LINGUISTICS DEPARTMENT - STANFORD UNIVERSITY
An Invitation to CALL
Foundations of Computer-Assisted Language
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An Invitation to CALL
Environments, Tools, Materials, and Activities
This unit looks at three dimensions of CALL: the environments in which it is
used, the materials available, especially on the Web, and the types of
activities. Many of the points here have already been touched on in previous
units but we revisit them and explore them in greater depth here. This unit is
primarily about exploring, so follow up on links that look interesting.
Environments determine to a large degree what a teacher or learner can and
can't do with technology. This section will discuss different environments for users (both teachers and
learners) and how those environments impact the nature of interaction and
- Classrooms. The technology available in classrooms is currently in a
state of transition across institutions and in many cases within
institutions as well. At Stanford where I teach, I might have one course in
a room with an electronic white board and another in a room with only a
chalk board. For the foreseeable future, teachers should be aware of the
need to be flexible and adapt to the classrooms they find themselves in.
- Computer centers. In some institutions language teachers have access to
general purpose computer clusters. In order to make these useful for
language teaching, it may be necessary to work with lab coordinators or
other IT staff to ensure that items such as headsets and microphones are
included, along with language-focused tools like digital recording software
and multi-lingual word processors.
- Dedicated language labs. The language lab of the past with networked
audio recorders and listening stations has been replaced almost universally
by computer clusters specifically for language learning (see for example,
Stanford's Digital Language Lab:
https://www.stanford.edu/group/ll/cgi-bin/langlab/) The International Association for Language Learning Technologies
(IALLT) has published a valuable guide on language center design:
- Homes. Obviously, there is a great deal of variety in terms of what
students have in the way of technology at home. If you intend to assign
technology-based homework, it is useful to know exactly what sort of
devices, applications, and networks your students have.
- Cafes and similar locales. In some settings the only access some
students will have is at Internet cafes and similar venues. It is important
to note the limitations of these in terms of bandwidth, security, privacy
(noise) and expense to the students. There are also locations, such as many coffee shops, where the wireless connection may be free
if students have their own laptops or mobile devices. See
- Mobile computing. Increasingly, students of all ages are carrying
computational devices that exceed the power of desktop computers from a
decade or so ago. Smart phones and tablets like the iPad offer convenience
but are often used in environments that include other distractions.
The importance of this topic was captured in the volume CALL Environments
(2nd edition) edited by J. Egbert & E. Hanson-Smith (TESOL).
One particular environment worth discussing is the World Wide Web itself (now
increasingly written in lowercase as "the web" as it has become so common).
We begin by looking at some disadvantages of the web that can lead to
frustration on the part of both teachers and learners before continuing on to
DISADVANTAGES OF THE WEB
Because of the hype surrounding it for language learning, it is useful to begin with
some of the disadvantages of the Web over alternatives
- Text-based material on the Web is sometimes not as easy to read
as material in paper format, especially because of font color and
- Sound and video sometimes take a noticeable time to transfer,
even on fast connections. Newer forms of streaming have improved this
dramatically, but the Web is still not as
responsive as a CD-ROM, DVD or the hard drive on your computer, or a digital video
- Sound and video are typically compressed to speed up transfer:
depending on the degree of compression and other factors they can be of
noticeably lower quality than the original. This can affect their
suitability for supporting language learning. Also some of the free material
on sites like www.youtube.com were of
poor audio or video quality even in their original state (for example, if
taken with a mobile phone)
- Because of the way that HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol)
works, on most pages every click is a request that has to go back to the
original server. The equivalent of turning a page may result in a noticeable
delay if the server is busy.
- Because of this delay, interactivity is limited compared to
what is possible with disks or CD-ROMs.
However, increasingly Web applications (like Macromedia Flash) have interactivity
- Down servers or broken links may lead to frustration.
- The sheer amount of material can make it hard to find
what you want, though developing skill with a search engine like
is certainly a great help. If you haven't already done so, have a look at
Google's basic search help,
www.google.com/support/websearch/bin/answer.py?answer=134479, and more
- The Web is dynamic and often as unpredictable as the humans
behind it. You may find an old site that has not been updated for years, or
you may find a great source of material only to have it be gone the next time
you look for it. You may still be able to locate old pages using the "cached"
feature of Google
or the Internet archive's Wayback Machine at www.archive.org.
Sites and applications that used to be free and only supported by text ads
that could be easily ignored are increasingly charging fees requiring
subscriptions (so that you don't get their ads), or requiring users to watch commercials before the desired
- As is widely known, the accuracy of Web sources is often questionable (the
present one excepted of course). See, for example,
ADVANTAGES OF THE WEB
Despite the disadvantages, there are many good reasons for using
the Web for certain language learning activities.
- There is anytime, anywhere access (for some people at
- There are enormous amounts of free material.
- Material can be found that is current.
- Language reference and other learning support materials can be
- Student and teacher publication opportunities exist.
- A cultural window is opened through the authentic material readily
- Meaning technologies, such as transcripts, dictionaries, and translators, exist to aid comprehension of material.
- Increasing amounts of audio and video allow building of
comprehension skills beyond reading.
- Previous disk-based activities (like tutorial exercises) and
Internet-based activities (like email) can often be handled through the Web.
Note: there are many more tools for collaboration and learner production
on the web...
Authentic Language Materials. There are many, many options for this--here are
just a few (some have been discussed previously).
Dedicated Language Materials & Exercises
Collecting, tagging, and curating materials. There is a growing need to
provide students with more direction in terms of selecting content at an
appropriate language level for learners, especially authentic materials. Some of
this may be automated, for example, using the reading level function in Google
advanced search (http://www.google.com/advanced_search)
or the captioning function in advanced video search (http://video.google.com/videoadvancedsearch).
Collaboratively produced collections include those at
http://www.diigo.com/user/call_is_vsl. Curating, in the sense used
here, involves collection and interpretation of stable online content by human
experts, much as a museum director organizes and interprets the collected
artifacts in museum exhibits, which goes beyond simple linking and tagging. This
is an underdeveloped area.
Lesson Plans & Projects
- Finding content for projects, both individual and group. Note
the importance of balancing seeking and production time with language learning
and practice time.
- Ideas and lesson plans for Internet, Web, and class
activities: Sources such as
still, do a Google search!
- Making resource pages for specific classes. You can use
FrontPage, Dreamweaver, or even MS_Word to produce Websites. See my Websites for
http://www.stanford.edu/~efs/693b (Advanced Listening) for example. You
can also make your own site easily, hosted by Google, at
- Sending your students out on
- Pages with annotated links for specific skills such as
The key to using online resources is to be prepared. Know what the objective of your lesson is and try to make sure students are trained in what
they need to know to accomplish that objective. Try to build some flexibility
into the assignment or activity so that if something isn't working as expected
it can still go on.
Here are a few tasks to help you connect the material here to your language
- The Web can be a resource for both classroom and online lessons: take a
look at two or three of the lesson plans on the Web (Use
Google (www.google.com) to find "ESL lesson plans"
if none of the sites above has what you're looking for). Do
you think they represent activities that are consistent with your language
teaching approach? Is there anything obvious you could do to improve
- Meaning technologies like Babylon (www.babylon.com) and online scripts for audio
and video can hinder as well as help, since they can interfere with normal language
processing. What are some ways to use them positively and to train learners in their
- Try three or four of the sites listed above that you haven't visited before.
Note ways you might use them in current or future classes.
- Increasingly, the term "Web 2.0" is appearing on the Web and elsewhere.
What is Web 2.0? There are examples of it here, such as
www.youtube.com If you don't know what it is, go to a manifestation of it
at www.wikipedia.org and look up the
term. How do you think Web 2.0 is changing language teaching? What about Web
Last modified: February 12, 2013 by Phil Hubbard