Educational Theory Behind the Design

How and why does this design fit with current research on technology in foreign language education? 


Learning Challenges and Learning Goals 

Design Overview 

Anticipated Challenges 

The learning experience is designed to achieve the four levels of foreign language education.  In a foreign language lesson, instruction should include the skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing.  While this is the theoretical order of increasing difficulty, work with early language learners indicates that reading and writing are easier than the listening and speaking skills, because they do not allow the learner as much time to process the information and formulate a response.  The design of this lesson is intended to move up the scale of increasing difficulty.  As students start their communications, they will be reading and writing, and will have ample time and resources to make sense of the material that is presented.  After they become comfortable with the material and the vocabulary that they will need, they will move to the listening and speaking stage as part of the videoconference.  The increasing level of difficulty allows for the students to scaffold their learning and become more comfortable in their own abilities before moving on to the next challenging task.  

The existence of technology allows a world language teacher to supplement the “guest speaker” concept in a more effective way.  The extended interaction between the ePals and the students give them a great deal more opportunity to ask questions and gather information.  Additionally, students can work at their own pace to gain the information.  They have a much greater amount of time to formulate and ask questions of their ePals, as they develop additional questions and comments.  Some students may not feel comfortable asking a quest speaker a question, but with the relatively anonymous and comfortable format of the ePals chat services may allow shyer students a comfortable place to ask questions and express their individual interests.  As they gather the firsthand accounts from their pals, they can pursue the areas of discussion that interest them the most, creating a form of differentiation in this activity.  The activity is far more significant than a one-day lecture, as it reinforces the material in a variety of ways over a longer period of time.  

This design utilizes many of the theories that educational researchers promote as means to use technology effectively in the classroom.  Simply teaching culture is typically ineffective; this activity allows students to fully investigate and solve their own questions about the holiday.  This is the best way to eliminate stereotypes and internalize the cultural information.  As Nickerson (1995) writes, “investigators have stressed the importance of ensuring that conflicts between old and new ideas are explicated so there is a chance for them to be resolved” (p. 10).  Through the question and answer process over ePals and via the videoconference, the students have extensive opportunities to make sense of the new information and to eliminate the stereotypes that the have possessed.

This design is effective from the perspective of effective teaching of foreign languages, in that it includes authentic materials for learning.  The use of authentic materials is important because it offers direct exposure to the target culture, as well as represents an authentic task in that it requires the students to interpret a real piece of language text, as they would in a foreign country.  The ePals conversations and the videoconference are examples of authentic learning, in that the students need to interpret the speech and writing of real Spanish-speakers.   In addition to being authentic, the ePals exchange contributes to student autonomy and gain control over their own learning (Shrum & Glisan, 2005), which increases student motivation and engagement.  The synchronous nature of the instant messaging requires learners to “attend to input, feedback and output similarly to the way they experience face-to-face spoken interaction” (Shrum & Glisan, 2005, p. 252).  

This activity is also constructivist in a way that most cultural instruction cannot be.  Students are able to actively obtain and construct their own opinions and information on the holiday, without relying solely on text or lecture for the information.  Knowledge learned in this way tends to be more engaging for the learners and tends to be internalized.  Instead of hearing about the historical significance, students can actually interact with the people who practice the holiday to gather more information and find what the significance is to the practitioners.  The students then construct their own knowledge of what the holiday means and how it is celebrated.  Jonassen (2000) writes about the role of technology in this constructivist process, saying “mindtools [in this case the ePals program] are computer-based tools and learning environments that have been adapted or developed to function as intelligent partners [emphasis added] with the learner in order to engage and facilitate critical thinking and higher order learning” (p. 9).  The extended interaction with the ePals facilitates critical thinking, in that students have more opportunities to gather information and process that information to consider the cultural differences that exist.  By reflecting critically on their own cultural practices and on the practices of others, students are engaging in the types of higher order thinking that typically is not possible until a much higher level of the language.  Jonassen goes on to emphasize that mindtools “scaffold meaningful thinking; they engage learners and support them once they are engaged” (p. 10).  After engaging the students in the meaningful discussions with the ePals, the rest of the lesson allows the students to process the information slowly and meaningfully, so that they maintain their engagement and process the information fully.

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (1993)  National Standards in Foreign Language Education.  New York: ACTFL.   

Jonassen, D. H. (2000) Computers as mindtools for schools: Engaging critical thinking. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 

Nickerson, R. S. (1995)  Can technology help teach for understanding?  In D. N. Perkins, J. L. Schwartz, M. M. West & M. S. Wiske (Eds.) Software goes to school: Teaching for understanding with new technologies.  New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 7-22.

Shrum, J. L. & Glisan & Glisan, E. W. (2005)  Teacher’s handbook: Contextualized language instruction. Boston, MA: Thomson Heinle.