Language Interactive
Language Learning and the Web

Preliminary thoughts about using the Web in language learning and an overview of Web interactivity.
Please send additions, corrections & suggestions.

Contents --> Using the Web to help students learn - Kinds of Web Interactivity - Why do it? - Trailmarkers

Pages --> Intro / Linked Programs / JavaScript / CGI / Java / Scripts / Li


Many teachers are beginning to find that the Web can be a wonderful resource for language instruction. There are many sites which contain authentic materials in the target language such as newspaper articles, train schedules, movie reviews, tourist information or even cafeteria menus. Of course the multimedia capabilities of the Web also allow access to other kinds of media such as city maps, subway routes, art collections, audio news broadcasts or even short movie clips. Web enthusiasts have researched, collected and, in a few cases, cataloged such sites (see the Trailmarkers). Particularly valuable are the sites which have put together suggestions for incorporating Web activities into classes, including in some cases detailed lesson plans. Publishers have established Web sites with links and Web-based exercises geared to specific text books.

One of the best ways to get started is to browse through some of the Web pages other language teachers have created. There are a great variety of approaches to using the Web and it's very helpful to sample some different sites to get a sense of what's possible. In addition to collections of links, teachers have posted syllabi, course assignments and tutorials. Some have also put their own authentic materials into Web-accessible formats, by scanning in text or graphics or digitizing sound or video. Copyright considerations will of course play a role in which materials can be published on the Web. You can't, for example, go and scan in your textbook and put it on the Web (nor would you probably want to). Digitizing audio tapes, on the other hand, might make sense, assuming publisher permission. One of the wonderful things about the Web is the ease with which it is possible to combine locally produced materials with those residing on sites thousands of miles away. When students click on a link, the process and results are the same, no matter where the information is stored.

What makes sense to digitize are probably materials to which it's not as easy for students to have ready access, such as photos you took when abroad. In fact, in planning your next trip abroad, you might even start thinking in terms of collecting materials to digitize. If you use your own photos, sound recordings or even home videos, you are in the fortunate position of not having to worry about copyright clearance. Keep in mind as you're thinking about what to make available to your students electronically that if you have access to a web server (or operate your own) you can restrict access to some materials or limit who can view your Web pages. This allows you to take advantage of the "fair use" clause of US Copyright law to provide limited, instructional availability of copyrighted materials. See the Trailmarkers for additional copyright information.

Once you have begun to collect sites, create your own home page and put course materials on-line, you're ready for the next step, putting your Web engine into warp drive and making your pages interactive. There are many different kinds of interactivity possible on the Web today, with more on their way all the time, but what I have in mind are pages which allow (or require) user input (typing, clicking) with appropriate responses to that input or pages which enable users to work collaboratively, particularly in written form.

I think we all recognize that our discipline requires a more active kind of learning than most. You can't learn to use a language by listening to lectures or by just studying the theory (or the grammar). As in learning to play the piano, practice is essential. Therefore, it stands to reason if we are going to enlist the Web as our teacher's aid, we need to empower that aid to interact with the students, not just to lecture them. To the extent that it's possible, we want students to work with authentic language materials, and to verify their comprehension through some kind of testing and feedback. We want to have students use the language as much as possible, including outside of class, through writing and speaking. We want students to interact with one another, to use the language for real communication (not just in staged classroom scenarios), to learn from one another. All this is doable on the Web, to one degree or another. Let's keep in mind, however, that we are talking about an electronic means to enhance classroom instruction, to provide students with opportunities to use the language outside of class. Computers and the Web can never provide as effective or efficient a means of learning a language as one-on-one human interaction. With all the hype about technological change, don't fear for our profession or for your job--computers can never replace human beings in a discipline devoted to human communication in all it's cultural and linguistic diversity and idiosyncrasy.

But let's not fool ourselves--technology is causing and accelerating major social and educational change. Sooner or later, all teachers will be expected to take advantage of some aspects of technology in their teaching. Those who don't get ahead of the curve and find ways to get the technology to do what makes sense in their discipline will down the road find themselves using pre-formatted, pre-digested, one-size-fits-all models which make little sense for language learning. Once you begin creating dynamic Web pages, you'll find you're working in a richly enabling environment, one which allows you not just to follow in the path others have taken, but to invent new paradigms. Fundamentally, we want to use technology to supplement what we do in the classroom and to help in doing what we can't do very well now (share multimedia, collaborate long distance, make authentic materials comprehensible). But we also want to use the technology to help us think "out of the box", to experiment with approaches we'd never thought of before.

On the most basic level, I am talking about beginning with what are essentially electronic versions of what language teachers are already using. I don't know of any language teacher who doesn't supplement textbooks with handouts containing verb charts, additional exercises, cartoons, readings or photocopied media. The Web offers the possibility of making these materials available electronically and putting them into an interactive environment. There are several advantages to doing this on the Web:

  1. Materials can be updated easily
  2. Students have 24-hour, remote, platform-independent access
  3. The pages can support customized help, review or extra-credit projects to accommodate students at different levels of preparation and ability, including students with special needs.

There are of course many other ways to create computer-based interactive learning. both on the Internet or with stand-alone applications such as HyperCard, Toolbook or Authorware. The Web is not the be-all, end-all of computer-aided instruction. Local applications can often provide more flexibility, speed and reliability than interactive Web pages and may be better choices in situations in which remote access, platform independence and centralized file management are not important. You can in fact, as discussed in the next section, dynamically link virtually any programs you are using (HyperCard stacks, for example) to Web pages. If you have existing language-learning software that works, by all means keep using it. Given the dizzying speed of developments related to the Internet and the publicity that accompanies them, it seems that our existing programs must be dinosaurs and should be allowed to fall into quiet oblivion. Don't do it! If it works keep it, and if possible, link it to your Web pages. Don't fall into the trap of feeling you have to keep up with new technologies - it's impossible. Because the new DVD (digital video disc) offers oodles of storage capacity, are we going to trash our laserdiscs, CD's and videotapes? I still relish many an out-dated LP created on musty old vinyl. Keep in mind that much of the hype goes to experimental, untested and untried technologies--new and sexy devices or applications that may never gain wide acceptance and use.

Whatever development tools you decide to use, be prepared to spend some time learning the basics before you're ready to create your own interactive learning materials. Computer programs and operating systems are getting easier to use all the time, but it still takes work to develop something of your own. But if you do it yourself, it's tailored to what you want and you can change it any time and anyway you like. A canned program created for you by technical folks may not be easily updated or customized if you have little idea how it was put together. Of course, the most important reason for doing to yourself is that you have the teaching experience and knowledge that is indispensable in creating programs for language learning. It's also not possible, or even desirable, to separate instructional "content" from its electronic representation; how Web pages are designed is not just a technical issue but a pedagogical one as well. One important factor in choosing your electronic tools and toys is the degree of local support you have. It can be invaluable to have a guru nearby who can help you over the first inevitable stumbling blocks. As with much else, getting started is the most difficult part of the process.

Not long ago, the answer to that question would have been short and easy: not much. Today the situation is much different. There are many options and many varieties of interaction. It used to be that we asked: what can the available technology allow me to do that I can't do now very well without technology. We had to work within the limits of what the technology could offer. Now we can ask: which technology is best suited to do what I need. The limiting factor is no longer the technology it's our ability to re-think our teaching to take maximum advantage of the tools that are there. This is an exciting and frightening prospect -- it empowers us as teachers but it necessitates an understanding of the capabilities, drawbacks and benefits of different technology options. Above all, it calls for creative thinking about pedagogical aims and methods.

Web interactivity can range from the simple (animated gifs, scrolling messages) to the complex (Java-based intelligent tutoring). Using a powerful programming language like Java permits creation of anything doable with traditional, stand-alone authoring systems, plus additional network-based applications. But that power comes with a price, a very steep learning curve. Fortunately, there are less demanding options. The subsequent four parts of this trailguide are intended to introduce what I see as the most useful approaches from the perspective of language learning. They are arranged roughly in increasing order of difficulty (and interactivity), ranging from the very basic linking of external programs to a birds-eye-view of Java. Here's a quick preview of each:

1) Linked Programs and Plug-ins

It is possible to link external programs to your Web pages, allowing your course page to serve as a central starting point for all the programs a student will use. Web browsers allow for incorporation of some external programs directly into the Web page as "plug-ins". Assuming you have existing programs you want to link, the effort involved in linking them to Web pages is minimal.

2) JavaScript: Local (browser-based) Interactivity

Netscape and Microsoft browsers support a means of creating interactive Web pages locally, without accessing a server. Using JavaScript allows for a great deal of interactivity which has the advantage of being network-independent. JavaScript code is embedded alongside traditional HTML, but is a good bit more complex.

3) CGI: Remote (server-based) Interactivity

CGI (Common Gateway Interface) is the traditional means of creating interactive Web pages. The user fills in a form which is then processed by the server with the results sent back to the user. Scripts reside and run on the Web server and can be written in a variety of languages (most commonly Perl). Use of CGI requires access to a Web server and learning the basics of a scripting language like AppleScript or Perl (moderate difficulty) or a programming language like C (not for the faint of heart).

4) Java: Local/remote programming

Java offers the greatest degree of interactivity but also the most complexity in authoring. It is a programming language derived from C. As opposed to JavaScript which is included as text in a Web page, Java must be "compiled" (translated into computer code) and is sent to the user as a seperate application, although it is (should be) seemlessly integrated into the Web page. Java may be the future of the Web, but requires a substantial committment of time and energy.


Let's be honest - computer scripting or programming is not for everyone, just as writing textbooks or essays of literary criticism is not everyone's cup of tea. It's not like falling off a log, it takes time and committment to do, especially at first. But who among us has not griped about the textbook we're using. The exercises are dumb and they are not proficiency-oriented or the readings are too hard or the vocabulary is too strange or the pictures are too old. We're pretty picky about what we use to teach our students.

How many language teachers rely exclusively on a textbook to supply exercises and other materials to their students? Few good ones, I would venture to say. As a group, language teachers tend to be a very dedicated and resourceful bunch. How many teachers on trips abroad have not made a point of scooping up as many extra timetables or movie schedules as they can so they can use them in class? We all use every which way we can find to get our students to learn. The Web is a powerful medium for doing just that--particularly if you can build in interactivity.

What does it take to do a handout? You need to think up what you're going to do, write it down, enter it into a word processor, print it up, duplicate it and distribute it. A lot of work (and dead trees). Well, a lot of those handouts can be recycled in electronic form and can easily be updated. It's work, too, but we're used to that, right? The first few times you work in a new medium are of course going to be time-consuming; what isn't when you're just getting started? But once you're familiar with how it works, it should not take any more time than traditional handouts. When you're transforming your handouts, you might think about the new medium you're using and the added power it provides--you might find you can do some new and surprising things. We shouldn't let technology drive pedagogy, but we also should be alert to new possibilities that the digital world opens up.

"There's still no way I can find the time to learn to use this stuff!" It's true that (as in language learning) trial and error is the best way to learn to create interactive Web pages. That takes time and energy and patience. But don't forget about a valuable built-in resource that all teachers have available at their fingertips--your students. Students love this stuff and catch on fast (they at least aren't afraid to experiment). Don't hesitate to ask students to help you out--they like to be on the other side of the desk for a change.

To top of page TRAILMARKERS

Language Site Collections Web Interactivity for Language Teachers: Info/Tutorials Language/Character Set issues

Copyright and the Web

Li -->Index / Intro / Program Linking / JavaScript / CGI / Java / Scripts
VCU - Foreign Language Department - International Trail Guide

© 1998 Robert Godwin-Jones