LEarn from Video Extensive Real Atm Gigabit Experiment

LEVERAGE News No 4, July 1998

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Pedagogical issues

Katherine Maillet, associate professor at the Institut National des
Télécommunications in Evry Katherine Maillet, associate professor at the Institut National des Télécommunications in Evry describes the results of the second international trials of the LEVERAGE system.

In its White Paper on Teaching and Learning Towards the Learning Society 1, the European Commission specifies a number of guidelines which include the necessity for all Europeans to speak at least three languages. This ambition is not new and was already identified as one of the key elements for building the European Community in 1948. The Council of Europe, created in 1962, laid the groundwork for designing pan-European language programmes during the 70s in such works as The Threshold Level 2. Their visionary reflections have since been translated into policies and programmes at a national level throughout Europe. For example in France in 1981, the Conférence des Grandes Ecoles, a professional association which federates graduate engineering and business schools like INT, identified seven action points essential for the effective teaching and learning of foreign languages and student mobility. Since that time the creation of foreign language departments, the recruitment of trained teachers, and the allocation of funds for local resources and the placement of students abroad have contributed greatly to the fact that there is now a large percentage of trilingual graduates. The proliferation of PCs in the 80s and subsequent networking of these computers in the 90s may now make it possible for even greater numbers of learners to become trilingual. Everyone will agree that total immersion is the best way to learn a language. The results from the LEVERAGE second user-trials would tend to indicate that computer-mediated communication which facilitates sympathetic communication between speakers of different languages may be second best to face-to-face communication.

The first LEVERAGE user-trial took place last year at the University of Cambridge campus and was an important experiment for fine-tuning the interoperability of the highly complex and sophisticated technologies required to support the complete multimedia system. During the first user-trials, eighteen native speakers of English learning French, situated in three remote locations with the guidance of an on-line French-speaking advisor located at the Language Centre, collaborated on joint tasks during a period of four weeks. Their objective was to prepare a presentation in French for which the LEVERAGE system provided them authentic materials (audio, video, texts and graphics) made accessible through a web-browser, a French-English / English-French dictionary, a multimedia glossary, as well as a number of synchronous and asynchronous communication tools. Synchronous communication took place mainly with the help of a video- and audioconferencing system, supplemented by a shared Webboard.

E-mail and a shared workspace on the central server provided additional asynchronous communication channels.

During the second user-trial the LEVERAGE system was expanded and a second site was integrated. The LEVERAGE system was installed at the Institut National des Télécommunications, outside Paris, in September 1997, and was linked to the Cambridge site by means of an ATM network. During the second trials ten students at Cambridge and sixteen students at INT with the guidance of a French-speaking on-line advisor in Cambridge and an English-speaking advisor at INT, collaborated together over a six-week period from mid-January to mid-March 1998. Groups of three to four students, each including two French students and one or two English students, were scheduled to work together during one of the two weekly afternoon sessions. Each group of students was able to use the synchronous communication tools for about two hours every week. The task was adapted during the second trials to better suit the international learner-group profile. Students were asked to prepare a presentation concerning one aspect of the construction of the Channel Tunnel for a bilingual audience of Canadian engineers. Students from Cambridge participated in the trials on a volunteer basis. For INT students the course counted as one of their regularly scheduled weekly English classes.

As in the first trials, the LEVERAGE system provided learners with many rich and varied high quality multimedia resources. During the second trial, materials were provided both in English and in French. As a result of user evaluations from the first trial, it was decided not to create another multimedia dictionary. However, three new tools were integrated into the system, a webcomplex, a customised web-based French-English dictionary and two new synchronous communications tools. The first, SIESTA, is a simple shared text editor and the second, LECHE, is a chat tool that made it possible to send messages to the group.

At the end of the trial all participants filled in a written evaluation form and were interviewed. Students were asked to rank each element of the LEVERAGE system according to the criteria 'Very useful', 'Quite useful', 'Not sure', 'Not much use, 'Quite unnecessary'. Each qualitative rating was given a numeric rating with 100 indicating total satisfaction, 50 uncertainty and 0 total dissatisfaction. The table below shows how the different features of the LEVERAGE system ranked according the cumulative weighted results from all 26 questionnaires, 10 from Cambridge and 16 from INT.

Element Cambridge students Paris students Total

Access to native speakers
Chat tool (LECHE)
Collaborative Learning
Support Materials
Multimedia (video, audio)
Shared editor (SIESTA)
Shared browser (WEBBOARD)

Weighted results from the second LEVERAGE user-trial end-user questionnaire

Videoconferencing was undoubtedly the most outstanding and widely appreciated feature of the LEVERAGE system. Of the 26 participants, 25 gave it the highest ranking "Very useful". Written commentary on the questionnaires and comments made during the interviews indicate that students feel that the high quality videoconferencing provided by the ATM network added a human dimension to communications that was nearly equal to face to face. They indicated that the ability to see facial expressions, body language and gestures of their English/French partners was fundamental for understanding meaning. For the INT students, the desire to 'meet' over the network was one of the strongest motivating factors for carrying out the prescribed coursework. See student comments below.

Most of the French students recognise the fact that LEVERAGE is not a panacea for all language learning needs. However, for many European students like themselves, more especially in non-English-speaking countries, who have had about ten years of language studies in a classroom situation and who are not language majors, the LEVERAGE system makes it possible for them to see for themselves just how effective their communication skills in a foreign language really are, in a context that is pertinent to their personal and professional interests. The majority of INT students who participated in the trials have already made several visits to English-speaking countries. Their appreciation of the LEVERAGE system, ranking it almost as good as face-to-face communications is encouraging news for other language learners who are not geographically mobile.

1 http://europa.eu.int/eu/comm/dg22

2 Van Ek, J A and L G Alexander, Threshold Level English (Oxford: Pergamon Press for the Council of Europe, 1975)

Comments from English participants:
  • The only problem was that the French were a lot better than us at speaking in the foreign language, hence we spent a lot of the time talking English. However, when we did talk French the interaction provided a very effective learning mechanism.

  • Nothing beats speaking real French to a real Frenchman and added benefit of relaxation -- uncommon in French classes where teachers are instinctively intimidating.

  • Good that they were of a similar age and with similar interests. This led to far more than the completion of the task -- e.g. chatting, having a laugh, etc -- and they are now excellent future contacts.

Comments from French participants:

  • For me it is so obvious that it is the best way to learn English that I have no comments about it.

  • It is important to speak to natives when you learn a language. LEVERAGE enables you to interact excellently.

  • It's much better to learn English from English native speakers than other speakers because they speak better English, with a better accent, and they know better the English country's culture and habits.

  • Enables cultural exchange, comparison between different points of view.

  • I've found it very interesting to learn more about another culture by a mere discussion with someone like you. It is the best way to improve when you already have the basic skills.

  • It was motivating to see the person I was working with and it gave a 'human' dimension to the system !

  • As easy to communicate as during a face-to-face interaction. It was friendly too.

  • This (videoconferencing) makes you long for the Friday session !! . . .

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