Sometimes the rush to be innovative, technologically advanced, and cost-effective in education leaves logic in the dust. Such is the case with the movement to replace foreign language teachers with software programs.
Case in Point
Education Week’s Ian Quillen recently reported on the decision of the Eagle County school district in Colorado to layoff three foreign language teachers and replace them with Aventa Learning foreign language software (18 May, 2012). As Quillen indicates, the decision reflects at least three issues in second language instruction:
• Schools want to say they offer and require two years of foreign language study; however, there is typically no concern that it is impossible to actually learn another language in that short amount of time. Fuller immersion is needed.
• Budgets continue to be reduced, and a software license even with a teaching assistant is much cheaper than a professional foreign language teacher.
• Adaptive learning has become the new mantra of eLearning, but there is a debate over whether or not this makes teachers obsolete. (18 May, 2012)
To this list, I would add that the relentless push for measurable results, standardized testing, accountability, and American ethnocentrism each play into this as well. Foreign language software allows the constant printing out of reports that show the memorization of concrete aspects of language such as verb conjugations. These can also be tested and accountability can be proven.
Furthermore, based on my own experience as a foreign language teacher at both the secondary and postsecondary levels and a former department chair in a statewide college system, I found that too often Americans tend to define ‘foreign language’ as ‘Spanish’ only, as if there are no other languages and their associated cultures to be studied. Even with Spanish, few seem engaged with in-depth study of this beautiful language and its associated cultures.
Therefore, a confluence of the above causes produces a rush to simply replace foreign language teachers with software in some schools, with little or no thought to the educational ramifications. As Quillen quite rightly stated: “There’s very little similarity between the educational approach of a school that can afford to infuse adaptive learning software and 1-to-1 computing tools into a fully staffed classroom, and one so cash-strapped that it uses an admittedly less dynamic online-learning option to replace teachers it can no longer afford to pay” (18 May, 2012). Sadly, it seems the American people want the latter version of foreign language education rather than the preferable former one.
Need for Human Teachers
Real communication only occurs between human beings. Language is a living, ever changing activity that expresses an endless variety of the aspects of the human experience. Part of learning a second language is preparing for more than verb conjugations and memorizing survival expressions. It also involves many of the nonverbal forms of communication in a culture that accompany those word forms. It consists of using and responding to the near endless means of expression that reflect feelings, emotions, tones, perceptions, and experiences. So far, technology can not replicate person-to-person communication. In fact, focusing only on technical communication (e.g., social media) can be detrimental to relationships, as Aaron Biebert recently pointed out (14 February, 2012), and this includes learning to communicate and develop relationships in another language.
Additionally, although many Americans believe they can teach themselves anything, this is simply not the case. I could not have taught myself chemistry, calculus, or physics. Teachers are also needed to motivate and engage learners. It was the ability of my chemistry, calculus, and physics instructors that got me interested in learning more about each subject. Likewise, it was the engaging personalities of my former Spanish, Italian, Latin, and Ancient Greek teachers that led me to my own passion for learning about the world and its many languages. Finally, although I used various forms of media support as a student and later as a teacher/administrator for learning and teaching foreign languages, I know that in-person engagement is what really inspired a deeper interest in developing skills in another language.
Because the human element can not be removed from true target language fluency, foreign language learning software should only be used as a tool of learning, not as a replacement for teachers.
Straight from the Source
Aventa Learning is just one of the multimedia options available to help students learn a foreign language; however, it should be noted that as a reputable company, it does not advocate cutting teachers out of the mix. In fact, just the opposite is true. As I reviewed its website and demos, I found a constant emphasis on the need for teachers to be involved. Aventa Learning includes:
• Courses developed by certified teachers in each subject with at least three years of actual classroom teaching experience.
• Foreign language teacher support for using the program as well as professional development opportunities.
• Multiple opportunities for teacher-student interaction both in real-time and asynchronously.
• Various activities to engage faculty and students in proven pedagogical best practices, such as the use of gaming, manipulatives, rewind learning, etc.
• A teacher help line for students, available from 8 AM – 11 PM ET.
• Mentoring and training programs for local school district teachers.
At no point does Aventa Learning advocate cutting teachers out of the learning process.
The advance of technology has made the old acronyms CAI/MAI (Computer-aided/Media-aided Instruction) obsolete because the rational assumption is that technology will be incorporated into even face-to-face courses. This has been true of foreign language learning for decades, and a quick look at the suggestions on sites like FLTeach will prove that point well.
However, there is also a rational assumption that someone—a professional educator—will be there to guide student learning, to direct how tools of learning like foreign language technology can best be utilized to meet student needs. Additionally, there is a reasonable notion that students will learn to communicate with other people. So far, neither avatars nor robots have been able to replace humans. For learning a foreign language, live contact with an instructor is needed.
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