Danger/Opportunity in Language Teaching and Learning (by Dr Sunny Man Chu Lau)

In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is formed by two characters — 危机 (wéijīin) in simplified Chinese used in mainland China and 危機 in traditional Chinese used mostly in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The word 危 literally means “danger” or “risks”, whereas 机 or 機 means “opportunity”. “Danger-opportunity”: Can we get more paradoxical than that?

As we pause for the holidays to reconfigure what teaching and assessment look like in virtual spaces for this next phase of the school year, and for the years after that, this oxymoronic 危机 is a timely reminder. Online teaching and learning will stay even with the arrival of the vaccine. It’s time we took stock of not only the constraints but also the new possibilities that have opened up that allow us to recast language practice and education in a different light.

One ongoing heated debate in online education is what assessments are possible and “fair” in a virtual environment. Remote proctoring has been touted as a secure method to monitor testing with a minimal cost to prevent cheating or any other related infractions. It has been widely used even before COVID-19 on large-scale standardized exams (Dimeo, May 10, 2017), and its allure is none other than its cost-effectiveness, since its application will support an imminent expansion of online course offerings.

However, e-proctoring has also been met with overwhelming opposition from students to professors and administrators alike for its violations of students’ privacy and rights. Depending on the provider, the test-taker will usually undergo biometric scans including ID, face, and knuckles (see VeriPass) and provide a biometric template of keystroke dynamics to ensure it is the authorised user who is taking the test.

If live proctoring is used, that is, AI-enhanced auto proctoring, the individuals and their surroundings will be monitored during the whole duration of the test — any sounds, motions, and changes will be flagged as potential misconduct. Most proctoring, whether live or not, will usually have the whole exam session recorded. Although most of the providers vouch for data storage security, many students find such remote monitoring invasive – not only is their private space being scrutinized, their body is basically subjected to close surveillance for any “suspicious” behaviors. Granted, tech companies such as ProctorU never masquerades online proctoring as having anything to do with real education, as its slogan says:

Exam Security.

Done Right.

Deter. Detect. Prevent.

Stop Big Brother” by charlesfettinger is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Let’s remove ourselves from the debate of e-proctoring for the time being and step back to reflect for a moment: Is testing security the only criterion for valid assessment? What makes an assessment valid and reliable? Apart from assessment of learning, which seems to have presently monopolized the conversations about online teaching and learning, what is the place for assessment as and for learning?

Professor Grant Wiggins’ (1997) work on authentic performance-based assessment is really just as illuminating now as it was then when first published; it articulates assessment validity as whether it allows us “to find out what each student is able to do, with knowledge, in context.” (p. 19). Knowledge-in-context involves five related capacities: “sophistication of explanations and interpretations; insight gained from perspective; empathy; contextual know-how in knowledge application; and self-knowledge based on knowing our talents, limits, and prejudices” (p.20). Apart from validity, credibility is another important factor – Does it measure what it claims to measure? Does it have clear descriptive criteria that align with the learning goals? More importantly, “[d]oes the task simulate or replicate authentic, messy, real–world challenges, contexts, and constraints faced by adult professionals, consumers, or citizens?” (p. 20).

As educators and teachers, before jumping onto the bandwagon of e-proctoring, we need to hold our online assessment tasks against these standards of validity and credibility. Does the assessment task promote complex interpretation, application, and perspectives of knowledge? Does it also engage students in tackling real-world challenges to resolve contextual needs within the given constraints?

This leads me to an enduring question that comes up time and again: whether students should be allowed to use a dictionary or bilingual dictionaries, paper or digital, in language exams. Over the past few years, from my conversations with language teachers, I have noticed that some schools have come to see the importance of allowing students to use a dictionary in exams, especially as a way to support second language learners.

However, bilingual dictionaries and online translation or related resources are still taboo for most institutions. When online teaching and learning was forced upon us overnight due to the pandemic, the panic over students’ cheating by using online dictionaries or translation tools during language exams heightened to the nth degree. Some remote proctoring software is deployed to lock down certain elements on the test-taker’s web browser, disabling new tabs, downloads, clipboards and such.

Reflecting on Wiggins’ mantra of authentic assessment to engage students in the application of knowledge in real-world challenges, I can’t help but think about how, what and why we write in real life. Take writing this blog as an example:

  1. I started with some general wondering about online assessment.
  2. My curiosity prompted me to explore further through reading online articles about e-proctoring, visiting websites of different tech companies that promote their software and systems as well as those of higher education institutions or discussion fora about digital invigilation.
  3. I then looked up online articles on the Internet and my university library to download and review research studies on assessment and writing.
  4. I continued my draft over a few mornings, reading related literature while iteratively and recursively writing and revising what I had written.
  5. As I wrote, I always opened a few online dictionaries and thesauruses on my browser and used Google search as a web concordance device to help me check for word collocation.
  6. Revisions were ongoing, always with a goal and audience in mind to help shape my thoughts and their organization; so many sentences and paragraphs did not make it to the last version of this blog.
  7. I then sent it out to a friend for feedback, then revised; then sent it out to a BILD peer reviewer for a final round of feedback and revision.

The question is, was I cheating when I went online to read what other experts or researchers have to say about a certain topic? Was I committing academic misconduct when I used an online dictionary to verify the specific meaning of a word for contextual use? What about using an online thesaurus to vary my diction, or getting feedback from peers?

In contrast to exam administrators, I believe most writing scholars (Graham, MacArthur, & Hebert, 2019) would consider these research and writing practices as good and desirable, ones that should be fostered in our students. Indeed, we want students to review and understand expert opinions on certain topics, examine them from different perspectives, think and ponder over these ideas, dialoguing with the authors and themselves as they write to clarify, consolidate, and assemble emerging ideas and arguments, which crystalize over the course of the entire writing process. Some teachers may argue that allowing students to access online resources will only increase the temptation to plagiarise. But plagiarism is no black-and-white matter (Pennycook, 1996), particularly in second language learning, which involves a certain extent of memorization of words, phrases, and expressions, begging us to question “[w]hen does one come to own a language sufficiently that to say something ‘in one’s own words’ makes sense?” (p. 202).

Some teachers complain that their students are using Google translate in their assignments indiscriminately and submit work that is nonsensical and at times even laughable. The truth is whether we like it or not, these resources will continue to be used widely inside and outside school. Wouldn’t teaching students how to utilize these resources critically be better than mere surveillance? Good use of online dictionaries and translation sites requires metalinguistic awareness and crosslinguistic knowledge, skills and strategies. We need to know the contextual meaning to judge whether a certain word or expression can be translated; if not, to discern what other words or sentence structures we can use to best capture the intended meaning in the target language. When I took a French grammar course at my university years ago, Dr. Sarah Théberge taught the class how to use different online dictionaries, translators and concordances (such as Collins, Linguee, WordReference, ReversoDictionary, the Grand dictionnaire terminologique and the Lexiques et vocabulaires on the website of  l’Office québécois de la langue française) to cross-check meaning, usage, connotation, and collocation in order to find the most precise word or expression appropriate for the context. Trained as a translator, she is well aware of the importance of raising students’ cross-language and intercultural awareness for authentic language learning. I’m immensely grateful to her for introducing me to these resources and teaching me the skills needed to navigate these sites and use the information critically to decide what is appropriate and befitting to the context, audience and purpose. The pandemic and online classrooms have put us all at a crossroads, one that is full of challenges but also one that can lead us to a new unexplored terrain with unique possibilities; in other words, 危机 danger-opportunity at its best. Academic misconduct is real and needs to be addressed. However, casting out resources that can potentially be leveraged to promote students’ metalinguistic awareness and critical inquiry about language use and intercultural reflexivity is valuing control and policing over actual education. Recognizing the potential benefits of these resources can help us move away from a control-mindset to one that proactively finds creative ways to help students utilize online resources strategically and appropriately for authentic communicative tasks that go beyond the parameters of a single exam.


Dimeo, J. (May 10, 2017). Online exam proctoring catches cheaters, raises concerns. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2017/05/10/online-exam-proctoring-catches-cheaters-raises-concerns

Graham, S., MacArthur, C. A., & Hebert, M. (Eds.). (2019). Best practices in writing instruction. New York: The Guilford Press.

Pennycook, A. (1996). Borrowing others’ words: text, ownership, memory, and plagiarism. TESOL Quarterly, 30, 201-230. doi:10.2307/3588141

Wiggins, G. (1997). Practicing what we preach in designing authentic assessments. Educational leadership : journal of the Department of Supervision and Curriculum Development, N.E.A., 54(4), 18-15.

One thought on “Danger/Opportunity in Language Teaching and Learning (by Dr Sunny Man Chu Lau)

  1. I totally agree that our assessments need to be as authentic as possible (realistic to the way that proficient people actually do tasks), and as realistic (i.e. complex) to the task. It is easiest to assess (particularly online) simple tasks that focus on things like grammar or spelling, but that measures only a small part of actual writing and totally misses the more important criteria of content (and artistry). As teachers, we also have to be creative enough in our assessments to ensure that our tools are not based on what can easily be found on the internet. In terms of writing, I think we also have to focus on (and include in assessment) process (like revision, conference/feedback, etc.) and self-assessment, which not only makes the task authentic, but also ensures that we can be sure that it is the work of the student. Online assessment is certainly a topic that requires much more thought and research and discussion.

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