Designing for seamless CALL integration and access

A presentation by Vance Stevens, Amideast UAE/MLI Project

TESOL Conference 2000, Vancouver

March 17, 2000, 8:30-9:15 a.m.

session #5365, Convention Center Room 3

Vance's website:

This paper is linked from 

The examples of teacher work mentioned at the end of this paper can be found at: - click on CALL and then on Virtual Tour

This is a working version of this paper, not ready for prime time. Do not cite material from this presentation until this notice is removed

This version: March 21, 2000

Hello. I'd like today to say a few words about the Military Language Center, or MLI as we usually call it. In particular, I'd like to talk about my part of the MLI, which is the computer assisted language learning part. But first a few words about the MLI and how it came about.

I work for Amideast, America Mideast Educational and Training Services, Inc. Amideast is a non-profit organization involved in language training as a means of promoting friendship and understanding between Americans and the people of the Middle East. In our project, the UAE military had a problem. They were sending people to the states and other English-speaking countries for further training before they were ready linguistically to study there. So they wanted to do more language preparation on these students before departure for their destinations. The MLI was formed to provide the language and cultural training for these students in the UAE so that when they arrived in the places where they would study or train they would be better able to utilize their time there.

Amideast were called in as consultants on the project and in the proposal for the MLI we recommended a communicative curriculum supported and enhanced by technology. The curriculum at the MLI is worth discussing in detail, but it's not in my specific area of expertise. I was brought on board to suggest how technology could be brought to bear on the proposed MLI, and I did have a few ideas.

I had been fortunate while working at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman to have had the opportunity to teach in one of the classrooms with Novell networked computers in them. As I was also in charge at the time of putting language center materials on the network, I was essentially able to use the network in my classroom as an extension of my own office PC. As we also had a range of networked applications, including a word processing program, I had soon discovered that I could keep all kinds of records for my class on the server and conveniently pull them up in my classroom, project them on tv monitors mounted in the front of the class, work on them in class as appropriate, and save them in an area where the students could access them later. I remember at the time students asking questions about listening exercises we were doing with them, and I would say things like, well, the texts to these listenings are in this directory here, and you can have a look if you simply browse like so. The students picked up on this quite readily and were soon able to negotiate their way around our server better than most teachers could (students there had keen noses for sniffing out what they thought might be "the answer"; I was working at the time with teachers who were sometimes a little uncomfortable with my giving students free access to the whole database of listenings when they might then be able to get ahead of where the teacher was in the course, but my attitude was, hey, if the student is that keen, let them have it. After all, we're trying to maximize their exposure to English, aren't we, not restrict it). Though the teachers I was working with didn't necessarily agree with my divulging to the students where the listening texts were kept on the server, I was putting in practice my view of computers as tools that should be available to users in the way that they best see fit, not in some preconceived way imposed by a pseudo-omniscent network administrator.

So when I was called upon to give my advice on how the computers at the proposed MLI might be configured, I was ready with my vision. I recommended that the MLI be configured on these principles:

This is a working version of this paper, not ready for prime time. Do not cite material from this presentation until this notice is removed

Computers should be so ubiquitous that they should be taken for granted. I wanted computers to not be like idols that would be constantly pandered to in designing our curricular materials, but to be as common and mundane a working tool as a typewriter or a photocopy machine. I came up with the idea that they should be integrated "seamlessly" into the workplace at the MLI. By this I meant they should become a part of the fabric at the MLI in the same way and with the same status as whiteboards and OHP's.

In a way, this has happened. The computers are used constantly as a teaching tool at the MLI, the only difference being that they are not as reliable as whiteboards and OHP's. More like OHP's which can go out in the middle of a presentation, leaving a presenter fumbling stupidly with a mess of transparencies that have become worse than useless, even a distraction, there are a lot of things that can go wrong with computers, and this compromises their seamlessness. That's the reality, but let's ignore that for a moment and consider how I'd hoped to achieve the seamlessness I was after.

To achieve this goal, I proposed to put a computer on each teacher's desk and in each teacher's classroom and on each student's desk in each student's lab station. Each teacher would be able to work in his office and then go to his class and pull up the material he had been working on, and students also would have access to this material if the teacher wanted them to.

The benefits and compelling potential of such a configuration are probably self-evident to most teachers who are sophisticated users of computers, and also at this point in time, which is now 3 years later than when I was called on as a consultant to advise on how technology could help all concerned meet their goal of enhancing language learning for UAE military personnel, but at the time I had to sell the idea, and particularly as what I was proposing was going to cost a lot of money. Unlike in my previous jobs up to then, when my ideas for ubiquitous access to networked computers had met with certain constraints, budgetary as well as resistance among colleagues and administrators, the Amideast accepted my ideas as part of their proposal, and the UAE clients also accepted the plan with few constraints.

The discussion of internet that follows will be footnoted; there is no time for it in the presentation

Only one significant constraint existed, and that regarded use of the Internet. There has been a shift in perceptions of the Internet and its effect on the values of the citizens in the countries of the Middle East, as opposed to the great use to be made of the Internet in all areas of endeavor throughout the world, and this shift has flip-flopped in recent years. Saudi Arabia has of course only recently given in to allowing email and Internet use throughout the kingdom, whereas Egypt, for example, has had unrestricted access to the Internet for some time. At the university where I worked in Oman, up to when I left in 1995, email had only just been introduced to professors and was at the time denied ESL teachers, and the reason for that was rooted in misconceptions of administrators over what use ESL teachers could possibly have for email. The irony here, evident to those of us in the field, is that ESL professionals tend to be in the forefront of communicative uses of computers, pushing the envelope of adapting Internet to teaching and making use of multimedia and synchronous communications, and often all three combined. And I understand that since then, perception of the Internet has shifted even in Oman, and the university is considering extending its Internet network to include even campus housing, if they haven't already done so.

I mention these things here only to give some indication of the contrasts within the countries of the Middle East, and how perceptions of the Internet are rapidly changing there, and how this in turn affects how one might configure computers to teach ESL there. So there were indications when we proposed our plan to have computers available to all teachers and students at the MLI that use of the Internet would not be allowed. We made a stong case for its use at least by teachers, and we won that argument, and by the time we set up our network, we found we had been granted the right to let students have access to the Internet as well without our having had to ask for it. I think this shows how perception of the Internet has gone from concern over what affect it might have on the values of the people there to an even stronger concern over being left behind in an increasingly interconnected word. The people of the Middle East can be strongly individualistic in some matters and those in the UAE have long had the wherewithal to set up Internet access in their own homes. I recall reading in the UAE papers in the late 1990s editorials to the effect that the schools should be making greater access of Internet facilities that students were likely to have at home.

This is a working version of this paper, not ready for prime time. Do not cite material from this presentation until this notice is removed

So, it was in this climate that Amideast proposed to develop a language center called the MLI which would have computers on all teachers' desks offices and connected to the Internet, and computers in all classrooms, also connected to the Internet, and in computer labs, as it turned out, again connected to the Internet. At the outset, I was in the position of having to argue that all this expensive equipment was going to present opportunities to enhance language leaning sufficient to warrant the expenditure. I found it very hard to do this - hard to imagine, that is, the exact uses to which the tools we were purchasing would be put. Looked at from this side of the divide, from the opposite shore of a bridge now crossed, I think that there is general agreement that, in retrospect, by having made the investment in both time and resources, many achievements have been made that would not have otherwise been possible.

And here I would like to speak about some of these achievements and show examples of what happens when a commitment is made to incorporate technology with language learning.

The theory goes like this: give a collection of talented workmen an enviable set of tools and they will build objects that not only get the job done better than if these workmen had a lesser set of tools, but they will attract even more skilled workmen. A cycle is setup whereby creativity in one workman begets creativity in another, and the expertise in using the most useful tools creatively is refined even as it spreads throughout the institute.

This is a working version of this paper, not ready for prime time. Do not cite material from this presentation until this notice is removed

This is what has happened at the MLI. The tools were put in place. Each workstation has MS Office 97, with Word, both a word processor and an html editor, and PowerPoint, an easy-to-use presentation tool. Each teacher has access to the internet and can download free software tools.such as Hot Potatoes and Real Audio player and producer (plus demo versions of Macromedia tools such as Authorware and Flash, which can be purchased once we have evidence of their usefulness. Plus we have a set of networked versions of software items such as

Wida - Text manipulation programs

Traci Talk - Speech Recognition


So what do teachers do with all of these tools:

What can they do with Spectrum sound files ...

Aside from the text manipulation software ...

Power Point has been a versatile and much used tool as well.

Simple html has been a serviceable tool. The most obvious means of creating html documents in our setting is to create files in Word 97 and simply save them as HTML. However, some teachers use Netscape Composer, and a number have purchased their own copies of Hot Metal 5.0. Using these tools, teachers have designed interesting home pages which jazz up their class presentations and student interfaces. At the conference, examples are shown from the following categories:

Html-based materials are the mainstay of much exercise creation at the MLI. Some teachers use templates at web sites which depend on connection to a server in some remote location in cyberspace, but when the connection is made, deliver the exercise in the students' browsers; e.g.

Hot Potatoes has been a productive template.

(text to be inserted from htmlb.htm)

Hot Potatoes has been an authoring tool of choice. It allows teachers to quickly prepare appropriate materials to supplement what they are doing in class.

Mark Sellers has been heavy into the Internet. Check out his link-a-day site and Grammar sites

Zafar, a good example of organization

Some teachers have developed interesting themes:

What are the students doing?



 This is a working version of this paper, not ready for prime time. Do not cite material from this presentation until this notice is removed

From a recent posting on one of the lists: neteach-l or teslca-l


>I'm sure that colleagues on the list will be able to assist Mark by suggesting

> ways in which his new hardware can be used and point him, and the rest of us,

> to resources on the Web. But isn't it sad for education when technology drives

> curricula decisions like this? Once again, we see technology searching for a

> use.



I have some thoughts on this. I reason thusly:


(1) The original posting mentions "super fast LAN connection, video camera

for each computer, VCR and DVD that can be displayed on each screen, and a

couple of bells and whistles" so the question to ask here is, does video

help students learn languages? I think there are compelling arguments in

favor of VALL, or video assisted language learning (I think I just made that

up; I can also conceive of LALL, library assisted, etc but I digress). Try

here, for example:


Prentice Hall has an informative page on Techniques for Teaching with Video

-; also, Why Video in the Classroom?


(2) Can technology help you to deliver the video that you think will enhance



Actually, there's a simple answer (yes) but as process people, we know that

the answer is not the most important thing. As for the process:


I like the workshop analogy. If you want to produce parts for an

automobile, you can hire the best machinist in the world, but if you show

him/her an anvil and a hammer, his/her output may be inspired but limited by

what s/he has to work with, and eventually s/he'll become frustrated and

bad-mouth you at the next conference while scoping about for another job.


Conversely you can spring for the best equipment money can buy but if you

don't hire top-notch machinists, then nobody knows what to do with it. But

let me make a point here: it's not the shop supervisor who is ultimately

going to say how the devices are used. Machinists know what to do when they

find the right tools. The supervisor may take some credit if he or she

arranges to put the tools in place, but ultimately, the art comes from the

artisans, and artisans flourish best in situations where tools are not an issue.


Granted, there has to be some justification for expenditures for expensive

tools. I think that administrators become most anxious at about the point

where the money has been spent and the question comes up, ok, now what?

It's a valid question, but on the other hand, if all the pieces are in

place, state-of-the-art equipment, creative staff, then the practitioners

are going figure out what to do.


Unfortunately, depending on how much development time the staff have in

their day, it may take them longer where time is at a premium to figure out

what to do than it will in a situation where teachers have the odd hour or

two to work on their materials. So let's hope the administrators have built

this ingredient into the equation.


Training is also a factor. A consultant can come along and get you started,

and a good CALL / VALL coordinator can probably initiate a training program,

but in the ideal situation you'd soon reach the point where some of the

staff have acquired enough expertise to start sharing it with others. This

is the point where the CALL coordinator kicks back and enjoys learning from

the coordinees.


In looking at the original posting, I think some of the questions are

oriented a bit toward products: What kinds of courses or projects are being

done? What software and video programmes have (or haven't) worked? Of

course, these are things you want to look at, to see what others are doing

with their V-CALL toys, but each situation is different. The more important

questions I think are, how will multimedia enhance your program, and how do

you get there from here?


It sounds like in your choice of tools, you've at least given yourselves a

paved highway. Hopefully, and if all those catalytic pieces have been put

in place (tools, craftsmen, development time, and training) your staff will

work out how to roll down that highway. Next thing you know, take off.

For comments, suggestions, or further information on this page, contact Vance Stevens, page author and webmaster.

Last updated: March 20, 2000