Sunday, May 02, 2004

CALL: Telling Usefulness from Faddism
Blinger's post about CALL reminded me that I have some thoughts stored up on this subject. First, however, let's clarify a few terms here. CALL, for those who are not up on their language teaching acronyms, is Computer Assisted Language Learning. As you undoubtedly notice, this is a very general term. It refers to basically any way a teacher feels like using the computer to enhance his/her students' language learning, in or out of the classroom. If the teacher uses a physical computer in class to enhance a lecture, this is CALL. If the teacher takes the whole class to the computer lab to have the students do some sort of computer-interactive activity, this is CALL. If the teacher assigns the class an internet search for homework, or has a homework page, or makes the students write their own blogs, these are all examples of CALL.

The sheer breadth of this term has its disadvantages, of course. Like CLT (Communicative Language Teaching), it is a movement that is very "in" at the moment. Everyone wants to do CALL. It's progressive, it's cutting edge, it's what everyone should do! Let's all use CALL! Let's turn it into a buzzword and put it in all the literature about how our program teaches language! Let's make all our teachers use it so we can show how with it we are! Yay, CALL, rah, rah, rah! Wait, what do you mean, you don't know how to use it in your class? What do you mean, you can't integrate it into your teaching style? Of course you can! It's a computer! Computers are the future of teaching! Right?

Not really. Let's all just step back for a moment and take a deep breath. Now let's look at the acronym. It stands for Computer Assisted Language Learning. The "A" isn't just there to make it into a nice word that's easy to say. CALL won't teach our classes for us, and it doesn't have to be used everywhere. Just like using any other kind of learning material in class, teachers have to make choices about what actually enhances the lesson, and what is irrelevant.

Let's look at an example. In computer-equipped classrooms with data projectors, many teachers are now fond of presenting their lecture outlines with PowerPoint. For some teachers, this is a huge boon, be it because it helps them stay organized in class, because they can't spell when writing on the board, because their handwriting is illegible, whatever. In my undergraduate General Psychology class, the professor who taught the segment on neuropsych was a genius for picking out illustrations, comics, and in one memorable case, an entire animated segment that very much enhanced his lectures. I'm sure there are many of us who still only remember various parts of the brain because we saw that Pinky and the Brain animated song. This is an example of CALL being used wisely. Other teachers have no need for PowerPoint presentations, and therefore should not use them, because at that point, they're simply distracting to both the instructor and the students.

In my own class, I use the computer very rarely. Despite having my students keep blogs and posting their homework assignments on the web, I only used a computer in the classroom 3 times during the whole semester. In each case, it was to help the students build schema (background knowledge) about an unfamiliar subject in a way I felt would be more understandable than me standing in front of the room lecturing or giving them a long article to read. Here were the three instances: the Underground Railroad journey, which we went through as a class to prepare for MLK, Jr. Day; the Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes video, to follow up on the discrimination activity done with all the students in the ELC; and the Go West with Lewis & Clark journey, for our exploration unit, since they had no conception of this part of US history. That was all I felt the need to do, and the only times when I felt the computer enhanced my classroom activities. Anything else would have been intrusive, taken away from the class, and reduced the students' chances to practice their own language use, which is, after all, the point of language class.

The current emphasis placed on CALL will eventually fade, as CALL becomes more truly integrated into normal teaching practices and less of a fad. In the meantime, teachers who are being told to use CALL all the time will have to consciously consider whether or not the implementation of a CALL activity will actually enhance their lessons. If the answer is no, they shouldn't be afraid to say so, and then back up that assertion with carefully considered reasons as to why not. The more people actually carefully consider such things, the sooner CALL will become less of a giant, mysterious, all-encompassing buzzword and more of a teaching tool, to be used only in situations where it is appropriate.

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