Seriously practical:

Implementing Technology-Enhanced Language-Learning (TELL)

in an increasingly globalised world


Professor Dr Andrew Lian

Professor of Languages and Second Language Education

School of Languages and International Education

University of Canberra, Canberra, ACT, Australia




This paper deals with problems of implementing Technology-Enhanced Language-Learning (TELL) in an increasingly globalised world. It is not a technical paper in the sense that it will deal with methodological or software issues. Instead, its focus will be on questions of the administration of the development of TELL infrastructures at an institutional level e.g. in universities.




The phenomenon of globalisation is placing increasing pressure on people throughout the world to develop enhanced understandings of each other through high levels of proficiency in language and culture. This applies to all languages and cultures as improved communications and the development of the Internet and other globalising phenomena impact on our society.


Globalisation is creating special needs in the language-learning and teaching areas, a situation which is especially relevant in the case of English which is establishing itself as the major language of communication for people throughout the world. Having said that, English is not the only language which will need development as many language-teaching organisations are also gearing up to teach the languages of the region as well as languages from more distant parts of the world. Just as an example, there are many departments of Applied Language Studies in Asia where graduates are expected to be proficient in at least two languages taken from a list which often includes Chinese (Mandarin), English, French, German, Japanese, Korean or Spanish.


In the case of English, which will be our prototypical example, Asian countries, with their huge populations, are gearing up to meet the demand for English language and are experiencing very great pressures to introduce the learning of English from an early age. For example Taiwan is teaching English as from years 3 or 4. The same applies to Korea, Japan and Thailand.


These countries are faced with considerable problems due in part to a lack of proficient speakers of English and in part to a lack of trained teachers of English.


Yet Asian countries need to proceed quickly with the implementation of English language programs if they are to function effectively in a globalised English-speaking world.


While government and non-government organisations have in fact attempted to respond to this challenge by rapidly implementing English learning and teaching programs (including language teacher education programs), it will still take a very long time for these measures to become effective because the English language market is so huge and resources are actually quite limited. The situation is actually worse than it appears in that initiatives for the mass teaching of English are relatively recent with demand hugely outstripping current available resources. It is estimated that in Taiwan at least, the government is looking at something like the next 50 years to reach its objectives. The irony of course is that the next 50 years might see the displacement of English as the world's Lingua Franca. How that may happen is not obvious today, at least not to me, but it is not an impossibility.


With all this in mind, it is my view that the demand for language-learning in general (not just English) in the foreseeable future will by far exceed anything that the world has ever experienced before (in any discipline) and the future should look rosy for all those looking to a career in language-teaching. Whether in fact this happens or not is a matter of conjecture as we all know that language-teaching is regarded by administrators an expensive proposition.


Are there any solutions both to meeting demand and expenditure issues?



Technology may be of assistance

One of the possible ways of trying to help with this problem is to make use of modern technology to substitute for or enhance some functions of teachers, so as to enhance the learning process and to meet more effectively the individual needs of learners in a mass language learning market and in large and diverse societies.


Let me explain briefly.


Replacing or enhancing some functions of teachers

While it is not the intention of this paper to argue for the replacement of teachers, there are clearly some areas where a computer can provide a teacher-replacement function. I am thinking here of some forms of tutorial CALL, some aspects of listening comprehension and indeed some speaking, through the use of automatic speech recognition (ASR) engines with aspects of pronunciation and conversation practice.



Enhancing the learning process

The learning process can be improved by providing support to enhance the standard structures which are normally in place. I am thinking here of support in the form of, say, audiovisual databases to facilitate understandings of language at work, or of electronically-filtered sounds which facilitate awareness-raising in learners of language.



Meeting the needs of individual learners in a large and diverse society

Language learners have different purposes and will need to be able to have ways of responding to these purposes. Technology can provide access to learning systems which are able to provide learners with the kinds of information and support that they require to complete individual tasks and to respond to the diversity of learner needs even within a single classroom structure.



There are problems!

Technology presents at least seven problems in this context:


(a)                A lack of suitable methodology for facilitating the learning of languages at a functional level. The current linguistics-based paradigms are theoretically problematic and therefore new paradigms need to be developed.


Currently, linguistics-based models are prevalent in the Anglo-American literature on language-teaching and learning. These models are not without problem and are currently under some justifiable discussion and attack from criticism originating in critical thinking and socio-cultural theory. Thus the apparent solidity of the basis for our work needs further investigation. While, in a sense, this is a never-ending undertaking, it is important for those involved in TELL to take an active part in the process, especially as the new technology may, in itself, give us new insights into theoretical issues. (cf Lian, A-P., 2000, 2001)


(b)               A lack of properly-constructed Technology-Enhanced Language-Learning (TELL) systems on the market.


Currently the TELL market appears fragmented and piecemeal with little or no coherence in design and no theoretical positioning in terms of the overall intellectual frameworks for language-learning and teaching. Generally, there is a program here or a program there, but there are very few, if any, large scale integrated systems which reflect some form of theoretical coherence in the planning and delivery of TELL within institutions. Part of the problem here revolves around the expertise and institutional power of the people developing programs. Typically, people responsible for TELL are appointed at relatively low levels and have little genuine power to implement change.


(c)                A lack of appropriately-educated persons (both locally and internationally) capable of developing appropriate TELL systems and capable of educating other developers.


There are relatively few persons who have an in-depth understanding of theoretical issues of language-learning and teaching as well as programming skills and the ability to develop large-scale coherent infrastructures for language-learning and teaching. While it is arguable that it is not essential for academics to be au fait with all aspects of program and system development, it still remains desirable for such people to exist as they will have special insights into TELL which others simply cannot have. In my view, people who aspire to some form of leadership in the TELL area need to have had, in addition to having made contributions to teaching and learning theory, at least some experience in several important areas:


·        the actual writing of computer programs (i.e. to know how programs work at a relatively profound level),

·        the design of large-scale TELL-based systems i.e. to be able to conceptualise and actually develop more than individual stand-alone programs,

·        the management of learners in the context of TELL systems, including student-tracking and record-keeping for the purpose of research and learner-management.


I am not suggesting that people should be expert at all of these things but that they should have had some genuine "hands-on" experience in order to be able to make quality judgements about systems and, also, to be able to enjoy some independence from technological "experts" with whom they might need to negotiate. In this way, they will have a good understanding of the potential of current technology and not simply function on the basis of methodological and technological “rumour”.


(d)               A lack of funding for capital investment (this varies from country to country).


By definition, TELL systems require the use of technology. Technology comes at a relatively high price and organisations need to make appropriate investments in the area. Some countries or organisations are more inclined than others to engage in this kind of expenditure.


(e)                More importantly, while funding for capital investment is possible in some contexts, there is lack of funding to employ suitable locally-based faculty to educate prospective local TELL developers. In particular, it is very expensive to employ expatriate faculty and it is also important to develop local expertise and thus avoid having to rely on imports from other places.


This is an interesting point. Some countries and institutions are willing to make major capital investments into buildings, computers, software, satellite dishes etc. but are not prepared to pay appropriately for the people needed to make the systems work. The reverse is also true in that some countries and institutions invest heavily in people but not enough in equipment and software. A balance between the two forms of investment is necessary.


(f)                 Unfortunately, this is not just a question of money. Even where funding may be available, there actually remains a critical shortage of appropriately-educated faculty with both the pedagogic and technical skills to educate prospective developers in their country of origin.


This remains a point of major difficulty. Even though there may be a demand for TELL and the proper balance is struck between equipment and salaries, we do not yet have a critical mass of qualified TELL personnel either to educate developers or to soak up the demand to develop and manage TELL systems especially in countries where such systems are needed.


Further complicating the matter is the fact that while there is a demand for TELL developers, this demand is limited in size, except that the demands of a mass market require TELL to be in place.


This is in fact a major stumbling block for the development of TELL in general. The demand for sophisticated TELL developers is actually insufficient for universities and other institutions to make the necessary investment in TELL development staff. Thus, on the one hand there is demand for TELL developers because optimal progress cannot be made without them but, on the other hand, that demand does not seem sufficient at this stage to encourage large-scale institutional investment by single institutions. This also discourages investment by individual institutions.


To summarise, while the demand for teachers of English and proficient speakers of English is high, the demand for advanced developers of TELL materials is relatively limited by comparison. It cannot justify every university or educational institution having its own TELL department or section. Yet TELL is important in a mass market context.


(g)                The alternative to (f) above is to send prospective TELL development personnel to study off-shore e.g. sending Thai students to universities in Australia. This is both expensive and relatively inefficient as, under these conditions, only a very small and insufficient number of persons can be educated - a number which is actually too small for the demand.


Furthermore, because off-shore receiving institutions understand that the market is limited, they too are reluctant to make the necessary investment in a fully-funded system for the education of TELL developers.


Thus, the equation becomes more complicated. The question is: How does one find the right balance?



Toward a possible solution

In order to deal with this multi-faceted problem, I am going to propose a solution which takes account of the various aspects identified above. My reasoning is as follows:


If there is no critical mass of prospective TELL developers in any one place to cover the costs of training programs




There is no critical mass of well-trained academic faculty




Faculty appointments of the appropriate research-based personnel is very expensive




No single organisation can expect to be able to run successful TELL programs and successful developers' programs




(a)                it is able to deal with the problems of competition between institutions


(b)               it increases its catchment area to arrive at a critical mass of students.


(c)                it can make it financially and intellectually viable for people to want to educate others in TELL.



Maybe one answer is to stop trying to do everything within the four walls of individual institutions but to create partnership structures with outside organisations. I am suggesting that one such model is to outsource university degrees and other awards to private research and development organisations. Because of their structure, these organisations may be able to afford to take the necessary financial risks and are also able to bring together the necessary critical mass of students on the one hand and TELL expertise on the other.


Thus the solution, if there is one, is perhaps through the development of a new model of education (not necessarily limited to TELL education) where university and non-university organisations establish a symbiotic relationship between them – an extension of research collaboration models currently in place with industry.


It might look as follows:


(a)                Universities and other institutions outsource TELL education to a limited number of outside organisations with an active research base: essentially an external R&D centre in TELL. This does not require the university to hire people with the usual provisions of tenure, superannuation etc, thus avoiding financial risk and long-term commitment. It enables the university to test the field and also provides a two-way quality assurance mechanism.


(b)               The university accredits the program taught by the external R&D centre for the duration of their contract with the organisation.


(c)                The university further legitimises its relationship with the external R&D centre by granting members of that organisation adjunct university titles at the appropriate levels. Some university people could hold joint appointments and be jointly funded.


(d)               The University would be legitimised by work done in the real world and the expertise of the external R&D centre,


(e)                Most importantly, for this model to work, the university would not normally own products developed by the external R&D centre during the course of their contract as is currently the case with many academic contracts nowadays. Special arrangements for joint ownership may of course be possible.


(f)                 The external R&D centre may be responsible for the education of people from more than one university or tertiary institution. It may also itself be an accredited tertiary education provider in its own right.



This is a "best of both worlds" approach and it is not limited to TELL. However, it is relatively urgent in the TELL area because of the burgeoning languages market. In this way, scarce expertise will be distributed with maximum efficiency and effectiveness to its potential clientele and standards of research, learning and teaching will remain high.


The model proposed above seems similar to that which Microsoft currently has in place with its Microsoft certification programs.


To summarise, the proposed model seems to provide


(a)                intellectual viability for universities and research centres,


(b)               financial viability for universities and research centres;


(c)                appropriate two-way legitimation for universities and research centres


(d)               potential for some of the universities' work to move out into the "real world"


(e)                built-in incentives rather than disincentives for universities and research centres



I am not naïve enough to believe that this model has no problems: the most dangerous one being that it may create an elite and a kind of unwanted orthodoxy driven by market pressures which may delay progress in the field. But then, at the moment, universities too are driven by market considerations.


In the light of that last comment, and in an effort to foster intellectual progress, it is important for the external R&D organisations to be true research organisations rather than simply developers of software which sells.




This paper has attempted to raise and analyse issues relevant to the future of intellectually-viable technology-enhanced language-learning (TELL) in a world which, on the one hand needs to respond to economic constraints and, on the other hand, needs to meet huge demands in the area of language-learning.


The paper comes to the conclusion that by properly applying a particular model for intellectually-viable TELL a win-win situation would be created for all concerned: universities, commercial organisations and language-learners.



Andrew Lian is Professor of Languages and Second Language Education in the School of Languages and International Education, University of Canberra, Canberra, Australia. Until recently, he was also Head of that School. Previously, he had been Professor of Modern Languages and Head of the Department of Modern Languages at James Cook University, Townsville, Australia. Prior to that he had been Professor of Computer-Enhanced Language-Learning and Director of the Language Centre at Bond University, Gold Coast, Australia. He has published widely in the theory of language-teaching/learning and Technology-Enhanced Language-Learning (TELL), he has written and developed a range of TELL systems and has been a consultant to a number of national and overseas organisations in those areas. He has been invited as keynote speaker to conferences in Taiwan, Korea, Thailand and Australia.