Computers will never be able to replace teachers. That’s what most people thought until recently. But with the advance of modern computer technology and artificial intelligence, some now think that computers can take the place of a language teacher. Interactive interfaces, speech recognition, and vast memory capacity are all contributing factors to the possible success of computer-assisted language learning or, more generally, e-learning. I agree that computers can – to a certain extent – do a teacher’s job, especially when it comes to teaching grammar and spelling. They can even help for reading and writing. Furthermore, computers and the Internet can positively influence a student’s motivation and make language learning easier and more appealing. On the other hand, I’m convinced that they will never succeed in completely replacing a teacher. Or will they?
If I had told my parents when I was young that one day a computer might be doing a teacher’s job, they would have ordered me to have my head examined. Of course, personal computers have only been around for 20 odd years and my parents never were computer-minded. Since then, the speed with which technology has advanced hasn’t ceased to amaze me. It’s both a blessing and a curse though. On the one hand, powerful processors are getting cheaper by the minute, putting the purchase of a decent computer within most people’s reach. On the other hand, this technological advance renders most new computers obsolete in no time. Computer whiz kids would probably call my four year old laptop medieval, while my nine year old desktop – which I wisely left in the Old World – is nothing short of prehistoric.
What computers can do for a motivated student? If someone is really eager to learn a language (any foreign language, it doesn’t necessarily have to be English), a computer is the ideal tool for self-study. Actually, a computer is nothing more than a modern combination of a notebook, a pen, a dictionary, a phone and a fax machine. Without the communicative infrastructure called the Internet or the software to make everything happen, a computer is basically worthless. The diversity of Internet resources combined with ever-improving language-learning software puts e-learning within everyone’s reach. The only things students need are enough time and motivation. Although this sounds like a piece of cake, it is actually quite a tall order.
What can computers do for teachers? When teaching English, there are usually three stages. In jargon this is called PPP, or present-practice-produce. First, there is the presentation. The teacher presents a topic (often grammar) and explains it. Then comes the practice. Students carry out well-defined, guided tasks in order to acquire the presented structure. This is where students are often bored to death with repetitive drills. Finally, there is the production stage during which the students engage in free or guided conversation and try to use what they have learned.
I don’t see any problem why a computer couldn’t take over the first two stages of the learning process. To put it differently, it might benefit both student and teacher greatly if it were possible to integrate e-learning in the teaching process. If students spent some time preparing the subject matter with the help of a computer, this would free up a considerable amount of classroom time. This time could then be used by the teacher to answer questions about the subject matter, give advice and let the students talk. Most of the classroom time could be spent on producing language, actually speaking and having a discussion. Wouldn’t that be great? After all, the skill most students lack is free conversation.
Whereas I am actually quite positive towards e-learning, the harsh reality of English language teaching in Thailand seems to contradict my optimism. Thai teachers of English simply don’t have the infrastructure and equipment in place to use e-learning on a large scale. Although using computers and the Internet in the classroom is a noble idea, there are so many pitfalls that I don’t see it happen on a large scale in the near future. Problems include equipment, cost, technical support, necessary blocking of ‘sanuk’ and X-rated websites, teacher training, overcrowded classrooms and so on. Some expensive international schools might have fully operational computer rooms and language labs staffed by well-trained professionals, but I think the average Thai student who sits with 40 others in a non-air-conditioned classroom with a poorly-trained and under-equipped Thai teacher hardly ever uses a computer to help him learn English.
Apart from just using computers and e-learning, every teacher should try to motivate and inspire the students to dedicate more of their personal computer time to surfing English-language websites, learning sites, chat sites and message boards instead of playing yet another mind-numbing hour of Ragnarok online or the latest hot computer game. There are lots of language games on the Internet that help students improve their English and at the same time provide the element of ‘sanuk’ (fun) and competition that seems to be essential to make a Thai student do something useful (see list at the end of this article).
The computer room at school – if there is one - should be used to show students how to use the Internet to improve their language acquisition. Thais are often very knowledgeable computer users, so the practical use of a computer shouldn’t be a problem. Encouraging students to use email and chat rooms to improve their writing and fluency is more than just a remote possibility. The majority of students already use these ways of communication, but unfortunately, most do it using only Thai. Although finding an international (e-mail) pen friend on the Internet or chatting in English with someone from the other side of the globe is a piece of cake, teachers might want to give students a few decent websites to start their quest. Of course, students will have to sacrifice some of their free time to do some useful surfing at home.
To sum it all up, in my opinion a computer can indeed take over some of the more tedious, repetitive tasks a teacher is faced with, especially grammar rules and drills. I really applaud both students and teachers who use a computer to help them learn or teach a language. For students, it’s a great way to get more exposure to authentic English and it can provide extra motivation, esp. for people living in an area where English is not widely used or access to English materials is not readily available. At the end of the day however, most students will still need a qualified individual, i.e. a teacher, to stimulate them to use the acquired language and give help or correction when necessary. So, can a computer completely replace a teacher? Definitely not, unless it’s a mediocre or boring grammar teacher.
Some useful websites:
www.bbc.co.uk/skillswise/games (language games)
www.eastoftheweb.com/games (word games)
www.m-w.com/game (word games)
www.interpals.net (pen friends)
www.englishclub.com (online lessons – grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, listening, speaking, reading, writing, business English etc.)
http://www.englishpage.com (lots of resources, mainly grammar and reading and listening links)
http://www.english-test.net (interactive free English tests)
http://www.englishmaze.com (with a number of free mazes, a kind of online reading adventures, pre- and post-activities – all levels and business English)