Five Keys from the Past to the Future of CALL

Five Keys from the Past to the Future of CALL

Philip Hubbard
DOI: 10.4018/IJCALLT.2019070101
(Individual Articles)
No Current Special Offers


Current trends in CALL such as mobile learning, gamification, and use of social media appear to represent major shifts in the digital language learning landscape. However, these and other applications of technology to mediate language learning may be informed by reflecting not only on the present but perhaps more importantly on relevant insights from past research and practice. This article draws on selected studies and the author's experience to lay out five key lessons learned over more than three decades in CALL. These lessons involve understanding: 1) the cycle of technology adoption; 2) the dimensions of technology mediation in the language learning process; 3) the promise and limitations of CALL research; 4) the critical importance of teacher education and professional development in an age of continuous change; and 5) the need for learner training for effective technology use. Teachers, researchers, and developers alike are encouraged to reflect on these lessons as they create and seek to control the technologies, tasks, and activities of the future.
Article Preview


Although computers have been used to support language learning since the 1960s, what we think of as CALL (computer-assisted language learning) began in the early 1980s with the proliferation of what were then called “microcomputers”, such as the Apple II, the IBM PC, and the BBC computer. It was at this time (1983-84) that the first professional organizations devoted to CALL were founded: CALICO ( The members of these early groups were typically language professors and instructors who were excited by the prospect of what these new machines could do for them and their students. A number of them were “teacher-programmers”, who devoted their spare time to creating and often programming exercises from scratch for their students and others to use. The author was one of those, writing his first Apple II programs to support reading and vocabulary development in 1983 and joining both CALICO and the TESOL CALL-IS the following year. Even then, the need to recognize both the affordances and limitations of technology was understood by some. Clifford (1987), for example, famously claimed “while computers will not replace teachers, teachers who use computers will eventually replace teachers who don't” (p. 13).

Here we are decades later, and the computer we carry in our purse or pocket and call a smart phone is hundreds of times more powerful than the best of the early desktop ones. It is easy to imagine little or no connection between these modern devices and their predecessors. All too often, it seems, developers, researchers, and teachers have looked only at the present “leading edge” of emerging technologies, expecting the future to be qualitatively different from the past. The remainder of this paper, based on the author’s keynote address given at the 2018 GLoCALL/ChinaCALL conference in Suzhou, China, aims to challenge that notion. Specifically, it discusses the following five key lessons learned about CALL since the 1980s that remain relevant today and likely will be tomorrow as well.

  • 1)

    New technologies in CALL, like those in other fields, typically follow an adoption cycle where their value is greatly overestimated at first. This leads to a lot of time spent on speculation, research, and development before the affordances and constraints are sufficiently understood.

  • 2)

    Technology does not do much by itself that is of value to learning languages. Rather, it serves as a mediator between learners and other actors or language resources, like texts or videos. This mediation works in limited but powerful ways in different domains that in many ways have not changed substantially in the past 25 years.

  • 3)

    Almost 40 years of theory and research in CALL have brought us mixed results. Research must be interpreted, not just simply adopted—or dismissed—uncritically. Those working in CALL should understand not only the importance of research results but also their limitations.

  • 4)

    Teachers need to be educated to develop their technological and pedagogical knowledge and skills. A crucial part of early training is preparation for a professional life involving constant technological change.

  • 5)

    Learners similarly need training to use both familiar and new technology effectively in pursuit of their language learning objectives.

The remainder of this paper discusses these five keys in sequence, highlighting lessons learned for each.

Complete Article List

Search this Journal:
Volume 14: 1 Issue (2024): Forthcoming, Available for Pre-Order
Volume 13: 1 Issue (2023)
Volume 12: 5 Issues (2022)
Volume 11: 4 Issues (2021)
Volume 10: 4 Issues (2020)
Volume 9: 4 Issues (2019)
Volume 8: 4 Issues (2018)
Volume 7: 4 Issues (2017)
Volume 6: 4 Issues (2016)
Volume 5: 4 Issues (2015)
Volume 4: 4 Issues (2014)
Volume 3: 4 Issues (2013)
Volume 2: 4 Issues (2012)
Volume 1: 4 Issues (2011)
View Complete Journal Contents Listing