CHWP A.7 Heimpel, "The Multimedia Network-based Language Learning Centre: An Historical Approach"

4. The Multimedia Network-based Language Learning Centre

As we approach the millennium, a new technological phenomenon -- a new investment in technology -- is beginning to replace the LL: the MNLLC. In the Multimedia Centre for Learning in the Humanities at the University of Toronto, for example, multimedia computers have completely replaced the traditional LL, which once occupied the same space. Yet far from seeking to forget the past -- that is, earlier CALL projects and the history of the LL -- the MNLLC challenges language teachers to maintain a dialogue with the past as well as the future. Students and teachers are free to engage in such a dialogue because of the considerable flexibility of today's multimedia computers, both pedagogically and technologically speaking. Significant advances in the areas of multimedia, network and authoring technology have dramatically enriched and simplified the operation of language learning centres.

Unlike computers from, say, ten years ago, today's multimedia workstations are equipped with a CD-ROM drive. The importance of the CD-ROM from an historical perspective is that compared to the storage media of the past -- reel-to-reel and video and audio cassette tapes, floppy disks and hard drives -- it delivers astonishing storage capacity (approx. 600 pages of text), shelf-life and extremely fast access time. This is why it provides an excellent medium for multimedia applications, allowing for the efficient transport and combination of images, sound, video and text. In practical terms, CD-ROM drives also provide lightening-fast software installations and upgrades. While CD-ROM drives are fairly inexpensive, the disadvantage of commercially produced CD-ROMs is often their cost. Nonetheless, as is almost always the case with new technologies, the prices are constantly falling. [10]

The development in multimedia technology which is perhaps most promising for language learning is the Internet Multimedia of the World Wide Web. Generally speaking, Internet multimedia does not require any special hardware in an age when most multimedia systems already include excellent sound and video cards, stereo speakers, earphones and microphones. Compare this situation to the "specialized box" phenomenon of the seventies and eighties where each new audio/video technology required a separate machine: the BETA VCR required a "beta box", VHS a "VHS box", audio CDs a "CD box". Today developments in Internet multimedia are often supplied by software called plug-ins that handle multimedia tasks via popular Internet browsers, such as the Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. Plug-ins are widely available for download on the World Wide Web and are most often inexpensive or free. They provide sound and video on demand, in either real time (live feed) or deferred time (files must download before they can be played). Not all file formats are cross-platform compatible, but many are. "Aiff" files, for example, are sound files which can be played on both IBM-type PCs and Macintosh systems. And unlike the unhappy past of specialized boxes, once a sound, video or image file is transferred into digital code, it can be reformatted in any number of digital file formats. The universality of digital code is perhaps its most important advantage over analogue signals. As a result, material in analogue format with proven pedagogical value does not have to simply fade away, but can be digitized, recycled and reused.

The hardware which controls Internet multimedia does not take the form of a local storage device. In fact, instead of speaking of hardware, one ought rather to speak in terms of infrastructure, that is, the infrastructure of modern computer networks. This infrastructure, from cable networks to the scores of satellites encircling the globe, defers the cost of file storage and maintenance to the owners of individual computers connected to the network, the Internet in this case. Network costs are shared among the members of an international community of private and public sector network infrastructure builders. Thus, language departments using the MNLLC will benefit from improvements in speed on the Internet without incurring any direct costs.

Of course, the concept of the network is not new to language learning technology, since LL were using networks of tape recorder/players in the fifties, and computerized language labs sometimes were part of a LAN (Local Area Network). For the most part, LANs were used for practical purposes such as maintenance and backup. The LL network was used for exchanging content, but only in a local and limited manner, that is, between teachers and their students. One could not use such networks to "discover" new content, but only to passively receive information selected, prepared and broadcast by the teacher. Alternatively, the network in the MNLLC, thanks to Internet connectivity, functions as a content-rich network, a borderless and boundless source of information. Whereas it is easy to see such advances in network technology as revolutionary, in the case of language learning centres, it is perhaps more properly a case of evolution and improvement.

Meanwhile, the creation of the World Wide Web in 1992 and the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) have spawned a new generation of authoring technology and authors. Information about this markup language and its corresponding protocol (HTTP: Hypertext Transfer Protocol) is widely available on the World Wide Web, in the many books written on the subject, in newspapers, magazines and even on television. Most of this information is free, and support on and off the Internet is easy to obtain because HTML is a tool for the planet and not exclusively for the relatively narrow purposes of language learning. These are important advantages which HTML possesses over previous authoring systems and templates used to design CALL applications. Again, because HTML is part of a world-wide movement, it evolves quickly, responding to users' needs and goals, and is, for the most part, extremely flexible. And finally, to the relief of all, authoring software packages known as HTML editors/converters are also widely available either as freeware or at a nominal cost. [11]

However, authoring is not mandatory since teachers may prefer to simply exploit the MNLLC as a means of accessing content-rich networks like the Internet. The Internet has ushered in a new "philosophy" for online resources and resource management. The concerns about the lack and cost of resources which loomed large during the lean nineties have been alleviated to varying degrees by so-called Internet or online resources. For the time being, use of such documents for educational purposes does not imply any costs to the end-user. Costs are rather shifted to access fees -- hardware and account fees -- and away from the purchase of the information per se. This is not to say that authors of Internet material have ceded their ownership rights, but rather that the concept of ownership is evolving. Ownership in the narrow sense only becomes a legal issue when there is copying and re-distribution involved. Hence making hypertext links to documents on the Internet for students to view in the Multimedia Centre does not appear to pose a legal question insofar as copying and re-distribution are not involved.

Resource management has also been simplified by the use of online resources -- even multimedia resources, which do not require the space and expense associated with physical storage and cataloguing. Unlike expensive CD-ROMs and video cassettes, online resources cannot be stolen, or at least not in the conventional sense of this term. Managing resources is no longer about the transformation of a limited, but expensive repertoire of audio-visual resources into museum pieces. Managing resources is all about searching and locating resources on an ongoing basis. Indeed, documents which are truly "authentic documents" exist as such due to the fact that they are spared the typical process of didactisation: discovery, appropriation, revision, duplication and re-distribution. For example, the Internet site of the French television network France 3 features a series of real-time video clips of the evening news in several French cities. [12] The time teachers save by not having to prepare such "ready-made resources" for classroom use -- not to mention purchase and storage costs -- can, in my opinion, be more gainfully applied to creating a useful repertoire of approaches and exercises to be used in conjunction with online resources.

Today many language teachers author course sites for their students and, sometimes, for public use. [13] The efforts of language instructors to create virtual space for their courses has resulted in the formation of a new genre. A course site typically consists of three essential elements: 1) Course notes and documentation; 2) Student/teacher interaction (e-mail); 3) List of online resources applicable to the course. Although students may prefer to receive hard-copies of course notes and documentation, the advantages of maintaining an archive of this material are obvious: availability for students who miss classes, easy updates, reuse. Requiring students to access the instructor's e-mail via the course site is an excellent way of reinforcing the importance of this "classroom away from the classroom". E-mail can be used for answering student enquiries and even for submitting assignments. By requiring students to read and write in the target language of the course, instructors have once again acknowledged the well documented place of electronic messaging in second language learning (Lunde 1990; Sugimoto 1993). The list of online resources is clearly preferable to placing a single copy of an article on reserve at the library, which, when available (there's the rub) students simply end up photocopying at their own expense. Online resources usually present a broader range of subject matter and points of view and tend to be more current. Generally speaking, course sites are simple and easy to maintain, thus assuring that they remain as useful to students as they remain workable for the instructor-author.

Some course sites may include another new genre: the sound-bank. A sound-bank is a standard web-page which, instead of providing links to other text or image files, provides links to sound files and, optionally, to transcriptions. This type of site breathes new life -- a second or third life -- into the use of the LL for individual oral/aural practice. Because the audio files are sometimes sourced from copyrighted documentation, the audio files of some sound-banks are password protected.[14] Sound-banks take advantage of the multimedia environment by allowing students to listen to the sound documents with or without viewing their transcriptions. When problems do occasionally crop up, students can send questions and comments directly to their instructor whose virtual presence is useful, but not intimidating (cf. LL).

From a design point of view, sound-banks are clearly non-labour intensive. The only aspect of the process which is somewhat labour-intensive is the digitization of the sound files. However, this is a one-time requirement and, more important, once a file has been created, it can be directly copied to the server. This saves both time and space since the sound files do not need to be copied on to cassettes or the hard-drives of individual workstations. Cutting and pasting allows the designer to edit easily the content of current sound-banks or create others based on a suitable model. The advantages of sound-banks over the static, formalized oral programmes, which were so heavily influenced by the limitations of their paper documentation, could not be more clear.

However, the MNLLC is not limited to the invention of new genres, but is also compatible with more traditional humanities computing applications such as the database. Database developers have been quick to realize the potential of the web. [15] Instead of supplying data to a limited audience, once a database has been linked to the web via a "gateway interface", users can query the database and retrieve information. In fact, instructors have the power to decide whether access is to be limited by IP address, domain name or whether users require passwords. Users are spared the cost, care and materiality of storage media: access, not ownership. Network-based databases are extremely useful in that there can be as many users as there are terminals. Also, where the instructor is also the author of the database, the relatively light requirements of HTML allow for the integration of changes to the user interface and updating of material on an ongoing basis (cf. local storage media, e.g. CD-ROM).

Pedagogically, the emergence of new applications and approaches in conjunction with the re-emergence and renewal of older applications and approaches is most encouraging. Unlike the LL, which emphasized speaking and listening, and CALL, which emphasized reading and writing, the MNLLC is capable of servicing all of the four basic language skills. Course sites, in addition to their practical value, give students the opportunity to practice their reading and writing skills. Sound-banks allow students to concentrate on their aural/oral skills, and interactive databases sensitize groups or individual learners to the discursive complexities of language. Unlike the rigid conception of the LL as catering to group work and later to individual learners, the MNLLC is used as both an electronic classroom for language teaching and Internet training and as a support for the traditional classroom where autonomous learners drop in on a need basis to review lessons, do extra work, or to move ahead of the class. And while method fuelled and governed the Audio-lingual approach of the LL, and technology appears to have shaped the limits of most CALL projects, the MNLLC has not given itself over to either. Rather, the MNLLC is not driven by a force, but rather by forces; not by History, but by the histories of previous uses of technology in language learning; not by one group of technologists, but by humanities technologists from different backgrounds and generations; not by one school of pedagogy, but by the pedagogies with which instructors feel most comfortable and confident. It is now up to language teachers and learners to explore the remarkable potential which the MNLLC affords.

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[10] It is also worth mentioning that the recordable CD drive is quickly becoming a very afforable hardware option. Given the tremendous multimedia potential of the CD-ROM, perhaps online activities will soon be supplemented by various off-line activities, that is, CD-ROMs created by individual instructors (cf. high cost of commercial CD-ROMs).

[11] The freeware version of HTML Assistant Pro was one of the first HTML editors to hit the market. It combines a very straight-forward interface with a series of useful tools, such as the ISO character map, colour background picker and a preview to browser option. If you want to avoid the code all together, Netscape's "What-you-see-is-what-you-get" editor, Netscape Gold, is also available as freeware for educational use. Higher-end editors produced by Microsoft, Corel and others are also very good, but cost anywhere from $100-$250 for personal versions, and as much as $1000 for professional commercial versions.

[12] The website of France 3 is available at: <>. The video clips of the evening news are found at: <>.

[13] The Department of French (University of Toronto) already has fifteen courses with online material. The home page for online material at the Multimedia Centre for Learning in the Humanities is located at: <>.

[14] This is the case of the sound-banks authored and used by the Department of French, University of Toronto. For an example of a simple sound-bank interface, see: <>.

[15] For example, continuing improvements to the ARTFL database (Project for American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language, University of Chicago) have been made possible by web access to the some 2000 French full-texts in the collection. The query page is located at: <>. In the Department of French, University of Toronto, Professor T.R. Wooldridge has used TACT, an interactive full-text retrieval application developed in Toronto by John Bradley, to create several online databases. See FREBASE: <>. For a description of TACT, see McCarty 1989: 111-2.