EUROCALL 97, 11-13 September 1997, Dublin City University, UK
Report by David Little, Centre for Language and Communication Studies, Trinity College Dublin
For several years Dieter Wolff has argued that EUROCALL should do more to promote the development of a research culture appropriate to CALL. The organisers of the Dublin conference responded to this by inviting Dieter and myself to co-ordinate a seminar on research in CALL. In the event, ill health prevented Dieter from attending the conference, so it fell to me to run the seminar on my own.
The call for papers announced that the seminar would focus on the design of good research projects, the use of possible research methods, and the definition of what constitutes research in CALL/TELL. A large box file was left at the conference desk so that intending participants in the seminar could submit for discussion issues, questions, problems, possible solutions, and examples of good research practice. By the end of the second day of the conference the box was still empty, but any fears that this betokened lack of interest proved to be unfounded. Over sixty conference participants attended the seminar and engaged in lively and sustained discussion.
In my introduction to the seminar I posed two questions that I take to be fundamental. First, how do we ensure that research in CALL is possible in the first place? To outsiders this might seem to be an odd starting point. After all, most work in CALL goes on in universities, and universities are partly defined by the central role that they accord to research. It thus seems entirely natural that language learning, and especially language learning stimulated and supported by information systems, should be the focus of a sustained research effort. Yet in European universities there is a widespread bias against research that concerns itself with processes of teaching/learning, and many university language centres are specifically excluded from the research requirements of the institutions of which they are a part. The professional situation of many EUROCALL members is such that they can engage in research only as a hobby that their universities do nothing to encourage, and in some cases actively discourage. Here it is worth noting that in a symposium on university teaching published in the Times Higher Education Supplement of 27 June 1997, several contributors suggested that more weight should be given to good teaching, but none of them argued that good teaching is parasitic on good research. It is also worth noting that EU policies have tended to confirm the traditional breach between teaching and research: designed to promote language teaching and learning, LINGUA and related initiatives have excluded an explicit research component, and in many cases have also excluded the possibility of appropriate empirical evaluation. Clearly, EUROCALL has a role to play in re-educating policy makers, university administrations and EU decision makers.
My second introductory question was in two parts: What should be our primary research focus, and what varieties of research do we need to undertake? As regards the first part, I recalled a point made by Nina Garrett in her opening plenary address: that in the next few years developments in information technology will necessarily reshape second language pedagogy. If this is the case, then research in CALL must take the process of language learning as its starting point, though it will need to engage with other perspectives too for example, human-computer interaction, artificial intelligence, computational linguistics. As for varieties of research, I suggested that we need theoretical research in order to provide ourselves with a basic orientation; empirical research in order to explore in a disciplined way how language learners actually use information systems, and to what effect; and action research in order to ensure that our research enterprise is not a linear but a cyclical process, leading back into the teaching/learning situation. In her opening address, Nina Garrett noted that a characteristic of autonomous learners is the ability to research their own learning. One might say the same about autonomous teachers: action research is a sign of teacher autonomy.
At the end of my introduction, I invited participants to call out the topics they felt the seminar should address. They produced the following list: research on language, contrastive studies, transfer; learner autonomy; quantitative versus qualitative research methods, student data, evaluation methodologies, and "the fallacy of objectivity"; postgraduate programmes and the selection and guidance of research students; safety critical issues; ways of dealing with technological change; the publication of research; the establishment of a EUROCALL discussion forum. At this point the seminar divided into six groups for forty-five minutes discussion.
The issues and proposals brought from the groups to the plenary feedback session that concluded the seminar fell into three broad categories. First, there had been discussion of the general orientations appropriate to research in CALL. One group suggested that we need to draw on the theories and research practice of other disciplines, including linguistics, psychology, social sciences, anthropology and education; while two groups noted that it is important to be clear what kind of research we intend to engage in and to adopt an appropriate methodology. Research takes time, which costs money, and one group pointed out that without research funding it is impossible to undertake large-scale empirical projects. Secondly, most groups spent some time discussing the implications of a fact to which Nina Garrett drew attention in her opening plenary: that most CALL applications allow researchers to gather large quantities of data with minimum effort. One report pointed out that it is one thing to collect data and another to know what to do with it, and several groups emphasised the importance of good research design. Thirdly, the groups addressed the role that EUROCALL might play in helping to develop a research culture appropriate to CALL. It was suggested that EUROCALL should establish a register of research activities and perhaps a special interest group for research; join forces with CALICO to found a world-wide electronic journal for CALL research; seek funding to sponsor research projects run by its members; organise a summer school on research in CALL; establish an electronic discussion forum on research in CALL; and lobby against the exclusion of research from EU-funded programmes such as SOCRATES and LINGUA.
The seminar was one of the liveliest events at EUROCALL 97, no doubt because it gave participants an opportunity to share and debate some of the interests and preoccupations they had in common. It is very much to be hoped that EUROCALL will act on at least some of the suggestions generated by the seminar before the 1998 conference convenes in Leuven.