Digital Humanities Abstracts

“The virtual classroom: Videoconferencing for foreign language learners”
Werner Wegstein Universität Würzburg Derek Lewis University of Exeter

Institutional environment

In the mid-1980s the University of Exeter (Project Pallas) and the University of Würzburg ('Linguistic Information and Text Processing') initiated courses in Humanities Computing for undergraduate and postgraduate students. Student and staff exchange programmes within the Erasmus/Socrates framework of the European Union followed soon afterwards. By 1995 Exeter had launched its ReLaTe project, to investigate the use of multimedia internet conferencing for 'Remote Language Teaching (Buckett and Stringer 1997) together with University College, London. Following on from this co-operation, trials with the new medium were extended to investigate the feasibility of delivering inter-university academic courses across national borders. A report on this was published by the Würzburg Computing Centre in 1999 (Fahrner and Plehn 1999) and the results demonstrated at the CALL - Challenge of Change conference at Exeter (2001). Here the authors presented a scenario for providing and managing conversation classes designed to allow students to practise foreign language skills with native speakers across Europe using freely available videoconferencing tools (Buckett et al. 2001). The study was based on work with first year students of German at Exeter and postgraduate students of Humanities computing at Würzburg learning English for special purposes. Building on this experience we now outline the next stage in creating virtual classrooms based on videoconferencing software: There are two aims. One is to extend the conversation class setting to one in which students of English/German are studying the language of IT and technical communication; this will enable an investigation of the problems associated with the restrictions imposed by the subject area in the context of 'live' videoconferencing. The second aim is to record authentic class communication in order to build up an archive illustrating the variety of interactions that may be exploited to teach English/German for special purposes in the field of IT.

Impact of the new media: hardware, netware and software

Using a PC to see and talk to someone else working at a remote location requires specific hardware (camera, graphics and audio cards, microphone and headset) as well as software and netware tools to create and manage the connection. Linking more than one PC at each location normally generates a considerable load on the network. Using software for the Mbone configured to handle multicast traffic, however, all participants can communicate with each other efficiently and on equal terms (for details see Kumar 1996). Online conversation with native language speakers creates a completely different environment for language learning, compared with the standard 'schoolroom' setting of conversation classes. Normally foreign language students, who outside class would communicate in their native language, switch to a foreign language in order to discuss problems with their teachers, language assistant or tutor. Using internet mediated communication these students are able to practise naturally with native speakers, with all the advantages which that entails: they learn to cope with regional differences in speech, develop authentic communication strategies in the foreign language, and become sensitive to the effect of subtle changes in voice pitch, the function of pauses and to the vital area of non-verbal communication. The very act of talking to native speakers (instead of each other) is likely to stimulate the use of a quite different set of words and syntactic structures. In a normal face-to-face conversation class all the participants are in one room, know each other and can draw on the physical/spatial dimensions of speech events: sensing the direction of the sound, they can detect who is speaking, can face him/her and use cues (such as the length of a pause) to judge when he/she has finished in order to take a turn. Communicating via the virtual internet, however, alters the spatial and perceptual context appreciably: the participants are not in the same room; they do not know all the other participants; they can hear in their headphone that some one is speaking, although there is no direction of sound that could help them to identify the speaker; and the audio signal in their headphones lags perceptibly behind the video signal on screen, so that they may misunderstand a slight pause as a signal to take over, prompting them to interrupt the speaker. This lack of conversational coordination leads to a kind of stop-and-go interaction in which more than one speaker starts to take a turn, realizes that others have done the same, stops, and pauses for quite a long time to establish who will finally dare to continue. There is also a direct spatial relationship between the physical speech and the visual information displayed on the computer screen. The size of the person taking part in a face-to-face conversation class is greatly reduced in the virtual, on-screen internet environment: here the size varies from thumbnail (in the list of displayed participants) up to a maximum of a CIF image. For the internet participants, who are not in the same room and do not necessarily know each other, it is therefore indispensable to customize the screen layout by captioning each window with the name of the speaker, so that all the members of the conference know who he/she is. The above factors have implications for positioning the video camera: this should be as close to the screen the student is looking at as possible, so that the listeners feel addressed by what the speaker is saying and the speaker gets the impression that the others are attending to what he is explaining (the so-called Casablanca Effect or 'Here's-looking-at-you'-principle). Ideally the camera image needs to be large enough for the viewers to be able to see the speakers' facial expressions (and possibly even to watch lip movements), whilst at the same time having a sufficiently large field of vision that they can also see gestures and general body language. The size of the conversation windows and the screen hardware used (17 inches minimum) define the maximum number of participants that can be handled effectively. We tested settings between three and eight participants: with eight participants the conversation was most lively, but not all participants took an active part in it; with three or four participants all were really active. We measured the degree of activity by comparing the number of sound packages sent by each participant. We illustrate these problems and related questions by video clips from our initial corpus, which are discussed below.
  • (1) An impact factor in the new medium is the relationship between the audio and the visual dimension for the participants. Issues here include: the size of the visual image of a speaker on the screen; the role of direct eye contact; the ability to see more than the face (or mouth) and the question how far the medium does intrude into the interaction or otherwise inhibit it. Is there a relationship between the language level (or even the language itself) and the influence of the medium?
  • (2) Our experience so far suggests that the management of 'turns' or hand-overs in the discourse is of particular interest. For instance, how does a participant gain the attention of the group? How does one interject? How is the participation of listeners registered if their visual presence is reduced? Does a group need a designated manager of the discourse or is interaction completely open? Should the group be aware of 'rules' or procedures for managing interaction? What form should these take?
  • (3) We show representative scenes that we intend to include in our database of videoclips illustrating typical communicative interactions. These clips will be transcribed using standard transcription systems for discourse analysis (Edwards and Lampert 1993, Selting et al. 1998). The materials will be used to introduce and prepare future students for technical communication in a foreign language. In addition we plan to use them for further research on how to enhance learning opportunities and develop the communicative skills of students (studying, for instance, technical translation) in an environment which offers multimedia support.
We are aware that much research and activity are being undertaken in this field and we will compare our experiences with the results of broader and more general approaches to using the internet for teaching. Such approaches may not necessarily include the use of live videocommunication in class (cf. Warschauer 1999 and Warschauer, Shetzer and Meloni 2000). In conclusion, our experience suggests that it is possible to enhance interactive communication skills in the virtual internet medium but that more research is needed to identify the optimum parameters for co-ordinating the needs of learners in groups with the medium itself. In this paper we focus on German-English interactions for the purposes of general communication, with emphasis on initiating conversation, greetings, turn-taking, eliciting information, and overcoming communication obstacles. The corpus material will provide a searchable textbase that can be compared with instances of classroom interaction and exploited for pedagogical purposes.


J. Buckett N. Datta D. Lewis G. Stringer H. Plehn P. Ruff P. Tscherner W. Wegstein. “Conversation classes across Europe: A challenge for videoconferencing.” C.A.L.L. The Challenge of Change. Research and Practice. Exeter: Elm Bank Publications, 2001. 169-176.
J. Buckett G. B. Stringer. “ReLaTe: Progress, Problems and Potential.” Proceedings of CALL'97, Exeter, September 1997. : , 1997.
H. Fahrner H. Plehn. “Was ist Mbone?.” Benutzermitteilungen Rechenzentrum Universität Würzburg, Juni 1999. : , 1999. 24-27.
V. Kumar. Mbone. Interactive Multimedia on the Internet. Indianapolis: New Rider, 1996.
J. Schwitalla. Gesprochenes Deutsch. Eine Einführung.. Grundlagen der Germanistik 35. Berlin: Erich Schmitt, 1997.
J. A. Edwards M. D. Lampert. Talking Data. Transcription and coding in discourse research. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1993.
M. Selting P. Auer B. Barden J. Bergmann E. Couper-Kuhlen S. Günthner C. Meier U. Quasthoff P. Schlobinski S. Uhmann. “Gesprächsanalytisches Transkriptionssystem (GAT).” Linguistische Berichte. 1998. : 91-122.
M. Warschauer. Electronic literacies: Language, culture, and power in online education. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999.
M. Warschauer H. Shetzer C. Meloni. Internet for English Language Teaching. Alexandria, Virgina: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), Inc., 2000.