Simple interfaces for language learning?

I recently visited the EUROCALL conference in Krakow, where researchers and teachers from the area of Computer Assisted Language Learning met to present findings and discuss issues around the main theme of learner autonomy. In one of the presentations there, Lesley Shield from the Open University, England and Uschi Felix from Monash University, Australia (the latter via prerecorded video) discussed the interrelation between language anxiety and computer anxiety. The question they are exploring is whether students who feel comfortable with ICT will perform better in foreign language classes online. One important point that was made here is that training in how to use the tools is often not enough, but that personal experience is the key to successful interactions online.

This is in line with the reasoning of one of the plenary speakers of the conference, Abdelmajid Bouziane, University Hassan II, Marocco, who talked about the integration of ICT in language classrooms in terms of a normalization process. He presented a framework for how to train teachers based on these assumptions, the LEAP model, where teachers trainees would go through the stages of ICT Literacy, Efficacy and Appropriation before reaching the Proficiency stage. This is a time-consuming and self-directed process, which benefits from informal discussions in communities of practice.

Deborah Turk from the University of Aizu, Japan, in her presentation talked about the importance of using simple tools to ensure that as much energy as possible could be devoted to the actual language learning task. Somewhat off the topic of this post, she also made an interesting claim in arguing that the harmony that teachers try to create in their online environments can be a disadvantage for the learning process, in that the challenges that you need in order to progress will never be presented to you. This is a perspective on things which has never previously occurred to me I have always seen it as one of the main goals, at least for synchronous gatherings, to foster a positive and friendly social climate.

The focus in these presentations on using simple, normalized interfaces has caused me to think about the tools that we use for some of our online gatherings, such as the 3D-environments that we employ. For those accustomed to playing computer games, interacting in these types of environments will have become normalized, but that is hardly the case for the others. One clearly has to evaluate whether the extra effort that is needed from the participants and that has to be put into training and practice sessions pays off in the end.

More reflections from the conference can be found in my blog, here, here and here