Friday, 18 February 2011

ICT Links into Languages Conference, 12-13 February 2011

There has been a buzz of excitement following the ICT Links into Languages Conference (ILILC) that took place at the University of Southampton over the weekend 12-13 February 2011. This is clear from the activities on Twitter and in various blogs and wikis that are managed by teachers of modern foreign languages. I was not at the conference in person but I followed the text chat in the CovertitLive window embedded in the ILILC wiki and I watched the streaming videos of Joe Dale's and Rachel Hawkes' presentations. Even at a distance it was clear to me that this was going to be a memorable occasion. All credit is due to Joe Dale, who played the main role in setting up this event. See Joe Dale's blog for further information and links.

One of the questions raised by Chris Fuller and Alex Blagona is how the buzz of this conference can be sustained. It’s not an easy question to answer, and I’ve thought long and hard about it. Keeping the buzz going and, above all, convincing the unconvinced that ICT can play an important role in language learning and teaching are not easy tasks. I’ve been doing this for years, and it’s been a long, uphill struggle. Maybe we can learn from the past.

When I first got into ICT in the late 1970s I was regarded by my colleagues as the departmental freak. Their attitudes changed, when my CILT publication on Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) appeared in 1982, the first of a string of CILT publications on this topic that appeared from the 1980s onwards. Looking at the titles on my bookshelves I can see my own publications and several others, spanning the period from 1982 to 2001:

Davies G. & Higgins J. (1982) Computers, language and language learning, CILT.

Davies G. & Higgins J. (1985) Using computers in language learning: a teacher's guide, CILT.

Atkinson T. (1992) Hands off. It's my go! IT in the languages classroom, CILT in association with NCET.

Hagen S. (ed.) (1993) Using technology in language learning, City Technology Colleges Trust in association with CILT.

Hewer S. (1997) Text manipulation: computer-based activities to improve knowledge and use of the target language, CILT.

Atkinson T. (1998) WWW: the Internet, CILT.

Atkinson T. (ed.) (2001) Reflections on ICT, CILT.

Thinking back, I recall the 1980s and 1990s as a period of great optimism and enthusiasm - quite different from today in many respects. The first major conference on ICT and language learning and teaching was organised by CILT in association with the Council for Educational Technology (CET) at Queen Mary College’s Halls of Residence way back in 1981. In the following years CILT organised a series of annual conferences that took place at St Martin’s College, Lancaster. Each one generated a buzz, and overall they probably had a considerable impact.

In 1985 the National Centre for Computer Assisted Language Learning (NCCALL) was set up at Ealing College with the aid of central government funding. Its brief was to address the needs of language teachers in FE, but in practice it addressed all sectors of education. I was proud to be the Director of NCCALL, which received visits from around 400 language teachers per year during its existence. Most were participants in our regular courses, but we also had a steady stream of individual visitors from the UK and all over the world. NCCALL worked in close collaboration with the Computers in Teaching Initiative Centre for Modern Languages (CTICML) at the University of Hull, which was set up in 1989 to address the needs of the HE sector. Both centres had a considerable impact on spreading the word about ICT in language learning and teaching, but the funding did not last for ever. NCCALL was closed down in 1990 and the CTICML was closed down in 2002.

BECTA’s predecessors (the CET, MESU and NCET) were also active in the early days of CALL. The CET (Council for Educational Technology) collaborated with CILT in setting up the first major CALL conference in 1981, and a number of important publications followed. I can see the following on my bookshelves:

Learning languages with technology, NCET/MESU, 1988.

The videocassette, Granville in the modern languages classroom (about the Granville simulation, written for the BBC Microcomputer), NCET/MESU, 1988.

Accent on IT, NCET, 1997.

Then there was the NOF initiative, 1999-2003. The NOF initiative was one of the most extensive ICT in-service training initiatives ever undertaken. Funded with £230 million worth of National Lottery money, the initiative aimed to enable thousands of teachers in all subject areas to make effective use of ICT. A nominal sum of £450 was allocated to each full-time teacher in publicly maintained schools. NOF was not a roaring success, however. The main problem was that most of the training was delivered by agencies specialising in ICT training in general rather than subject-specific ICT training – and they were highly criticised. Those agencies, e.g. CILT, that delivered subject-specific training were more successful and highly praised by teachers who took part in their courses. See what I have written about NOF in my article on ICT and MFL in the National Curriculum.

And then CILT set up the Languages ICT site in collaboration with ALL, but this now appears to be a dead site, with the homepage dated April 2009.

A lot of money has been spent on promoting ICT and some of it has been well spent - see the examples above - but who is spending the money now? Not the current UK government, certainly. I hope the impact of ILILC is maintained, but I don't think it will be easy. The key problems are a lack of continuity and a lack of funding, and there is no focal point to which language teachers can turn for advice. I do, however, try to keep the ICT4LT site updated as a labour of love. It’s still going strong, 12 years after it was set up with the aid of EC funding. It’s a struggle keeping it going as so many innovations appear each week, but the average daily visitor count of 1000+ gives me encouragement.

EUROCALL, founded in 1986, is also still going strong. The 2011 EUROCALL conference will take place in Nottingham, 31 August to 3 September, and one of the sub-themes is The use of new technologies for language teaching in schools. Will you be there?

Finally, take a look at my EUROCALL 2010 keynote, Where have we been, where are we now, and where are we going? Can we learn from the past? How can the buzz be sustained?