Friday, September 23, 2011

The fine line between learning and cheating.

An interesting thought came to me the other day as I was dealing with a minor "cheating" incident.  A student in an ESL class had typed a phrase, in Mandarin, into a website for translation.  And though the student was clearly in the wrong (he had specifically been told that he could not use his cell phone or the site in question) it got me thinking about the nature and use of technology in our classrooms.  More specifically, it raised the question in my mind "where does 'translation' end and 'copying' or 'cheating' begin?"  In the days of paper, when students used translation dictionaries, they had to piece things together one word at a time.  It was a labourious process that often ended up with some awkward sounding (or downright funny) results.  And sometimes, especially when homonyms were involved, the meaning of the phrase was lost altogether.  The first generations of electronic translators worked in a similar fashion.  But the teacher was sure that the work had been done one word at a time and that the student had spent some time working with English.

However, with the advent of powerful handheld devices and much more sophisticated translation technology, the process of translation within ESL classes has changed dramatically.  Students can now type phrases in Mandarin and the technology will translate the whole thing (though not always terribly well).  As software and algorithms evolve, these translations will become increasingly accurate encompassing things like idiomatic expressions and nuances. To add another dimension to this conversation, iPhones now have an app that will translate verbal communication on the fly.

With all this change comes an interesting dilemma.  Is use of this technology "cheating"?  Or is this just a different way for students to acquire a more clear and comprehensive understanding of the language as a whole?

As mentioned above, translations done one word at a time often distort, or even lose the meaning of a phrase.  But if students simply have to type a phrase into a translator, or dictate into their iPhone, and out comes the polished English version, will they learn the language effectively or will they just rely on the software at hand?

I'm sure the answer lies somewhere in the middle and is heavily dependent on both the context and how the teacher chooses to use or not use these technological tools.  But two things are for sure.  The days of the  "____________ (fill in the blank) to English" dictionary are numbered, and we ignore this software, (and dilemmas like this) at our peril.