At Athabasca University, Canada’s Open University situated in Alberta, approximately 1400 students register each year in second language courses (German, Spanish, English as a Second Language and French). In a distance education setting such as this a major challenge
for both students and instructors is to find a satisfactory way of dealing with the oral component of language courses. At present students practise language skills by listening to the cassettes or CDs contained in their course materials and complete oral exercises and exams by telephone with their assigned tutor. Some phonetics exercises are also available in the digital reading room of the university library. The aim of the WIMBA pilot project was to ascertain whether the use of on-line voice
communication might aid students to increase their oral and aural competence in second language learning.
We also hoped to establish an on-line community of
learners by providing students with the opportunity to communicate with each other and so compensate for the lack of interaction which is inevitable in a distance education setting.
Implementation of the project
For the pilot project coordinators sent an e-mail to students to request volunteer participants. The participants were recruited from students registered in French and German language courses. Students were provided with a microphone.
A WIMBA Resource Website was created to orient the participants and to give them access to the system. During the orientation phase of the project, course coordinators
introduced themselves to the students via the voice
discussion board and asked students to reply by introducing
themselves. Any technical malfunctions or questions from students regarding the operation of WIMBA were dealt with during this phase.
During the implementation phase coordinators put the course oral exercises on the WIMBA system and asked the students to practice and consult the coordinator for feedback until they felt ready to complete the actual oral exercise over the phone. Except for overseas students,
students were still expected to complete the oral
exercises over the phone in the usual manner. Overseas
students had the opportunity to use voice e-mail to
complete the oral exercises.
In addition to the course oral exercises one main discussion board was created for each language group to encourage
peer interaction. The French and German course
coordinators were active participants/moderators in these activities, although students were encouraged to use the voice board without instructor intervention.
At the end of the testing period a questionnaire was sent to students to elicit their opinion about the usefulness of the WIMBA system. The evaluation of the pilot project
asked students, course coordinators and the WIMBA
administrator to evaluate the project based on ease of use of WIMBA, increased oral communication, improved
oral communication, and the success of building an
The student responses to the questionnaire were
A high percentage of students (85%) agreed or strongly agreed that using the computer assisted language learning system helped improve their oral communication, 15% of the students were neutral that the medium helped their speaking skills. Likewise, the greater part of students (92%) agreed or strongly agreed that using the medium improved their listening skills and 8% of the students were neutral. All students reported listening to the voice boards more than once and 71.4% of students listened to the voice boards more than five times. However, even though a majority of participants agreed that WIMBA
helped improve oral and aural communication, 60%
of the student participants never used WIMBA to
communicate with their peers.
Implications of these findings
The pilot project seems to suggest that we might have to take into account the self-directed and “silent
learning community” of students who mentioned
benefitting from listening to their peers’ voices without necessarily responding. Even though students did not post to the boards containing oral exercises, the survey shows that they listened to these and used them to practise. This may imply that they listened to the introductions posted on the introductory voice board, and that they thus “got to know” their fellow classmates even though they did not actively engage in conversation with them.
At first glance the results from the pilot project seemed
discouraging since we had hoped for much greater
active involvement from the participants. However it may be that we need to rethink how researchers and the teaching community define and assess language learners’ participation in a distance education context. Generally our students are self-directed learners, though some need more encouragement to achieve learner autonomy. The challenge for language instructors and course developers
at Athabasca University is to help students improve their oral and aural competence whilst maintaining the
flexibility of the distance education model. Students are working independently and will therefore not all be at the same point in a course at the same time, but we feel that it is important to offer students a forum which allows them to practise their language skills and discuss the
course material. We would like to find a way of integrating
WIMBA into our language courses and increasing
students’ awareness of the value of participating in the voice-boards without making this a compulsory part of any course. To this end we hope to continue experimenting with the WIMBA system in order to find out which
discussion subjects are most likely to get a response from students and to find ways of improving performance on oral exercises and exams.
Eventually WIMBA may be used in other areas such as literature and culture courses where voice discussion would enhance the learning experience of students.
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The effort to establish ADHO began in Tuebingen, at the ALLC/ACH conference in 2002: a Steering Committee was appointed at the ALLC/ACH meeting in 2004, in Gothenburg, Sweden. At the 2005 meeting in Victoria, the executive committees of the ACH and ALLC approved the governance and conference protocols and nominated their first representatives to the ‘official’ ADHO Steering Committee and various ADHO standing committees. The 2006 conference was the first Digital Humanities conference.
Conference website: http://www.allc-ach2006.colloques.paris-sorbonne.fr/