Beyond Babel: Language Learning Online
Review
by
Graham Davies

Felix U. (2001) Beyond Babel: Language Learning Online, Melbourne: Language Australia, 378 pages, book plus CD-ROM, ISBN 1 876768 25 8. This book and CD-ROM package was originally published by Language Australia.

This review originally appeared in Vol. 1/2002 of TELL&CALL.

See also: Uschi Felix's edited publication (2003) Language learning online: towards best practice, Lisse: Swets & Zeitlinger.

Beyond Babel follows on from Uschi Felix’s 1998 publication Virtual Language Learning: Finding the Gems Amongst the Pebbles. The main aim of the earlier publication was to raise language teachers’ awareness about the treasure house of resources available to them on the WWW and to present them with ideas for integrating interesting websites into their teaching. Beyond Babel has the same broad aim, but especially

“… to discourage the reinvention of the wheel and to encourage global cooperation. In many cases desired materials may already exist, so there should be more to gain from developing complementary resources than duplicating what is already available.” (p. 7)

An important statement – which I hope all Web-based language learning enthusiasts will take note of – appears in the opening pages of the book:

“… it takes a very special person to learn and, especially, speak a language without face-to-face communication.” (p. 8)

The book includes two completely new sections:

  1. Section 1, eight case studies written by practising language teachers;
  2. Section 3, two detailed research studies that look at both teachers’ and students’ perceptions of Web-based language learning.

Section 2 (“Virtual Language Learning Revisited”) is essentially an expanded version of the 1998 publication, containing an update of the information therein, with newly categorised and annotated descriptions of around 600 websites. This section is also stored on the accompanying CD-ROM, making it easier to explore the websites as all the URLs are clickable.

The case studies described in Section 1 are useful illustrations of different approaches to online learning. Their budgets vary from zero to around €300K. Only one case study, InterDeutsch (http://www.interdeutsch.de), is strictly commercial and not based in a university – where costings are often ludicrously unrealistic and where a captive student audience, enjoying the advantages of very fast access to the Internet or a local intranet, does not represent the typical distance learner. The following comments by Claudia Popov, the author of the chapter on InterDeutsch, are particularly revealing:

  1. “Generally, the reactions to the content were positive. What students enjoyed most was the personal contact with the teacher; the majority of them were at an advanced level of German and needed, above all, a native speaker’s pedagogical input.” (p. 24)
  2. “Instead of relatively expensive individualised courses for intermediate and advanced learners, what seems to be worth developing is a set of simple, general and cheap units of about five exercises per subject that would supplement other teaching materials at every level. This may be the central lesson to be drawn from our experience, and may well serve as a guideline for future projects.” (p. 25)
  3. “The main problems for any further development are technical. […] At this point, nothing more can be done with so little funding.” (p. 25) [Reviewer’s note: “so little” = zero in the case of InterDeutsch.]

Although Uschi Felix is enthusiastic about the usefulness of the Web in language learning and teaching, she is also realistic and does not hesitate to mention its shortcomings compared to other delivery media, e.g. the problems associated with bandwidth and plug-ins, and the lack of universal standards for accessing the Web. CD-ROMs are still more reliable in delivering graphics, sound and video:

“While improvements have not been uniform, they have been achieved largely by way of better technologies that have led, among other things, to better presentation. This is notable in the case of graphics and sound, even if the Web still cannot match the reliable quality offered by CD-ROM. […] Technological advance, however, is not always an unmixed blessing; while we are still waiting for the long promised broadband services to become widely available, sites using the latest developments in graphics can take a wearying time to download over a 56K modem. There are other problems online, too – some plug-ins do not work in every context, and some sites are available only to Internet Explorer or Netscape, while others cater for Windows but not Macintosh. The Web’s ideal of universal standards is not always achieved.” (p. 189)

This is why the designer of online language learning materials is advised to adopt

“… hybrid approaches designed to avoid potential technical problems, such as downloading activities from the Web on to a self-contained intranet, integrating CD-ROMs and the Web, or running audio conferencing or videoconferencing with Web activities.” (p. 190)

My own experience is that the above advice has not been heeded by the new generation of language teachers, i.e. those who have entered the world of TELL and CALL in the Post-Web Period and who perceive the Web as the only ICT resource. A major problem associated with the Web is that it is perceived as a huge collection of freebies. This has led to a blinkered attitude towards ICT and an acceptance of poor-quality CALL materials that would have been unacceptable as long ago as the mid-1980s. Stephen Orr, former Director of Talkfast, cites this attitude to ICT as one of the reasons for the dramatic fall in CD-ROM sales in the late 1990s, and posted the following message at Talkfast’s website, following the liquidation of his company in December 2000:

More free resources are now available; and even if they are less effective than CD-ROMs, those with a limited budget will try them first; and those with limited access to hardware will have even less time to use CD-ROMs.”

There is a glut of drill-and-kill materials on the Web, produced by amateurs who have learned nothing about input analysis, branching and feedback, and whose screen design skills are completely lacking. There are many lessons to be learned from the past (Davies 1997).

But, as Uschi Felix observes, the trend is changing:

“A noticeable and interesting development is the spread of commercialisation even in sites that started off as free but have changed, if only by including banner advertising and a shop. The trend is not yet powerful enough to justify predictions that the Web will eventually split into quality sites for which users have to pay and free sites that are of poor quality, but there are signs of change. Given the expense involved in creating, running and updating any site, the chances must be that the best material will be developed by sites that can rely on costs being covered by income generated, even if, as Claudia Popov’s article in Part 1 shows, this is not a trouble-free option.” (pp. 189-190)

This reminds us of the dangers of excessive reliance on technology: “Technology is not the panacea” (Davies 1997: 29ff.). But there are still some educational administrators who would be happy to replace teachers with robots. I recently heard an educational administrator remark publicly – and in all seriousness – that all we had to do now is develop Web-based distance-learning materials that are good enough to enable us to dispense with the teacher. I responded by pointing out that acquiring proficiency in a language involves the acquisition of a variety of performance skills, which is rather like acquiring proficiency in playing a musical instrument - and it is obvious that such skills need to be assessed by a human being. I then asked the administrator why there is no Web-based course in playing the piano. He became a little flustered by my question and brushed it aside, so I followed it up with another question: “Then I presume you would be happy to introduce a Web-based driving test too?” I was pleased to see Uschi Felix echoing my views:

“… it can be difficult to determine the overall teaching approach of any site because what is freely accessible on the Web is often only part of a larger package that also invariably includes face-to-face teaching. It is likely that the most exciting learning takes place offline in the creative processes negotiated between teachers and learners, sometimes across continents, in which the Web features as a tool rather than instructor.” (pp. 190-191)

Section 3 (research studies) contains a large number of important conclusions, e.g.

  1. “[The] advantages [of the Web] outweighed disadvantages to a great extent, especially when technical problems are discounted.” (p. 351)
  2. “The participating students [...] all had access to a teacher, either face-to-face or by email.” (p. 351)
  3. “... the majority were using the Web, not on its own, but as an additional resource to face-to-face teaching. The strongest preference was to use the Web within face-to-face teaching, while the weakest was for distance education without a tutor.” (p. 351)
  4. “There, is […] no indication that the use of technology is any threat to the survival of teachers. In fact, the contrary is true.” (p. 351)
  5. “… the Web’s best potential lies in adding quality to teaching and learning environments rather than in replacing them.” (p. 351)
  6. “… learners of all ages feel comfortable in the environment and enjoy it.” (p. 352)
  7. “… beginners were the least comfortable, and distance students and younger students most comfortable.” (p. 352)
  8. “Our studies confirm strongly that the biggest hindrance to learning with technology is malfunctioning technology.” (p. 352)
  9. “…male and non-native students were most dependent on face-to-face contact.” (p. 352)
  10. “The factors that adult students valued most highly in terms of the usefulness of the material are clear objectives, ease of navigation, meaningful feedback, and clear and logical content.” (p. 355)
  11.   “It was not surprising that the lack of speaking practice was seen as a great disadvantage of using the Web for language learning activities.” (p. 357)

Although Uschi Felix’s book has been written in Australia its focus is global, apart from the case studies in Section 1, only two of which are not Australian, namely the InterDeutsch project, which is based in Germany, and an EFL project based in Israel. Nevertheless, there is a good deal to be learned in this section, as Australia is probably far ahead of Europe – out of necessity – in the development of online distance learning of languages.

I would thoroughly recommend this publication both to newcomers to the field and to old hands. It is largely jargon-free and addresses practising language teachers rather than technologists. The last word shall remain with Uschi Felix:

“Finally, however highly one rates the potential of the Web, it is difficult to imagine that any of this will ever replace best practice face-to-face teaching. What is becoming more and more obvious with emerging research, is that the new technologies offer excellent potential for adding value to classroom teaching in a large variety of ways.” (p. 358).

For further information see:
http://users.monash.edu.au/~ufelix/babel.shtml

Reference

Davies G. (1997) “Lessons from the past, lessons for the future: 20 years of CALL”. In Korsvold A-K. & Rüschoff B. (eds.) New Technologies in Language Learning and Teaching, Strasbourg: Council of Europe. Also on the Web at: http://www.camsoftpartners.co.uk/coegdd1.htm.


© Graham Davies 2002. This work is licensed under a
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