Surrender value: a call on CALL - Why are you doing what are you doing?

Roger Hunt

I studied French at school. My teacher was called Mr Pope. One summer after the holiday I went back to school and saw Mr Pope gleefully rubbing his hands together and there was a new glint in his bespectacled eye. He knew something I didn't and he was waiting for me, along with the rest of the lower sixth, to inflict it: he had technology - the language laboratory. He would, at last, win. We would, at last, learn. Victory was his. Or so he thought. However, in spite of the summer he had spent learning how to use the latest and greatest, we stubbornly retained a mule like ignorance of the French language.

We sat, we plugged in and put on earphones, we listened, we repeated, and we repeated again. Mr Pope listened, occasionally he would bark and a head would be seen wandering and wondering where his voice had come from (ever seen 'Pigs in Space'?). But we didn't learn French. We remained studiously monoglot. The technology (or was it Mr Pope?) had failed. Certainly we had failed in appreciation of this technological wonder; we couldn't see the point. The whole exercise was meaningless - we perceived no validity in it, it had no surrender value. In other words, we didn't get anything out of it. It gave us nothing we felt we wanted or needed.

Many years later on a 'Dip' course (now Cambridge DELTA) I gave an essay title to the candidates that suggested that language laboratories were lying around gathering dust - the great experiment had failed. All candidates' essays showed agreement with this statement and were, disappointingly for me, unanimous in the belief that the technology was a waste of time. Students needed teachers and other students to talk with if they were going to learn to speak another language. I thought of Mr Pope and his dreams gathering dust and had to concede some rhyme in their reason because the lab hadn't worked for me either.

I have out-lived the laboratory, the banda machine (yes, we had one when I started in language teaching), the audio-visual, the audio-lingual, the OHP (can't be bothered anymore), the video, cassette recorder and reel to reel. I wonder about the future of the photocopier (it seems assured, but....). And what about the mouse, the computer, the on-line course? More dinosaurs or here to stay?

I currently work in Barcelona, scene of the recent demise of a number of computer based schools which just went west leaving (estimates have it) up to twelve thousand students bereft and returning to the good old traditional 'conversation' type classroom where they learn how to speak.

Apart from mismanagement, it may be that these schools went west because what they offered didn't match what the students wanted. No surrender value. Or, 'No surrender!' by the course providers? Call me a ludite but students seem to like being clustered in a classroom in 'U' shaped seating arrangements with a whiteboard and teacher up front.

Even before the demise of the CALL centred schools I mention above, students were drifting back to tradition to 'learn how to speak'. So, do they want your computer based learning, or is this something you have decided they need because it's what you do, you like it, it's your hobby, source of enjoyment, everyone needs it, the world can't live without computers, it's the best way, they don't know what's good for them, I've got twenty megabytes left, or what? What is your surrender value?

'Surrender Value' could be classed in two ways:

  • What's in it for them? (the students/ punters/ learners/ customers/ clients)
  • What's in it for me? (You)

The answer to the two questions above is quite simple really: it's another question. Have you identified a market that wants what you offer? If 'Yes', fantastic! If 'No', maybe you should? (Or change your product to fit a market that wants it.)

Some of the questions the students might be asking themselves follow; you might find it revealing to answer them for yourselves with regard the product you offer. If you can't answer them, maybe there is something your product lacks.

  • Will this course help me speak?
  • How does it help me speak?
  • Will this course help me understand spoken English?
  • How does it help me understand when I listen?
  • Do I get a certificate which my job/university/school will acknowledge?
  • Will this lead to points which increase my salary?
  • How is this (on-line) course better from the one at the local school?
  • How is this (on-line material) different from a course book?
  • Will I meet anyone new?
  • Will this course help me use English on the phone at work?
  • Will it help me give my presentation on our developments in hydraulics in Seattle next month?
  • Will it help me when I have to take those four Japanese businessmen out to dinner next week?
  • Please add to this list...

The second of my questions above 'What's in it for me? (You)' you can answer for yourself!

PS: I am not a ludite. I can't even write a shopping list anymore without a computer. I am a teacher though, and I listen to my students.

I'd love to hear your answers.

Roger Hunt



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