As a language technologist and foreign language educator, I am deeply disturbed by a growing trend. In an effort to save money, schools and colleges are increasingly adopting retrograde technologies that reflect outdated views of language and language learning. Unfortunately, some educators still view language as primarily a system of rules amenable to decontextualized drills. Not surprisingly, these educators are easily convinced that tutorial software such as Rosetta Stone holds great potential for language learning. In contrast, other educators argue that language is a set of social practices to be experienced rather than a set of rules to be memorized. These educators envision language as an open-ended, creative process of meaning negotiation that is embedded in a cultural context. It follows that educators who view language as primarily a form of interpersonal communication are more likely to believe in the benefits of internet communication technologies (ICT) such as Skype or Facebook or Google Hangout. In fact, the newer conception of language as social practice is consonant with many of the design features of language learning in the digital age: open educational resources (OER); adaptive, personalized curricula; collaborative learning communities; participatory culture; and integrative learning spaces. These various design features are implicated in what the Hewlett Foundation refers to as “deeper learning.” According to the Hewlett Foundation, a leading philanthropic organization that seeks solutions to social and environmental problems, “deeper learning” not only prepares students to master academic content such as a foreign language, but also to:
•think critically and solve complex problems
•communicate effectively, and
•learn how to learn (e.g., self-directed learning).
Deeper learning cannot be achieved by Rosetta Stone alone, or any other tutorial software for that matter. Rather, it can only be achieved by what Randy Bass, Director of the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University, calls “high-impact practices.” According to Bass, “high impact practices” include such things as collaborative projects, service learning, internships and capstone courses. These practices are deemed “high-impact” because they correlate with student behaviors that lead to personally meaningful learning such as interacting with faculty and peers about substantive matters or gaining content knowledge in real-world situations.
The Hewlett Foundation adopted their current focus on deeper learning after months of research, including more than 100 interviews with educators, business leaders and public policy analysts. Over the course of their exploration, the Hewlett Foundation found widespread consensus that the majority of American students are ill-equipped to solve complex problems, work in teams, or communicate effectively. Hence Hewlett’s push for America’s schools to adopt technology that promotes deeper learning.
For the record, I am not anti-Rosetta Stone. As I see it, Rosetta Stone is an expensive set of flash cards. And I am not against flash cards! In fact, I am not even against memorization and other methods typically associated with formal instruction. What I am against is reductionism. Language educators and technologists must fight against the prevailing economic and political forces that reduce language learning to a set of mechanical exercises. These kinds of technologies have a role to play, but it is a limited role. No matter how high their production values, online tutorial software should not form the basis of a credible language curriculum. Such reductionism not only runs counter to the complexities of language learning, it runs counter to what our students’ need to be productive citizens in the 21st century. In brief, educators should ponder the Hewlett Foundation’s call for deeper learning whenever they are asked to adopt any new form of language technology.
Bass, R. (2012). “Disrupting Ourselves: The Problem of Learning in Higher Education.” EDUCAUSE Review Online. http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/disrupting-ourselves-problem-learning-higher-education
“Deeper Learning.” Hewlett Foundation. <http://www.hewlett.org/deeperlearning>