Saturday, October 20, 2007

Klaus Schweinhorst's keynote

I feel very fortunate to have attended Klaus Schwienhorst’s presentation, “Coming to terms: Learner autonomy, the learner, and (computer-assisted) language learning environments.” I am still struck by how Klaus turned a typical sterile lecture hall with tiers of bolted down seats into a comfortable open and rich learning environment. He set the tone of his presentation literally with the music of Miles Davis.

So at 9am there you are coffee and presentation print in hand, the most "presentation" you are hoping for is a pleasing PowerPoint background design choice, and instead you greeted in surround-sound by intricate delectable riffs of jazz. Wow. Welcome to the opportunity to reflect on how being autonomous in language learning is a lot like being a jazz musician; the greats know how to be interdependent, experiment, develop voice, be playful, subtle, reflective, and always interactive. I worked at this university for three years, and had never felt the atmosphere of this room, used for end of term exams, so changed.

Klaus asked several provocative questions in his presentation regarding CALL. For instance: Is the computer really a unique technology? If we say we need computer-assisted learning, what was the “unassisted language learning”? Many “assisted-learning” perspectives have existed in the past, what leads us to believe CALL won’t indeed be replaced soon by MALL (Mobile-Assisted Language Learning)? Does it matter?

Indeed the focus of Klaus’s questioning was on how CALL affordances could further, or work in tandem, but certainly not replace, the roles of the learner and teacher in learner autonomy. By going through how CALL projects can go wrong and right he showed how technology is used best when it is thoughtfully applied. CALL can afford a learning environment that has a variety of communication partners, authentic material, options for reflection, options for experimentation, and options for combining reflection, interaction, and experimentation. However, these affordances will be wasted if teachers do not carefully set up how technology will be used. From his ongoing work using in MOO Tandem projects (online language exchanges between L1 and L2 speakers) he described how he and a colleague reversed a situation where students were confused who their partners were or using mostly their L1 in language exchanges, to a robust learning environment where students started class knowing who their partners were and could use a tracker within the software to see how much of their L1 compared to their L2 they were using, and how complicated their sentences were. Klaus and his co-teacher at the time had not expected students to use the tracker software in the way that they had, explicating how CALL can be a tool that presents ways for both the teacher and learner to discover new ways to manage learning. An engagement with CALL though not always easy, can lead to unexpected innovation. Like Miles Davis, who regularly practiced with different and new musicians to keep his art fresh, learners and teachers can benefit greatly from integrating experimentation into their daily learning.

Indeed audience members corroborated Klaus’ research by telling of instances when CALL had disappointed them, but how they accepted the challenge to look more closely at how they were applying CALL to their pedagogy.

Klaus said in his presentation that learner autonomy may be most effective when combining reflection, interaction, and experimentation seamlessly. I do not know if other audience members had seen a presentation before like Klaus’, where the presenter so elegantly talked about lessons learned, asked questions, beyond being rhetorical, that were provocative, interacted well with the audience, and in the presentation materials themselves (music, PowerPoint, software screen shots, and a handout that was not a replica of the presentation) showed variety and innovation. I had not. Klaus’s presentation left me extremely hopeful for the future of CALL and teacher/learner autonomy. Certainly we are lucky to have him as our colleague.

Thank you to the conference conveners who wisely invited Klaus. I am looking forward to his upcoming book, Learner Autonomy and CALL Environments as well as reading more about the software he mentioned in his presentation and other projects. Thank you again!

-Christine Rosalia
New York University
Kanda University Peer Online Writing Centre

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