Is CALL outdated?
Through both my own interest and the influence of my MA course, I’ve been sending out prompts for dialogue on Twitter, on Facebook and in my office regarding the integration of technology in our classes in terms of the familiar (and purportedly outdated) abbreviation CALL (Computer-assisted language learning), which has been met with a polarised set of opinions. Feel free to chime in.
My desire for discussion stems from the Bax article, “CALL – Past, Present and Future” (2003), which responds to CALL’s phases put forth by Warschauer & Healey’s “Computers and language learning: An overview” (1998) and develops the concept of technology’s normalisation in the language learning classroom. This discussion is by no means new1, but maybe we’ve been discussing what’s not practical at this point.
But first, I think it’s warranted to summarise one of Bax’s points. Are we at a period in the development of technology where it is so integrated into our daily lives that we hardly consider its presence as special? The iPhone I use for music, photos and calls doesn’t astound me anymore and it’s no more special to my life than my watch or slippers. Many tasks I do–timing my walk to the bus stop, listening to music, reading checking Facebook, Twitter and blogs, and texting with friends that I’ll be a little late–are part in parcel with my phone and not something I consider isolated experiences. I rarely (if ever) these days sit back and say “wow, this is one amazing piece of technology that is helping me with my daily life”. It just does and I’m used to it. This is at the heart of normalisation: “when a technology is invisible, hardly even recognised as a technology, taken for granted in everyday life.” (2003:23).
Of course, unlike my early adopter attitude, some may still identify with these mobile devices as being mind-blowing experiences that are still fairly new, but what about computers and the Internet? Are they still experiences that seem special? Is using them something that is a special occurrence in daily life? I highly doubt most people in non-impoverished regions would suggest that, though I have only my friends, family, students and social networks to back that up.
Assuming I’m justified here, can the same be said of computers in language teaching? Are we using computers and their adjuncts in our daily classrooms? I’d suspect that most of us are on the teacher’s end (e.g. creating handouts, conversing via email, even projecting videos, etc.) but not so many of us on the classroom end (i.e. students using them during class for learning purposes), yet in certain contexts like higher ed, many students do on the self-study/homework end (i.e. assignments, emailing professors, research, etc.). In this way, at least in my experience here in Toronto, it’s not normalised, though it likely wouldn’t be too difficult to expand that to many other ELT contexts.
Bax refers to five stages of normalisation , ranging from those first curious about technologies to rejecting them all out to seeing relevance but still fearing them to not noticing them as special anymore (2003: 24-25). Teachers and programs here tend to hover around the higher end of the middle, where most see a value in using technology to facilitate learning, but are afraid to use it consistently, to change comfortable routine or to rely on what might fail unexpectedly. Add to that its limited availability and we fall back into what’s considered ‘a special trip to the computer lab today’.
There may also be some confusion about what exactly CALL represents. Álvarez (2011) refutes the assumption that CALL is referring to computers alone and not the study of the linguistic connections regarding “all social phenomena inherent in their use for pedagogical purposes” nor research involved in such connections. In doing so, his suggestion that this CALL would become “extinct” through normalisation loses me. As an example, he compares it to the idea that since we all know atoms exist that atomic physicists should also become redundant. I know what Álvarez is trying to suggest–that the study of how computers or more broadly, technology, assists language learning should not be ended simply because technology is widely used. Bax, however, seems to be largely referring to a more practical, classroom end in his discussion of normalisation than the ‘meta’ study of it: teachers and students find what we consider technology (computers, mobile devices, etc.) so normal in the classroom that it’s no longer represented to students nor taught in training programs as a special side of language learning (i.e. in teacher training courses here, CALL continues to predominantly represent a small module about using computer software in language labs). This also suggests that when training new teachers, the training itself integrates technology into it without “divorcing it from the course.” (Jones, 2012) It implies nothing about research into how computers, pens, course books, music, my dog or anything else affects language learning.
In the end, is it really computer-assisted language learning now? Should we, as educators, suggest to students who have computers and other technologies interwoven in their daily lives that language learning through a computer is a special option in and outside the class? Would that not now be received by a resounding ‘Duh!’? Maybe it’s not normalisation that we should be debating per se, but the term, CALL, itself. How about moving to the more encompassing, Educational Technology (though one might argue that this or TELL are just syntactically different), which would entail the study and incorporation of any new technology into language learning. Maybe separating out various techs into their own titles, like mLearning, would be less problematic, until they too are considered outdated? Maybe that would get confusing (Levy & Hubbard, 2005:148). Hey, perhaps no label at all? Or maybe it’s all moot since every language learning context is different and we all need to accept CALL because it appeals to the lowest common denominator?
1 Take a look at this 2006 discussion about normalisation from an email forum on IATEFL’s LTSIG. <last accessed February 5, 2012> for points-of-view from various teachers in various regions. Bax, in fact, took part in the discussion.
Álvarez, J. 2011. On the concept of ‘Normalisation of CALL’, [blog post]. <last accessed February 5, 2012>
Bax, S. 2003. CALL – past, present and future, System 31,1: 13-28 [Available here].
Jones, C. 2012. The times they are a-changing, [blog post]. <last accessed February 5, 2012>
Levy, M. & Hubbard, P. 2005. Why call CALL “CALL”?, Computer Assisted Language Learning 18,3, 143-149
Warschauer, M., & Healey, D. 1998. Computers and language learning: An overview. Language Teaching, 31, 57-71.
June 2012 Edit: On this post is my first and only interaction with a great leader in the field of CALL, Graham Davies, who passed away a few days ago. I sadly look back at this post, his comment and my reply and wish I had had more opportunity to interact with him. Thank you for your contributions, Graham.