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Language Learning and Technology in and for a Global World


More than ever before, schools and societies are looking to educate children in and for a global world. In the United States, these efforts have taken the form of increased interest in incorporating global or international perspectives into educational curricula, programs, and policy over the past decade (Hayden, 2011; Parker, 2011; U.S. Department of Education, 2012). Despite this interest in what I call global education, ambiguity remains regarding what it means to provide an education for a globalized world, both in terms of its underlying motivations and its ultimate execution in practice (Ortloff, Shah, Lou, & Hamilton, 2012).

Two components often placed at the heart of these efforts in the United States—second/foreign language and digital technology—both reflect and contribute to understandings of global education. This study, rooted in an ecological theorization of discourse, asked how different school actors (teachers, administrators, parents, and students) position these two components in education today, how these positionings differ across groups, and what this means for understandings of global education.

These questions were investigated through two complementary approaches: a survey distributed to a large cross-section of schools around the United States and an in-depth focal case study of one school. The survey was distributed to teachers, students, parents, and administrators at a broad range of U.S. secondary schools and assessed perceptions of second/foreign language and digital technology in education today. The focal case study focused on two secondary classrooms at a multilingual immersion K-8 school in the western US over a four-month period; data collection included field notes, analytic memos, and audio/video recordings from participant observations as well as multiple rounds of interviews with five students, four teachers, two administrators, and three parents. Data were analyzed using iterative rounds of inductive and deductive coding (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Saldaña, 2009) and critical discourse analysis (Blommaert, 2005; Fairclough, 2001).

Findings suggest that second/foreign language and digital technology were positioned in a range of different ways that had concrete ramifications for schools and that built up divergent understandings of global education. The survey component of the study highlighted common discourses reproduced across groups, including: second/foreign language learning as a way to promote cultural understanding and awareness as well as economic opportunity; or digital technology as a threat to learning and as an omnipresent necessity.

The focal school offered a more detailed look into these different discourses and their reproduction across groups. Analysis revealed trended similarities and differences across groups. For example, even though parents, teachers, and administrators often articulated a similar understanding of second/foreign language and digital technology, parental actions suggested more alignment with economic-based understandings of these two components. These differences in how second/foreign language and digital technology should be positioned within a global education created a “battle” between parents and the focal school as well as tension within the learning environment. The impact of these discourses and battles on students was unclear: while students at times voiced the discourses that their parents, teachers, and administrators reproduced, data also suggests that students were influenced by outside sources. These findings suggest that resulting understandings of global education were multiple and divergent across school groups.

Data analysis also revealed the potential that anxiety, concern, or even fear of globalization and its effects could undergird adult understandings of second/foreign language and of digital technology: beneath economic as well as cultural motivations for second/foreign language and for digital technology learning resided trepidation about a changing world, changing identities, and the unknowns that lay ahead. This suggests that, underneath multiple and complex discourses, there can be a singular discourse that manifests in different ways, nuancing understandings of ecological approaches to discourse. It also suggests that different understandings of global education could stem from the same place: fear or anxiety in the face of a globalizing world.

These findings highlight the need for a global education that equips students to navigate a changing world, its challenges, and any potential fears that may arise from these changes and challenges. The study concludes with a pedagogical framework built around discourse analysis that could offer students tools to understand their globalizing world.

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