Technology Won’t Replace Language Teachers. It Should Empower Them.

As the co-founder of a technology language learning company, I want to say loud and clear that technology can never replace language teachers. And it should not. Teachers provide indispensable value to the learner that no technology will be able to replace: practice, feedback and motivation just to name a few. I think one of the reasons that technology has touched so little in language learning is because technology solutions either try to replace teachers or make them an add-on piece rather than understanding the core value that teachers provide and looking at ways that we can come in to make the process more efficient and effective. We need more voices like the Khan Academy in language learning. 

I’ve always believed that the problem with language classes are not the class or the teacher, but how time is spent in the class. In a traditional language class, a teacher is a lecturer, standing before a class, imparting input, i.e. giving explanations and instructions about the language. Input is crucial as it kicks off language learning, but the other half is output where students are using and producing the language based on the input. However giving input usually becomes what the class is mostly about. In a traditional classroom, at least 70% of the time is spent on input where students passively listen to the teacher and take notes. They are left with so little opportunity to actually use the language. That’s why so many of us fail in language classes or feel we learned more speaking the language in real life than in the class.

Now imagine a flipped language class where students listen to a lesson audio on their way to class; In that audio teacher presenters give a lecture where they explain the language while students browse the lesson text on their phone or tablet. Students don’t need to sit in a classroom to find out what certain words mean or how to use a grammar structure. Instead, they do it in their own pace, whenever they have the time, desire and need. When students go to class, they talk to their teacher using the language they’ve learned on their own; It won’t be perfect and they’ll have lots of questions, but that’s precisely the point. We want them to use the language under the teacher’s guided practice. This way, the teacher would be able to spot problems and give students corrective feedback. It makes learning more efficient, more personalized and more engaging. This simple model should be how technology and teachers work together to help students. In many ways, technology should not be about reinventing learning as it is about making the old more efficient, effective and personalized. Why force students to do everything online when the face to face session provides clear value? In the same sense, why have students sit in a classroom and listen to a lecture if they could do it with the help of technology on their own? 

Each time I talk about the flipped language class, students, teachers and entrepreneurs think it makes so much sense. But that’s not how 99% of language learning takes place. In reality, the traditional classroom and technology are living in parallel universes rather than integrating into a blend to elevate what each other excels at. Granted a lot of language learning incorporate technology and the teacher. But they are mostly clumsily forced together to satisfy the market. Something as simple as using technology to preview and review and spend class time on practice and feedback seems to elude most schools, teachers and entrepreneurs. I think a lot of it is fear, inertia and lack of student empathy. The last thing many schools and teachers want to do is reinventing what they do in the class with technology thrown in to the mix. While many entrepreneurs either have too much faith in technology replacing teachers or get frustrated that the old school doesn’t share their new vision.

As an entrepreneur myself, I am occasionally guilty of it. But the fact is most students need teachers to learn a language. If we are not working with teachers, we are going to fail students. No matter how advanced technology becomes, using sophisticated adaptive learning systems sometime aren’t as good as learning how to say ‘how are you’ from a real person and carry on that conversation. It’s our duty as entrepreneurs to communicate our belief to teachers, working with them, supporting them rather than cutting them out of the picture or making them an add-on piece in our service. That’s why on OpenLanguage, teachers always use it for free. We want to get you using our content and tools to teacher students, manage their studies and help them improve. I am very thankful for all of the invaluable feedback that teachers give us OpenLanguage. Things like multi-media homework and remixing courses were inspired by their requests. At the end of the day, we are all there to help students succeed.

If you are a language teacher, see how OpenLanguage can support your work here. And contact us at openacademy@openlanguage.com for a free teacher’s account.

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