Doing it on the Web
Graham Davies

Links checked 12 October 2011

Originally published in the Language Learning Journal, Association for Language Learning, Winter 2001, No. 24: pp. 34-35.

I have a friend who owns a fruit and vegetables business in a London wholesale market. Back in the early 1980s he approached me for advice about acquiring a computer. “Why do you need a computer?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “all the other dealers are getting them, and I don’t want to be left behind.” I suggested that a computer might help him with his accounts and customer records, but this was not what he had in mind. He was more interested in predicting market trends. I quizzed him about the nature of his business. One important feature that emerged in the course of our conversation was that the wholesaler in his line of business makes a real killing when he is the first to get hold of a batch of a new crop, for example Guernsey tomatoes. “How do you find out when the new crop is about to come on the market?” I asked. “I just listen to the whispers,” he answered. “Keep listening to the whispers,” I replied. My friend now uses an accounting package, but he’s still listening to the whispers – and driving a Porsche.

The main problem with ICT is that people always expect it to be able to do things that it cannot (yet) do. Take machine translation (MT), for example. MT has been the dream of computer scientists since the 1940s. Enormous progress has been made, but MT packages make horrendous blunders. Just for fun I got Babel Fish ( to translate the following into French:

Peter is a big lad now. Since I last saw him he has grown another foot.”

The result was:

Peter est un grand jeune homme maintenant. Depuis que je l’ai pour la dernière fois vu il a accru un autre pied.”

OK, it starts well but then produces an error that no competent human translator would make – although I am sure that many language teachers can cite similar examples of errors made by GCSE candidates.

MT has its uses. It can produce the gist of a document that one might consider having translated properly. This was the one of the functions of the Systran MT package that was developed at the height of the Cold War. I once heard a retired American spy give a lecture on the pros and cons of MT. Its main value, he said, was in determining whether the content of captured documents was important or not – a great time-saver when you consider the vast quantities of documents that had to be scanned for their military relevance. But I still get phone calls from business people who honestly believe that they can dispense with human translators and get all their business letters and advertising copy translated without human intervention. It would be interesting to see the results.

I have worked with computers since the mid-1970s, and I try to keep my feet firmly on the ground. I use a computer for at least three hours per day every day of the week, so I cannot be classified as a Luddite. I value the benefits that new technologies bring to my working life, but I have found myself continually doing battle with administrators whose view of technology is that it should replace the teacher rather than enhance what the teacher does. We saw this in the 1960s with the advent of the language lab, and history has repeated itself each time a new technology has become widely available (Davies 1997).

For most of the time during the last 25 years language teachers have won battles against administrators who sought to replace teachers with machines, but I fear that it will not be long before we begin to lose ground. This is largely due to the arrival of the World Wide Web – which is not that long ago: it was only in 1993 that the Web went public. The Web has had an extraordinary impact on people’s lives and is an invaluable resource bank for teachers and students, but it is not the only ICT resource. In 1997 I heard an interesting presentation by Claire Bradin at the FLEAT 1997 conference in Canada. The presentation was titled “The Dark Side of the Web”. One of the important points that Claire made was that newcomers to the world of computer assisted language learning (CALL), i.e. the post-1993 generation, tend to have a one-sided perspective of CALL. “Do it on the Web” is their motto, regardless of whether the Web is the best medium for “doing it”. As a result, we now see countless websites offering CALL materials that would have been unacceptable as long ago as the mid-1980s. There is a glut of drill-and-kill materials on the Web, produced by amateurs who have learned nothing about input analysis, branching and feedback, and whose screen design skills are completely lacking. There are many lessons to be learned from the past (Davies 1997).

The two main problems with the Web are: (i) it is too easy to create materials for it, and (ii) it is perceived as a huge collection of freebies. Quality takes second place but this is probably a temporary phenomenon. Uschi Felix writes: “The trend is not yet powerful enough to justify predictions that the Web will eventually split into quality sites for which users have to pay and free sites that are of poor quality, but there are signs of change.” (Felix 2001:189–190).

She continues: “…while the Web is providing an increasingly rich shared resource to CALL practitioners, the often alluded to radical rethinking of the teaching approach still has a long way to go.” (Felix 2001:191). Hear, hear! Pedagogy rules!

As well as integrating technology appropriately into human activities, one must also be careful about choosing the right kinds of technology for different tasks. There are positive signs on the horizon. Following a slump in sales of multimedia language learning materials on CD-ROM during the last years of the 1990s, one or two businesses are now reporting a reversal of this trend as teachers being to realise that the Web is inappropriate for certain kinds of ICT activities. And accesses to the ICT for Language Teachers website’s Module 2.2 on multimedia CALL are now way ahead of the three modules dealing with the Web: Doing it on the Web is just one approach to ICT, and ICT in general has its limitations. Uschi Felix shall have the final word: “Finally, however highly one rates the potential of the Web, it is difficult to imagine that any of this will ever replace best practice face-to-face teaching.” (Felix 2001: 358).


Davies G. (1997) “Lessons from the past, lessons for the future: 20 years of CALL”. In Korsvold A-K. & Rüschoff B. (eds.) New Technologies in Language Learning and Teaching, Strasbourg: Council of Europe. Also in a revised version (2002) on the Web at:

Felix U. (2001) Beyond Babel: Language Learning Online, Melbourne: Language Australia. Reviewed at:

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