The role of the European Centre for Modern Languages (ECML) in the development of a varied set of strategies to integrate ICT into language learning (a case study)

Authors: Josef Huber and Cecilia Garrido


This objectives of this paper are to: present a case study of what an international organisation like the ECML can do to address current needs in language teaching and learning; outline the major issues involved in such an initiative.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Setting the Agenda: Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education conference, 24-26 June 2002.


The ECML was created in 1994 as a Partial Agreement under the umbrella of the Council of Europe to support its member states in the implementation of language education policies responding to the challenges of our multilingual and multicultural society. In doing so it is complementary to the work of the Language Policy Division of the Council of Europe.

The ECML's programme of activities reflects the priorities of the member states and serves as a platform for exchange, development, training and dissemination beyond national boundaries. Current projects cover among others, various areas of teacher education, language learning and approaches to the development of cultural and intercultural awareness, innovation in language teaching and the organisation, set up and management of Language education.

One of the areas of innovation supported by the ECML in its current programme relates to the integration of ICT in language learning and teaching. There are three different programmes in this field:

ICT and Distance Language Learning

The ECML is aware of the new learning and teaching avenues opened by the explosion in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and their increasing availability to the general public. These new opportunities can be particularly beneficial in the open and distance learning environment where learners can work at their own pace and without constraints of time and location.

However, there is also awareness of the challenges that integrating new technologies into the language learning and teaching process pose. The roles of teachers and learners have evolved. The pace of development of the technologies concerned, and the easy access to the World Wide Web makes the devising of structures and systems that can cope with delivery of materials, delivery of tuition and development of assessment strategies, an extremely complex process.

The increasing accessibility of ICT to the general public also implies new challenges. What is the role of national authorities and institutions in advising, providing information and support to potential learners across cyberspace? The variety of media and all the possible permutations of modes of learning are as complex and as far reaching as the Web itself. Proper evaluation of the real effectiveness of learning via ICT is in its infancy. Yet, the need for accreditation and certification of learning outcomes against set aims and objectives is here now and educators are looking for ideas to get to grips with what ICT can/can't offer in this area.

To be able to support a programme that met the ECML objectives of research, dissemination and propose practical aspects of development in this area the ECML decided to hold a think tank with the following objectives in mind:

  • to explore the potential of the teaching and learning environment offered by ICT in distance and open language learning;
  • to use the research in the field as well as the experience of workshop participants to identify common needs in the use of ICT for open and distance language learning;
  • to review the new roles of teachers, learners and institutions in this learning environment, with focus on the open/distance learner;
  • to analyse the opportunities, risks and challenges involved in the integration of ICT in language learning;
  • to identify the priorities and possible strands of action that would benefit most from international co-operation, research and development;
  • to make recommendations to the ECML as to the way forward.

Members of 24 member countries participated in the three-day workshop and discussed at length the main areas of mutual discourse when referring to Distance Language Learning.

At the beginning of the think-tank participants had the opportunity of engaging in debate around the terminology currently used to refer to learning languages away from conventional set ups which assume the presence of a student in a classroom. This included terms like open learning, lifelong learning, widening participation, learner autonomy, independent learning and self-access. Besides agreeing on a common discourse around distance language learning, the discussion brought to the fore some of the issues that distance language learning entails. Such issues were discussed in further detail throughout the workshop.

It was clear that, even when words have almost perfect equivalents in different languages, the concepts that they denote vary according to specific teaching environment and circumstances, and that care needs to be taken when discussing how to address needs, as they depend on the specific teaching/learning context.

The right tool for the job

Participants exchanged ideas and experiences in the use of various ICT tools for distance language learning, their strengths and weaknesses and the issues that arise as a result.

It is obvious that tools suitable for the enhancement of the language learning process are available, and that many tools lend themselves to the development of specific language skills. There isn't however wide knowledge among the teaching community as to how effective these tools are, and what students learn through using them. However, there is wide agreement, that what the use of ICT can provide in many cases is an enhanced quality of the learning experience and that there is a great need for the development of synchronous ICT tools that will contribute to enhancing speaking skills.

Other issues raised related to accessibility of ICT to all, the need for suitable training for both teachers and learners and the sharing of experience among practitioners, and proper assessment of all the implications (technological as well as pedagogic) of using a particular tool. Transnational co-operation via networks where teachers can share their experience and build on each other successes and failures could overcome some of the problems currently encountered when trying to incorporate ICT tools into the language learning experience.

The emerging roles of language teachers and learners

Analysis of these roles was carried out based on the following criteria:

  • materials and facilities available;
  • the teaching and learning process;
  • the competences required by teachers and learners, and the strategic roles that institutions have to play.

There was unanimous agreement that in the last few years teachers have left centre stage to give room for students to be at the forefront, in control of their learning. Teachers are seen more as facilitators, mediators, and enablers. Learners are seen as capable of autonomy, control, and responsibility for their learning. Think-tank participants also agreed that autonomy and responsibility for one's own learning is not an inherent quality of the distance learning environment, but a skill that needs to be developed, an outcome that needs to be pursued. The role of teachers in providing support and guidance is essential to achieve these objectives. Provision of such support is one of the major challenges to be met if language distance learning is to be effective.

The role of institutions cannot be underestimated. ICT is seen in many contexts as the cheap solution to all problems. Educators are being 'pushed' into adopting ICT without being able to carefully evaluate all the implications or without devising strategies appropriate to their specific context. The danger of this approach is that all the advances in communicative language teaching and learning achieved over past decades may be overridden and replaced by, to a great extent, 'retrograde practices' if, instead of being used for what it does best, ICT is simply used as a replacement for the old but well tried methodology.

The needs of teachers and learners

New roles, new tools, new objectives create a new set of needs for all concerned. Such needs were analysed based on the role concerned have to play, the tasks they have to perform and the new learning environment they are engaged with.

Below is a list of the perceived needs in relation to teachers:

  • To be aware of the opportunities and limitations of ICT.
  • To be aware of the needs and limitations of their students in the new learning context.
  • To be able to use and analyse the relevance of ICT tools for their particular context.
  • To be able to formulate ICT-related learning outcomes to be integrated into their distance learning language programmes.

Although appropriate training is seen as one of the ways of addressing some of the needs outlined above, more awareness of ICT and distance learning practice in the language community at large, would help fill current information and awareness gaps.

Learners needs are by no means less diverse or less complex. The following list outlines some of the perceived needs, which are not limited to the distance learning set up, but in some cases related to the communicative purposes that learning a language implies, but which require particular attention in distance language learning environment:

Cognitive needs:

  • new skills (language and technology related)
  • appropriate content (intercultural approach needed)
  • ability to judge own progress

Meta-cognitive needs:

  • to manage own learning
  • to develop own learning styles

Social and affective needs:

  • need for interaction in the target language
  • need to feel member of a peer group
  • need for flexible and readily accessible interaction

Although training and support in various areas will help to address learner needs, addressing the needs of teachers is undoubtedly an important factor in how learners' needs are approached. Teachers' needs and learners' needs are interdependent parts of the teaching/learning process.

Constraints and challenges

Many perceived obstacles in the successful integration of ICT in distance language learning came to the fore in the discussions as the think-tank progressed. On the final day of the think tank a special session focused on current challenges and the possible ways to overcome the problems raided. Such challenges were identified in relation to the technologies themselves, and the roles and needs of learners, teachers and institutions.

Regarding the tools and technologies involved, the main challenges identified were:

  • affordability of tools for the education market;
  • resource implications (technological costs of development and maintenance, staff and time, among other things);
  • limited access to the technologies for some learners, teachers and institutions;
  • lack of standardised technology, which also limits access and increases costs;
  • the need for increased teacher participation in the development of ICT tools that can deliver what 'conventional' language learning can already deliver.
  • From the pedagogical perspective, some of the challenges outlined were:
  • to meet the expectations of all concerned (learners, teachers, institutions);
  • to avoid the 'industrialisation' of the use of ICT for distance language learning, currently perceived as a major factor that will have adverse effects on the quality of language learning;
  • to develop awareness and understanding of the concrete advantages of the integration of ICT into distance language learning to create confidence in the process among educators;
  • to overcome problems related to assessment and accreditation.

To be able to confront most of the challenges formulated above, institutions and teachers need to work together. Institutions should allow the active participation of language teachers in the planning and decision making process so that the strategic planning is carried out in full knowledge of the needs to be addressed in each particular context. Teachers in turn need to 'let go' and allow their students to be the autonomous learners they ought to be, and play the role of mediators between students and institutions so that needs can be addressed appropriately. Teachers first need to convince themselves of the advantages offered by ICT in distance language learning, so that they can positively influence decision making. This confidence may come about by sharing experiences (good and bad) with other distance learning teachers and carrying out further research on the evaluation of language learning via ICT.

The priorities

The main areas of priority in need of immediate action were:

  • The mismatch between the objectives pursued by computer experts developing ICT tools and the needs of learners, teachers, course designers and authors. This disparity points at the need for the development of partnerships between developers, learners and educators to create products that meet the requirements of those at the centre of the education process: learners and teachers.
  • The lack of a clear understanding of the kind of knowledge that can be successfully acquired using ICT tools both in distance and face to face language learning, and as a consequence, the failure in formulating learning objectives that optimise the use of ICT for language learning.
  • The need for objective criteria to assess the efficiency of a given ICT tool with respect to specific learning objectives.
  • The need to establish networks that facilitate the sharing of successful or unsuccessful experience and the dissemination of good practice.
  • The need to train teachers and teacher educators (new and in service) to address the new teaching challenges they have to face in their new roles.
  • The need to collect information and data that can inform future developments in the integration of ICT in DLL.

The results

The final outcome of the workshop was a set of recommendations that was presented to the ECML for consideration. A workshop in June 2002 saw the launch of a programme that addresses some of the priorities identified above. The initiative includes:
The adoption of an Integrated Distributed Learning Environment (IDLE) to facilitate discussion among DLL practitioners.

  • The development of a collection of case studies both of the use of specific ICT tools and ICT teaching and learning experiences.
  • Definition of criteria for the evaluation of ICT tools.
  • The development of a field related bibliography and Webography.
  • The development of a module on the use of ICT in language learning, specially directed to teacher educators and their trainees.

Future programme 2004 - 2007

The ECML is currently making plans for the next period of activities which will build on present achievements and develop further current initiatives under the umbrella theme Language education for social cohesion.

Some of the major aspects to be pursued are:

  • successful intercultural communication;
  • internationalisation of the educational context;
  • intergrated approach to language education;
  • the changing role and status of language educators.

The type of projects that the ECML will be looking to support include Research and Development, Awareness Raising and Training of multipliers. It will also focus on other aspects of classroom and methodology, the working environment, materials development and curriculum and course design. Calls for proposals will be made in February 2003. Details will be available on the ECML website