Friday, October 12, 2007

Freinet and the Internet: A new look at computer-mediated language leaning

Professor Kojiro Asao, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto

Professor Asao began his talk with a software demonstration. He told us that this particular package “Don’t ever study English” is typical of its type and is widely available in computer shops. The program enables users to listen to dialogues, record their voices, and practice doing dictations. The speech recognition technology should be sensitive enough to award points for the user’s spoken input, but as we found out, saying almost anything results in a good score. It is a self-contained package in which the user interacts with a computer. There is also a dictionary function, and users are provided with additional cultural information.

We leave the computer program and Professor Asao turns our attention to another historic innovation: the television. Interestingly, when we examine what the first programs screened were, we find that in Japan is was a traditional Kabuki play, and in the USA it was a live boxing match. Although the medium was innovative, the subjects are not new. The television repackaged traditional entertainment.

Another innovation we look at is the railroad and the impact this had on people in the UK. Tomas Cook began selling package tours by train, people began to commute to work, and cities grew rapidly now that they weren’t dependent on rivers and canals.

We fast forward to the present and look at new technology. Much of what we see is new technology copying and reproducing what traditional medium has always provided. We already have notebooks, dictionaries, books and tape recorders which do an adequate job – why do we need computer software to help us to learn languages? Professor Asao pointed out that many pieces of language learning software lack both a pedagogical philosophy and a language learning theory.

We compare the first day of TV and computer software for language learning and hear a quote from Marshall McLuhan (1964) “The medium is the message.” I confess, I am not familiar with the work of Marshall McLuhan, so this didn’t mean much to me at the time. I have since read more and I found this helpful extract from the same volume: “Many people would be disposed to say that it was not the machine, but what one did with the machine, that was its meaning or message. In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves.”

Professor Asao's views on language learning software do not mean that he does not see value in technology for learning. Instead he sees it as being more meaningful if it connects people with people rather than simply one person with a machine. He described a project undertaken by Susan Gaer. Susan Gaer set up a “virtual school” visit project which enabled students to visit different schools via their webpages. Students designed the school tours and communicated with students in other schools via e-mail. This project reminded Professor Asao of the work of Célestin Freinet who became a teacher in France after he was wounded in WWI. He was dissatisfied with teaching out of context material in his classes and wanted to make learning more meaningful for his students. Freinet obtained a printing press and took it into his classroom. Students were fascinated. They each wrote an essay and read their essays to the class. Students gave feedback and comments on each other’s work and chose the best essay (by now a collaborative effort) to be printed. The next step was to produce a class journal. Soon it was a school newspaper and one that was sent to other schools. Frienet was doing what Gaer did years later with the Internet: using an innovative media to connect people with other people and form a learning community.

When I first read Professor Asao’s abstract, I admit I was unsure whether the work of an educator operating in the 1920s would have much relevance to the question of appropriate use of computers today. After listening to his talk, I see Professor Asao’s point. Much of what people associate with computer-assisted language learning is simply repackaging of traditional media. The focus of CALL needs to be on facilitating person to person communication.

During question time, I asked our invited speaker whether he saw any role at all for computer software (such as the program he had shown) us in language learning. He sad “no, none whatsoever”.

What do you think? Do you think language learning software has a role at all in the promotion of learner autonomy? If you’d like to leave a comment, I would be interested in continuing this discussion.


Gaer, S. (1998). Less teaching and more learning. Focus on Basics, 2(D). Available at

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

No comments: