 doesn’t appear on the screen in room 13. As these devices do a better job talking to each other, the teacher has less to do to ensure that correct settings allow the systems to function. A good example of such a simplification can be seen in mp3 players that can send audio to your car’s radio.

Many new and improved devices develop potential applications or become more accessible as they become easier to use. Digital cameras and camcorders have been gaining ground in the classroom as the software for using them becomes simpler. In the language class this means more time doing language and less time manipulating the technology, connecting cameras, downloading files, scanning images. Many teachers are making good use of the PDA, smart boards, classroom management systems, electronic grade books. Here too such devices are useful for all teachers, not specifically the  FL teacher. On the other hand, some tools might not at first appear to have a FL benefit but turn out to present a crucial advantage. The integration of Java software in web pages has much promise for large businesses that may be able to save money on computer maintenance, but the potential to make FL-specific software available to students over the Internet without installing a program on the computer that the student is using is an interesting way to make this non-general use software accessible where it would not otherwise be installed.

Most people think first of voice recognition as a key to the future of FL  technology. Voice recognition has certainly come a long way and is used successfully in some FL applications, but it still has a long way to go to achieve seamless human-like interaction, anticipation of learner errors, and pedagogically sound feedback. Many NSs of a language find it difficult to interact with a language learner, and we are a long way from teaching a computer do something that is a problem for so many NSs. Teachers often hear the hype about such products but need to do careful testing to verify their usability with real learners in the actual classroom or home setting.

The language lab has undergone significant transformations in recent years, going from audio cassette tapes to Internet connected computer stations.  The traditional language lab functions, primarily listening and recording simultaneously on two audio tracks, distributing audio to multiple student audio stations, and allowing teacher monitoring of student work, have also been expensive because the devices used were not standard on the electronics market, analog networks required complex switching, and management of a huge number of possible functions, many of which were not utilized by many individual teachers, all required big investments.  Digital and virtual language labs have the potential to replace many of these traditional language lab functions, and indeed provide new functions as well, with software-only solutions that can make use of general purpose computers with standard audio cards, inexpensive headsets and microphones, standard Internet connections, and basic web servers. A digital lab simply means that the audio and video are stored and moved around in digital format instead of the analog form of cassette tapes. Many current labs use proprietary devices to combine analog and digital signals. Moving to digital only can represent a significant savings, but it does exclude some possible uses of materials that are not in digital format. Making the move is a big step and a very personal decision for the teacher, especially in settings where there is already a significant collection of analog materials on tape, but as digital formats come to replace all analog media, it becomes easier to work around the exceptions.

The virtual language lab makes use of material in digital format outside the language lab by representing devices for listening or viewing materials on the computer screen. Software might be located in a lab, on a student’s computer at home, or even be contained in a Java applet on a web page so that any computer where the student happens to be sitting will instantly become a language lab station. The high speed Internet access that we discussed earlier makes it possible to extend the virtual language lab beyond the walls of the classroom, giving access to materials and functions wherever the student and teacher happen to be.  Many virtual language labs today offer remote access to digital audio and video files for student use, but we expect to see the generalized extension of many traditional language lab functions (for instance listening to a teacher track while recording a student track) to remote generic computers as well.

Predicting the future is a tricky and dangerous business. In fact, we may safely predict that the predictions we have suggested here will be inaccurate, but they represent a fairly conservative anticipation of the likely evolution of useful technology in the coming years.


Technology and assessment


Technology has a number of specific applications and implications for assessment in the FL classroom. Our profession has long reflected on what represents good assessment, and we certainly want technology to help us assess well, not lead us towards easier but less effective or pedagogically unsound assessment. From computer-adaptive testing to alternative assessment to performance-based assessment, and including tools to help teachers design testing materials, technology can be seen playing a role.

One of the most obvious technical applications for assessment can be seen in tests that are taken and automatically graded at the computer terminal. Such tests are limited in their ability to evaluate real language production, which is gaining in importance as we see in the evolution of the SAT exam’s written component. Computer adaptive testing is based on the notion that a student’s language ability can be described according to a set of levels, e.g. the ACTFL proficiency scale. The test, like an Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI), uses criterion-referenced performance indicators through test items that have been evaluated for this purpose, to verify whether a student is performing at a certain level of proficiency. If so, the student is checked for performance at the next level, and so on until the test determines the student’s level. Such tests have been effectively used as placement tools.

A potential problem of technology mediated assessments has long been the affective block that makes using the technology difficult for some students. These test takers may have trouble performing or simply function less well using a computer than taking a paper and pencil test. Materials may be designed to reduce, perhaps even to eliminate this effect, but the possibility that the medium could negatively impact a student’s performance is a serious issue that must be considered. On another front, the clever or technically astute test taker may find a way to use the technology itself to cheat in a testing situation. Some computerized test settings need to be specifically designed to prevent such cheating, leading institutions to set aside a dedicated secure testing lab, but then the equipment may no longer be able to perform the general purpose functions that make computers so valuable in the first place. Such a solution could be very expensive indeed.

Alternative assessments may involve the production of written communication with authentic technical tools that are commonly used for real communication. These may involve such things as word processors, publishing tools, presentations, and video recordings. In these cases the teacher must monitor the time spent learning to use the tools vs. the attention given to the language production. In terms of assessment, it is also essential to be sure we are assessing the language use, not the bells and whistles of the tools employed. The advantage in using such programs should be their role as real communicative tools as used by NSs in a culturally authentic situation. The goal is then to come as close as possible to real communication, not to focus more on form than on content, which may be a danger when such tools “take over” a project.

There is certainly an overlap between alternative assessment and performance-based assessments. In many cases the function of technology specific to performance-based assessments is to capture and store a student’s performance for closer evaluation by the instructor at a later time. Audio and video cassettes have long played this role. The advantage of digital technology is easier storage and more flexible availability of the performance to the evaluator. Faster access to student samples, the ability to instantly jump around to specific locations in the student’s performance, and the possibility of much more easily comparing the performances of several students represent clear advantages offered by the technology during the evaluation of such tasks.

For all kinds of assessment methods and formats, technology can help the teacher prepare materials. We can now much more easily integrate authentic language through audio and video listening comprehension segments. Images can be presented in a variety of media formats to help provide the context necessary for the presentation or simulation of more realistic communicative acts.  Even the simple act of using a word processor to write tests tends to help us reduce typographical errors, make modifications for multiple versions of tests, and mix and match test segments and items from past exams. Even software that helps teachers design rubrics can lead to more attention to the effectiveness of the test instrument, better evaluation of the student’s language, and more effective communication with the student and parents about what needs to be learned, what skills need to be acquired, and how they will be evaluated.

Publisher resources are an integral part of textbook adoption and more and more of these resources are technology based. For assessment, this means that the teacher has easier access to a variety of materials provided by the publisher and designed to support teaching and evaluation of the material in specific chapters of the text. These materials cover the same broad range that we have already mentioned for teacher-designed materials.

Organizations intended to support teachers are also using technology to help teachers design lessons and assessments. An excellent example is the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) that supports teachers through a number of online services, for instance: the Content-Based Language Teaching through Technology (CoBaLTT) website (http://www.carla.umn.edu/cobaltt/) where technology is used to provide access to a variety of resources including resources to aid the teacher in designing and creating good assessments. CARLA is also the home of the LCTL project website that serves many functions including access to royalty-free images, audio, and video for teachers’ use. These resources can be used to build lessons but also as the basis of assessment materials.  LCTLs are languages where publishers do not have sufficient financial incentive to produce materials for teachers, so teachers have a great interest in sharing materials with each other to create their own common stock of media. Such initiatives are excellent examples of the use of technology at the grass-roots level helping teachers help each other.

The computer’s role in assessment has come a long way from Scantron® forms for multiple choice tests. No matter what the assessment philosophy or medium, technology can play a role in aiding the teacher in an area that is not always the favorite part of the classroom teacher’s job.




Mirroring its increasing role in all aspects of our daily lives, the impact of technology in the FL classroom has become an essential consideration for the language teacher. We must keep in mind that our purpose is to teach people to use the language. Where technology can help us do a better job, it certainly behooves us to consider using it. Yet we should beware of using technology for its own sake; it must never detract from our primary goal of language learning. Where technology helps us communicate as we do in practical real-life situations, it will have a positive effect. Certainly, its most powerful function in the FL classroom is to improve access to high quality, up-to-date, authentic language. In those cases where a native would use a technology for communication, it only makes sense that language learners should themselves practice communicating via that technology, manipulating real language as would a native.  Today’s teacher uses technology to communicate in the real world as a matter of course, so it is only natural for these tools to find their uses in the classroom.  Still, we should remember that very often the best communication technology is two chairs in which two people can sit face-to-face.





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[i] For more information on the New Jersey World Languages Curriculum Framework, see the following site:  http://www.state.nj.us/njded/frameworks/worldlanguages/


[ii] For reviews of WWW sites of benefit to FL teachers, please see LeLoup & Ponterio, “On the Net,” in Language Learning & Technology (http://llt.msu.edu/). This regular column explores a different website in each volume.


[iii] One site that offers many of these FL collections is the FLTEACH WWW Resources for Language Teachers page (http://web.cortland.edu/flteach/flteach-res.html).