By Huynh Thi Bich Ngoc, M.A. in TESOL, The University of Queensland, Australia
Over the past few years, together with magnificent technological advances, computer network technology is now exerting its influence on various aspects of life including government, business, economics, and undoubtedly, education as well. Under such a circumstance, there has been a significant increase of interest in using computers and it applications not only in Information Technology classrooms but also in the field of language teaching and learning. The role of computers in language instruction has become an important issue involving language teachers all over the world. In order to have a more thorough perspective on this issue, let us discuss some of the advantages and disadvantages of using computer network technology in language teaching.In terms of advantages, first of all, computer network technology tools such as the Internet, e-mail, chat rooms, and the Word Wide Web can be used to provide students with a strong motivation for learning the language. Since motivation is considered as playing a key role in the success of language learners (Gardner and Lambert, 1972), one of the language teachers’ responsibilities is to provide activities which the learners will find intrinsically motivating. Encouraging the students to use the Internet in their learning, meanwhile, is a motivational push to students who are bored with the traditional classroom teaching method in which they have information spoon-fed to them. The Internet can help language teachers generate motivation in the students as stated by Chun & Brandl, 1992, “the interactive and multimedia capabilities of the Internet make it a motivating learning tool”. E-mail and Internet chat rooms are interactive and allow students to communicate quickly and easily with their classmates, their teacher, and even with native speakers of the target language through “keypal projects” (Robb, 1996), or collaborative projects. Besides, with an abundance of interactive activities on the Internet and the World Wide Web, our students can now play games and learn the language at the same time. This kind of learning experience was impossible before the development of the computer network technology. Next, computer network technology provides students with opportunities to have access to authentic materials and information about the target language culture, which may be missing from many course books. As an understanding of culture is vital in language learning and may help enhance understanding of the target language, current pedagogical theories stress the importance of integrating culture into the language classroom (Canale & Swain, 1981). In this circumstance, computer network technology offers great advantage as it allows easier access to the target language and culture. It has the potential to bring people and places to the classroom, thus adding realism, authentic sociocultural and sociolinguistic information and help students have a real sense of immersion. It also provides students with a multimedia mirror on the target culture in that “it can bring the sounds, words, and images of the foreign language, embedded in their culture, into the classroom” (Atkinson, 1992, cited in Hackett, 1996, p. 17), and thus, can help expose students to international communication and new cultures as well as break down stereotypes. Computer Mediated Communication (CMC), and particularly e-mail and tele-conferencing in the language classroom can “provide authentic communication, which helps develop students’ communicative, literacy, and critical thinking skills” (Kelm, 1992; Kern, 1995, in Singhal, 1998).Besides, the emergence of computer network technology has also made a significant contribution to language teaching and learning. CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning) software and programs have the potential to improve learner autonomy in that they provide students with the power to control the speed, rate, timing, and order of tasks in a language program, and allows students to work at their own level. Furthermore, Little (1996) states that information technology can play an important role in the development of learner autonomy as it facilitates the students’ learning and provides students with the opportunity to use what they have learned. CALL software programs have been designed for the purpose of language teaching while other tools such as the Internet, e-mail, etc. also promote student-centered language learning (Gonglewski, Meloni, & Brandt, 2003) and help students develop their communicative skills as well. What is more, CALL programs also provide learners with a variety of choice in terms of which aspects of the target language such as grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc. they want to practise or what skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing) they want to develop, and which topics they are interested in. Thanks to this kind of new technology, learners can manage their own learning at their own speed and based on their own choice. This helps learners to take more responsibility for their own learning, which leads to greater autonomy and a more learner-centred language classroom.Another advantage is that computer network technology also provides both teachers and students with easier access to information all over the world through the use of the Internet and the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web can be considered the library at one’s fingertip as stated by Mills (1995), “there are tremendous search capabilities of the Web which allow instant access to up-to-date information on just about any topic imaginable”. The Internet and the World Wide Web also provide supplemental language activities which can help students with additional practice in specific areas of language learning. These include reading tests and comprehension questions, grammar exercises, pronunciation exercises possible thanks to multimedia capabilities of the Internet, vocabulary tests, cloze tests, and so forth. Students can search the Web for such web sites, or teachers can recommend good ones for them. In addition, language teachers can also post lecture notes and handouts on the Web so that students can easily have access to them either at the university or at home if they have computers and internet connections. This allows students to keep up with materials on the Web while they are unable to attend classes. What is more, the World Wide Web allows teachers with web design skills to put up a website containing information and content of their choice for the purpose of language teaching. For example, teachers can design web sites with texts for the students to read through and with tasks they are encouraged to perform so as to enhance their language skills if they have the appropriate training or inclination. In the field of language teaching, the computer network technology also offers language teacher a significant advantage in that it gives teachers a better chance for professional development. Beside the tremendous search capability, the computer network technology helps language teachers develop their knowledge and keep up with trends in language teaching. Teachers can read online newsletters, journals, papers and publications related to the field of language teaching, join discussion groups, mailing lists, audio and video conferencing so that they can share ideas, discuss concerns and exchange resources with other colleagues all over the world. So as to keep up with new trends of professions, language teachers can also join professional organizations, read the publications, and attend their conferences. Therefore, the computer network technology in general, and the Internet and the World Wide Web in particular, is a very useful tool for language teachers to improve their language teaching skills.Up to this point, the above discussion has described some of the potential benefits and advantages brought about by the computer network technology and how it can be used in language teaching and learning. However, such discussion will not be sufficient if we do not address the disadvantages and obstacles related to the use of the computer network technology in the language classroom as the use of the computer network for education is not without problems. The following are some of the possible problems language teachers and students may encounter when trying to use computer network technology and its tools for the purpose of language teaching and learning.First of all, given the nature of the Web, the reality that anyone with access to it can upload information on it, it is inevitable that there is room for incorrect information which we may somehow and sometimes come across. This means that users should always question the reliability of the available information on the Web. If students do not realize this problem, they may learn wrong facts or data. Besides, as the Internet provides access to all types of issues and topics, there are also inappropriate sites that students may visit accidentally or deliberately, particularly the pornographic sites. This is very dangerous as it may result in various problems especially among children and adolescents. It is therefore the teacher’s responsibility to teach students to be critical in their judgment of the material available on the Web so as to make it a useful tool for their research and study. Another thing is the problem of information overload. Finding the information we want is not an easy task at all. Searching for material online can sometimes be quite time-consuming and frustrating. As previously stated, the World Wide Web is one great big, wonderful library. However, once we enter it, we can easily get lost and do not know which way to go. This is due to the fact that there is no cataloguing system for the Web. Search engines can be of great help, but if we search for a common word or term, we can end up with more references than we can manage. Consequently, teachers should provide students with addresses of good and useful web sites so that they can know what to look for and save their time.Another issue to consider is that teacher’s knowledge of information technology is also crucial in determining the success of implementing computer network technology in language teaching. A certain level of technical expertise is required from teachers in order to use this technology in teaching. However, language teachers, especially those in my country including myself, usually feel an anxiety for the computer due to little experience with computers and insufficient computer skills. As a result, we usually do not feel confident enough to use the Internet and the web-based teaching and learning programs in our teaching. This is worth taken into consideration and also requires school administrators to support and set budget for training in this area so as to successfully apply computer network technology into the field of language teaching and learning.Also, we should take into account the problem of face-to-face interaction. Teaching and learning, especially language teaching and learning, involves a lot of human interactions. Although the computer network technology and the Internet can provide students with interactive activities as stated above, it is very difficult for learners to learn a language successfully by interacting with machines like computers only. Human interactions not only rely on speech, but also on other factors such as facial expressions, gestures, eye contacts, body language, context and situation, etc. The inanimate computers certainly cannot provide students with this kind of human interaction whereas a teacher can do so with ease. If the teacher stands in front of a class, he or she can easily recognize students who do not understand certain parts of the lecture or the lesson by their facial expressions and thus, can go back and re-explain those points to the student whereas a computer cannot do so.In addition, technology is not always as reliable as it should be. As we all know, technical considerations for Internet based instruction include computer types, network connections, data transfer rates, etc. The nature of the network systems and computers themselves can sometimes be a disadvantage. Accessing the Web is sometimes very slow as in the case of my own teaching context in Vietnam. Sound, video, or animations may take an eternity to download. There may be a time when even though the teacher has an optimal server and connection, he/ she may still be limited in the sort of graphics and files that can be presented due to the learner's setup and access. As the students may have slow connection to the Internet, the teacher has to limit the designs to keep it useable by the lowest common access method. What is more, in some countries or some remote areas, computer network technology is a luxury that is not easily affordable. Costs related to training, as well as on-line costs of using a provider are issues that can affect the implementing such a technology in schools, especially when there is little funding (Singhal, 1997). Last but not least, we should also consider the fact that computer network faults, especially when attacked by viruses such as the recent virus Sasser, can cause loss of data, and even leads to loss of resources. This will be a problem to teachers and students if our teaching depends too much upon the network.Those are some of the disadvantages that I think should be taken into account if computer network technology is to be successfully implemented into the language classrooms.Despite its own limitations and disadvantages, it should be realized that the educational potential of the computer network technology is immense with the benefits as previously mentioned. However, it is the responsibility of language teachers to fully understand its assets as well as liabilities so as to make the most of the computer technology and its tools in enhancing the language teaching and learning process.