The Value of Using CALL with Tertiary Students Studying ESL – Attitudes and implications


Please cite as: Owen, H. (2003). The value of using CALL with tertiary students studying ESL: Attitudes and implications. In B. Morrison, C. Green & G. Motteram (Eds.), Directions in CALL: Experience, experiments and evaluation (pp. 33-50). Hong Kong: The English Language Centre, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

The Value of Using CALL with Tertiary Students Studying ESL: Attitudes and Implications Hazel Owen English Language Faculty The University of Wollongong (Dubai Campus) Dubai
Computer Assisted language learning (CALL) is no longer an innovative experiment, and in many educational institutions it has become a central resource, which has resulted in the investment of teachers’ time (in both professional development and material design/integration), and institutional funds. Given this expenditure, learner perceptions of CALL are important, especially learners from non-Western cultures. These factors are particularly relevant when considered in relation to motivational issues and effective second language acquisition (SLA) (see, for example, Lightbown & Spada, 1996). For the purposes of this article, background knowledge of central issues and theories relating to technology enhanced language learning (TELL), and to motivation, is assumed. As such the article will only briefly refer to recent notions and research before detailing a study that collected data relating to the attitudinal shift of adult learners attending CALL sessions in a tertiary environment.


Hazel Owen

Motivation and SLA
The role of motivation as a key aspect of second language (L2) learning is widely recognised (for example Spolsky, 1989). The issue is, however, complicated because motivation is hard to measure, and empirical evidence of how motivation affects learning is difficult to provide. Motivation takes a variety of forms. Two central influences important for L2 learners are communicative need, and attitudes towards the L2 community (Littlewood, 1990). Other motivational factors might include learning a language for the sake of learning, and/or the process of learning. Furthermore, social factors play an important and complex role, as does success in the language learning process. Given this range of dynamic motivational factors it might be postulated that training learners to use strategies suited to their individual needs and style(s) might be central to fostering effective L2 learning. Expectations about the role of the learner and that of the teacher, are often engrained in the culture in which a first language (L1) was learned (Cortazzi & Jin, 1996). Problems with motivation can arise when these expectations are thwarted, and this is particularly true of teacher-led CALL sessions where the teacher takes on the role of facilitator: the guide on the side, as opposed to the sage on the stage. Learner training might be a way of addressing these issues, partly through awareness raising. Tschirner (2001), however, questions whether new technologies have impacted teaching or learning practices, or even resulted in a significant rethinking of pedagogical theories. On the other hand, Warschauer (2001) maintains that developments in information and communication technology (ICT) are already having a dramatic influence on teaching practices, suggesting that it is impossible to use TELL without some shift in teacher and learner awareness of alternative roles.

The Value of Using CALL with Tertiary Students Studying ESL – Attitudes and implications


Potential of TELL to assist SLA
One point expressed in much of the literature related to TELL is the potential of ICT to assist SLA. Schär and Krueger (2000, p.40), speak of ‘limitless possibilities’, and Gross and Wolff (2001) argue that new technologies, when developed on a base of cognitive and constructivist learning psychology, can provide opportunities for encouraging L2 learner autonomy and responsibility. A balancing cautionary note is heard, however, in the acknowledgement that ‘new’ is not necessarily ‘good’, and that the use of TELL must be pedagogically sound (Warschauer, 2001). A point of divergence is the preferred learning theory; although constructivist learning theory, cognitive psychology, and activity theory are, arguably, becoming the most influential. Consideration of existing studies and theories of SLA and TELL suggest the following advantages: • • • • • increased participation and collaboration in tasks with an element of production (e.g. Chun & Plass, 2000); improved flexibility (e.g. Stott 1999); enhanced authenticity (e.g. Egbert & Hanson-Smith, 1999); an improvement in independent learning skills and strategies (Brett, 1995); and, an alteration in teacher/learner power relations (e.g. Kötter & Shield, undated).

Disadvantages identified in research, and from UNITEC teacher feedback, include: • • • • • lack of integration into course aims and objectives (e.g. Liontas, 2002); difficulty in fostering critical judgement (e.g. Pujolà, 1998); problems with handling new literacies (Schär & Krueger, 2000); lack of professional development and time to upskill; differences in computing skills (both teachers and students);

4 • • •

Hazel Owen

teachers finding the labs stressful; overcrowding in existing labs; and, badly-designed labs, malfunctioning hardware and a lack of bandwidth (Brett, 1996).

Warschauer (2001) asks whether computers should be used to teach English, or whether English should be taught in order to use computers, thereby moving the language from an internal status to one where learners use it to have a genuine influence on their environment. Gross and Wolff (2001) support this notion, arguing that computers should be used as authentic tools in L2 learning, as they are in real-world situations. In contrast, Tschirner (2001, p. 318) describes a strong classroom-based vision, whereby communication in the ‘digital’ classroom acts as a springboard that enables L2 learners to ‘plunge into and participate in the world of native speakers’. These different stances, along with the advantages and disadvantages listed above, indicate the complexity of designing TELL sessions, environments, software, and resources for an L2 learning situation.

The UNITEC SOL research study
As discussed above, with certain reservations, CALL can provide a flexible tool that may enhance motivation and effective ESL learning. Over the last few years UNITEC (New Zealand) has become increasingly aware of these benefits and have instigated a TELL initiative. The following research findings1 are a result of the CALL workshops that were offered to ESL students over two semesters2.

The research was carried out by Hazel Owen, 2000 – 2001, at UNITEC, Auckland, New Zealand. 2 Due to space constraints, a discussion of the implications of student learning culture, etc., along with a full description of the questionnaire, research methodology, results and interpretation of the results cannot be given.

The Value of Using CALL with Tertiary Students Studying ESL – Attitudes and implications


The research study was carried out in the School of Languages (SOL), UNITEC, which operates on four ten-week semesters per year. ESL programmes at levels ranging from false-beginner to advanced are offered, and in all courses students practise language and research skills. SOL states that it encourages students to think independently, as well as fostering skills and strategies that can lead to lifelong learning.

At the beginning of 2000, SOL only had two programmes that regularly used the CALL labs: the Elementary and PreIntermediate, both of which included a two-hour CALL workshop per week. Following a pilot study in semester three, 2000, two target groups were chosen from these programmes to participate in this study. The initial study was carried out in semester four, 2000, to evaluate the students’ attitudinal shift and motivation, along with their perceived beliefs about the educational value of the CALL sessions. A further study with a change in teaching methodology was then undertaken in semester one, 2001 to enable comparison of results, as well as to help address issues of reliability and validity. There was no attempt to correlate attitudinal shifts with empirical evidence of the degree of effectiveness for SLA.

Educational context

Incentives to study in New Zealand include availability of student visas, perceived quality of courses, and the clean, green image of the country. Of the seventy-eight Elementary and PreIntermediate students attending workshops over the two semesters of the research study, 76.6% were from mainland China, 8% were Korean, 2.1% Taiwanese, 4% Japanese, 2.3% Indian, and 15% of other nationalities. Ninety percent of these students were aged between eighteen and thirty, and required competence in academic


Hazel Owen

English to continue in tertiary education, either at under- or postgraduate level3.

Students exited from SOL, UNITEC

300 200 100 0
D ec -9 7 Ju n98 D ec -9 8 Ju n99 D ec -9 9 Ju n00

Exited students

Futher Ed at UNIT EC Further Ed at Other Institutions

Date exited

Figure 1: English language student graduate destinations Typically, students’ literacy skills in the sample groups tended to be well-developed, although there was a disparity when compared with the level of academic writing (Towndrow 1996). A range of metacognitive and cognitive skills was displayed, but was often limited. There were also a variety of student expectations about their own role, and the role of the teacher.

Brief overview of CALL in the School of Languages

Prior to the study, CALL workshops had been offered to Elementary and Pre-Intermediate students for a number of years, although the focus was on text-based, discrete-item language software, and word-processing. The workshops were often seen as add-ons to ‘serious’ language learning. As such, it can be argued


Students who want to enter directly into postgraduate and/or undergraduate programs at UINTEC require an IELTS score of 6.0-6.5 or equivalent.

The Value of Using CALL with Tertiary Students Studying ESL – Attitudes and implications


that existing usage was not exploiting the full potential of ICT (Lai, 1999). The PC lab used for CALL workshops was arranged with workstations facing the wall, and in a strip down the center of the room facing each other. However, at the beginning of 2001, in response to rapid growth in SOL a new purpose-built, multi-media CALL lab was installed 4 . Prior to installation, collaboration between IT personnel and ESL teaching staff led to a lab design which included space to allow group activities around workstations, with the computers coming into use only when required. Software was selected based on its pedagogical value and design, for integration into teacher-led sessions, and for self-directed learning. Much of the use of the lab, however, was to focus on communication through ‘real-world’ applications such as email and the World Wide Web.


Reasons for undertaking the study were various, and included the aim of collecting data to inform future decisions about curricula changes, investment of institutional funds, and professional development. What it did not aim to do was measure empirically whether there was an improvement in language competency as a result of taking part in teacher-led CALL sessions. The hypothesis was that learners using the CALL lab would feel motivated, and believe that they were achieving maximum language learning value, when they could work at their own pace, make decisions about, for instance, task type (Maley & Duff 1982), and also see a clear link between the syllabus and ‘real world’ application.


The CALL lab was fitted with twenty Macintosh G4s with 128 RAM, 500 MB hard drive and CD ROM/DVD drive.


Hazel Owen


The primary aim was to assess initial attitudes, beliefs, and motivation of students at the beginning of the semester, with a follow-up questionnaire ten weeks later to establish if there had been any shifts. Influences were based on the language-learning context (language use opportunities) and learner characteristics (language learning experience, motivation, proficiency). Data was gathered through questionnaires, attendance figures, and observations. During semester four and semester one, ethnographic observations (unstructured) of CALL workshops were carried out in the second and ninth week of each semester. The resulting field notes were analysed, used to generate observational categories, and then interpreted to help add to the validity and reliability of the findings. A two-part questionnaire was administered in class in week one and ten. The first part of the questionnaire took the form of selfreports using a five-part Likert scale. Additionally, students were asked to rank task types and their perceived value (arranged in broad categories such as reading, writing and so on). The second part asked three open-ended questions, and provided space for further comments. Students were encouraged to write in their L1 if they wished to, and scripts were later translated. The questionnaire administered at the beginning of each semester also included yes/no questions about whether respondents had access to computers off-campus. In semester four the format of workshops was almost totally student-centered, but with little verbal or written interaction between students. Typically, after a brief introduction, students were given a study task or worksheet that made use of emails, the Internet, ESL software or MSWord. The belief was that students would be able to maximise the use of computer time by being able to work at their own pace, with a reasonable amount of choice, and with increased teacher-student contact on a one-to-one basis. Results (see Figure 2 on the following page), however, show that

The Value of Using CALL with Tertiary Students Studying ESL – Attitudes and implications


students’ attitude to the CALL workshops shifted from high positivity, downward: a trend that was corroborated by the comments in open-ended questions, and the observations. Attendance also dropped to ten percent by the end of the tenth week. In response to this, for semester one, 2001, a different approach was employed which included increased interaction with other students, and had clearly defined goals that were closely integrated into the Elementary and Pre-Intermediate syllabi.


There was a generally high return rate of questionnaires due to their being administered in class, although in semester four, because of the low attendance rate by week ten, only fifteen of the initial twenty-four students completed questionnaires. From questionnaires administered in the first week of each semester it is interesting to note that in semester four, 2000, forty percent of respondents had a computer in their accommodation, and thirty percent did not access computers off-campus. In semester one, forty-two percent of respondents had a computer in their accommodation, and nineteen percent did not access computers off campus. These figures are possibly significant when self-directed use of computer-mediated education is considered. Ease of access is likely to influence a learner’s attitude toward the value of the learning medium, whereby the effort involved in using a tool may be outweighed by the effort required in using it. This factor is, in turn, closely related to computer competency. In an effort to determine the perceived value of applications respondents were asked to rank those used in the CALL lab. For both semesters the Internet and MSWord ranked number one and two respectively. Perceived appropriacy for skills ranked writing number one in semester four, and reading number one in semester one. The open-ended questions, however, suggested that by the end of semester one respondents were finding the opportunities to speak to each other, improve their pronunciation, and use


Hazel Owen

synchronous/ asynchronous communication tools, positive factors in the CALL workshops.
Will improve/ improvement in grammar Sem. 4 2000, start Sem. 4 2000, end Sem. 1 2001, start Sem. 1 2001, end Will improve/ improvement in writing Will improve/ improvement in speaking & listening Will be/ motiv-ated by the medium Will be/ motivated by the CALL workshops

83.3% 83.3% 81.4% 86.6%

86.1% 86.1% 85.1% 93.3%

83.3% 86.5% 75.9 86.6%

89.5% 85.5% 70.4% 79.9%

89.5% 80.5% 90.7% 100%

Figure 2: A comparative selection of results from the Likert scales from semester four, 2000 and semester one, 2001 Responses to open-ended questions from the end of semester four and one verify the results of the self-rating section, and tend to fall into three main categories: 1. Students enjoyed participating in learning activities which encouraged them to use the target language in meaningful and purposeful ways. 2. Students believed that their language and computer competency improved (see figure 3 overleaf). 3. Students found technical limitations frustrating (e.g. the slowness of downloading audio and video files from the Internet, and associated problems with streaming). The main area of variation between semesters four and one is in the further comments section of the questionnaire. In semester four, forty percent of respondents indicated that they found CALL

The Value of Using CALL with Tertiary Students Studying ESL – Attitudes and implications


workshops ‘boring’, but this point was ambivalent because ten percent of the same respondents said that workshops were not long enough. Similarly, in semester one more and lengthier workshops were requested by forty-three percent of respondents.

Perceived Improvements in Computer Competency (Term 4 2000, Term 1 2001)
% of respondents 100% 80% 60% 40% 20% 0%
ka y lle n oo ce G O Po N il t d or

Term End Term Start


Figure 3: Students’ perceived improvements in computer competency

Significance of findings

Limitations of the study include issues of reliability, validity and generalisability, especially the effect of social desirability on student answers, and misinterpretation of questionnaire items (Benson, 2000). Nevertheless, qualitative analysis of data suggested students believed that workshops with a more communicative approach and a strong real-world focus were enhancing their language learning experience and proficiency. Motivation was very high with consistent attendance throughout semester one, and 100% of students strongly agreeing that they enjoyed the workshops (a finding that was supported by the observations). As indicated by Prawat (1989), it is possible that students recognised the opportunity for transfer (either from previous skills or for future goals). As such, it could be surmised


Hazel Owen

that the alteration in session approach was valuable for these particular students and their learning culture/expectation of the teacher. The knock-on effect in Semester two 2001 was an unprecedented demand for CALL workshops. The students’ comments may also link into the theory of selfdetermination motivation (Benson, 2000). In semester one, the authentic material and relevancy of tasks (Chun and Plass, 2000), closely integrated into the curricula (Liontas, 2002), provided major ‘problems’ for learners to solve in a supportive, nonthreatening environment. An added benefit is that for instrumentally/ extrinsically motivated students, there was likely to be obvious pragmatic relevancy. Findings underscore the importance of training for both learners and teachers. It is necessary to train students how to use CALL, improving their strategies and encouraging self-directed learning outside the CALL workshop environment. A further issue that SOL is addressing is professional development for teachers. Teachers are to be supported by ongoing training, and encouraged to take ownership of the initiative. Warschauer’s (1998) research suggests that when education technology is implemented from the top down, sessions are likely to remain teacher-centered and restrictive. A further issue is whether educators have a choice. Do they grasp education technology by its metaphorical horns, or do they choose to opt out (Hémard & Cushion, 2001)? This could be one of the SOL’s biggest hurdles, and may have repercussions for students and student attitudes to TELL.

There remains a lot to be done to follow up this study to provide quantitative analysis of linguistic data before suggestions can be made about the effect of CALL workshops on students’ actual performance. For example, supplementary longitudinal research

The Value of Using CALL with Tertiary Students Studying ESL – Attitudes and implications


with further comparative groups to assess continued motivation, sustained use of strategies learnt in the CALL lab, and the result this has on their effectiveness and performance as a learner, would be advisable. Furthermore, the study does not address or acknowledge limitations of TELL (Liontas, 2002). As such, there is little to suggest how to develop critical judgement using ICT, to advance additional methodological concepts (Tshchirner, 2001), or to handle new literacies (Schär & Krueger, 2000). Chun and Plass (2000) are representative when they emphasise the necessity for further research to address some of these outstanding questions, a position backed up unequivocally by Brett’s (undated) discussion of effectiveness of multimedia, and Garrett’s (1991), exploration of the pedagogical and research possibilities of new technology. Ongoing discussion has begun on how to best integrate TELL into the curricula at the SOL. An initial version of learning objectives has been written for all levels, and is currently being revised. Cummins and Sayers (1997, cited in Holt 2001), warn against the danger of technology shaping a curriculum, and the SOL, by working closely with students, teachers and the existing curricula, is hoping to avoid this. Although TELL is not a panacea for all SLA issues (Liontas, 2002), it can be effective as a motivational tool. It is, however, necessary to acknowledge the complexity of motivation, and in this recognition, to cultivate a flexible approach. On the positive side, for UNITEC at least, the research project has highlighted the high face validity CALL has with adult ESL learners, especially as an extension to, or in support of, face-to-face sessions. To maintain this attitude, it will be necessary to continue evaluation of CALL sessions, as well as ensuring that they are firmly grounded in tried and tested pedagogical principles, and not just seen as a novel way of presenting old materials. Without these factors, a CALL lab is arguably just a gimmick, and empty labs, or labs with students surfing L1 sites, is likely to result.


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Pujolà, J. (1998). EWEBuation. Applied Linguistics, (9), 104-115. Schär, S. G., & Krueger, H. (2000). Using new learning technologies with multimedia. IEEE Multimedia, 8(3), 40-51. Scharle & Szabo. (2000). Learner autonomy: A guide to developing learner autonomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Shetzer, H., & Warschauer, M. (2000). An electronic literacy approach to network-based language teaching. In M. Warschauer & R. Kern (Eds.). Network-based language teaching: Concepts and practice. (pp. 171-185). New York: Cambridge University Press. Spolsky, B. (1989). Conditions for second language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Towndrow, P. (1996). The role and utility of computer assisted language learning in English language teaching: A case study of the first level English course at the United Arab Emirates University. Unpublished MA dissertation. University of Portsmouth. Tschirner, E. (2001). Language acquisition in the classroom: The role of digital video. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 14(34), 305-319. Warschauer, M. (2001). The death of cyberspace and the rebirth of CALL. In P. Brett (Ed.) CALL in the 21st century [CD-ROM]. Whitstable, Kent: IATEFL Publications. Warschauer, M. (1998). Online learning in a sociocultural context. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 29(1), 68-88.

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