Voluntary Standards for Application of Technology in Foreign
U.S. Department of Education
Luncheon Address, CALICO'88 in Salt Lake City
A speech teacher I had in a community college I attended in Arizona ages
ago used to give his classes some advice about how to make a good speech:
"Have a good introduction, a reinforcing closing, and have the two as close
together as possible."
Many educators I have talked with recently feel that the words "voluntary
standards" said together must be a marvelous conflict in terms. In education,
who ever heard of standards being voluntary? One person, after thinking about
our conversation on the matter, even went so far as to ask me, rather defiantly I
might add, "How can you use the word voluntary in the same sentence with
Although I have been working with standards for several years, I have to
admit that it took me about two years to get to a point of feeling comfortable
talking about the idea. But it was guidance from good and fine professional
friends that helped me begin to understand what I needed to know about
voluntary standards and the management process used for achieving consensus.
I owe a debt of gratitude to some marvelous professional people at the National
Bureau of Standards, ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials), the
largest standards developing organization in the United States, The American
National Standards Institute, known as ANSI, the keeper of American National
Standards, and fine professionals from several Federal and State agencies
involved in the common experience of implementing OMB Circular, A-119, with
its onerous name, "Federal Participation in the Development and Use of
Voluntary Standards." It has been my good fortune to have journeyed with such
good and knowledgeable people through the jungle of voluntary standards. It
has been exhilarating and exciting, to say the least.
Now, today, for the first time ever, (sounds like an introduction for a new
circus act) I will make some observations about voluntary standards, and how
they might be developed and used in the application of technology for language
teaching and learning. And also, as if talking about voluntary standards and
CALICO Journal, Volume 5 Number 4 17
technology were not enough, I will attempt to do the unimaginable (shades of
Houdini)! I will say something about the need for coming to agreement on
VOLUNTARY STANDARDS FOR FOREIGN LANGUAGE LEARNING AND
I will try to tie together for you a suggested outline for a new effort, a new
approach, that might just make some sense, and at the same time, help us all
work together more efficiently and effectively in applying technology in the
language teaching and learning profession. To work together, no matter where
our geographical location, no matter what our job, (professor, fed, student,
parent, manufacturer, or beltway bandit—a term affectionately applied to the
dozens of consulting organizations that provide contractual services to the
Federal establishment, possibly including CALICO?) we need to join together to
make some additional significant advances in the use of technology in the language
teaching and language learning areas.
So this is what I am going to talk with you about today: (1) voluntary
standards; (2) problems in application of technology for language learning; (3)
voluntary standards for language learning; (4) resources, or knowledge needed
for standardization work, and; (5) a proposed approach for developing voluntary
standards for application of technology to language learning.
Come with me for a quick glimpse of the world of voluntary standards.
We need this experience together to make the most of what is to follow; and to be
able to tie together some concepts of voluntary standardization for technology
that can be applied to language learning.
The word "standards" is an emotion laden word, particularly in education.
It carries with it many meanings and nuances of meaning. Many professional
educators, when they hear that an effort to improve standards is underway, fear
that someone beyond their immediate control is getting ready to "lay another one
on them." Often professional people feel that their relationship to a standard is
only to comply; they do not see themselves as having the opportunity or
responsibility to help develop a standard or agreement that affects their
professional interests. Somehow someone else, they think, is supposed to
develop the standards. That leaves the person—that "unfortunate professional"
who has to respond to the imposed standards—with the self-chosen "right" to
criticize and complain about the standards that have been mandated. And in
some instances, to do one's best to ignore them.
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A simple way to define a standard operationally is to look at it as an
agreement. A standard can be an agreement on expected outcomes. It can be an
agreement on procedures. It can be an agreement on approaches. It can be an
agreement on content, or specifications. It can be an agreement, in short, on
almost anything that affects any set of human interactions or even human
interactions with a machine!
But two questions rise quickly out of this operational definition. One; Who
agreed? and two; How did those who agreed manage to come to agreement?
The question "Who agreed?" is vitally important for anyone who might be
affected by the agreement. It is essential for people to discuss this question while
preparing to do additional voluntary standards work. It addresses the human
nature element of ownership and the consequential characteristic of adherence. It
sets the tone and environment for a democratic process to begin working within
our professional as well as political interests.
Questions about the process for achieving agreement, if asked and
answered appropriately, provide answers for issues of credibility. Was the
agreement arrived at by a selected few working in seclusion and then presented
for others to follow? Or was it developed by a self-appointed and self-anointed
group working for their own investment? Was the agreement arrived at by
majority vote, with little attention paid to those dissenters who lost the vote? Or
was the agreement hammered out through a process that carefully assured a
general consensus, a consensus that the agreement was the best possible outcome
for those affected by it at the time and under the circumstances of the agreement?
A good standard must provide value to all who use or are affected by it. It
must serve as an effective management tool to reduce confusion and increase
efficiency and effectiveness. Good understandable clear standards are absolutely
essential for accountability to be effective. How can someone be held accountable
if they don't know what they are accountable for? Also, people who have
participated in the process of developing good standards attest to the claim that
the process can distribute knowledge throughout a profession faster and more
efficiently than any other way.
Rowan Glie, editor of a book titled "Speaking of Standards" published in
1972, said of standards; "A standard is simply a name for a managerial control of
possibilities in a technological state of art. National standardization is a
voluntary effort of self-management; it provides for better utilization of all
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We might look at a voluntary standard as a document which presents for
voluntary use a set of rules, conditions, guidelines, procedures, or requirements
agreed to and approved by the developers and those who issue the document.
You will notice in the above definition the attention given to the developers and
issuers of the standards.
Note what happens with the above definition of a voluntary standard
when it is expanded by the concept of consensus. A voluntary consensus standard
is a document which meets the definition of a voluntary standard and,
additionally was developed using a management system which adhered to and
complied with a documented, democratic, consensus building process involving
representation by all interested and affected parties in its formation.
If you choose, and I hope you do, to attend the session on Friday at 2:30
presented by Drew Azzara of ASTM you will hear described a magnificent
management process used to develop consensus on standards in the business
and industry sector of our national economy. The terms, concepts and definitions
associated with the words "voluntary consensus standards" will liven up and
take on new meanings for you. The ASTM management process for developing
voluntary consensus standards has been in effect for over 90 years, and through
refinement, has achieved a very high quality.
Application of Technology for Language Learning—Problems
Rather than presenting to you a long list of incompatibilities between
technological hardware and software, as any one of you could do better than I, I
will instead present a short description of a problem that, in one way or another,
faces us all. Let me give you some background. Over the past few years, the
Interagency Language Roundtable of the Federal Government has explored for a
solution to the problem of how to make different computers and their software
talk to each other. Here is a real-life example. I've chosen not to identify the
agencies involved to avoid disclosing too much. But one agency developed a
wonderful new approach to language learning for a specific language on their
Particular machine and its software package. After this project was completed,
however, no one else outside of their agency could use it. It couldn't be used
because their machines didn't know how to talk to each other.
Now, for people in the business of language instructing, that represents
the ultimate failure. The machines could talk back to the teacher but not to other
machines! Other agencies couldn't use the new program because the expense and
time necessary to overcome the problem of incompatibility was prohibitive. In
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short, the agencies could not cooperate, and thus were not able to save money
and multiply their effectiveness in their efforts to improve their respective
language departments. You see, their own agencies have separately purchased
machines that were not built to talk to each other. No one really asked the
language professionals what they would need a machine to be able to do.
Instead, a machine, or if you wish, a use for technology, was developed
and presented to language professionals to use as creatively as possible. But
language professionals, as a group, did not define outcomes, or performance
standards to be included in the purchasing specifications for acquiring the
hardware. The technology developers and manufacturers did not include in their
machines the capacity for being compatible with another machine because the
purchasers for the department did not have the language or performance factors
to include in the purchase specifications. The agencies were trapped by the
From a slightly different perspective, there is a big difference between the
case where a language educator sees existing technology hardware and wonders
how to make the technology work in a language learning setting; and the
language educator who knows and has come to agreement with other language
educators on what outcomes are expected of language learners, and works with
the technology developers and producers to make the technology serve the needs
of language learners.
In order to get to that point, we need to agree on the outcomes we expect
from the language teaching and learning profession. We need to know how to
apply existing technology and even suggest new technology to meet the ends we
agree on. We need to use technology as a tool to accomplish agreed-on outcomes
better than we ever have done before.
We need to be able to describe performance standards, for hardware, for
software, and for language learners too. As we learn to describe performance
standards for language learning success, and I am not talking about simply giving
grades to students, the arguments about which hardware is best becomes
somewhat muted, somewhat irrelevant. The real issues becomes how one can use
whatever piece of technology is available (or that with which you are stuck
because of past purchases) to best reach the language standards agreed on.
If you have developed good performance standards, and the hardware is
deficient, the reasons for deficiencies become apparent quickly. If you can
explain the deficiencies in terms of the performance you need, a burden is then
placed on the developer of the technology to adapt the capabilities of the
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hardware to your needs or lose the next sale.
However, if you cannot spell out through a consensus voice what you
need, then you run the risk of being controlled in your application of technology
to language learning by the capability of the equipment as conceived and
designed by the developer without your specific need in mind. If the glamour of
the technology itself receives the prime attention, rather than what the
technology can do for language learners, then you might well end up, in effect,
speaking technologically, of course, with a beautiful hammer that can't drive a
straight nail, or that won't fit anyone else's hand.
Voluntary Standards for Language Learning
I am sure that all of you are aware of the impressive work that was
accomplished by the ILR in producing the Language Skill Level Descriptions for
Speaking, Listening, Reading and Writing. I am sure that it is no surprise to you
to look on this set of descriptions of levels from I (no proficiency) to 5
(functionally native proficiency) as voluntary standards. The adaptations to this
set, done under guidance from ACTFL (American Council on Teachers for
Foreign Languages) and MLA (Modern Language Association), are also
voluntary standards. But neither is a voluntary consensus standard. And I am
not even sure that at this point it really makes a lot of difference.
What is important, however, is that language educators need to agree
generally on what specific language performance is to be targeted for application
of technology, both in terms of hardware and software. Use whatever standards
and guidelines exist, but set a target for the application of technology squarely on
an outcome expectation for language learners. This will accomplish amazing
things, both in the language learning profession and in the technology field.
The transfer of knowledge, skills and expectations of high performers in
the language teaching profession through a consensus management process for
standards development will improve the productivity of language learners. They
will try harder and be smarter in reaching performance standards that are
nurtured and owned by the language profession.
The technology community will listen and develop the technology we
language people need because they will be working right alongside us in the
process for arriving at consensus. They will know what we need technology to
do for us before we even tell them. They will have figured it out by observing
our deliberations as we debate and discuss the fine points of the language
CALICO Journal, Volume 5 Number 4 22
teaching profession's expectations for the application of high tech.
If CALICO decides to launch the standardization effort for the application
of technology for language learning, you have a good base with which to begin
represented in the high quality of your membership. But there are others outside
of CALICO that are able, and I am sure that they can be convinced to be willing,
to help and to participate. You need a broad representative base comprised of
technology producers, standards users, consumers, students, government
officials, teachers, and anyone else who wishes to participate in the
The Interagency Language Roundtable membership, as individuals and as
representatives of their respective agencies have expressed interest in the need
for voluntary standards for technology in language teaching and learning.
DECOLE (Defense Coalition on Language Education) is also interest in this area.
The National Bureau of Standards (NBS) has agreed to help in any way they can,
particularly in cooperation with the Interagency Language Roundtable's CALL
(Computer Assisted Language Learning) Committee headed by Steve Marini.
NBS has already done significant work on office automation systems and desktop
publishing, and is willing to work on issues of application of technology for
I am sure two of the major language associations, ACTFL and MLA would
both participate. ASTM, from the business and industry sector, is here at your
symposium today to express their support for this needed effort. ANSI indicates
it supports standardization efforts and will facilitate needed contacts with
international standards organizations such as ISO. I won't go on listing
supporting resources because sooner or later, if I did, I would surely get into
trouble with someone. But I give you my personal commitment. I will personally
help if you want me to.
I suggest that the approach selected to initiate standardization work on
the application of technology to language learning is vital to its ultimate success.
Any number of different approaches are viable. But the work should be initiated
in the private, non-government sector. However, both Federal and State
language educators should be invited to participate as members of working
standards developing committees.
Those associations interested in language issues, at national and state
levels, and associations interested in the application of technology for
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educational purposes ought specifically to be sought out. Business and industry,
particularly those engaged in international business where language facility is
important, ought to contribute their experience and insights. Individual faculty
members of colleges and universities, and teachers in elementary and secondary
schools ought to be represented.
Foundations interested in the good work of language professionals ought
to be paired up with foundations and businesses engaged in research and
development of high technology, and participate in the standardization process.
Their resources and experience should contribute to the general knowledge base
required for good standards to emerge.
As standards are developed and defined, an extensive teacher
development effort ought to be launched, both for foreign language teachers who
use, or wish to use, technology to help in their foreign language teaching, and for
those who do not wish to use technology. The latter, however, should become
involved in the process for developing standards for language learning outcomes
And to participate in all of this activity, one should not have to travel to all
of the called meetings to remain in good standing. After all, why not use
technology to communicate the results of the efforts of any given standardization
Mr. F. LeRoy Walser is the Executive Director of the Federal Interagency
Committee on Education at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington
D.C. and Chairman of the Management Committee of the Interagency Language
Roundtable of the Federal Government.
Rm. 3073 FOB6
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20202
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