Volume III - 1995-1996

The Imagination and CD-ROM: Multimedia Language and Culture Instruction
by Thomas J. Garza

      Dr. Thomas J. Garza is assistant professor and language coordinator in the Department of Slavic Languages at the University of Texas at Austin. A presenter and teacher developer throughout the U.S.A., Russia and Eastern Europe, Dr. Garza has been developing interactive computer software for EFL and Russian since 1983.


      One need only observe our school or university students poised over a computer game to appreciate the effect of engaging the imagination in the very real world of sounds, colors, graphics and animation in cyberspace. As teachers, we rarely witness such enthusiasm working with a textbook or pre-recorded materials. Students already familiar with arcade and home versions of interactive video can move readily into the domain of computer-controlled CD-ROM. This multimedia environment is ideal for releasing the creative potential of the students' imagination from the confines of the static printed page. If we believe that the engagement of the imagination is critical in the process of gaining practical mastery of a foreign language, then the computer may indeed be the medium of preference in the coming years.

Monolith to Micro

      More than a decade has passed since computer-assisted instruction began making substantial inroads into the realm of foreign language teaching and learning. No longer merely the domain of a few university-centered computer monoliths such as the PLATO system of the University of Illinois or Van Campen's Stanford project in Russian, the advent of the microcomputer in the late 1970s and especially the introduction of Apple Computer's Macintosh line in the early 80s brought the potential of using computer technology in the classrooms of our public schools. By 1985, Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) had become part of the working lexicon of many language educators, though by this time few had actually ventured to use, much less to create, materials for the digital medium in their classes. With educators and programmers in radically different pedagogical camps, it seemed that genuinely practical applications of computer technology in language teaching would amount to little more than the electronic workbooks that proliferated in this period.

      In a striking attempt to make this pedagogical format more approachable to the average practitioner in schools and colleges, Ahmad, Corbett, Rogers and Sussex ( 1985) presented a no-nonsense jargon-free overview of computers in language teaching, providing a "much-needed guide for both practicing teachers and teachers in training who need to know what computers can and cannot do in language teaching." Unfortunately, in their attempt to demystify the machine and make the computer more approachable, the authors sometimes failed to give suitable prominence to the place of the student in a computer-assisted classroom choosing instead to focus on the teacher's role in classroom instruction. They contend, for example (p. 2):

      The computer is a tool, of itself incapable of action. It has no inborn wisdom, no mind of its own, no initiative, and no inherent ability to learn or teach. [...] The computer is a servant. Its role in education is that of a medium. Far from threatening the teacher' s position, it is totally dependent on the teacher in many ways: for example, it is unable to create educational materials without a human to direct it. All the linguistic material and instructions for its presentation must be specified by the teacher. It is the teacher, then who can make the computer assume various roles.

      Instead of moving instructors toward exploring and exploiting the computer's potential to engage and realize the student' s imagination during language learning, the authors chose to promote on a teacher-centered orientation of incorporating the technology, keeping the subject of instruction in the foreground of instruction, thus forsaking the many advantages that come from student-centered proficiency-oriented instruction (Omaggio Hadley 1993). Since then, rapid and substantial developments in both the available hardware and software capabilities of affordable microcomputer equipment have pushed the medium into a new dimension of possibilities for use in teaching and learning languages. Most significant in this respect is the remarkable gain in video technology and multimedia capabilities for teaching applications. Many foreign language educators have in last decade written on the theoretical and practical advantages of incorporating video materials into the teaching of languages (Lavery 1983, Lonergan 1984, Allan 1985, Garza 1986, Altman 1989). Computer technology has made the integration of video -- as well as audio, still photography, and scanned documents -- a practical reality for the language teacher. By utilizing the technological potential of 1995 personal computers and employing student-centered tasking techniques, language and culture instruction can be much more relevant to the student and bring the learner closer to understanding and using the language in contexts that are more situationally authentic.

Virtual Reality or Just Plain Reality?

      Thanks in large part to subsidies from Apple Computers through Project QUEST and course development grants from the College of Liberal Arts, the University of Texas at Austin is allowing faculty members to design and implement computer-based courseware in existing course offerings. The basic equipment used in this effort is the Power Macintosh with System 7.5. By utilizing existing authoring and creative software such as Aldus Premiere, Photoshop, and SuperCard, the computer becomes a powerful multimedia platform, allowing the materials developer to incorporate a variety of text, audio, photographs and video materials in a highly interactive instructional setting. Educators from a variety of academic disciplines, including the language arts, are involved in the creation of these innovative course materials in an attempt to bring individualized computer use to the front of innovative and effective instruction.

      In addition, the technology of storing a wide variety of such language texts together with exercise material for exploiting the content of such authentic documents is readily available now to the teacher cum material designer in the form of compact discs, or CD-ROMs, which provide a storage/retrieval medium capable of holding literally thousands of bits and pieces of authentic samples of the target language and culture. The multimedia platform of the PowerMac permits the language teacher to create a variety of environments that can closely simulate authentic in situ language scenarios, and then store the sequences on CD-ROMs for use by individual students. This format gives the student a great deal of flexibility in manipulating the instructional material as he or she deems necessary in the course of language learning and acquisition. While the virtual reality worlds of being able physically to "enter" a street scene in Madrid or Moscow by putting on a VR helmet and strapping on a glove are still largely in the developmental phases, the multi-layered learning environments of CD-ROM technology is already quite a reality and presents the language teacher with tremendous possibilities in structuring the curriculum around individual learners. For many students of foreign languages, the possibility of getting to visit the country in which the language is spoken and interact firsthand with native speakers is often less than remote, physically or financially. Similarly, for learners of ESL in the US it is not always possible to move the classroom into the wide variety of settings and situations that we would like our students to experience as they gain functional proficiency in the language. In all of these situations, computer technology offers a reasonable substitute for or prelude to the in-country experience by tapping directly into the learner's imagination when he or she alone can manipulate the content, presentation and delivery of the material.

Authentic Sounds, Texts and Images

      Earlier individualized programs for languages--even those which were billed as highly interactive on computer-controlled videodisc, such as "Montevidisco" for Spanish [revised 1992], "Klavier im Haus" for German [revised 1993], and "Dans la peau des Francais" for French [1994] were all based on pre-produced and scripted video materials, presenting the student with "classroom language" in a classroom setting. Thanks to recent innovations in Power Mac technology, authentic video, audio and print materials in the target language and from the target country can now easily be incorporated into any module of instruction and exploited for the development of linguistic, communicative, and cultural skills. Bits of the native speakers world, realia such as tickets, menus, schedules, labels, etc., can easily be scanned and digitally stored as retrievable documents for incorporation into the larger context of a discreet language lesson or an entire course. Short, salient clips of films, commercials, documentaries and television programming can likewise be stored as QuickTime™ movies which can now become basic "texts" in language learning. Thus, the cyberspace world which the student can now explore through the computer is full of the sounds and images of the real world experience.

Russian on CD-ROM

      A concrete example of implementing this CD-ROM technology in an on-going language class is taken from the intermediate and advanced Russian courses at the University. While the basic courses are standard four-skills, textbook-driven courses meeting three hours a week, students wishing to gain individualized practice in understanding and using the language situationally would select a CD-ROM module from those based on the curriculum of the Russian courses. A module might, for example, be based on a three-minute video clip taken from Russian television commemorating the birthday of Vladimir Vysotsky, the Russian bard known to virtually any living Russian citizen as singer, poet, actor, and philosopher on the Russian soul. In the video clip, the learner sees bits of Vysotsky's career, hears short interviews with family members and friends, and "visits" the famous gravesite in Moscow--all of this in the fully authentic context of a news feature in the very format and mode of presentation that a native Muscovite would have seen on the night its broadcast.

      The learner using this clip as a starting point for the individualized instruction module would be guided in viewing and reviewing the clip while performing a variety of primarily receptive tasks, focusing on the content and the performative aspects (pronunciation, intonation, diction, body language, etc.)and building a repertoire of language use in context. In this guided viewing phase of instruction, the non-linear nature of digitized video is exploited fully; the learner can move quickly and non-sequentially through various parts of the segment, focusing on individual isolated moments in the clip, either by choice when wishing to review or skim for particular information, or by design to address essential materials that is prerequisite for progressing to the next level of instruction. As with any use of video-based technology, the material may be sped up or slowed down, or frozen on a single salient moment, as needed.

Branching Options for Personalized Study

      The topic of the Vysotsky clip itself would be geared to the regular classroom presentation of a particular textbook theme--in the case of intermediate Russian, the corresponding topic and functions would be "Expressing Opinions about Music, Theater and Film." Students using the module, however, would be able to branch to any of several related topics of more specialized interest. Thus, for the Vysotsky clip and related instruction, a student of theater and drama could choose to work with print texts based on the Taganka Theater where Vysotsky often performed. Still within this branch, the student could choose to work through and explore a recording of Vysotsky's famous reading of Hamlet recorded in 1974, or watch a videotaped recording of a stage performance of "A Lone Soldier" from 1979, or sift through a stack of stills from various play performances with a native Russian voice-over narrating each photograph. All of these authentic materials are constantly resident in the CD, able to be called up as necessary either by the student or instructor in programming a particular sequence.

      In the same way, a student of history or government might choose to focus on a close reading of materials gathered from Brezhnev-era documents and legal codes which hindered Vysotsky from performing certain material. The function of expressing opinions remains unchanged for this related, but very different subject matter. Or, perhaps, the student of sociology might wish to listen to and examine the lyrics of the protest and prison songs of Vysotsky which are still performed in Russia to this day at post-glasnost era rallies for increased social reforms. Such a branching format encourages learner-centered exploration of not only the language material, but of the topic as it is relevant to the interests and specializations of the individual student. In addition to the random branching capabilities of the compact disc format, the computer offers many other instructional enhancements that are available to the learner on demand. For example, the student of Russian is able to choose to have English subtitles or Russian captions appear on the screen to facilitate comprehension of the material (for a student of ESL, these subtitles would appear in the student' s native language). The option of adding an on-screen print modality to the presentation of the materials allows the program to appeal a variety of learning types and strategies which students use in a language learning situation.

      For each CD-ROM module developed specifically for language and culture instruction, the student begins by first giving his/her level of instruction, beginning intermediate or advanced. By indicating the level of language instruction, the relevant set of exploitation exercises appropriate to the individual' s level of proficiency are presented to the learner. In this way, by adjusting the level of the task given to the student, the same authentic texts may be used for different stages of training in the language, each time presenting the student new and increasingly challenging tasks, functions and performance options, thus closely simulating the process of making proficiency gains in an in-country setting.

      The learner is then given preview, task-viewing, and post-viewing exercises to guide him/her through the video segment, as well as through any ancillary texts that occur during the branching sequence--all of which is the choice of the student. These materials would be available to the student both on-screen during presentation and practice, and in print form for later reference. The purpose of these exercises is two-fold: (l) to help the student work through the various layers of difficulty (such as vocabulary, cultural differences, historical references, etc.) lying between him or her and full comprehension of the segment, and (2) to bring the student to fully autonomous interaction with a text when confronted with it in a non-instructional setting. Such independence is attained by tutoring the student in employing strategies for decoding and demystifying authentic texts. The resulting module of texts and exercises is then recorded and stored in CD format to begin to compile a library of such materials. Many universities and educational facilities already possesses the capability of pressing CDs; as this process becomes more widespread in more applications, recording and pressing compact discs will become even more efficient and inexpensive. Currently, the cost of most CD-ROM products is between twenty and forty dollars, depending on the number of discs produced. Once a library of CD course modules has been compiled, students are able to use them in any computer facilities as part of the course requirements for all foreign language and ESL courses.

Objectives of CD-ROM Course Modules:

      As part of a regular classroom curriculum for teaching language and culture, this type of courseware seeks to fulfill several objectives as material for independent, integrated study:

o To serve as a template for modules which could be used in other foreign language departments in colleges, schools, and institutions wanting to integrate video and other authentic media into interdisciplinary instruction across the curriculum.

o To help the student develop individualized learning strategies to approach and handle a variety of authentic (i.e., created by native speakers for native speakers) materials in the foreign language, including printed texts, video, audio, etc., to foster autonomous interaction in the language after the course is completed.

o To create, using multimedia technology, a more realistic interactive learning environment in foreign language or ESL courses for the student to experience, practice and understand the foreign language and culture using all authentic materials from the target language/culture, especially when the student cannot or may not travel to the country in which the language is spoken.

o To address a variety of interests from various diverse academic disciplines to make the subject matter related to the language more immediately relevant and applicable to the language student.


      Foreign language or EFL learners using the modules in CD-ROM-supplemented courses would experience the benefits of increased proficiency in the target language and culture due to two factors: first, the increased exposure to authentic language in context; and second, the ancillary benefits of enhancing their own learning strategies by allow them to control instruction to a much greater degree than in a traditional teacher-centered classroom. Significantly, the template created in developing the Russian-specific modules at the University of Texas can be adapted and used in other schools or university foreign language departments wishing to incorporate video-based instructional materials, such as the widely-used "Destinos" video series for Spanish or "Deutsche Welle" television broadcasts in German. As a template, this course development project has significant benefits for other educational institutions, especially for students of two-year colleges and secondary schools, for whom travel to the target country during a regular study program may be unlikely. For in-service teacher development --especially in Russian--the program would be invaluable for increasing the linguistic and cultural competence of the instructors themselves. For graduate students or any students preparing for travel and study in Russia, the project materials would be ideal as pre-departure refresher training for universal comprehension and cultural "updating."


Ahmad, K., G. Corbett, M. Rogers, and R. Sussex. 1985. Computers, Language Learning and Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Allan, M. 1985. Teaching English with Video. Essex: Longman Group, Ltd.

Altman, R. 1989. The Video Connection: Integrating Video Into Language Teaching. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Garza, T. 1986. "Foreign Language Teaching and Video: Providing a Context for Communicative Competence." Papers in Teaching, Curriculum and Learning Environments, Harvard University School of Education.

Lavery, M., J. Revell, T. O'Brien, and B. Tomalin, 1983. Active Viewing Plus. Canterbury: Pilgrim Language Courses.

Lonergan, J. 1984. Video in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Omaggio Hadley, A. 1993. Teaching Language in Context, second edition. Boston: Heinle and Heinle Publishers.

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