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QUT's language learning project

Kerry Bagdon and Tim Barham
Queensland University of Technology
This paper follows the development of a multimedia language learning project. The project covers four languages, French, German, Indonesian and Japanese, and was jointly developed by the School of Humanities and the Computer Based Education section of QUT. The goal of each LOTE (Languages Other than English) program is to produce graduates who are highly proficient in their chosen language and who have a good understanding of the cultural context in which that language is used. The integration of multimedia based resources into language courses is an effective means of achieving that goal. The teaching approach being adopted presently incorporates interactive videodisc, but will expand to CD-ROM and digital video in the near future. Multimedia is used to provide a rich, interactive learning experience. The courseware allows students to immerse themselves in the language and culture via full motion video, graphics and sound. Using a microphone in the headset, they can record their own attempts to emulate the pronunciation of native speakers. One aim of the project was providing lecturers with the tools to develop their own interactive videodisc lessons. To achieve this, two software components were created - the first a template allowing lecturers to enter lesson material, the second displaying the completed lesson to the students. The hardware and software components chosen will be outlined, as well as the strategies used for courseware development.


When QUT's School of Humanities was formed in 1991 staff were given the opportunity of revitalising how languages were learnt by students. Having established their goal: to produce graduates who are highly proficient in their chosen language and who have a good understanding of the cultural context(s) in which that language is used, the possibility of using technology to help them achieve this goal was investigated.

After receiving in principle support from QUT management in 1992, two language lecturers and CBE's section manager went to the USA to gather information about language programs and technology currently in use or under development. After extensive investigation it was concluded that the model which could be most usefully adapted for QUT was used at the Department of Foreign Languages at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) in Colorado Springs. The USAFA stood out as it was a working learning system, researched and developed over ten years, teaching 2000 students one or more of seven different languages annually. The USAFA model uses interactive videodisc (IVD) extensively in teaching both air force personnel and school students. The teacher uses the IVD by itself to provide information, as a model, and to provide stimulus to students. Students use the IVD controlled by computer (via a template developed by language lecturers) both for speaking and listening practice. They work in pairs, using headsets, for drill and practice and to answer questions on selected portions of the video. While the technology is primarily directed towards developing speaking and listening skills, it also reinforces reading skills and structural knowledge. Lessons developed around videodisc material can be used again and again, and can be modified (even slightly) very easily.

A common multi-language approach was decided on. All of the languages taught within the School of Humanities - French, German, Japanese and Indonesian - decided to use the USAFA model as an important starting point. It was perceived that using IVD as a core component could bring to both the teacher and students a wealth of audiovisual materials in authentic situational contexts in the target language. The USAFA approach, however, was modified to accommodate the different objectives and environment of QUT students. The following activities were identified:

Designing the language learning courseware

Team approach

CBE uses a team approach for developing and reviewing projects. The development team used for the language learning courseware project comprised expertise from two main areas:

Language approach

The language courseware is designed to create a language discovery environment where students discover how a language functions from experiencing, exploring and using it. (Such discovery may resemble cognitively the process of discovering fundamental principles in the sciences and other disciplines.) The process involves going for the meaning first and, as a result, acquiring structure (Krashen, 1982). Grammar is implicit rather than explicit.

The target language is used exclusively in the software and the student after a while finds that using the target language feels natural. There is no switching mentally from the target language content to English before pressing eg, the "Continue" or "Exit" buttons.

Use of interactive videodiscs as language resources

Interactive videodisc proved upon investigation to be a much cheaper alternative to CD-ROMs, even given the higher cost of buying IVD players.

There were adequate resources of suitable foreign language videodiscs available - which at the time was not found to be true of CD-ROMs. Unlike Australia the consumer and educational markets in the US, Japan and Europe have easy access to videodiscs, eg feature movies can be purchased readily. The cost of creating language video material for CD-ROM pressing right from the scripting stage was not cost effective.

Empowering the subject matter experts

The courseware template developed allows the subject matter experts (SMEs) to easily create their own lesson material with little or no participation from the CBE section. Two software components were created that together make up the complete Language Learning package. The first, Language Master, presents the lessons to the students. The second, Language Developer, allows the SME to create videodisc based lessons simply and quickly.

In the past, all CBE projects have involved subject matter experts and CBE staff collaborating in designing the project, followed by CBE staff developing the code and graphics. The result then has to be checked again by the SMEs for accuracy, and any changes wanted by the SMEs, no matter how small, have to be brought back to CBE for modification. For some time CBE has been researching template technology. With a template CBE develops and codes the structure of a project, and allows the SMEs to fill and control the content.

The language project was a prime target for this approach. It was necessary to enter a large amount of target language text. Time and money could be saved by both CBE and lecturers if the experts organised this component of the work. Thus, CBE and the language SMEs collaborated on developing the structure of the project. CBE then developed the packages described below, letting the lecturers quickly and simply create any quantity of lessons within that predefined structure. The lesson creation tool is, by design, free form (within the limits of the pre-determined structure) - the lecturers are able to create lessons in any order they desire. They can easily rearrange the order, add or remove lessons at any time.

Language Master

Language Master is the courseware component used by the language students for language learning. All lessons created by Language Developer and displayed by Language Master fit within a predefined lesson structure. The language SMEs and CBE staff collaborated in developing the following structure.

Structure of Language Master

Students work their way through a sequence of menus to arrive at exercises relevant to their current position in the course. No chronological order is forced on the students. They are free to navigate throughout the structure. Students choose the following options

  1. language, then
  2. level (meaning a semester), then
  3. unit, then
  4. a section within the particular unit.
Within a unit, students can preview the video segment corresponding to that unit. 'Me same is possible within a section. From within a section, students can choose to do comprehension exercises or go to the practice menu. Comprehension exercises consist at the moment of true/false and multiple choice questions. (Further question types such as "Point and Click" are envisaged for future versions.) Each question relates to a segment of video. The practice menu lets the student undertake Scrambled dialogue exercises play a segment of video containing several phrases. Each "phrase" may be a single sentence, a part of a sentence, or several sentences depending on length and context. Language Master displays the phrases in scrambled order, and requires the student to reorder them as they occur on the video.

Scrambled sentence exercises work similarly, scrambling the words of one phrase at a time.

On the speaking practice screen, students can play the video one phrase at a time. They can listen to each phrase any number of times, and practice repeating it.

QUT students will start using the developed courseware lessons in 1994.

Language Developer

Language Developer allows language SMEs to create an entire course within the predefined structure described. SMEs create and modify each menu as they create new lesson material, Lesson Master reflecting these modifications when the new files are transferred to the student network.

For each language the SME can create up to 10 levels. These levels are typically a semester's work. Within each level the SME can create up to 10 units, each correlating to one unit within a semester. The SME can then create up to nine sections within each unit.

Actual exercises are created at the section level. The SME creates a "phrase list" - an ordered list of all the phrases found on the segment of video relating to the section, with corresponding frame numbers. Language Master uses the "phrase list" to create the scrambled dialogue and scrambled sentence exercises described above.

The SME must also enter comprehension questions. These questions may be true/false or multiple choice, and each has a corresponding video segment.

Language Developer provides simple but comprehensive controls to manipulate the videodisc player. This allows the SME to quickly find the correct frame numbers for any lesson component that uses video material on CAV discs. On CLV discs, the lecturer accesses the segments by seconds rather frames.


Asymetrix Toolbook was used for software development. The book concept suited both of the applications developed. Toolbook also allows complete control over both the videodisc player and the video overlay card via Windows' Media Control Interface (MCI). MCI gives the application hardware independence. Within certain limitations, an application developed this way can use any videodisc player or video overlay card that has MCI driven. Although videodisc was chosen as the primary video source, digital video distributed on CD-ROM will be added.

Installing language learning laboratories

QUT has two language learning laboratories on two campuses. Each comprises a network of 10 computers accommodating 20 students working in pairs. The computers are also used for off the shelf CALL (Computer Aided Language Learning) programs to develop reading/writing skills, ensuring a comprehensive approach to language learning. There is a connection to France's MINITEL, a version of Australia's Teletext and plans to develop it for use in a tutorial situation.

The language learning centres are used by the language lecturers during tutorials. The centres are also available for individual use by students wishing to practice further.

The hardware specifications chosen were based on the decision to use videodiscs as the source of video material. The standard workstation is as follows:

In the past, videodisc based material has typically been presented using two monitors, one attached to the computer and one to the videodisc player. Some later projects have used genlock cards to overlay computer graphics onto the video signal, degrading the quality of the computer graphics. More recent technology allows use of video overlay cards to overlay the video signal onto the computer graphics. This option provides optimal quality and controllability. Full screen video is no longer necessary, and in fact it was intentionally chosen NOT to use full screen video in the language learning project, thus avoiding the "couch potato" mentality reported with some full screen video computer based learning.

When beginning the project, it was unknown that some companies were manufacturing videodiscs with a digital soundtrack. Videodisc players (Sony LDP-3600D) were purchased based on reports of reliability, computer controllability, and the ability to play PAL and NTSC discs (both CAV and CLV).

Some of the French discs purchased had digital audio which the Sony videodisc players did not support. Upon further investigation, Sony informed us that they do not manufacture any computer controllable videodisc players that will play a digital audio track, though Pioneer does.

Courseware status of different languages


IVD resources have now been purchased for French lesson development, however the range of discs with analog sound is still limited.


Videodiscs structured specifically for educational use at the introductory and intermediate levels have been purchased. A source of videodiscs suitable for language teaching has been located in the US.


No existing IVD resources have been found. Through collaboration with an Indonesian university a videodisc is being pressed from a video produced in Indonesia for international use.


A set of videodiscs specially scripted for language learning at introductory and intermediate levels has been pressed from video. Single copies of feature films, cultural documentaries and karaoke on videodisc have been purchased for self access use by students.

The Japanese character set has been problematic to develop for, and not just for QUT! There are two main problems. Firstly, there are several thousand Kanji characters, while the ASCII character set supports a maximum of only 256 characters, many of which are not displayable. Some systems support the double byte character standard which allows for up to 65,000 characters in a single font. Windows NT supports double byte characters, as does Japanese Windows. Windows 3.1 does NOT support them, and it is probably true that Windows 4 will not either. Secondly, Kanji characters are impossible to enter directly from a standard keyboard. The usual solution is to translate from Romaji (which can be entered from the keyboard) to kana (the phonetic characters) and then from kana to kanji.

The first problem was solved by developing a Windows' DLL (Dynamic Link Library) that converts a double byte character string into a bitmap and places it on the Windows Clipboard for access by Toolbook. This bitmap is pasted into Toolbook at runtime and manipulated as necessary.

A Japanese word processor is used to enter Kanji characters. These characters are saved to a double byte character file which can be read by the DLL we have developed. This functionality will possibly be placed into the development package in the future.

The steps for developing a Japanese lesson are as follows:

  1. Use Japanese word processor to input text in defined format (so Language Developer understands it)
  2. Save (double byte) text to a file
  3. Use Language Developer which loads double byte text file instead of SME typing text into, eg question text space. (DLL displays text as kanji on screen.)
  4. Saved to database as normal.


The power of using multimedia in QUT's educational setting depends on the design and implementation of effective learner-system interaction. This has been achieved by close cooperation between CBE and the School of Humanities.

As with any major changes this project could never have succeeded without firm commitment by senior QUT administration. The School firmly believes that by committing itself to multimedia technology using an integrated approach, QUT will be moving onto the frontier of language learning on the international scene.


Ahmad, K, Corbett, G. et al (1985). Computers, Language Learning and Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Bush, M. C., Slaton, A. et al (1991). Interactive Videodisc: The "Why" and the "How". CALICO Monograph Series, (2) Spring.

Haykin, R. (Ed) (1993). Demystifying Multimedia: A Guide for Multimedia Developers from Apple Computer, Inc. US: Vivid.

INEF Recommendations for the Successful Integration of Interactive Language Learning Technology. Unpublished.

Krashen, S. D. (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. New York: Pergamon Press.

Lewis, A., Atherton, B. et al (1993). Developing Interactive Multimedia Resources with IVD for Teaching French, German and Japanese at Tertiary Level. Paper delivered at the MPLTAQ Diversity in LOTE Teaching Conference, 1993, 28-30 September.

Underwood, J. H. (1984). Linguistics, Computers and the Language Teacher. Rowley: Newbury House.

Authors: Kerry Bagdon, Project Coordinator

Tim Barham, Courseware Developer

Computer Based Education Section, Queensland University of Technology, GPO Box 2434, Brisbane Qld 4001. Tel: 07 864 2913 Fax: 07 864 1525

Please cite as: Bagdon, K. and Barham, T. (1994). QUT's language learning project. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 18-22. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/bc/bagdon.html

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