Professor’s reflection

“Do you think that Rosetta Stone and Duolingo are going to make language teachers obsolete?”

When I interact with the general public and they discover my interest in technology and language learning, I am often asked some version of that question.   In the mind of many, perhaps with their experiences from their secondary foreign language classes, language learning is after all a matter of memorizing vocabulary from flash cards, and drilling grammar structures.   These functions, what Pegrum (2014) calls the “tutorial” function of mobile assisted language learning, are indeed an area where the use of technology can move some activities outside of the language classroom, or out from under a language teacher’s control.   However, we know that language learning involves far more than these easy-to-automate tutorial functions.   Luckily, the range of capabilities and functions of mobile technology also goes way beyond these tutorial functions.   It is the very fact that mobile phones can now do so many things, that there is a greater need than ever before for language teachers who are trained to curate the various platforms, applications, and claims that are now associated with mobile-assisted language learning.

To that end, I was given the chance by my colleagues at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (formerly the Monterey Institute of International Studies) to design a course on Mobile Assisted Language Learning. Rather than replacing or rendering teachers obsolete, the rise of MALL requires effective teachers more than ever: to train, design, engineer, curate, troubleshoot and assess the bewildering and ever-evolving range of MALL applications.  Teachers need to understand that each new MALL application brought into a language learning ecosystem has the power to not only increase motivation or effectiveness, but also the potential to bore learners, to conflict with other applications, and to increase the costs in time, money and frustration for their learners. The goal for this course is to equip language teachers to make intelligent and critical decisions about if, when and how to incorporate MALL applications and functionalities into their course, unit and lesson design.   The teacher-trainees have come to understand how their MALL decisions are nested within and affected by six distinct ecosystems: the acquisitional (input, output, interaction, feedback), the linguistic (vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, genre) , the pedagogical (response management, homework assignment, assessment, content delivery), the institutional (board members, IT personnel, department chairs, parents), the technological (platforms, internet, phone reception, security) and the sociocultural (what it means to be a learner, or student, or teacher, or phone user in a given context).  We also explore how the four main functions of MALL – content delivery, tutorial, creation and communication – can be integrated into a cohesive whole with traditional instructional methods.

The most exciting aspect of the class to me has been to see teacher trainees get excited about taking advantage of the technologies that students are already bringing to class to help them add depth, authenticity and communicative need to routine language lessons.   Overtly language learning apps like Duolingo offer far less to a language teacher than apps designed for everyday life – like Weather, Twitter, Instagram, Voice Memos, or Calendar – and the trainees have come up with ingenious ways to use these apps to make otherwise abstract lessons seem far more real.   I am also very excited about the teacher resource website we are building as a class ( This website contains not only an extensive list of academic references, but annotated reviews of a wide range of mobile applications, and rubrics for helping teachers make informed decisions regarding the theoretical assumptions, pedagogical effectiveness, and implementability of any given app.   Since the range of particular application changes by the day, this rubric function is what is most sorely needed- a set of questions that will help teachers assess the impact of any new application that may come along.

Overall, this project has been extremely rewarding, and the teacher trainees have been excited to add this set of skills to their lesson and curriculum design toolbox.   I am confident that a solid foundation in the pros and cons of mobile learning will become increasingly non-optional in the job markets of the near future.

Thor Sawin

Associate Professor

MA TESOL/TFL program

Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey