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English Teaching, 56(1) 2001

The Computer and the Internet: Are They Really Destined to Play a Major Role in English Teaching?

Everette Busbee

(Jeonju University)

Busbee, Everette. (2001). The computer and the internet: Are they really destined to play a major role in English teaching? English Teaching, 56(1), 201-225.

Computers and the Internet are presented as revolutionary forces in education, for all levels and all subjects, but technology has often mistakenly promised revolution. Predictions that film would make the book obsolete and that radio and television would connect classrooms to the world turned out to be incorrect. Similar predictions by computer experts, that books and schools would soon disappear, have also failed to materialize. The problem is figuring out how to use the computer once it is in the classroom. After well over two decades, CALL enthusiasts can offer little that increases the efficiency of English learning. The once-promising multimedia consistently shows little if any advantage over traditional media in the research, and in fact has inherent weaknesses. Is it reasonable to believe that access to the Internet's vast collection of data will automatically lead to efficient language learning? The Internet, constructed primarily by native speakers for native speakers, is so advanced, so massive and unstructured, that it is generally useful for only genuinely advanced students, and email exchanges have not met expectations. Consequently, both EFL students and teachers tend to be less than enthusiastic about CALL and the Internet. This will continue until CALL offers more.


Computers are proliferating in the classroom at all levels, the hope being that this will improve the quality of education. Bennett (1999, pp. 16-17) gives an especially ebullient version of this hope:

With computers as tutors, schools will be able to advance the learning of pupils to standards that present educators can only fantasize about ―to a level undreamed of before the computer age. This change will help both ordinary and slow students make gigantic advances while allowing brighter students to make unimagined gains. School will be living and vibrant. Students will be energized while learning rapidly, well and enjoyably.

If computers do offer extraordinary gains in learning, we should with all haste provide a computer and appropriate educational software for every student, including those studying English. However, before this is done, there should be reasonable assurances that computerization is warranted, because purchasing, networking, maintaining, and then all too soon replacing a classroom of computers is extremely expensive, and funds for this normally come at the expense of traditional programs. Further, keeping up with the constant changes associated with computers places large additional demands on teachers' time.

This paper questions whether such assurances exist, and whether the computer and the Internet are destined to play a major role in English teaching. The focus is immediate and practical, with no look at all at the philosophical issues surrounding the question of what would be the result if the computer does, in fact, assume a central role in education. For a discussion of these issues, see Kirkpatrick and Cuban (1998).

Selwyn (1999, p. 31) replies to Bennett's (1999) support of computers in the classroom by stating that Bennett “presents an almost carbon-copy thesis of previous visions of technologically-based teaching and learning which have persisted within the educational community for the last thirty years,” and which have all failed to materialize. Hlynka and Yeaman (1992), both educational technologists, describe the history of the last century's view of educational technology as having been built on a positivist, modernist search for the best teaching medium, and they conclude that the history of technology in education in the 20th century is essentially a story of high expectations for new media being repeatedly unfulfilled.

The beginning of a cycle of hope and disappointment can be seen in Edison's 1913 claim that books would soon be obsolete in schools, because he felt textbooks were about 2% efficient, but motion pictures would be 100% efficient (Cuban, 1986). Two decades later it was the radio that was to transform the schools, with Darrow (1932, p. 79) giving the goal.

The central and dominant aim of education by radio is to bring the world to the classroom, to make universally available the services of the finest teachers, the inspiration of the greatest leaders, and unfolding world events which through the radio may come as a vibrant and challenging textbook of the air.

Not to be defeated, two more decades later Darrow (1954, p. 102), writing in what was to become an influential collection on multimedia, saw that radio's problem had been a lack of visuals, and that television was the technology that would get the job done: “When the eye and the ear have been remarried in television then we shall indeed be challenged to open wide the school door.” For B. F. Skinner (Oppenheimer, 1997), the promising technology was the “Skinner Box,” or “teaching machine” of the 1950s and 60s that supposedly would lead to a doubling of learning with the same amount of effort. In spite of these claims for large teaching effects for film, radio, television, and teaching machines, Hannafin and Savenye (1993) conclude simply that exhaustive research in media-comparison studies did not confirm the claims of the reformers with their high expectations.

Two more decades along it was the computer, with Seymour Papert (1984, p. 38), an MIT professor, predicting that “there won't be schools in the future. . . . I think the computer will blow up the school. . . . The whole system is based on a set of structural concepts that are incompatible with the presence of the computer.” The computer's effect was not just to be on the schools, however. Jonassen (1982, p. 379) wrote that “in a decade or so, the book as we know it will be as obsolete as is movable type today.” Nelson (1987), who coined the terms hypertext and hypermedia, demonstrates the faith common in the field by contending that getting everything on screens is a goal to be taken as an article of faith, in that it has a simple obviousness defying argument. This faith in computerization is not unanimous. The computer scientist Michael Fellows, a leader in the movement to add computer science to the elementary school curriculum (see Fellows, 1993), in a seeming contradiction maintains that most schools would probably be better off if they threw their computers into the trash (Koblitz, 1996). However, his stance is consistent in that computer science is the study of the theory of computers, the basic laws of computation, which do not become dated as do software and the computers themselves. Fellows feels that teaching computer science as a theoretical subject to be learned about is worthwhile, but that using computers to teach other subjects is not. Fellows also finds little of value in teaching how to use software that is popular at any given time but that seems to fall out of vogue all too quickly.

At the heart of the computer as teacher is multimedia, and especially so in the field of language teaching. However, a close look at the literature on multimedia leads to the surprising conclusion that the effectiveness of multimedia/hypermedia in education has never been demonstrated. In a major review Dillon and Gabbard (1998) conclude that there is little evidence to support the use of hypermedia for enhancing learning. Another review (Spencer, 1999) comes to a similar conclusion: there is no evidence that motion, color, or high-quality graphics meaningfully enhances learning. Hasebrook (1999) refers to the disappointment arising from the frequent negative results obtained by experimenters attempting to validate the effectiveness of multimedia in education. Even tests of extremely expensive networked multimedia software packages have demonstrated minimal gains, if any. An evaluation by Parr (1995) of a secondary school's year-long use of Successmaker determined that students do in fact learn to do better with the subject matter explicitly taught, but as is commonly the case, tests showed no evidence of generalization into subject areas at large. In addition, the primary beneficiaries were the slower students. Parr adds that the demand in both student time on the computers and teacher time in preparation and training and monitoring students was great.

CALL is hardly fairing much better, with one its own leading advocates, Davies (1997), maintaining that CALL is in desperate need of new ideas. The Internet in language teaching also has serious problems, with Davies (1997) stressing the Internet's almost complete lack of the organizational structure found in study programs utilizing traditional media. Salomon (1998) warns that hypermedia often leads to students' clicking from one item to another without purpose merely because a link happens to be there. These studies will be looked at in more detail later.

Whatever the pros or cons of computers, for computers to ultimately assume a central position in language teaching, they must gain the wide-spread acceptance of both teachers and students, and this has not occurred. The blame is often placed on a fear of computers or a dislike for change, but as computers become commonplace in our lives, this argument weakens, and we may begin to suspect that computers do not offer enough for English teachers and students to embrace them as relevant to their studies.

This paper is primarily a critique of the movement toward computerization of the classroom, centering on the aspects most relevant to language teaching―multimedia, the Internet, CALL, and email. This paper also looks at the reasons for the general lack of acceptance of computers by EFL students and teachers, and also at the forces behind computerization. The ideas presented here are derived from both the literature and the author's experiences as an English teacher who has developed and taught computer courses since 1994, one of which is described in Busbee (2000). Lest it appear that the views in this paper and the regular teaching of computer classes are inconsistent, it should be pointed out that in most of the author's classes, the computer is the subject rather than a teaching device for learning English. While the value of computers as instruments for language teaching is very much in question, there is widespread agreement on the effectiveness of content courses in teaching both English and subject matter (Busbee, 1998).


When computers are placed into a classroom, it is common for teachers to ask what they should do with them to enhance learning. These teachers should know that they are not alone, that even the experts wonder about this. In a pro-computer article in a major educational technology journal, Hokanson and Hooper (1999, p. 235) bemoan that “One of the most elusive questions concerning educational computer use remains as to how computers might improve learning.” This is an startling idea: Two technology-in-education experts who espouse the use of computers in the classroom state that one of the biggest problems concerning computers in the classroom is figuring out how to use them to achieve better learning once they are in the classroom.

Networked Macintosh personal computer laboratories were becoming common in wealthy American school districts about two decades ago, and for a short time large numbers of well-trained and very well-funded educational technology scholars focused their energies on the problem of how to use computers in the classroom in a way that justified the cost. However, by 1986, Collis and Muir were noting the common complaint that the emphasis in college educational computing was on programming machine operation, and that how computers could be used was neglected. It is unlikely that simple neglect is the root cause for the elusiveness of the answer to the question of how computers might improve learning. An alternative explanation seems more likely: the intense research into ways to effectively incorporate the computer in the classroom failed, and educators who were committed to computers retreated to programming as a justification for computers in the classroom. We will return later to this idea that educational technologists do not seem to be asking the appropriate student-oriented question of how to achieve broad educational goals, but seem to instead be asking what can be found that might justify computerizing the classroom.

All this is relevant to computers in language teaching, but Johnson (1999) relates this issue to our field specifically by stating that CALL suffers from the same weakness as computer education in general, in that CALL training for language teachers primarily concerns programming machine operation, and little attention is paid to the more pressing question of how to use the computer to assist in language learning in a way that justifies the costs computers entail.

The most basic question concerning computers in the classroom, what to do with them, has, then, not been answered, and if the above criticisms are true, researchers are not devoting much effort to providing an answer. We will now turn to more specific questions as to the value of computers in education, focusing first on what has become the central component of computers in education, multimedia, including multimedia delivered by the Internet. We will then look specifically at CALL, and then at email.

1. Multimedia, Including the Internet

Computer-based multimedia, a combination of text, sound, and graphics that are often moving, can be delivered by CD, a LAN database, or the Internet, with the mode of delivery not being important. An indication of the delivery system's irrelevance is that writers on the subject often use the terms Internet and multimedia interchangeably. And although the Internet is much larger than a CD-based database, what is on the monitor while browsing is nothing more nor less than computer-based multimedia. Further, the hugeness of the Internet is of questionable value in language teaching. One of a language teacher's duties is to carefully choose a limited amount of material at an appropriate level for guiding students through a series of graded conversation, composition, and reading activities that gradually increase in difficulty. A haphazard choice can lead to input at such a high level that it overwhelms students to such an extent that they become discouraged and lose their motivation. It is also true that the Internet may be more up-to-date than a CD-based database, but this is of questionable value in language teaching, in that international English students often find little of relevance in an up-to-the-minute report on an American congressional election, a European economic conference, or a conflict in some obscure part of the world.

Multimedia would seem to offer a great deal to language teaching, but we must not forget that language education has long utilized books, audio, and video. Accordingly, we should suspect that at best multimedia's effect would be incremental rather than revolutionary. Even this is questionable. Dillon and Gabbard (1998) examine published findings from experimental studies on the learning effect of multimedia, and concluded that there is little evidence to support the use of hypermedia [multimedia] for enhancing learning [my emphasis]. This conclusion is even more remarkable because Andrew Dillon is a respected scholar in the field of the Internet and multimedia, attested to by his being chosen the guest editor for a special topic issue for the Journal of the American Society for Information Science that covered current research in human-computer interaction. Further, he is pro-multimedia enough to have claimed that the personal home page qualifies as a new genre (Dillon & Gushrowski, 2000).

Even strong advocates of the effectiveness of multimedia in teaching express concern about the lack of experimental support. In a paper heavily supportive of technology in education, Hasebrook (1999) discusses the frequently disappointing results from experiments attempting to validate the effectiveness of multimedia in education. Another work, a massive review of the effectiveness of multimedia in teaching, clearly gives the author's bias in its title, “Educational technology―an unstoppable force: a selective review of research into the effectiveness of educational media” (Spencer, 1999). Spencer comes to the surprising conclusion, given the title, that there is no evidence [my emphasis] that adding motion to media, or adding color, or even increasing the quality of graphics, meaningfully enhances learning. That is, low-quality black-and-white still graphics are just as effective for teaching as high-quality colorful moving graphics. Such a conclusion may be counter-intuitive, but one possible explanation is that learning is enhanced by simplicity and clarity, and that the complexity of multimedia is distractive.

Even positive reports concerning multimedia research normally have a very restrained conclusion that does not match the claims made from less rigorous podiums. In a metanalysis of 36 research reports, Liao (1998, p. 341) does not unequivocally state that multimedia is superior to traditional media, but instead uses much weaker language: “The results from this study suggest [my emphasis] that the effects of using hypermedia [multimedia] in instruction are positive when compared to the effects of traditional instruction.”

With so many research reports firmly denying the educational value of multimedia, and with the few positive reports being stated weakly, there is little justification for funding multimedia-based courses, which, if they are of good quality, normally cost about four million US dollars (Bork, 1996). This becomes clearer when we recognize that, as Dillon (1996) puts it, multimedia is only a technology that stores, manipulates and presents information, but this information can be presented easily and far cheaper in other ways―in the field of English teaching it would be books and audio and video tapes.

Dillon goes on to suggest that history is unfortunately repeating itself, that today's new technocracy that offers technology as a solution to our educational problems is quite similar to the technocracies of the failed Skinner Boxes, but he adds ironically that the theoretical underpinnings of computer-multimedia based education are far weaker: Skinner's teaching machines were strongly anchored in the behaviorist paradigm that reigned at the time, whereas advocates of multimedia in education have little more to offer than a feeling that multimedia is effective. Dillon concludes that multimedia is simply a process involving information access and use, and that we should not equate learning with interacting with a machine.

If we did not live in the midst of such a deep faith in hypermedia―Hooper (1989) calls interactive communication a kind of fetish that makes the link itself the ultimate purpose―Dillon's conclusions concerning multimedia would not be surprising. After all, an English paragraph, either spoken or written, reached by clicking a mouse rather than turning a page or advancing a tape, is still an English paragraph. As Thompson (1999) has pointed out, multimedia has no intrinsic value and so must be judged within educational contexts and goals. Multimedia is, like the computer, only a tool (Hulstijn, 2000).

In spite of multimedia's lack of intrinsic value, multimedia data bases are frequently viewed with admiration, often for their large sizes, as in the comments of Ambron and Hooper (1988, p. 7): “Users can browse, annotate, link and elaborate on information in a rich, nonlinear, multimedia data base… [C]omputer-based multimedia learning stations will allow students and teachers to explore and integrate vast libraries of text, audio and video information.” Small and Grabowski (1992) present the idea, which seems to be popular, that the vast quantity of information available on the Internet somehow empowers students to be more effective in their studies and lives. Because of this supposed empowerment of students, constructivist theorists such as Cadiero-Kaplan (1999) are now focusing their attention on computers and the multimedia they offer. However, Dillon (1996) states that this claim of empowerment lacks any evidence that such empowerment is needed, that it actually occurs, or that it is even possible. Dillon goes so far as to label as a myth the belief that quick access to a large mass of information will bring about better learning. Clearly, the supposed benefit of the Internet's large size is based on little more than faith.

In addition, no less a leader in the constructivist movement than Salomon (1998, p. 9) warns that hypermedia often leads to students' flitting from one item to another merely because the items happen to be linked, “The Butterfly Defect,” as he calls it. Students learn to:

Touch, but don't touch, and just move on to make something out of it…[The] connections they [multimedia programs] display, and particularly the ones students build into them, are anything but logical. In fact, such programs are deliberately based on casual associations and on visual fascination, luring the user to wander from one item to another which happens to be associated with it. In fact, this is not just a private case of hypermedia and multimedia; it is the defining attribute of the hottest thing in town: The Internet…There is nothing wrong with bouncing around, as hypermedia and the Internet invite one to do, except that this is typical of bottom-up, unguided exploratory behavior, as contrasted with the developmentally more advanced search behavior which is top-down, metacognitively guided and goal directed.

Note that Saloman (1998) is at first referring to multimedia not delivered by the Internet, and then expands it to include the Internet because he considers multimedia to be the defining attribute of the Internet. Accordingly, as simply a type of online multimedia, the Internet suffers from all the weaknesses inherent in multimedia. Nevertheless, the Internet has become the bright shining technology of English teaching. Adams, writing about the Internet in our journal (1999, p. 201), states that “Indeed, this new technology will radically transform our roles as teachers and learners in tomorrow's classrooms.”

This attitude has been questioned. In addition to Saloman's (1998) worry about students in general casually flitting about the Internet, we have Davies' (1997, p. 42) concern about EFL students involvement with multimedia, including that delivered over the Internet. Davies, a past president of EuroCALL, states that “The problem with browsing, whether it is in the context of a stand-alone hypertext stack or over the whole of the World Wide Web, is that it is unstructured” [his emphasis].

These criticisms about lack of purpose and structure turn the Internet's much-praised massiveness into a detriment. Even the supposed benefit of the massiveness is being questioned. Hammond (1993) asks how many learning situations really need that much information, and Langan (1995, p. 5) presents quantity of information as a double-edged sword: “The good news is that we have more information at our fingertips than ever before. The bad news is that we have to figure out what to do with it all.”

Postman (1993) takes this further and worries about people becoming so overloaded with information they are incapable of determining what is relevant and what is irrelevant. The vast quantities of text that please so many proponents of the Internet may in fact be the enemy. The amount of information can overwhelm experienced scholars, so imagine what it may be like for American public school students. And imagine what it must be like for Korean high school or college students when browsing the English Internet. Davies (1997, p. 42) concludes that:

One learns in different ways, of course, sometimes by following a tightly structured course and sometimes by coming across a piece of interesting information completely by chance. If you have unlimited time, unstructured browsing is a very pleasant way of learning, but most people, especially those following courses in educational institutions, cannot afford to waste too much time on this activity.

That is, for high school and college students, browsing the Internet takes away from more structured study while offering little in return, and so is pretty much a waste of time.

In addition to being overwhelming in its vastness, the Internet has value for only the truly advanced English learners in Korea, in that it has been constructed almost exclusively for native speakers, not language learners. We know that almost no Korean public school student is capable of comprehending more than a tiny fraction of an English newspaper, newscast, or movie, but how many Korean college students can comprehend these at a meaningful level. A study by Song (1999) suggests that the answer is not many. Song worked with a group of 66 mostly first-year students at the prestigious Seoul National University. With reading material on the American high school sophomore level, the students had an average comprehension rate of about 40%, when corrected for guessing by equating the pure-chance score (on a four-answer multiple choice question) of 25% to zero and then considering the remaining 75% as ranging from 0 to 100%, with the formula being (raw score - .25×raw score)/.75 = corrected score. It appears that the reading speed was about 20% the speed expected of 1st-year American college students. Japanese college students evidently have similar reading skills. Kitao and Kitao (1995) report that a group of Japanese college students who were asked to quickly read a text read 105 words per minute with a comprehension rate (that the author corrected for guessing) of about 40%.

Assigning Internet activities to intermediate students is uncomfortably similar to using an upper-advanced conversation text for an intermediate class, which our training as English teachers tells us would be a mistake. It is true that the Internet would meet the once-common demand made by theoreticians and methodologists for “authentic materials,” with “authentic” meaning “produced for native speakers.” However, this definition of “authenticity” has been attacked on two fronts, altering the requirements for authenticity and defending the value of altered material. Swaffar (1985, p. 17) feels that “The relevant consideration” for authenticity is whether “there has been an authentic communicative objective…” Widdowson (1990, p. 163) contends that altered material is “a way of short-circuiting the slow process of natural discovery” so that learning will “happen more easily and more efficiently than it does in natural surroundings.” Besides, as a practical matter, there is not much oral or written material produced for native speakers that is simple enough for typical 1st- and 2nd-year students at any Korean university. It would seem to me to be a truism that a piece of English written for native speakers but which is incomprehensible for EFL students has no authentic claim for being of any value for EFL purposes.

It might seem that the few Web sites dedicated to EFL studies would offer something meaningful to a rigorous language-study program. However, after spending many hours optimistically surfing such sites for material that could be of use in his classes, the researcher concluded that without exception, the content of these Web sites is impoverished when compared to such inexpensive material as practical grammar workbooks, simplified texts, and tapes that accompany typical conversation texts. A typical practical grammar book from the UK costs only about 10,000 to 15,000 won and is from 200 to 300 pages, with exercises comprising well over half the book. Nothing on the Internet can match this. A typical conversation text-and-tape set, also costing about 10,000 to 15,000 won, includes 60-100 minutes of professionally-produced audio tapes. Again, nothing on the Internet can match this, and as of yet, there appear to be no simplified stories at all on the Internet.

Even if the Internet were able to match the materials in inexpensive grammar and conversation texts and tapes, the latter are far cheaper than a lab of networked computers. A fact that is standardly taught in CALL classes in teacher training courses is that computers are extremely expensive page turners, and a page turner is what a computer is when we use it to study, for example, a digitalized practical grammar book. For the digitalized material to distinguish itself from traditional media to an extent that would justify the massive expenditures required for computerization, the interactiveness of the Internet would have to increase markedly.

Interactive is a word that gets much play in our field, and it is on this that many advocates of the Internet base their support. But does meaningful interactivity exist on the Internet? Sussex (1999) supports the Internet so strongly that he considers it a kind of savior for CALL, yet he admits that the Internet is not particularly complex in its interactivity, except in email and Internet Relay Chat, and even here, he adds, the quality of the feedback is a large issue. Large indeed when the language being typed and read may be only a very rough approximation of English.

Those who vocally support the computerization of the classroom and look upon multimedia, especially as delivered by the Internet, as a great force in education simply do not have the backing of either theory or experimental research.

2. Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL)

English teachers have long heard that CALL will revolutionize the field of language teaching, but it has yet to happen. The title of a recent English Teacher article, “CALL in context: Moving the research agenda forward” (Levy, 1999), implies the need for new ideas. Robust fields need no such calls for moving forward, while moribund fields do. Graham Davies, a recent president of EuroCALL and a specialist in technologies in language learning and teaching, addresses the situation more strongly. Reflecting on his lengthy career in CALL, Davies (1997 p. 17), states that:

Looking back over the last 20 years, it seems to be a case of plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. [“the more things change, the more they stay the same.”] Yet it need not be like that. We desperately [my emphasis] need new ideas in CALL. Although computers of course do their jobs much faster today than a decade ago, everything in contemporary CALL is some variation on what was available in 1990.

Davies goes on to say that the top seller in CALL software is a program developed in the mid 1980s. Software available today primarily involves cloze tests, multiple choice tests, crossword puzzles, vocabulary drilling and story reconstruction. All of this was available 15 years ago and is now relatively cheap, yet language classes, especially at the university level, make little use of it.

CALL has attempted to appropriate other uses of the computer that were not included when the term CALL was coined to cover an interaction between a learner and a computer that resembled to a degree the interaction between a learner and a teacher. It is a stretch of the term CALL to include within its rubric word processing. True, language learners may use the computer for writing in the L2, but this is hardly learning that is “assisted” by interaction with a computer, it is more like using the computer as a typewriter with a memory and spellchecker, like the word processor that replaced the typewriter and is still being sold. It is also a stretch to include email as computer-assisted learning, in that a pencil, a piece of paper, an envelop, and a stamp can do essentially the same thing, and in addition can do it at a very tiny fraction of the cost. Admittedly the speed of email is a plus, but a classroom of networked computers is terribly expensive for writing letters, and again, a computer lab invariably requires the sacrifice of traditional teaching. It is clear that CALL advocates are looking for what Sussex (1999), as mentioned above, refers to as CALL's savior. This search for a justification of CALL leads to a type of thinking that asks how computers can be used in the language classroom, rather than asking how best to teach a language.

CALL advocates place much hope in I-CALL, or Intelligent CALL, which refers to computers and software that will supposedly be able to interact with the learner more like a human teacher. These hopes, however, are dependent upon greater success in Artificial Intelligence (AI) (Levy, 1999). Unfortunately, and this is not mentioned by Levy, AI has been a great disappointment. Humphrys (1999) takes a look at the dramatic failure of AI to reach the high expectations arising for it some 50 years ago. He concludes that important questions will not be answered for another 100 to 200 years, and this seems to be the standard view in the field. Those teachers who fear being replaced by computers can rest easy.

3. Email Correspondence

Email is at times included in CALL, but this is questionable in that the process differs little from typing a letter. Besides, email for EFL classrooms has major limitations and difficulties, as can be seen in Shetzer's (1997) report of a semester email project she assigned to an EFL conversation class at the University of Illinois. The number of letters to be exchanged was set at three a week, but her students had difficulty writing more than once a week, and even then her students' letters often went unanswered. Shetzer concluded that if she did it again, only one letter a week would be required. Traditional mail would be sufficient for such an exchange.

The author has had experiences with student email projects that mirrors Shetzer's. In response to a request from Japan, the author once arranged for volunteers in one of his composition classes to correspond with students in an EFL composition class in Japan. While the author's students regularly wrote lengthy letters that communicated on an acceptable level, the Japanese students often failed to respond, and what responses did arrive were often short and difficult to decipher. Perhaps the problem was that the author's students were volunteers and the Japanese students were given email as an assignment, or that the author's students were English education majors and the Japanese students were accounting majors.

Although pen pal correspondence utilizing traditional mail was never popular among EFL students, a hopeful and somewhat naive teacher might feel that email pen pals is somehow different. A more realistic view would first recognize that the world over, the least popular of EFL classes is composition. It would also recognize that typical EFL students might require two hours to read an email, compose a thoughtful reply, and put the English into good order. Shetzer (1997), by assigning three email exchanges a week while maintaining other assignments at the traditional level, was suddenly expecting an additional five or six hours a week more in demanding homework. Students quite understandably carried out only one exchange a week, which still required two hours of additional homework over the norm. What two hours of activities did her students gave up each week because of the email assignment. It could have been meeting friends or watching TV, but it is more likely that students dispensed with two hours of such activities as listening to tapes and extensive reading.

This problem is much larger than just a teacher's unrealistic lesson plan. If we assume that the world's EFL students devoted about as much time and effort to English study as they were able or willing to prior to CALL, the Internet, and email, then the assignment of any computer-based study would clearly require the elimination of a comparable amount of traditional study. Students in a composition class who are assigned email correspondence in addition to what has for years been the normal workload can rightfully object. For the teacher, it then becomes an either/or decision, a decision between unstructured correspondence with an email pen pal and structured assignments that gradually build toward effective writing skills. A pen pal might be appropriate for middle school classes, but for university students, a more academic approach will likely be called for.

Even at the curriculum development level there is an either-or choice: students can take a new Internet English class only if they forgo the conversation, composition, or other traditional class they would have taken. We then have not only the question of whether CALL and the Internet are effective in teaching English, we have the question of whether CALL and Internet classes are more effective than the classes they replace.


The author's university, typical of Korea, requires a two-credit computer course for each of a student's first four semesters, and most students can type in English at least 30 words per minute, with many typing in the 40-50 word-per-minute range. Most of the author's students are quite fluent in computers by their sophomore year, and essentially all have the confidence to use computers, especially on the low level required by CALL software. Yet few students indeed like to use CALL software. If fear is not the reason, then what is? The author's personal experiences with CALL programs for learning Spanish may offer some insight:

First, CALL often has a much larger overhead in inefficient use of time. That is, traditional learning of lists of vocabulary (using standard memory methods such as production of mental images) is quicker than using CALL drilling software, and especially so if the learner has to input the word data into the drilling software. Opening a notebook, picking up a pack of flash cards, or playing a tape in a walkman is much quicker than booting a computer and opening a program, and rebooting a crashed computer system takes a lot of time.

Second, CALL is inconvenient in that it is connected to a computer, but traditional media is highly portable: a corner of a student's bag language-learning kit―a walkman-type tape player and a tape, a light-weight dictionary and a book of simplified short stories, and a set of flash cards.

Finally, basic CALL software is expensive and the expense increases rapidly as the amount of content increases, which is unfortunate in that the amount of content directly relates to the level of interactivity.

Questioning the value of CALL software―as a language learner, not teacher―may be common among serious language learners, as suggested by Van Aacken (1996). Based on a questionnaire given Australian students using a teacher- developed Kanji tutoring program, she concludes that:

1. Students who preferred studying without the computer were more likely to be higher level.

2. Students with more experience learning with a computer spent less time using CALL programs.

3. Students who most enjoyed studying with the computer had the lowest course final marks.

It is telling that the students with the most experience with computer learning choose to use CALL for study the least.

Why do teachers not make wider use of CALL? Here the lack of confidence in computer skills may be at work, unlike in the case of students, but computer skills in teachers are rapidly improving, so we need to look elsewhere. One possibility is that teachers may share the views of our better students that CALL has little to offer: How much is gained per unit time put into crossword puzzles, cloze tests, and sentence rearrangement? It may also be that teachers are frustrated by the notorious frequent classroom interruptions arising from unbootable computers, loss of teacher-student computer connections, and buggy software. In addition, teachers may feel that using CALL is, like listening to tapes, pretty much a private affair rather than a classroom activity. Finally, teachers may have difficulty finding time for the extra work required by computers.

CALL advocates may not just ignore this extra burden placed upon the teacher, they may suggest even more work. Son (1998) suggests that teachers develop their own CALL materials for their particular teaching situations so they could meet both their own needs and their students' needs. The problem is that, as Son himself admits, development of CALL software requires programming skills and huge quantities of time, even for small projects. Of the many English teachers the author knows personally, both Korean and native speaker, no more than two or three can write a simple program. The rest can send email, browse the Web, and do simple word processing. However, as Levy (1997) concludes, producing multimedia or intelligent CALL material requires hard-to-come-by skills, large quantities of time, and large-project concept skills, all of which are beyond most classroom CALL instructors.

In support of this, the author will report on a few things he has done either as research or as a way to allow the use of computers in English teaching. The largest project was constructing a complex personal Web site in order to demonstrate to Web design students a credible knowledge of Web authoring. Another project consisted of writing a series of Javascript applets that provide a color-theory-based system for advanced student pairs to use for practicing the passive and conditionals. Students in a reading class were involved in a third project in which they scanned a public domain simplified novel, made four multiple choice questions for each of its 13 chapters to test comprehension, and put it all into a freeware speed-reading program. This was the only way to get speed-reading software with reading material simple enough for actual reading rather than labored translating, for no content-ready speed reading software based on simplified materials seems to exist. Finally, a vocabulary class entered a large number of words into a flash card program.

Teachers, especially those with no requirements for research, cannot be expected to do this. They need reliable, interesting, effective, and affordable CALL software, and it doesn't seem to be available.


With the evidence indicating caution, why is there the rush towards computerization, an expensive, haphazard investment that, according to Setzer and Monke (in press), has as its only philosophical foundation a naive faith in technology. Indeed, a belief in technology as a means of solving problems has been a strong force in American culture for well over a century (Chafy, 1997).

Pressures abound for getting computers into classrooms. A Postmodern search for the sources of that pressure would begin by asking who gains from computerization. Koblitz (1996) contends that the drive for profits are often behind the effort to introduce technology into the classroom, and huge profits are involved: Apple Computer became a multi-billion-dollar corporation primarily by selling computers and software to schools. Sloan (1985, p. 3) states that:

It does not take a flaming Bolshevik, nor even a benighted neo-Luddite, to wonder whether all those computer companies, and their related textbook publishers, that are mounting media campaigns for computer literacy and supplying hundreds of thousands of computers to schools and colleges really have the interests of children and young people as their primary concern.

Joseph Menosky, a former science editor at National Public Radio, presents a similar idea:

Certainly those who have a great deal to gain from a universal acceptance of computer literacy―microcomputer firms selling hardware, textbook companies selling educational software, organizations selling worker and teacher retraining courses, and writers and publishers selling books and instructional guides―have done a brilliant, if morally indefensible, job of commercial promotion (Sloan, 1985, p. 77).

Clearly, the educational computer industry's claims that great benefits arise from classroom computerization should be met with a healthy skepticism.

A less commercial and more subtle source of support for computers in the classroom comes from educators in the field who have committed their careers to computer education. As soon as a proposed use of the computer in education becomes untenable, it is immediately replaced by another proposed use, and the goal looks more and more like justification of computers rather than a search for quality education. An early example of this is instruction in programming, which Papert (1980) and others claimed would improve students' logical thought and problem solving skills. When Papert's claims were found to be largely unfounded, in that transferring very specific programming skills to other areas of problem solving turned to be much more difficult than once thought, programming disappeared from general education, to be replaced by the study of HTML and Web page design. The prominent Stanford educator Larry Cuban (1999, p. 47) considers this representative of a repeating cycle, saying that:

For the last two decades, experts have urged upon teachers an ever-shifting menu of advice: Teach BASIC. Teach HTML. Teach skills of using the Internet, e-mail, and producing multimedia projects. Teach applications relevant to the constantly changing workplace.

Computer haguans in Korea have followed the trends described by Cuban (1999), and up to six or seven years ago the teaching of programming in Basic was still standard. This was replaced by courses in home page construction, which were soon seen to be of questionable value, and which in turn gave way to multimedia courses, which gave way to the teaching of Excel and other business applications. We may well ask if all this accomplished much of educational value.


Each introduction of a major new educational technology in the past century was accompanied by expectations that the result would prove revolutionary, and without exception those expectations proved to be unfounded. Motion pictures, radio, television, and Skinner boxes play little if any part in today's education. How ironic that one of the most successful educational technologies to come out of the 20th century, in terms of both popularity and longevity, is the Overhead Projector, the ubiquitous OHP!

For over twenty years computers have been making their way into education at the elementary, secondary, and college level, accompanied by high expectations, and the very use of a computer in class is usually presented as an unquestionably positive act. A closer look, however, shows that the hope-disappointment cycles seen in educational technology over the past century are mirrored by similar cycles in computerized education over the last two decades, with programming in basic, HTML, and multimedia presentation failing to deliver as promised.

Multimedia software, either as stand-alone CD software or delivered by LAN or the Internet, has now become the heart of computer-based education, including language teaching. We language teachers know that interesting teaching methods and materials improve learning, and it seems intuitive that multimedia would do the job nicely. However, it also seemed intuitive to language teachers 50 years ago that repeating taped grammar-based dialogs would lead to fluency. This was not the case, and the audio-lingual method was discredited and largely abandoned.

Major reviews of research on the effectiveness of computers in education conclude there is little evidence that multimedia enhances learning. There is not even any evidence that adding color or motion or increasing the quality of graphics enhances learning. CALL software often incorporates multimedia, and the criticisms of multimedia in general can be expected to apply to multimedia in CALL. In addition, much CALL software, especially CD multimedia, consists merely of the presentation of text, images, and sound that could be delivered far more inexpensively via traditional media. While there may be a “novelty effect,” or initial fascination with a computer, this effect is soon gone. The reality is that students uninterested in studying English using text from books, moving graphics from video tapes, and spoken language from audio tapes will be as uninterested in studying English using text, moving graphics, or spoken language from a CD or a Web site. This is true even if the computer-based material can be navigated via links, which although highly touted, have been shown to be of questionable value on both theoretical and practical grounds. Accordingly, rather than intuitively concluding that multimedia will revolutionize language teaching, a seasoned language teacher might intuitively arrive at the opposite conclusion.

The Internet has been offered as a way of keeping the computer alive in language teaching. However, it is such a vast and unstructured collection of writing by native speakers of English for native speakers of English that in Korean English teaching, it is valuable for only the very small number of English learners who are genuinely advanced. In addition, email is praised at teachers' meetings more often than it is successfully used in class.

English teachers may be justified in being suspicious of the promises made by CALL advocates, and are surely justified in rejecting suggestions that we are at fault for not embracing the technology. If CALL developers could give us more than a few programs for such things as cloze exercises and crossword puzzles, something that works and is interesting, not just as enticement for slower or less motivated learners, but as valuable tools for the better students, more teachers would be inclined to use CALL in the classroom. To ask us to develop our own CALL material, given the time and expertise needed, is unrealistic. The responsibility for integrating CALL into English teaching must begin with CALL itself, with the production of the new ideas that the field, as Davies (1997) says, so desperately needs.


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