TESOL Journal Special Issue, Autumn 2002
Constructing Meaning with Computers

The Autumn 2002 issue of TESOL Journal focused on how computers can be used to help language learners construct meaning from the language around them -- to become constructivist learners. For too long, computers were seen as drilling machines, foot soldiers in a behaviorist training ground. Even the simplest machines could be used for more, as evidenced by "London Adventure" in 1984 on a BBC Micro with 16K (that's kilobytes) of memory. Today's powerful multimedia, Internet-ready computers offer possibilities for extraordinary learning environments. In these environments, the learner, not the programmer, holds sway.

The field of English language teaching has also evolved and is increasingly influenced by constructivist learning principles. The constructivist perspective holds that learners are not passive recipients of teacher-imparted knowledge. Rather, learners actively engage in creating meaning for themselves from information around them. The information they use includes everything presented to them in class, from the concrete skills-based to the most abstract. Students in a constructivist classroom, where communicative learning is taken for granted, are expected to be active participants. Constructivism provides another way to look at the student-centered learning many ESL teachers have long espoused, putting even more intellectual control into the hands of learners.

The teacher has a large and very important role to play in this perspective of the teaching-learning process. The mass of language data available to students is overwhelming and needs to be filtered and systematized so that learners actually will be able to make sense of it. The teacher sets tasks for learners that help them gain access to and use the tools they need to create meaning, as well as that help learners judge what they have created. The constructivist learning environment promotes reflection and interaction, and computer tools can and should be part of it.

For an overview of constructivism and extensive web links, look at http://www.coe.uh.edu/~ichen/ebook/ET-IT/cognitiv.htm . Schank and Cleary (1995) are two of the many current proponents of this theory, drawing heavily on work by Vygotsky (1986) and Piaget (1976).

The purpose of this special issue of TESOL Journal was to offer ideas about and insights into the many ways different computer tools, from simple software to complex authoring systems, from email to multimedia Internet content, can be put to use in building interactive, communicative, creative -- constructivist -- learning environments. Articles include:

Special Issue Editors

Deborah Healey
ELI, Oregon State University
301 Snell Hall
Corvallis OR 97331-1632
Email Deborah.
Sarah Klinghammer
AEI, University of Oregon
107 Pacific Hall
Eugene OR 97403-5212


Piaget, J. (1976). To understand is to invent: The future of education. G-A Roberts (Trans.) Où va l'éducation?, 1948. New York: Penguin Books. Currently available online at http://www.montclair.edu/crc/piaget.html
Schank, R.C. & Cleary, C. (1995). Engines for education. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and language. A. Kozulin (Trans. and Ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Original work published 1934.

Related Links

TESOL Conference 2003 CALL Interest Section Academic Session, Creating Meaning with Computers

Last updated 21 March 2003 by D. Healey. Email Deborah.