Is technology needed in language classrooms?
March 24, 2019
Evgeny Chukharev, PhD
Linguatorium R&D
These days, language classrooms seem to come with technology by default. But do you ever feel like technology is there just for the sake of technology? This doesn't have to be the case, but technology certainly has its time and place – in the right context.
At my daytime job, I work as an associate professor at a large research university in the U.S. In one of my favorite classes, Intro to Linguistics, I don’t use a learning management system. I don’t even use powerpoints. I prefer the chalkboard. (And I think the only way I can avoid accusations of not being tech-savvy is that I was a senior software engineer before I became an academic.) This is because I don’t like using ed tech unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Here is what Charity Davenport, an ESL teacher and ed tech guru, writes in her blog:
Technology is increasingly becoming an important part of the classroom, and teachers are often pressured to use technology to the point that they might shoehorn in usage that might not be best for the class. Being tech-smart is more important than tech-savvy. Knowing what kinds of technology to use in different situations and know when some programs are just not a good fit for your classroom are just as important as knowing how to use them. With the flood of tech services available now, teachers need to know not only how to use these services, but which ones best serve a purpose to enhance the classroom experience.
I couldn’t put this better. There is no reason why a teacher should use flashy, shiny, modern technology just for the sake of using technology. I believe ed tech should only be used when it greatly outperforms other types of learning activities. By "greatly" I mean, for example, increasing long-term vocabulary retention three times with under 3 minutes of extra time commitment per day (as reported in this paper about Linguatorium Lexis).

How can such effectiveness be attained? In my experience, the two main engineering principles behind effective computer-assisted language learning tools are adaptivity (i.e. they provide personalized learning experiences based on individual student’s needs) and scalability (i.e. they reduce the time teachers need to spend creating instructional materials). Effective tools will often leverage natural language processing (NLP), real-time measurement of learner behavior, and learner modeling to create pedagogical interventions that would be impossible without these technologies.

Take, for another instance, second-language phonological perception (the ability to distinguish individual sounds/phonemes), which is the essential foundation of oral communicative ability. Research is unanimous that the best available method for teaching phonological perception is High-Variability Phonetic Training (HVPT). However, it is plainly impossible to implement this method without technology. Thus, the use of an HVPT tool, such as the English Accent Coach or Linguatorium Auris, is warranted in any ESL classroom.

In sum, unlike a content class (such as Intro to Linguistics I brought up above) that may prioritize declarative knowledge, an ESL classroom is geared towards acquiring fluent language skills, which requires a lot of practice. For this context, technology is often appropriate and even needed — as long as it’s selected with care and discretion.