Does Multimedia (CALL) provide critical “complexity” (Range) for Language Learning?
This paper will take a brief look at research to assess whether Multimedia (MM) provides the critical complexity (Range) required for Second Language Acquisition (SLA). The implications of such a conclusion, assuming that critical complexity provides optimal conditions for learning in general, and that MM (Computer Assisted Language Learning – CALL), when effectively used (a teacher task based on systems design theory) affords the Second Language Learner (SLL) the “critical complexity” required for SLA, are significant. In essence, this conclusion should redirect CALL research into areas that support (confirm) the understanding of why MM maximizes LL (making connections between complexity theory, learning theory, and SLA theories) and areas that improve the development and management (systems design) of CALL applications to support Second Language Learners and teachers.
Let’s begin with a very simplified introduction to the term complexity and evolution. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1) proposed that evolution moves along a complexity-consciousness axis. All life arises from the most basic structures (molecular simplicity) tending (evolving) toward ever increasing complexity. Each increase in systems complexity among species is accompanied by an increase in consciousness (awareness). In simple terms, evolution is a process of adaptation or learning. This process, which proceeds in non-linear, quantitative and qualitative “leaps” (also known as a “phase transition”) and is connected to input (feedback) from the environment, transforms all matter to higher levels of organization and states of consciousness (knowledge). In bio-systems, co-evolution, self-organization, and level formation are involved, and each new level is non-reducible to the properties of the lower order system from which it evolved (2). To put this another way, “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. The principles of evolution and complexity also apply to the evolution of language (3). Complex adaptive systems exist as holistic and unified networks of patterns, which are self-regulatory and interactive. Bateson (4) proposed that all adaptation was a process of learning and Deacon (5) theorized that languages and the brain co-evolved as complex adaptive systems. Kauffman also suggested that life exists “on the edge of chaos and order”. This edge is where complexity exists and it is where systems have the greatest capacity for evolving (learning). Complexity is the boundary of change, adaptation and growth. Chaos is so completely random and unstructured that life cannot exist in that state (it is too free). Order is structured but stagnant, and lacks the variation necessary for survival (it is too bounded). Complexity is a small, available realm where there is enough randomness and enough structure to maximize possibilities for survival (growth, evolution, learning). In a state of complexity, there is a balance between possibilities (variation) and limitations (organization) to allow for sustainable existence and self-regulation (choice).
Language is also a complex adaptive system (Steels) ruled by the principles of self-organization. Brain research indicates that the mind also makes multiple (non-linear and simultaneous) connections. These connections are made between neurons throughout the system (brain) in response to multiple, complex, sensory inputs (auditory, visual, spatial, motor). New knowledge (learning) creates new neural circuits, indicating a necessary (or optimal) educational focus on providing context-rich, meaningful environments that provide input for all the senses (6). Language teaching and learning must provide comprehensible input (7) in a variety of modalities which support the numerous kinds of association that encourage learning and retention (8). This approach brings Language Learners to the border of “complexity”, or provides the “Range” (variety of contexts in which a Language Learning item is embedded required for successful SLA (9). The various methodologies in Second Language Learning have all promoted one or more of certain modalities, supporting “learning styles” (10). These include Gattegno’s “Silent Way” (11), Krashen and Terrell’s “Natural Approach” (12), Asher’s Total Physical Response – TPR (13), Lozanov’s “Suggestopedia (14), and Curran’s “whole person approach (15).
We have an understanding, therefore, that current research in physics supports the following ideas, all of which have rapidly and radically influenced and been confirmed by other fields of inquiry, including the cognitive sciences, psychology, social theory, and cybernetics (communications and systems theory). These ideas are that the brain, language and people are dynamic, co-evolving, self-organizing systems with emergent properties, which thrive (grow, learn) best when they operate on the fine line dividing chaos and order, called complexity. We refer to this critical complexity level as Range in Second Language Learning. There are many studies that show the overall impact of MM on learning, and which indicate that multimedia maximizes learning by placing the learner into the critical complexity area. Meta-analytical research indicates that MM increases learning over traditional methods in a variety of settings (with different age and type learners) and subjects (academic or skill based) (16) (17) (18). Other meta-analyses indicate that MM is also more efficient and more interactive than traditional teaching/learning methods (19) (20) (21). Since learning occurs via input and feedback of the senses, and MM can impact both visual and auditory channels, as well as provide stimulus for the parallel processing capabilities of the brain, it promotes information retrieval and associations (scaffolding – see Vygotsky (22) and increased neural activity through referential processing and redundancy (23) (24) (25). Multimedia appears to increase learning because it can present material to the learner through a variety of modes (multi-sensory, rich input), provides for learner control and autonomy (self-regulation), and accommodates various learning styles. These factors promote “complexity”, the necessary ingredient for maximizing learning.
In SLA, research in Methodology has been based on the 4 language skills (reading, writing, speaking, and listening comprehension) and included general principles of learning theory, such as Piaget’s developmental stages and Vygotsky’s social interaction and scaffolding theories. These, along with an understanding of the social nature of language, have resulted in an emphasis on the conditions (environment) which optimize Language Learning, namely, opportunities for interaction, authentic tasks (meaningful and varied), comprehensible input and language production (output and modified output), time and “mindfulness” (attention to form), and minimal stress or optimal anxiety (facilitative rather than debilitative) (26). So while we may not have (or ever have) a definitive, unchangeable theory of the specifics involved in how we learn a Second Language, we do know that Language Learning involves at least 4 skills, requires appropriate (diverse and within the learner’s reach) input, appropriate circumstances to promote output (language production), feedback through interaction for the negotiation of meaning (propelled by the need for discourse), and metacognition (for self-regulation and “noticing” of form in the target language). We also know that the learner must be motivated (pay attention) and that repetition is necessary, while a “variety of contexts” plays a primary role in acquisition. We can look at research in MM (referred to generally as CALL – Computer Assisted Language Learning) to see whether and in what ways it meets some or all of these interacting criteria. The more it does so, the greater “complexity” (Range) it provides for Language Learning, and the more optimal it serves as a means to SLA.
CALL has been shown to be effective in promoting social interaction and improving writing skills (27) as well as promoting a positive attitude (motivation) (28) (29). The improved attitude and motivational effects of CALL have been documented by many researchers (30) (31). CALL is effective in accelerating metacognition (32) and provides students with time to process and self-correct while writing (33). CALL has also been shown to provide “meaning” and authentic tasks and advance social discourse (34) (35) while encouraging comprehensible, negotiated output (36). It effectively promotes learner autonomy, a primary factor in motivation (37) and has been shown to improve listening comprehension (38). CALL has been successfully utilized to promote attention to form (39). Online references, electronic resources (research, dictionaries, and encyclopedias) create immediate feedback loops for self-correction and provide for learner autonomy (40). Because CALL can support video and audio modes, it enhances listening through multi-sensory input and supports varied learning styles (41) (42). E-mail exchanges follow patterns similar to direct conversation and can benefit language acquisition more than direct talk (43) (44). Overall, CALL allows for greater variety of topics, more and better input, greater accuracy, increased interaction, and more accurate writing (45) (46).
Based on what we know about evolution, language, learning, Second Language Acquisition, and complexity, there is no doubt that multimedia can provide the critical complexity required to maximize learning and that CALL, therefore, can provide the critical Range necessary for expedient Second Language Acquisition. This being the case, educational systems design needs to focus on components which maximize this critical Range in all language learning circumstances, with special attention devoted to balancing this Range in such a manner as to neither overload the learner (which leads to chaos) nor to overregulate the learning environment or process (which leads to order). The next step, therefore, is to take a look at how systems theory in education can create this balance and what role the teacher has in developing and implementing effective systems for language learning in the environments within their locus of control. Teachers are responsible for perceiving and choosing the organization of materials (patterns) most suitable for learning, for assessing which inputs might serve as catalysts leading toward “phase transition” (47) in the learning process, and in recognizing the stage in which a learner is situated in order to present appropriate feedback. This is of tremendous import, because the medium (CALL) does not, by itself, guarantee a balance or that learning through critical complexity (Range) will occur; it is merely an excellent delivery vehicle for enhancing language learning due to its capacity to emulate complex adaptive systems.
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