Does Technology Have a Place in Foreign Language Classrooms?

I was at a dinner recently and at intervals throughout the conversation our group collectively struggled to remember specific names or dates. Armed with our smartphones though, this problem was easily remedied. In the car with co-workers on our way to a meeting the other day, I Googled: the hours of operation of a snazzy restaurant we passed, a board member, and the answer to a question I didn’t want to ask out loud. It was a short ride, and I should add that I wasn’t the driver. This is how the bulk of my days go… I need to know some small fact or detail and so I turn to Google or YouTube for salvation; and, it’s not just once or twice a day, either. All over, I see people both old, young, very old, very young, and every age in between acquiring more knowledge from their smartphones. I wonder that when students arrive in classrooms we often cut them off from their technology in order to minimize distractions. Isn’t it somewhat unnatural not to allow them to quick check a fact, or to continue gathering information just because they might send a snapchat (is that what it’s called?) during Language Arts?

We hear a lot these days about technology and its role in the education process. It is an issue worthy of careful consideration. There are those who believe the best way to educate is through a method referred to as “chalk and talk” denoting the critical role of the teacher. Many would add to this the importance of putting pen or pencil to paper in creating meaningful learning. On the flip side, horror stories about school districts jumping on the technological bandwagon prematurely with less than impressive outcomes certainly exist. Still others would argue that there are reasons beyond these that should give learning institutions pause when considering whether or not, or even how, to integrate technology into their curricula. The reasons for approaching cautiously are varied, but perhaps most unsettling is how limited student access to computers and internet effectiveedtechforprof-768x512ly creates yet another category of haves and have nots within the learning environment.

I had an education professor who once said, “I’m not saying never give your kids worksheets, especially the Friday afternoon before spring break starts with grades due later that day. Just be aware of why you’re using them, and know that they aren’t facilitating any real learning.” The importance of knowing why we’re doing something is equally critical now that bringing tablets into the classroom has been proposed. The Chicago Greektown Educational Foundation has only begun grappling with this issue. Our journey into classroom technology began with a position statement by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language, which recognizes language as one of the most complex human activities stipulating that technology should not replace the pivotal role of the teacher. Further, it argues that technology should be a tool used both to help learners speak the target language and to accomplish authentic tasks.

Next, we researched two reputable brands of language learning software by examining their digital platforms. One was much more appropriate for younger students, and the other better for older students. We also explored some of the many ways that tablets can be used in creating a more global and student-centered learning experience. Among some of my favorite digital tools are:

  • Comic Life – allows students to create their own comics
  • Audacity – online sound recorder, have students record their own voices and files to share
  • Wordle – students keep and add to the list of words they know
  • Book Creator – teachers and students can create their own books for use in class
  • Socrative – allows teachers to create quizzes and lessons, it’s easy to post questions for students
  • YouTube Kids – a window into the art and music of other cultures

What’s nice is that this list barely scratches the surface of how technology can be put to good use in language classrooms, which is part of what makes teaching so exciting.

Throughout my involvement with this technology initiative, I have been privy to a breadth of emotions from my colleagues. We have moved from fear and refusal, resignation and acceptance, to excitement over the prospect of ushering in a modern era of Greek language education. An era that invites trial and experimentation, one that allows students more control over the learning process. It is scary, but since we know why we are taking the plunge, so to speak, we must forge ahead.

Susan Downs