Technology-Enhanced Language Learning: Hype or Gold Mine?

A version of this article appears in the current edition of AEGIS, the newsletter of the Association of Recognized English Language Schools.

It is hard to open a newspaper these days without coming across an article on some aspect of the new technology, and how it is transforming work, entertainment and education. Is it all hype, or does the new technology offer something genuinely important to language learning? The "virtual classroom" may still be some way off, but CD-ROM and the Internet are available now. What do they offer to the language learner?

Multimedia

Multimedia - the combination of text, audio, and pictures on a single "platform" - seems to hold great potential for language teaching. At its best, it should combine the benefits of "conventional" Computer-Assisted Language Learning (text reconstruction exercises, tests, games etc) with those of video, together with the advantage of being able to jump instantly to the desired frame rather than having to rely on the rewind or fast forward keys. Multimedia has been available for many years, chiefly on laser disk, but the high cost of software and hardware restricted its use to commerce and industry. In the last few years, however, publishers have increasingly standardized on CD-ROM: prices have tumbled, and titles have multiplied.

It's difficult to avoid CD-ROM these days. Just about any PC you buy will have a CD-ROM drive as standard, and computer stores are packed full of silver disks. And, it must be admitted, some of the software you can buy is pretty impressive. A typical encyclopedia, such as Encarta, will have text equivalent to an eighteen volume paper-based reference work, plus audio clips of speeches and musical extracts, short video clips and a stunning array of visual images: well worth the £60 - £80 or so you can expect to pay. And all this material available at a few keystrokes or mouse clicks. Small wonder that sales of encyclopedias on CD-ROM now exceed those in book form.

When it comes to English Language Teaching, however, provision is less impressive. There are probably around 30 ELT-specific titles available, mainly business, young learner and "General English" materials, priced at anything from £30 to £250. There is, however, little that can be recommended without reservation. Like the curate's eggs, the current generation of products is good ..... in parts.

ELT Materials

A good starting point for a CD-ROM collection for ELT would be the Longman Interactive English Dictionary (LIED) - a collection of linked reference works, including a dictionary, a dictionary of common errors, a grammar, plus a collection of pictures and even a small library of video clips illustrating language functions. (Uniquely for ELT materials, these clips can be displayed full-screen, and are thus usable by larger groups.) The LIED is not the easiest piece of software to use - its interface is "clunky", and the new user can clutter up the screen with a confusing maelstrom of little windows in a few moments - but it is unparalleled in the wealth of language information it offers.

New out from Collins is Cobuild English Collocations. No visuals here, nor sounds: just an immense quantity of text. The disk contains over 140,000 collocations and some 2.6 million examples, accessible in seconds. If you are interested in how words "hang together", this is a must; but for teachers rather than students! Other reference works are in the pipeline: the Oxford Wordpower Dictionary, for example, which is at the moment only available on floppy disk, is planned for release in CD-ROM format. (Click here to visit the Cobuild site.)

For Business English, the most imaginative package currently available is English for Business, the first in a planned series of six disks. What distinguishes it from the competition (principally Vektor's Business English Activities, although new packages from two mainstream ELT publishers will be appearing shortly) is its extensive use of authentic video, coupled with a wide variety of tasks which use the video material to explore areas of grammar, business lexis, function and pronunciation.

As far as General English is concerned, the situation is disappointing. One or two complete courses exist - including the dauntingly comprehensive (and dauntingly expensive) English Discoveries, which takes teenage beginners to upper-intermediate level, and Longman's Desktop English. Others are based on existing textbooks: English Works, for example, is identical in terms of content (including illustrations) to the Robert O'Neill book of the same title; Flying Colours draws all its material from Simon Greenall's "Reward". The approach adopted by each is very different, however. English Works offers a strictly limited amount of "added value": listen-and-repeat, take the part of one of the speakers in a dialogue, and multi-lingual help; whereas Flying Colours extends the book-based material with video clips and an unusually wide variety of computer-based exercises. Other materials (Basic Skills and Connections, for example, or Telephone Talk and Small Talk) are little more than attractively packaged phrase books, with unimaginative exercise types and no use of video.

Frankly, if ELT-specific materials were all that was available on CD-ROM, it is unlikely that most schools would consider the investment worthwhile. Fortunately, however, the enormous range of non-ELT products more than compensates. Over and above the encyclopedias, reference works such as Cinemania (a collection of clips, biographies, synopses and other information on the world of movies), or the complete collections of newspapers such as Chadwyck-Healey's Independent on CD-ROM provide, at a manageable price, a uniquely rich language resource.

Multimedia in use

Assembling a set of material, then, is not a problem; but making use of it can be.

No ELT title on CD-ROM (with the exception of Desktop English) allows users to create their own exercises. In other curriculum areas - Adult Literacy for example - packages allow users not only to write their own gapfill or multiple choice exercises, but to import their own texts and video clips. In ELT, however, what materials exist seem to be aimed at the individual home user, rather than at the classroom.

This inflexibility is not confined to materials creation. Users new to CD-ROM often do not realize that the software cannot simply be copied to multiple machines. As a rule, if you have 10 computers, and want all your class to use the same software at the same time, you will need 10 CD-ROMs. A £50 CD-ROM becomes much less attractive when multiple copies have to be purchased! And networking is usually not a solution: text-based material, such as a year's worth of The Guardian, can be networked without difficulty onto a "CD-ROM server"; but very few networks can cope with serving up sound clips at an acceptable speed, let alone video.

It is not surprising, then, that most schools tend either to put their multimedia PCs into the self-access centre, or else use one or two in class for reference, project work, or to follow up or prepare for classroom activities.

Beyond the CD-ROM

It is important to distinguish multimedia materials from the medium on which they are delivered. There is nothing special about the silver CD: it is merely a convenient way of storing large amounts of information. The exercises, the graphics, and the sound clips could all be stored on floppy disks, if one wished; the fact that a CD-ROM has the capacity of some 400 floppies just makes it handier to use.

CD-ROM first became popular because of their ability to store large quantities of text. Video, however, is much more demanding of storage space than simple text. Typically, a CD-ROM can hold only ten to twenty minutes of video, and even then the clips are usually delivered in a small window covering only a quarter of the screen, with poor picture definition, jerky movements and a total absence of lip-synchronization!

CD-ROM, it must be admitted, is not the ideal platform for multimedia language learning materials. It seems likely that the current CD-ROM standard will be replaced within the next five years by a new, "super-density" disk. And increasingly, multimedia materials will be delivered not on a physical disk, but via the Internet.

The Internet

If language is communication, then any technology which links together computers so that learners can "talk" to each other must be worth investigating. The great thing about the Internet, as it has developed over the past few years, is that not only does it allow communication, it also provides a vast resource: a global CD-ROM, as it were, for teachers hunting for authentic and up-to-date material, or for students engaged in project work.

The chief appeal of the Internet, in contrast to CD-ROM, is its low cost. Typically, a school would need a modem (£100 - £200), a telephone line to connect to a host computer, and a "Service Provider" who will supply Internet access and the software needed to get going. (My own Service Provider, Pipex, charges £10 a month irrespective of what I do on the Internet and for how long. The only other charges I pay are for the connection to the nearest Internet-linked computer, which in my case - and this is increasingly true throughout the UK - is the cost of a local call.)

The Net offers three broad areas of communicative activity:

1. Communicating with individuals via e-mail. "Keypals" are simply an up-to-date version of pen-pals, without the delays of conventional mail services.

2. Communicating with groups. Two services are available. The first, e-mail discussion lists, or LISTSERVs, are services which receive contributions from subscribers and automatically mail them out to everyone on the discussion list. Put like this, it sounds unexciting, but in fact the LISTSERVs represent a superb resource for teachers. The biggest LISTSERV for ELT, TESL-L, has over 5000 subscribers in 70 different countries. A query or opinion posted on TESL-L can result in dozens of replies, normally within 24 hours. There are at least half a dozen other LISTSERVs of relevance to language teachers, including applied linguistics (LINGUIST), second language acquisition (SLART-L) and language testing (LTEST-L).

A second service, USENET, is more appropriate for work with students. USENET is made up of several thousand "newsgroups", covering every imaginable topic. Students simply select the topic which interests them: rec.pets.dog for dog-lovers, for example, or alt.folklore.urban for urban myths. But whereas looking up similar information in conventional reference books can be a passive activity, newsgroups actively encourage readers to post their own contributions.

3. Live communication. It is also possible to hold "real-time conversations" by logging into one of the multi-user systems. Once connected, any message you type on your screen is seen by all the other participants, who can then reply. Typically, these "MOOs" are configured as schools or universities, with classrooms, lecture theatres, staff rooms, coffee bars etc which can be explored at will. Some are general, others specifically orientated to foreign learners. Diversity University, for example, has its own "English Language Institute", while SchMOOze University is entirely given over to EFL\ESL students. Currently, all MOOs are text-based. It is now possible, however, to send voice files over the Internet without perceptible delays, and it is only a matter of time before real conversation is possible in these new environments. But even the present, rather primitive system give a flavour of what tomorrow's "virtual classroom" may look like.

In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the Net functions as an information resource. It is this aspect, more than any other, which has been the victim of media hype over the last year or so. The Worldwide Web is simply a mechanism which allows a user to retrieve information without needing to know exactly where it is stored, or in what form. With good "browser" software and a minimum of instruction, students can start exploring in a matter of minutes.

Using the Web with students is fraught with difficulty. New sites, with quite unpredictable language content, pop up daily; old and trusted sites simply disappear. A small photograph takes minutes to build up on the screen (for the average user, with a modem and conventional telephone line, the information superhighway is more of an information dirt-track.)

There is no space in this article to explore the many uses to which the Internet is being put. If you are interested in exploring practical classroom applications in more detail, a recommended read is Mark Warschauer's "E-Mail for English Teaching". In spite of its title, this book covers much more than simple E-Mail, and is a mine of useful information. For more detailed information on the impact of the Internet on education generally, and a discussion of the various "narrowband" and "broadband" connections, see the Department for Education's "Superhighways in Education".

Conclusion

Multimedia and the Internet have the potential to make an enormous impact on language teaching. The ability of multimedia to integrate high-quality video and audio with texts and language exercises can provide an environment, controllable by the learner, more language-rich than any previous technology. The Internet can break down the walls of the classroom and give access not only to diverse sources of information but also to opportunities for genuine communication.

For the moment, however, both technologies present challenges which are every bit as great as the opportunities they open up. They are affordable: I would be surprised if any language school with the will to do so could not come up with the funding for one multimedia PC, a small bank of CD-ROMs, a modem and an Internet account. But both suffer from real disadvantages:

1) They are very demanding in terms of time. Unlike a linear video or audio cassette, a good CD-ROM can take hours to explore. And to "add value" to a CD-ROM by creating supplementary materials or study-paths is an extremely time-consuming process. Similarly, the riches of the Internet, especially since the advent of the Worldwide Web, can lead tempt users into hours of "surfing" with very little concrete to show at the end of it.

2) Both technologies are aimed at the individual user rather than the classroom. Using either technology with a group of 15 students is, to say the least, a challenge in classroom management!

There is never a good time to invest in technology, and the temptation is always to wait for the definitive solution. But I would certainly suggest that any school that hopes to survive for longer than the next ten years should go out immediately, buy one or two workstations and encourage staff to experiment, or place a machine in the study centre and monitor how it is used. My own belief is that telecommunications and multimedia are set to transform language teaching. Far from being an optional extra component on the conventional language course, they are at the centre of radical change. The transformation will not happen overnight; but happen it certainly will.

References:

(Click here for further details)

CD-ROM Software:

Basic Skills Vektor £79.00

Business English Activities Vektor / BBC £195.00 (£695 for set of 6 disks)

Cinemania '95 Microsoft £65.00

Cobuild English Collocations Collins £129.00

Desktop English Longman £300.00

Encarta '95 Microsoft £80.00

English Discoveries Berlitz £179.00 (per disk, set of 12)

English for Business Wolverhampton Uni. £90.00

English Works Longman £100.00

Expressions Vektor £139.00

Flying Colours Heinemann £130.00

Independent on CD-ROM Chadwyck Healey £00.00 @

Longman Interactive English Dictionary Longman £150.00

Small Talk Libra Multimedia £99.00 (£250 for 3 disk set)

Telephone Talk Libra Multimedia £99.00 (£179 for 2 disk set)

(The prices given are guidelines only, and may vary significantly from supplier to supplier.)

CD-ROM suppliers:

ELT CD-ROMs are available through most ELT bookshops or from one of the following specialist suppliers:

Camsoft         10 Wheatfield Close, Maidenhead,   Tel:  01628-825206           
                Berkshire, SL6 3PS                                              

Wida Software   2 Nicholas Gardens, Ealing,        Tel:  0181-567 6941          
                London W5 5HY                                                   


Internet:

Department for Education (1995): Superhighways for Education: Consultation Paper on Broadband Communications

MOOs: To connect to Diversity and SchMOOze, you will need Telnet software. Diversity is at MOO.DU.ORG 8888, and SchMOOze at arthur.rutgers.edu 8888. Once connected, type connect guest to get started.

TESL-L: To subscribe to TESL-L, send an e-mail message to listserv@cunyvm.cuny.edu Leave the subject line blank, and in the body of your message, write sub TESL-L yourfirstname yourlastname, e.g. sub TESL-L David Eastment. TESL-L, like other discussion lists, requires only a basic e-mail facility.

Warschauer, M (1995): E-Mail for English Teaching (TESOL)

Worldwide Web: There are dozens of ways into the Web. IATEFL, the British Council and most Universities all have their home pages, which provide good starting points. The sites with the richest links to other EFL locations are currently Edunet and Kristina's Linguistic Funland .

About the author

David Eastment is a freelance trainer and materials writer, specializing in the application of IT to language learning. He is the editor of the IATEFL Newsletter, and of CALL Review, the journal of IATEFL's Special Interest Group for computers.

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