Designing a CALL Facility from Bottom to Top at the Military Language Institute in Abu Dhabi

Vance Stevens

CALL Coordinator, Amideast UAE/MLI Project

 

<1>Introduction

 This chapter describes the CALL component to a language program contracted to Amideast by the United Arab Emirates military. The Military Language Institute, or MLI, is a language institute in the UAE where military personnel go for language training either to increase their basic competency in the languages taught or before being sent for further study in the country where that language is used. The UAE military have contracted for a state of the art facility with technology and curriculum to be a departure from what has been the norm in the past. Thus has been granted a unique opportunity to design a program that applies technology in what we feel are ways appropriate to the teaching of languages. This chapter describes the creation of the MLI CALL facility.

 

<1>Context

 The MLI is an institute dedicated to the study of languages in a military context. By "military context" I mean that the students are UAE military personnel who have been released from their units for a course of study that could lead to further studies abroad. At the higher levels they require training in the culture as well as academically-oriented language of the target country. At the moment, English and French are the only languages taught, but other languages will be offered in the future.

The MLI is housed in a one-story building consisting of about 75 classrooms and offices ringing a central courtyard. The building has been tastefully renovated from a previously existing facility, with a central garden and walkways replacing what was once a concrete exercise yard. Air-conditioned corridors with potted plants on marble floors now link classes that previously opened on the elements. Since the renovated facility can accommodate only about 250 students, a new 2-story building is being constructed nearby to expand the facility when it reaches its full capacity of about 450 students. The currently used renovated structure will continue to house the classrooms and teachers' offices. The upper floor of the new building will be used for administration, with 8 CALL labs and a student resource center on the ground floor.

Although military language training has existed for some time in the UAE, the creation of the MLI in its new quarters marks a conceptual as well as physical break with the past. The newly designed program is much different from, for example, the lockstep Defense Language Institute model. The emphasis in our curriculum is on the communicative approach, and our facilities have been planned to promote communication not only through the curriculum, but through design of the physical plant, as explained further on in this chapter.

The students, too, are perhaps different than in the past in the UAE. The computer revolution is catching up with the people in the Gulf region. Internet service is available through the phone company to any resident who wants it, with the result that it is not unusual for Internet connections to be found in Emirati homes and businesses. (The phone company even offers second phone lines at half the price of a first one.) There is a Cyber Cafe in downtown Abu Dhabi, and Internet is available to the walk-in public at the Cultural Foundation, which houses Abu Dhabi's public library. Editorials have appeared in local newspapers decrying the fact that educational institutions are lagging behind in connectivity whereas the schools should be more proactive in introducing pupils to what many already have at home.

Many of the students accepted in the MLI own computers; and after only a brief exposure to computers at the MLI, others have taken the initiative of buying their own. There are often queries from students regarding how they can purchase their own copies of MLI software, with the result that one of our suppliers has left a supply of calling cards at the Institute and offered to supply the students at bulk prices. Even where students and teachers lack prior experience with computers, the CALL component is well received and enthusiastically adapted to by teachers and students alike. Those in the latter group seem eager to take the opportunity to learn skills that they must feel it's about time they acquired.

 

<1>Description

Many Emiratis are sent abroad for further studies in English-speaking countries, but previously they were sent off with inadequate command of the language. Accordingly, one purpose of the MLI is to enhance the amount of language training these students are able to gain through an intensive course in the home country, with the goal of ensuring that those going abroad achieve at least 450 on the TOEFL before being allowed to depart for further studies.

However, not all students at the MLI will go abroad. Some have been released from their units to devote themselves for a limited time to increasing their command of a foreign language, and some enter the program at false-beginner level. Others may attend the MLI in the hopes of going abroad but fail to reach the required TOEFL level, in which case they might receive remedial training, or they might return to their units.

The MLI has eight levels, each lasting eight weeks. The curriculum is patterned on the 6 books in the Spectrum series, plus a pre-Spectrum basic level and an advanced post-Spectrum academic level. At some point, it is anticipated that Spectrum will be replaced with in-house developed materials. A multimedia course is envisaged and consultants are being contracted to help with its development.

The Spectrum series of text and workbooks presents a carefully graded syllabus incorporating a "natural" approach; e.g. with emphasis on comprehension leading to meaningful expression. Accordingly, the lessons in Spectrum attempt to be motivating, present 'authentic-sounding' language, and give students a feeling of success and achievement. According to the back cover of Teachers' Book 1, "Rich language input is provided in authentic conversations accompanied by receptive activities that help students absorb new functions, structures, and vocabulary. Real-life language tasks offer both focused practice and opportunities for natural interaction, promoting both fluency and accuracy." This is accomplished though "thematically based lessons, comprehensive coverage of all four skills," and "authentic-sounding conversations, telephone messages, public announcements, and radio broadcasts on cassette." 1

1. Dye, Joan, and Nancy Frankfort. 1993. Spectrum: A communicative course in English. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents. (Books and Workbooks 1 - 6)

 

In order to foster the intimate class interaction on which the accomplishment of such goals relies, class size at the MLI is limited to 12 students. This limitation was literally built into the design of the facility. Walls were put up to divide in half the large classrooms inherited from the previous occupants, and furniture was purchased of dimensions such that 12 desks can comfortably fit in the available space, but no more. If the number of students at a given level exceeds 12, then the class divides, so that many classes have fewer than 12 students. Thus the physical plant ensures optimal class size, where students and teachers can get to know each other and interact intensively throughout the day and throughout the program.

The students' day is broken into 5 periods, of which all but 2 are core classes based on Spectrum or pre- or post-Spectrum materials. The other two periods each day are the CALL lab and an "enrichment" period. When students go to the CALL lab, they work with the Internet or the available software to improve their language skills. The enrichment period can be devoted to whatever is needed at the moment, for example, TOEFL preparation, writing, or further computer-enhanced work.

"Enrichment" is a key word in the philosophy of the CALL facility at the MLI. The CALL facility seeks to create an environment where barriers to staff and student use of computers are broken down through seamless and convenient access. Networked computers are available on teacher's desks, in classrooms, and in student labs; and teachers manage their use through teacher and student hompages on our LAN, which includes access to the Internet.

Hardware components include:

 

Software has been selected in the following categories:

 

The teachers have augmented this software with their own CALL and computer-based creations; e.g. Javascript forms and exercises (e.g. using Hot Potatoes 2), PowerPoint 3 displays, teacher homepages for managing class activities, Wida-authored materials 4, digital video and listening activities, and web-based projects, including student-designed homepages.

2. Holmes, Martin, Stewart Arneil, and Hilary Street. Hot Potatoes. University of Victoria Language Centre, Half-Baked Software, http://web.uvic.ca/langcen/halfbaked/ (April 21, 1999 update).

3. PowerPoint 97. 1987-1996. Redmond, WA: Microsoft.; http://www.microsoft.com/office/powerpoint/

4. Jones, Christopher, and Ian Trackman. 1998. Authoring Suite, Version 1.0.. Ealing, UK: Wida Software Ltd.

 

<2>Constraints on implementation

As one would expect in construction of a language center almost anywhere in the world, the CALL program has suffered constraints outside the control of the academic staff. Although the following problems were successfully resolved, they had to be dealt with during the initial phases of startup:

 

Of particular concern were our 5 Egyptian bilingual advisors. The level of English of these advisors was excellent; however, as they were not native speakers, they could not be core teachers. And as our native-speaking teachers were initially in short supply, it was decided that the bilingual advisors and not the native-speaking teachers would teach all of the CALL lab periods. This created a certain level of anxiety in our advisors, only one of whom had had any experience at all using computers in any context, let alone an educational one. Since there was nothing in Abu Dhabi resembling the setup they were going to be using, we were unable to give these advisors a clear impression of what they would do once classes started. That is, we could train them in use of the software, but it was difficult to convey to them how these skills were going to fit together and be applied in the classes they would be teaching. As we came within just over a week of startup with no working network in place, it was impossible for us to even give them a set of instructions for how the students would turn the computers on and access the network.

Given the very tight temporal constraints, we decided use text manipulation as a means of getting the operation up and running in the short amount of time available. Text manipulation programs are templates which degrade a text in some way and provide an interface through which the student can restore the text to its original state. A common text manipulation program is a cloze generator, where words are replaced by gaps and the students must supply the missing words. Other examples are whole-text deletion programs, where students must restore the original text from scratch, perhaps while listening to a digital recording of the passage enacted or read aloud, and sentence (or phrase, or paragraph) scrambling programs, where the components of a sentence (or paragraph) are displayed out of order, and students have to restore the correct order.

A text manipulation component in a CALL program has appeal, to the degree that one sees text manipulation as an effective pedagogical tool. Another strong appeal is its ease of implementation. The template programs typically act on ASCII text. This means that if teachers supply texts, the programs will create numerous activities for each text. Therefore, it becomes possible to produce numerous exercises on the exact texts the students are studying by installing a variety of text manipulation templates and then inserting those texts.

This is why, the week before classes started, the entire teaching staff at the MLI were mobilized in typing up a corpus of texts systematically taken from the various levels of the Spectrum series (our scanners had not yet arrived). The object of the exercise was to put in place as quickly as possible a computer-based set of materials with clear relevance to all levels of our curriculum. Several text manipulation templates were used, among them Fun with Texts (Camsoft) 5, and SuperCloze and Hangman in Context (Stevens and Millmore) 6 but the mainstay of our text manipulation program would be the Authoring Suite from Wida. Besides having an impressive range of templates, the Authoring Suite allowed easy integration of sound files with the texts the teachers were producing, a compelling feature considering that so many of the Spectrum texts had accompanying recordings. Prentice-Hall were contacted and asked how they would react to our digitizing these recordings for the purposes outlined here. Their representative gave us the go-ahead in a matter of days, as long as our use of the digitized recordings was restricted to within the MLI.

5. Bruzzone, Marco, and Graham Davies. 1997. Fun with Texts, Version 3.0 for Windows. Maidenhead, UK: Camsoft, http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/GrahamDavies1

6. Stevens, Vance and Steve Millmore. 1996. SuperCloze and Hangman in Context. Shareware, free to educators, ftp://ftp.latrobe.edu.au/pub/CELIA/english/dos/cloze/stevens.zip.

 

Text manipulation was appropriate to our setting for several reasons: (1) The relationship between text manipulation activities and the curriculum could be easily discerned by both students and teachers since the texts used initially were taken directly from Spectrum. (2) The concept of manipulation, the use of various templates to create various exercises from a fixed text base, is easily understood by novice computer users. (3) Implementation of a comprehensive amount of material across the curriculum is accomplished quickly, and this implementation lends itself particularly well to an environment where you make your text base accessible to all from a central server. And (4) what is put in place originally for text manipulation can serve as the basis for more innovative applications later on; for example, as grist for reading exercises created from JavaScript templates, or as a corpus for research and development based on concordancing and text analysis. Of these two possibilities, the former has been easily implemented and extensively used at the MLI.

In the last week before classes began, a CALL lab was readied and used as a venue for last-minute seminars. On the first day of that week, floppy disks containing Spectrum texts were used to replicate the text database that would be stored on the network, which was not quite yet running at the time. Over the next couple of days, as the network came up, we were able to place those texts in their permanent location on the server and, in the course of training staff in the use of the various text manipulation applications, show them exactly how the text database could be accessed by the text manipulation applications through the network.

Toward the end of the week, I agreed to meet our advisors for a special training session in the evening. Whereas earlier they had called for step-by-step instructions in using the software, by now the advisors were interested more in knowing how the system worked and where its components were. Clearly, the anxiety level of our advisors had substantially diminished, an indication that they were getting a clearer picture of what their role would be and that therefore we were on the right path in setting up an easily discernable system for novice users.

In the few months of MLI operation, these inexperienced advisors learned not only to function capably within the limited system set up for them at the outset, but indeed they flourished, guiding the students not only in browsing the text database for the exact text covered that morning by their core teacher, but helping them acquire and develop the skills of word processing, homepage development, and PowerPoint presentation. Now, when dignitaries visit our facility and need to be shown our CALL labs, we might call on the advisors to do the demonstrations. One of these advisors once expressed to me his satisfaction over having arrived at the MLI knowing so little about computers and in the space of a month or two finding himself demonstrating his skills in the capacity of expert. His budding enthusiasm, plus the fact that our students are not only purchasing their own computers and language learning software, but creating web pages and posting them at free web-hosting sites after only brief exposure to our facility, are our most tangible indications to date of the success of what we are doing.

 

<1>Distinguishing Features

The CALL facility at the MLI is unique for the Middle East, and from what we can gather through attendance at conferences and from published reports and what appears on the Internet regarding appropriate use of technology in language learning, it appears to compare well to or even surpass other CALL facilities elsewhere in the world.

Two factors in particular were instrumental in the initial success of this facility: planning and funding. The groundwork for the CALL facility for the MLI was laid in consultations between Amideast personnel and their UAE clients in April 1997. The facility was therefore designed from the outset taking into account the cumulative knowledge and experience of practitioners, as opposed to having evolved from (i.e. being saddled with) an outdated existing setup or misguided concept of the role computers would play in the development of the facility. Also, the UAE military accepted the concept virtually as proposed and did not impose unreasonable financial constraints that would compromise what we had in mind. The result has been a mutually beneficial partnership where the military gains its state-of-the-art language facility and where the consultants have had the satisfaction of conceiving and implementing as nearly optimal an application of technology dedicated to communicative language learning as could be mounted in the Middle East at the present time.

One unique feature of the MLI facility is the inclusion of the classroom in the MLI computer network. It is common in language centers for teachers and students to have access to networked computers at their respective workstations (e.g. in offices and labs), and it is not unusual for there to be lecture halls equipped with such facilities, as was evident for example at the recent WorldCALL conference held at the University of Melbourne in July 1998. But equipping each classroom with multimedia capability is typically beyond the reach of language centers, even as we near the 21st century.

Each MLI classroom is a small multimedia studio. The centerpiece of each classroom is the teacher's workstation. This centers on a specially designed desk (see next section) with a computer and 17-inch monitor. In addition to being switched into the monitor, the computer also outputs to a projector mounted in the ceiling at the back of the class. The projector projects onto a whiteboard which not only accepts marker pens, but also reflects the projected image with minimal glare. The teacher has a remote control device to turn the projector on and off, and also to toggle the projector between computer and video signal. Part of the teacher workstation is a cabinet containing a VCR and an audio cassette player as well as an amplifier, which pipes sound from the VCR, cassette deck, or computer to a pair of speakers installed in the ceiling. The acoustics in the small brick rooms are so impressive that special materials have been installed in the ceiling to buffer the sound so as not to impress those in the next room as well.

The CALL labs are exactly twice the size of a classroom (9 x 9 meters); in fact, they are the original classrooms intact, without the previously mentioned dividing wall. Furthermore, the front half of each lab is appointed in the same way as a classroom, with a fully-equipped teacher's workstation, ceiling-mounted projector, and whiteboard projection surface. The remainder of the lab is furnished with 12 specially made student desks arranged in three clusters of four desks. The desks are large enough so that students can work comfortably by themselves, but clustered so that students can face each other to converse and collaborate. The students' chairs were purchased with wheels expressly to facilitate their ability to join each other in front of the same monitor. All these touches were manifestations of the philosophy of the MLI to break from the expected rows of computers, all students facing the same way, and deliver instead a language learning environment that would foster communication and, in turn, enhance language learning.

 

<2>Teacher's Work Station

It was unexpectedly difficult to array the instructor’s equipment in such a way that a teacher could use it without the furniture getting in the way. Our criteria for a teacher work station designed particularly for use with computers in classrooms were:

 

We were unable to find such furniture on the market. In the end we designed our own. In the process of design, we scoured catalogs and called in vendors and local draftsmen. To each we tried to describe what we wanted, though we didn't know what it was exactly ourselves. We knew we didn't want a lectern, with the teacher rooted in place, having to peer around a 17-inch monitor. After considering a number of ready-made possibilities and eliciting a dozen sketches from as many workshops, we ran the most likely candidates by our teachers. We went into one of the just renovated classrooms and arrayed cardboard boxes where the desks would be, and tried to anticipate where the teacher might stand while working the keyboard, looking over the monitor at the students, his back to the projection on the whiteboard. We moved around the room among the mock student desks, arms outstretched towards an imaginary mouse that had to be at a certain height and positioned here, or maybe over here. We wanted our furniture to be designed so that a language teacher could get close to his students and be at various places around the room, yet be within reach of that mouse and keyboard, and maintain a line of sight on the students, and at the same time SEE either the monitor or the projection on the whiteboard.

 In the end, we found a local carpenter who was able to put wood where our arms and minds were carving the air. The result was a low desk for the teacher with two adjustable platforms. The platforms articulate in such a way that they fit flush over the desktop, or either or both swivel out and extend the desktop half as much again in either direction. The desk is hinged to a cabinet fixed at the wall in the corner of the room (fixed to prevent overextending the cabling). In the cabinet are the VCR, cassette deck, and amplifier. The teacher can stand near the cabinet and behind the desk with the keyboard raised to waist height on the nearest platform and look at the class over the monitor on the far platform lowered to desk height, while the class follows the teacher's mouse movements on the whiteboard. Or the teacher can reverse the position of the monitor and keyboard, placing the latter on the far platform, which will now be raised. By swiveling that platform out, the teacher can move about in the center of the room. Since the whole unit moves in an arc on its hinge, the teacher can position himself at other points in the room as well, even all the way to the side of the class so that he can stand at the back looking at the whiteboard with his students.

  

<2>CALL Lab Furniture

We were so pleased with the result that we had the same carpenter work on our lab furniture as well. Here again we had been unable to find exactly what we were looking for in one commercially-made product. For design considerations, we looked at websites of existing labs, and dug out chat archives on the topic from Neteach and TESLCA-L lists. We came up with the following considerations important for designing student CALL lab furniture that is optimized to promote collaboration and communication as well as individual learning:

 

 

It was easy to meet our first criterion, to design furniture of the correct size that would cluster. However, I had insisted on recessed or semi-recessed monitors after seeing a lab at the Monterey Institute of International Studies directed by Leo Van Lier, whose students worked at lab desks with fully recessed monitors, designed by the Nova company 7. We soon determined that what we really wanted from Nova was not the desk itself shipped at great expense from overseas but the basket that could be mounted in desks we could fabricate locally to our specifications. However, as far as we could see, the baskets had a limitation. We didn't know if the students would prefer recessed or semi-recessed monitors, and it appeared to us that the Nova equipment could let us have either/or but not both. Once again, our carpenter came to our aid, and designed a handsome lab desk with a mechanism on wooden rails that would allow the monitor to remain beneath a sliding surface of non-glare glass pulled flush with the desktop, or raised to a position poking just over the desktop.

7. Nova. The advantages of recessed monitor placement over standard monitor placement, http://www.novadesk.com/products/advantag.htm (May 10, 1999 accessed)

 

After a year of use, we now find that students use the labs almost always with the monitors in the semi-recessed position. This could be because we gave them ample desk space (our third consideration), so they don't need the space taken by the protruding monitor. Students with smaller desks might prefer to use the monitors fully recessed to increase their workspace. We gave our students ample desk space after reading commentary warning of too-small desktops in the threads running on the lists. Now, that our students have ample space for their books, we find that either they silently appreciate this feature or they complain that the desks are a bit too large and distance them from their fellow students. From this we deduce that there is no pleasing some people.

 

 

<2>Homepages

Another unique feature of work at the MLI is that each teacher has a homepage. More accurately, each teacher has write-access to a folder with his name on it on the server, and each teacher is expected to have a shortcut to his homepage in that folder. This is both necessary and desirable to language learning at the MLI. It is necessary for consistency and continuity. As students move from one level to the next, they know that they can find out about their new teacher and his class from his homepage, which they can locate in a predictable spot. Also, when teachers are team teaching or when an advisor must coordinate what he does in the CALL lab with what has just been happening in class, instantly updated homepages can serve as a convenient tool, especially when the information is available not only to the teachers concerned but to the students as well.

See Teacher1 homepage now

Teachers can find novel uses for a class homepage. In a class with a computer connected to a server that is also connected to the machine back in the office, a teacher can work on class materials in his office and present them to the class projected on the whiteboard moments later. A homepage enables the class to refer to these materials later if need be. These materials can facilitate the smooth running and organization of the class, or they can relate more directly to class activities. As they familiarize themselves with the technology, teachers alter their teaching in imaginative ways to accommodate and utilize the potential of such capabilities. A homepage is a logical means of organizing and presenting what emerges as teachers and students adapt to the new modalities of learning made possible by use of the technology.

Teachers who have never made a homepage before initially find this aspect of all that is expected of them at the MLI somewhat daunting; however, there is a lot of expertise to be shared among teachers. Regular seminars are given, including a popular "Homegrown CALL" series featuring teacher homepages, which helps each of our teachers succeed in creating a homepage particular to each of his classes. Even the most rudimentary homepages have an introduction of the teacher, a syllabus or description of the class, a class schedule or calendar showing assignments and testing dates, and at the very least a list of students, all set in appealing graphics. As the teacher and class develop their skills, the list of students might become linked to the students' own homepage creations, and the teacher is likely to extend his links to topics of interest which can be used to focus activities in the class, or to JavaScript exercises found in numerous sites on the web, or created by the teacher himself from templates such as Hot Potatoes. Some teachers are even adapting the templates into their own interactive frames creations, so the home pages, as of this writing, are getting increasingly sophisticated and utilitarian. 8

8. Examples of MLI Teacher homepages that have been put on the Internet can be seen at Stevens, Vance, "MLI Teacher Websites", http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Olympus/4631/mli_urls.htm, (May 9, 1999 update).

 

See Teacher2 homepage now

The possibilities for linkage are endless. Although at startup, HTML links ranging from solitary documents to whole websites had to be downloaded from the Internet and placed in the teachers' folders on the server, we now go directly to the Internet. As these sites often include audio and video clips, there is great scope for finding motivating materials. Even now that we have direct Internet connectivity, "web-whacking" as it is called (saving whole web sites to an offline location), still serves a purpose. Sometimes, students all trying to access the same web site to download the same multimedia files can cause a logjam at the server. Our teachers have therefore developed methods for grabbing slow-loading materials such as sound and video files and fiddling the HTML code on the original website to make them work instantaneously in lab settings. This is yet another indication the sophistication that has been reached in only the first year of operation of the MLI, largely teacher-driven in an atmosphere where computers and software tools tend toward the ideal of being seamlessly available.

The scope for linkage within the MLI is also compelling. When I started teaching in the mid-1970's, we used to mimeograph materials for our classes. There was usually a teacher or a committee who made a vain stab at collating some of these materials in a filing cabinet somewhere so that others could potentially make use of them. Think of all the mimeographed copies that have been abandoned in rusted filing cabinets throughout the careers of teaches just a generation ago! Now that teachers are working in machine-readable media linked to homepages on a server, the "filing cabinet" is finally accessible to all (and it never rusts). Teachers can readily link to each other's materials. Teachers having just taught a level can make their work available to others who follow. And teachers re-teaching the same level can preserve their work intact and improve on it the next time around, as well as make use of the work of others.

Here's how. Sophisticated approaches have been required to manage the plethora of materials being produced daily, or rather hourly, at our institution. Our teachers have devised a system which entails embedding a label in a document, such as in a 'remark' in HTML code, for example, or as invisible white text on white background in a document. The label is then searched using Altavista's Discovery 9 configured to look on the teacher's computer and on mapped network drives for instances of the label string, thus identifying work done by colleagues pertaining to the topic the teacher is searching for, wherever it happens to be on our server. When Discovery identifies target documents, they can be clicked on and launched just as you would a document targeted by a search engine on the web. (The labeling system has been created for convenience, but the search engine will respond to searches similar to those you would make on the web; for example, a search requesting Discovery to show me in all my personal documents or on the MLI server any html documents containing the string "indirect object" kicked out several exercises produced by teachers and stored in their folders in our teachers area on the MLI server.)

9. Altavista Discovery. 1998. Compaq Computer Corporation.

 

As teachers and students work in an environment where computers are available throughout the facility, it is hoped that eventually their use will become truly seamless, that teachers and students will simply reach for the nearest computer to solve whatever problems arise at appropriate junctures throughout a normal workday, and think it no more unusual than switching on a VCR to extract the data from a video cassette. Indeed, the facility strives to make computers so ubiquitous that their use is taken for granted, so that there is less focus on "the computer" and more on the language being taught. Given the degree of receptiveness shown by our teachers to the potential inherent in the environment we have created, we are finding that the impediments are more over technological constraints (such as slow network throughput, hard disks that fill up, memory limitations, and things that go wrong with the machines) and less over misconceptions over how the technology should be used, as might have been more the case in the very recent past. Indeed, our teachers are coping with their high-tech setting in more ways than could have been anticipated when we planned the facility, ways that continue to amaze and surprise us.

 

<1>Practical Ideas

As of this writing, with the MLI only a year old (since March, 1998), the ideal of true seamlessness has yet to be obtained, and "the computer" remains much the focus of what we do at the MLI. There has been a considerable outlay of funds for this facility, made largely on faith, and much is made of the fact that our concentration on technology is what makes us unique, particularly in the UAE. Response has been overwhelmingly positive so far, and suspicions of a possible Hawthorne effect being at work have been allayed somewhat as the teachers have become more sophisticated in the ways they find to utilize the resources available to them. Accordingly, it appears to be felt that the investment has been worthwhile. Both students and teachers appear to be coping well with the computers, blending them into their daily routine, and in some cases excelling in their use. One indication of our success is that Amideast has been asked to assist elsewhere in the Emirates in the creation of similar facilities at other institutions.

There is less discussion now among the staff at the MLI of formation of a "computer curriculum," where discrete computer skills would be taught in a graded manner at the various levels of the MLI in a track parallel to a separate "language curriculum." I have always argued that there is no "computer curriculum," only a language curriculum, and that computer skills should be introduced on an ad hoc basis. According to this reasoning, there is no reason that PowerPoint, for example, should not be introduced to a level 1 class, the idea being that you would teach them just enough about the tool for them to be able to accomplish the pedagogical objective. The problem with this approach, as pointed out by colleagues, is that students might progress through the program with a hodgepodge of skills, so that a teacher in level 4 who wants to his students to use PowerPoint may have some students who have had prior experience with the program and others who have never touched it. It can be argued that this would happen anyway, as students can test into level 4 at the MLI without having even heard of PowerPoint, and even students in level 1 at the MLI may have used PowerPoint previously at home or at work. All the pros and cons aside, the very existence of this debate at the MLI shows that the computer is not yet accepted as "seamlessly" as is use of a TV, VCR, car, phone, refrigerator ... (continue the list yourself, if you like).

If we assume (correctly or not) that everyone knows when and how to use a phone or VCR, this is probably because we have reached a threshold of familiarity with these devices. Although they are complicated, most people can intuit how to operate these modern conveniences well enough to meet their immediate needs.

If students are having problems using their VCR your approach is likely to be that you preset the buttons for them or just show them how to do it the first time they ask. If the signal doesn’t come in due to improper choice of video mode, or because a button on the mixer has to be depressed, the faculty are unlikely to start a debate on whether VCR skills should be introduced incrementally throughout the institution, let alone whether students should be using the thing in the first place. This is not to say that all practitioners at an institution are intuitively aware of appropriate use of video in a pedagogic setting. This is something that needs to be trained through courses and workshops. Indeed, the same could be said for use of an OHP (as illustrate by Mark Seng in demonstrations at numerous TESOL Conventions, e.g.1976). 10

10. Seng, Mark, 1976. Overhead highlights: 46 ways to use the overhead projector in the language classroom. A demonstration presented at the Tenth Annual TESOL Convention, New York City, March 1 - 7, 1976.

 

So by analogy, the answer to the question of how to overcome the hurdles that make people see the need for a separate computer curriculum is: (1) train the teachers in how to promote pedagogy through their use, and (2) create easy to follow step-by-step instructions to get your students started with the software they need to use to accomplish the pedagogical tasks, and then focus on those tasks. With students, the approach should not be, "Today we're going to learn to create a homepage," to which the student is likely to reply, "We've already done that, teacher." Rather the approach should be, "Today we're going to describe our lives and interests. Let's see what tools we have that will help us to communicate what we want to say about ourselves."

If in too many settings, teachers are still taking the former approach, this is because they are still focused on "the computer" as novelty, and not the computer as tool. When building a cabinet, it is nice to have a range of tools, and a craftsman appreciates having the right tool for a particular aspect of his or her work. With computers as well, there are peripheral devices and items of software appropriate to certain tasks, and the teacher as craftsman becomes familiar with these and learns how to use them. Skill comes with well-informed practice, and with making sure you have the best tools available for the jobs at hand. But whereas good software tools can be studied, appreciated, and even occasionally created, the job at hand -- language learning -- is the ultimate focus of the endeavor, not the tools.

 

<1>Conclusion

The Military Language Institute, or MLI, was developed in order to provide a motivating and technology-rich environment for UAE military personnel requiring intensive study in English in preparation for further study abroad or for improved performance in their regular jobs. Preparation for the facility began in 1997. With the help of a team of four consultants provided by Amideast, an American non-profit organization, the facility was ready for startup in March, 1998. This paper has discussed the techno-pedagogical aspects of that preparation and subsequent operation.

CALL development has proceeded on the principle that the more "seamless" the access to computers, the more apt they are to be used in innovative ways. Thus the facility was designed so as to place computers at the fingertips of teachers and (to a lesser extent) students where and whenever they might want to use them. Results have been gratifying. Teachers all have homepages which serve to help them organize the learning task for the benefit of their students, and many have linked to their own and each other's teacher-produced PowerPoint and JavaScript presentations and interactive exercises. Teachers frequently query each other through an email forum set up for that purpose and share their technology and web-based discoveries in regularly-held seminars. Each success breeds others with the result that, at the MLI, whether to use technology is not an issue; the question is clearly how.

Another axiom of development at the MLI is that technology is introduced as users are able to handle it. We started with text manipulation, where the interface of technology with pedagogy could be clearly understood. Many teachers moved swiftly into HTML use and development, with some forging into JavaScript. Sound was easily incorporated into this development, either by linking it to text manipulation exercises, or by embedding sound players in HTML documents and linking these to files digitized on the central server, or to other recorded sources.

The principle of authored material linked to sound files applies equally to video files, and this is projected to be our next phase of development. Several teachers have already bought their own video capture cards, and through this personal effort, video segments are starting to appear in materials prepared for classes and stored on our Intranet. Accordingly, more equipment for our expanded facility is on request; e.g. a video server, expanded fast network, digital video cameras, and video capture cards, along with faster machines for teacher's offices.

This has been the story of the development of the MLI and its experimentation with implementing "seamless" technology in the service of language-learning pedagogy. Although the relationship is a young one, it appears that everyone involved in the development realizes benefits. Students benefit by learning about computers and learning language while doing so. Teachers seem keen on learning about and utilizing the technology, and on pushing its development to whatever extent they are capable. And the administrators of our program must feel it is working, as they are financing not only the expansion of our program but the application of our model to language learning facilities elsewhere in the Emirates. We see no reason why the present level of commitment should not be sustained, not only of staff, but of our clients whose continued support allows us to put into practice our ideas of what an ideal language learning facility should entail in terms of curriculum enhanced through appropriate and intelligent use of technology.

 

<1>Notes and References

 1. Dye, Joan, and Nancy Frankfort. 1993. Spectrum: A communicative course in English. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents. (Books and Workbooks 1 - 6)

2. Holmes, Martin, Stewart Arneil, and Hilary Street. Hot Potatoes. University of Victoria Language Centre, Half-Baked Software, http://web.uvic.ca/langcen/halfbaked/ (April 21, 1999 update).

3. PowerPoint 97. 1987-1996. Redmond, WA: Microsoft.; http://www.microsoft.com/office/powerpoint/

4. Jones, Christopher, and Ian Trackman. 1998. Authoring Suite, Version 1.0.. Ealing, UK: Wida Software Ltd.

5. Bruzzone, Marco, and Graham Davies. 1997. Fun with Texts, Version 3.0 for Windows. Maidenhead, UK: Camsoft, http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/GrahamDavies1

6. Stevens, Vance and Steve Millmore. 1996. SuperCloze and Hangman in Context. Shareware, free to educators, ftp://ftp.latrobe.edu.au/pub/CELIA/english/dos/cloze/stevens.zip.

7. Nova. The advantages of recessed monitor placement over standard monitor placement, http://www.novadesk.com/products/advantag.htm (May 10, 1999 accessed)

8. Examples of MLI Teacher homepages that have been put on the Internet can be seen at Stevens, Vance, "MLI Teacher Websites", http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Olympus/4631/mli_urls.htm, (May 9, 1999 update).

9. Altavista Discovery. 1998. Compaq Computer Corporation.

10. Seng, Mark, 1976. Overhead highlights: 46 ways to use the overhead projector in the language classroom. A demonstration presented at the Tenth Annual TESOL Convention, New York City, March 1 - 7, 1976.

Hanson-Smith, Elizabeth. 1999. CALL environments: The quiet revolution. ESL Magazine, March/April 1999, pp. 8-12.

3-sentence bio statement (approximately 50 words)

Vance Stevens is CALL Coordinator for Amideast's UAE/MLI Project. He was recently Director of ESL Software Design at Courseware Publishing International, and spent 20 years working with computers while teaching ESL in the Middle East, Hawaii, and Texas. Vance has engaged in numerous CALL-related research projects and published widely in the field. (53 words)