Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Technically Speaking . . . Motivation

I have officially retired from teaching language. Beginning in 1976 with several interruptions, my career teaching language spans 40 years. There have been a lot of changes in my field in those years, especially when it comes to the technology available to deliver the product.

Language Lab circa 1970
I began with what was called a language laboratory (lab). There were individual booths set up in a special room. A trained technician was needed to play the reel-to-reel tapes that were used at the time. The technician not only had to understand how to operate the equipment, but also had to have some knowledge of each language that was taught in order to cue up the tapes at proper time.

A special hour each week had to be scheduled for students to enter the lab for listening and speaking sessions. I typically had three classes, and sometimes a class had more students than the lab could accommodate, so there were years when I had as many as six different sessions with the lab; all of which had to be coordinated with the technician, usually a student, and the various levels of Spanish that were offered.

Language educators were really excited about this new technology. Where once language was an exercise in reading and writing, listening and speaking could now be added to the curriculum. Students could hear native speakers and reproduce the sounds as best they could; listening to their own efforts alongside the sounds of the native speaker.

As innovative as the language lab was, with the introduction of cassette tapes, they became obsolete.
The Walkman and access to cassette tapes
Not only were they very expensive to install and maintain, their availability to students was limited. With cassettes, nearly everyone owned a tape player and could listen to tapes on their own in their dorm rooms. So at the beginning of each semester, we would hand out a set of some 20 cassette tapes to each student. They carried them back to their rooms in plastic grocery bags, to be returned at the end of the semester for recycling. For the order of each book, a language instructor was issued a set of master tapes to be reproduced. Instead of a language lab, a school now only needed a good tape duplicator and someone to run it. 

As technology developed, the Walkman allowed students to listen to their tapes anywhere they wanted to. They were no longer confined to the limited schedule of the language lab. I even heard of students jogging while listening to their language tapes. There were a few issues with cassettes; tearing and jamming to name a few. Such issues were easily resolved simply by replacing the tape.

The Discman played DCs
Not too many years transpired until the advent of the CD and the Discman player. These were even more portable than the cassettes, and soon the lab component of the text was delivered by CDs. With the order of a textbook, each student received their own set of CDs to do the lab part of the course. Interestingly, the paper workbooks that were used from language lab, to cassette, to CDs didn’t change much other than a few revisions to keep up with new vocabulary.

We have now entered the Internet age. Everything has gone on the web. No more cumbersome labs, bags full of cassettes, or stacks of CD cases. With the purchase of a textbook, students now receive a code with access to the textbook’s “supersite.” All a student needs is a laptop, a tablet or a smart phone and they have access to all their assignments. Not only can they do their listening and speaking assignments on the go, but their written assignments as well.
Laptops bring everything online

Throughout my career, people would ask me what program I would recommend for learning a language on my own. My stock answer is, “buy the cheapest one you can find.” Why do I say this? I have seen many well-intentioned people buy the latest and greatest language technology that promises amazing results in a very short amount of time for a very high price. Too often those expensive programs wind up in a closet or desk drawer with little results.  The adage “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” applies here. All the bells and whistles of modern technology may get a learner to the language, but unless there is motivation and time, it can’t force a them to learn. A highly-motivated student who invests the proper amount of time will learn on the most basic and simplest of methods.

As I reflect on 40 years in the language classroom, I am grateful for the changes and innovations the new technology has brought to the instructor. In many ways these innovations have lessened the burden on us teachers. Grading online assignments with a computer is much easier than toting 40 half-inch workbooks home to grade. However, I cannot say that students are learning better with the new technology now at their disposal. In my experience, the student who is motivated and puts in the necessary time will learn, no matter how simple or attractive the technology.

Technically speaking, motivation is the key.

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