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Video and language teaching: A French-Australian Co-production

Ian Hart
Canberra College of Advanced Education

The original intention of this paper was to detail the progress of a French-Australian interactive video project which had three elements:

The best intentions can be frustrated by the simplest obstacles. The delivery system is in a state of hiatus, awaiting a circuit board from Paris, but in France all business comes to a complete halt during the July-August summer vacation (as any tourist will confirm!).

The paper, and the demonstration, will be concerned with the first two elements only.


In 1987 I spent six months in France on study leave at the University of Poitiers, attached to the Audiovisual Centre: l'Office Audiovisuel de l'Universite de Poitiers, or in the parlance of acronyms so beloved by the French, OAVUP. I was there to study French developments in educational technology and to produce video materials for the teaching of French in Australia.

One of the interesting things about OAVUP is that it earns over 60% of its running costs from entrepreneurial activity. Established within the Department of Modern Languages, the greater part of its income is derived from teaching Summer courses in Educational Technology to foreign teachers of French. During the university term the Centre provides units in video and interactive video production in both non award and award courses and offers a professional graduate diploma in audiovisual production, the Diplome des Etudes Superieures Specialisees. It also undertakes consultancy and production contracts for local industry. Over the past five years, due to the untiring entreprenurial activity of the Director, Professor Francois Marchessou, OAVUP has become a national centre for innovation in audiovisual technology.

This status has been achieved as a result of two major initiatives: the development of CLIP-VAO, a simple and effective interactive video authoring system; and the move to the Futuroscop site on the outskirts of Poitiers.

CLIP-VAO (Conception Logiciel Interactive et Pedagogique - Video Assistee par Ordinateur) was developed by Jean-Pierre Courjaud, a lecturer in computing on attachment to OAVUP. It is a software package which runs on the minimum IV hardware system: a PC and remote controllable VHS player. It enables a teacher to take any video sequence (it could be specially produced, recorded off-air or borrowed) and program its presentation to students in no more time than it would take to prepare a normal lesson. Its original purpose was to assist language teachers to use video more effectively in their teaching.

In 1987 CLIP-VAO was awarded first prize in a national competition for educational software in France. The prize was not cash nor a trip to Tahiti. Consistent with the French attitude towards exploiting innovation, the prize was a Company, fully set up and financed for two years, with legal, managerial and secretarial support. It has enabled Courjaud to continue developmental work on the software while the company looks after the finance and marketing. The first development has been to widen its applications to the hospitality sector and industrial training. CLIP-VAO will be marketed in Australia very soon by a Canberra company, which is developing a more rugged and flexible hardware system.

The Futuroscop: The second important initiative has been the "privatisation" of OAVUP. The Centre is now a limited company, with 51% of shares owned by the university and the rest taken up by the Region (the government of the Region of Poitou-Charentes) and a number of private firms. It has moved out of its dingy premises on the top floor of the Faculty of Letters building to the breathtaking Parc du Futuroscop where it continues to conduct university courses, but also provides high profile audiovisual consultancy services to other residents of the Park.

The Parc du Futuroscop, which occupies a spectacular site on the outskirts of the city of Poitiers is an initiative of the Regional government: part technology centre, part amusement park, part high school and university.

The high tech amusement park is dominated by an Omnimax theatre in the shape of a huge rock crystal, which also serves as the backdrop for the large performance stage on the edge of a sunken lake surrounded by exhibitions, restaurants and fun parlours. A Teleport communications centre can access any of the world's communications satellites and has permanent teleconference, telephone and computer links with Europe, Africa and North America. Research centres for medicine, pharmacology, agriculture, engineering and artificial intelligence have already been established and a number of private manufacturing firms are setting up showpiece factories on the site. At the centre of the Park, in a modernistic building (from above it resembles a balalaika, from the ground it looks like a ship) is the Lycee du Futur, taking students from Year 11 and 12 through to university study. Its teaching style emphasises the use of educational technology, with large laboratories of computers and individual learning carrels.

Le Lycee du Futur sketch drawing
Le Lycee du Futur, Poitiers

OAVUP's new home is in the centre of the Lycee du Futur. It has a well equipped television studio and post production suite, photographic darkrooms, computer graphics and animation facilities and an interactive video laboratory.


My involvement with OAVUP began in 1986 when Francois Marchessou visited Australia to demonstrate an early version of the CLIP-VAO system. He was running it on cobbled together equipment which was prone to hangups and it terrified the life out of the language teachers who saw it! Some of us, however, were impressed by its potential. It seemed to offer a refreshingly low tech approach to interactive video and, when properly developed and marketed, would put the essential educational programming directly into the hands of teachers.

A lot of rash claims have been made about interactive video as an educational tool. Its proponents seem to believe that high level interactivity alone provides motivation and stimulus for learning. If this were the case, computer games would be increasing in popularity, whereas most of my acquaintances who bought home computers two years ago have given their copies of Asteroids and Zork to the neighbour's children and find more pleasure in spreadsheets. Interactive video programs, by definition, have no plot or suspense or character or conflict - the things that stories are made of - and the novelty of being able to stop and start them palls as quickly as playing games on your Commodore 64.

But as far as schools are concerned, the biggest problem faced by interactive video begins before we even sit down in front of the screen(s): interactive video threatens teachers. It is, I suppose, the latest of a series of technologies which (the enthusiasts assure us) are going to replace the classroom teacher. Books were the first threat, in the 16th Century; in this century so far we have had film, radio, television, computers and the video recorder. Their lack of success is evident as teachers are still with us and still using chalkboards as their main audiovisual aid. Teachers own schools and no technology will succeed in the schoolroom until teachers can control it; "own" it. Most interactive video packages are designed to be "teacher proof" and have been set in concrete by their programmers.

CLIP-VAO, however, is not a teaching package, it is an authoring system, an educational tool which teachers can use in order to improve the effectiveness of video resources in their classrooms. What it lacked in 1986 were some good example programs, a non intimidatory delivery system and effective marketing.

Marchessou invited me to Poitiers to produce some example programs which could be used with CLIP-VAO for teaching French in Australia. (Language teaching remains the most "marketed" application of the system, but its major use in France at the moment appears to be in on the job training for technicians and hotel management.) The French government provided some assistance to me in the form of a student bourse, the most important aspect of which was that it gave me a Residence Permit and a status which could be comprehended by the bureaucracy! My employer, the Canberra CAE gave me six months Study Leave. The bank gave me a loan... We departed in July 1987.


My first idea was to produce a series of short sequences on aspects of French life which would fit well into the "interactive" mode but which could also be used as a straightforward video cassette program with only non computerised teacher control. We investigated markets and ancient sites, vineyards and porcelaine factories, chateaux and cheese shops and it all began to look depressingly like a travelogue or an episode of "French For Schools":

I had been seduced by Interactive Video! After 20 years in the film industry I was throwing away everything I knew about story construction in order to be accepted as an acolyte in the temple of educational technology! My mistake was to think of the production as "interactive video" first and something to interest and motivate Australian high school children second. As it turned out, the answer to this scripting problem was staring us in the face...

Short term, furnished housing is almost impossible to find in France and we had to shift our sights from Poitiers to Chauvigny, a small town 25 km away where we found a gite, or converted farmhouse, to lay our heads. My high school French was only just adequate for survival when I arrived, but I was accompanied by my wife (who teaches French and German) and my school aged children. In September they began school in. Tanya (in Year 9) went to the local high school (College), Nicholas and Michael (who had no prior French) went to the local two teacher village primary school.

We all have cliched images of the rigorous and impersonal cramming style of the French school system, and I suppose that Zero de Conduite still exists somewhere, but one would go a long way to find a school as caring, supportive and progressive as the Ecole de Villeneuve. It was such a surprise to us that we decided to abandon our library card list of scenes and soul searching about interactive video and make a straightforward documentary on the experiences of Nick and Michael at school. The program, shot on four separate occasions between September and January, traces the language development of the two boys over a four month period. A very straightforward documentary. Surprisingly then, when - with apologies - we showed the first sequences to colleagues at OAVUP it was declared "perfect" for CLIP-VAO and is now being used interactively to illustrate "language immersion" to the French teachers on summer courses.

The second video program was more carefully planned with the Australian student and CLIP-VAO in mind. We saw it as an antidote to the tourist view of France; it would show what it's like to go to school, to sit in on lessons, make friends and become involved in the daily life of a small country town. There would be no Eiffel Towers, no Chateaux of the Loire, no haute cuisine. It would show that the French no more fit their national stereotypes than Australians do.

The program shows the town of Chauvigny through the eyes of Tanya and her friends, but it is less of a straightforward documentary than its companion. The 35 mins is broken up into nine parts, of between 4 and 7 minutes and shows:

Life at College Gerard Philipe
Tanya's friends introduce themselves and talk about music, television, homework, the French, and life in general.
Two teachers talk about French education
An amateur archaeologist takes us on a tour of Chauvigny's 10th Century Chateau
Tanya's brothers at primary school
The local journalist interviews Tanya about Australia
The baker shows us his skills (and his bread)
The town's most successful commercant (the fishmonger) gives us some business advice
The Saturday market
The language is unscripted, sometimes ungrammatical, but always spontaneous.

The program, accompanied by a booklet containing a transcript and some supplementary material and tourist brochures, has been marketed using a mail out and several presentations at language teachers' meetings. Over 150 copies have been sold so far. CLIP-VAO is not available yet, so it is not an interactive video program, but most teachers use it "interactively": in small sections, repeating sequences, setting exercises, building up an impression of life in rural France. The teachers like it because it is a resource under their control.

Only informal evaluations have been carried out at this stage, but they indicate that the programs succeed at a number of levels:

Identification: Australian school students easily identify with the situation presented in the programs. The "barrier", which is often in evidence in language teaching video programs set in other cultures has been broken down by the device of using identifiable Australian children as protagonists.

Language: Almost all language teaching programs show only examples of perfect speech, graded in vocabulary and complexity. This program uses normal, unscripted speech, sometimes ungrammatical with unfinished sentences, slang and complex constructions, at normal speed. But Australian pupils understand it because it concerns things that they want to know about and it is precisely the type of language which would be encountered by an Australian adolescent visiting France.

Motivation: The Australian children in the program are shown "having a go" at speaking. They often stumble and use ungrammatical French, but everybody understands them! The lesson of the program is that you only learn language by speaking it and making mistakes is an essential part of learning. The "affective domain" objectives concern making the viewer feel good about speaking. So few language programs do this.

Author: Ian Hart is the Head of the Centre for Media Studies at the Canberra College of Advanced Education.

Please cite as: Hart. I. (1988). Video and language teaching: A French-Australian Co-production. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (Eds), Designing for Learning in Industry and Education, 108-112. Proceedings of EdTech'88. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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