As a result of the research and practical considerations discussed in other parts of this report, it was decided to construct a new learning tool which could be used by teachers to develop and deliver listening comprehension materials.
Though materials are part of this project they should be seen principally as having exemplary value only. The most positive outcome of this project is probably a set of intellectual frameworks and tools which teachers can then re-use, in independent fashion, to create their own materials, so that they can be in charge of what is going on rather than having someone elses's work and ideas imposed on them.
Although originally designed for the development of listening comprehension, SBPLAY's design gave rise to an unforeseen and important spin-off. As well as providing listening comprehension support, SBPLAY can also function, at no extra cost, as an enhanced audio-active-comparative language laboratory. In fact, its use as a language laboratory could lead to significant cost savings or to the provision, of a facility which would otherwise not have been available because of its unreasonable cost.
The characteristics of SBPLAY are summarised below. The system should
A central feature should be the possibility for students to assess their listening performances, to make decisions about their areas of need and to obtain support and help through the built-in features of the system. This is an integral part of the development of autonomy or the ability to learn how to learn. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily something which comes naturally to all students and work may need to be done in the classroom or through structured activities to enhance the development of the desired autonomy.
(b) should be as open-ended as possible and provide a facility for browsing through audiovisual materials rather than be structured around tutorials or lessons.
The notion of browsing is a very important one. It can be likened to leafing through the pages of a book, stopping at various points, reflecting on what has been read, turning back a few pages to check on something, looking ahead to find an answer, re-reading what seems to be a key sentence or clarifying the meaning of a word or phrase by consulting a dictionary.
All of these notions are, in fact, at the heart of the software developed.
(c) should be usable not only as a tool for developing listening skills, but as a facility for providing access to audiovisual information e.g an audiovisual dictionary or database.
(d) should provide teachers with a simple authoring tool for generating quickly good quality listening materials. Materials should still be usable even if only minimal authoring effort is expended. Ease of use is a central point. No one will want to use a system which is difficult and cumbersome to handle.
(e) should provide learners with a simple tool for accessing teacher-developed materials.
(f) should be of value in both classroom and self-access contexts.
(g) should be able to control both videodisc and interactive audio systems so as to enhance its portability and the portability of materials.
(h) should be able to function on the most basic of computing equipment currently available in schools and other teaching institutions in Australia.
2.1 Hardware requirements After an extensive survey conducted as part of this project, the following harware requirements were decided upon:
It should not need a very fast processor such as the 80486 nor even the 80386. It should be able to run on old XT-style machines which are still available in many schools and homes. This "no-frills" approach was adopted in order to maximise usage of the system. However, a Microsoft compatible mouse would be needed for better interaction although most of the functionality of the system could be replicated through the keyboard alone. Another requirement would be that of a hard disk with several megabytes of free space in order to store the required information to make the lessons run.
The question of hardware is always a difficult one because of the costs usually associated with this. However, many schools now own some kind of computing facility which, in some cases at least, could be shared, at a quite manageable cost, with language education. This would result in increased efficiency in the usage of equipment, bring about reductions in cost through economies of scale and significantly enhance the language learning process.
(b) For videodisc access it was decided to use the Sony LDP-3600D player. This player has the considerable advantage of being multi-standard. This means that it can playback videodiscs recorded in PAL (the Australian and German standards), NTSC (the US and Japanese standards) and SECAM (French and Middle Eastern standards). Consequently, teaching materials based on videodiscs made in any part of the world can be developed. This significantly increases the functionality of SBPLAY.
(c) The videodisc is connected to the computer by a serial (i.e. RS232) connection. This simple arrangement allows the PC to control the activities of the player.
The interactive audio component was based on the Soundblaster Pro analog to digital/digital to analog converter. This is a board produced by Creative Labs which fits into any spare slot in IBM-compatible PCs. Its role is to transform sounds into digital information which can then be stored directly onto a computer's hard disk. Sounds can be fed to the card either through a microphone or a standard line input. Sound can be played back through headphones or a simple loudspeaker system plugged directly into the Soundblaster Pro.
It should be noted that the technology used here is digitised speech technology and not synthetic speech technology. Digital technology simply records all sound signals fed to it, including voice, and allows it to be played back on demand or otherwise manipulated in a variety of ways. Effectively, digitised speech technology provides a sophisticated tape recorder facility.
Synthesised speech, on the other hand requires the computer to generate voice-like sounds from information fed to it. The present quality of synthetic speech systems is still far from adequate for language teaching. Further, because the computer generates its own sounds, it is not capable of dealing with background noises - often a source of great cultural interest to keen language learners.
The Soundblaster Pro was selected as the board to use because it is a de-facto standard in the multimedia world, it is available at very reasonable prices, and appears to be produced by a stable commercial organisation likely to continue its development and its support.
Thus SBPLAY can access both videodisc-based information or audio-only information, making it a versatile and cost effective system.
(d) A set of headphones, or some other listening device, and a microphone are also necessary in order to listen to spoken materials and record one's voice.
This means effectively, that learners should be able to decide what they want to listen to, the number of times they would like to do so, the order in which they listen to specific items, the size of each item and the amount of help which they wish to access.
At the same time, it was felt that it would be useful if the system could also be made available for work organised according to a pattern set by the teacher. Such control, however, would not be built into the system but exercised by the student on the advice of the teacher who might, perhaps, supply the information in the form of a work-sheet. Thus the final decision-making responsibility would always remain with the student, hence the crucial importance of autonomy development.
Because SBPLAY is a tool for authoring and delivery of materials and is not constrained in scope, new activities which capitalise on its features are certain to be found as teachers and learners exercise their imaginations.
An insight into the way that SBPLAY works will now be given by examining the ways in which an author would produce the materials and a student might access them. Details of how to perform each task may be found at the end of this chapter.
3. A teacher's perspective:
authoring (preparing) lesson materials
First, the listening material has to be found. In order to be used by SBPLAY, it must be either in the form of a videodisc (specially made for pedagogic used or re-purposed) or in the form of an audio recording stored on the hard disk and created with the help of the Soundblaster card (VOC format).
Once the raw material has been found, the SBPLAY lesson is constructed around a written text, usually a transcript of the listening material. This is typed in using a standard word processor or text editor. The written inforination must be saved as "text" and not in native word processing format.
Each line of text consists of a first word which serves to designate a speaker. The rest of the line consists of the words uttered, at that time, by that particular speaker. e.g.
This structure is important as it is the basis for the way in which SBPLAY interacts with the user.
The text information is saved in a file.
The author then runs SBPLAY specifying whether the raw materials is in videodisc or VOC format.
The author is now faced with a screen which displays the transcript in the following way. The letters of all the words in the text, with the exception of the first word in each line, i.e. the word which designates a speaker, have been replaced by a capital X.
(b) it provides them with support in two ways. First, it tells them who the speaker is and, second, it gives them the "shape" of the "words", i.e. how many letters there are in each "word", where it is situated in the utterance and where upper case letters and punctuation are to be found. All of these are powerful clues which will help learners to solve the problem without giving away the answer.
It will now benecessary to provide the program with the necessary information for playing the listening material. This information is given through a procedure called indexing.
In the case of SBPLAY, indexing requires the teacher to determine where each word is to be found on the videodisc or in the sound file and to store that information in a file.
In order to do this, it should be possible to require SBPLAY to play each word separately and, if possible, to play from any arbitrary word in the transcript to any other arbitrary word. This is achieved by placing the mouse cursor on a word and then double-clicking (i.e. pressing the left mouse button twice in quick succession) on that word. The word is then highlighted visually on the screen. Once this has happened, the teacher types a ? character (i.e. a question mark). This will pop up a special window in which information can now be entered and saved.
Information can be entered in 4 distinct categories:
(b) Indexing information for access to Sounblaster-based materials.
(c) Vocabulary or "word" information.
(d) A gloss or other relevant information.
The material is then ready for use by learners.
In the first instance, indexing and the other procedures might seem "fiddly" but they are not difficult. Naturally, some thought has to be given to the sorts of things that should be included in the comments and gloss fields and, as a result, some preparation is likely to be required
With experience, however, it should be possible to process a short recording in a relatively short time (hours rather than days). Given that each set of materials can then be used for a long time (many years if the recording is chosen carefully), shared with other institutions, distributed across the nation or the world through computer networks and used in class and self-access modes, this is not a major time investment. With the right communication and sharing infrastructure, it should also be possible to receive materials developed by other persons and thus increase dramatically one's stock of local resources at little or no cost.
4. A learner's perspective:
interacting with SBPLAY
This section will describe features of SBPLAYI which are relevant to learners interacting with the system. For a full description of commands, please consult the appropriate section of this report.
From a learner's point of view, the position is relatively simple.
When a lesson is begun, learners are shown a screen consisting of words converted to upper case or lower case Xs. e.g.
In addition and, most importantly, learners can click on any word on the screen then click on a second word. This will highlight all words between the first and second clicks. If the <ENTER> key or the right mouse button is now pressed, the highlighted words (and only the highlighted words) will now be played. The ability to play from any arbitrary word to any other arbitrary word is perhaps SBPLAY's most valuable feature. It is valuable in itself but other features are also based on it.
A hypothetical session by a learner a the computer will illustrate the value of some of the features mentioned above. It will also introduce relevant features not mentioned so far.
The learner (an overseas student who is studying both ESL and French) runs SBPLAY and is confronted with a screenful of words converted to Xs. This is known as display mode 1.
(b) After thinking for a while, he/she then decides to have another attempt in order to check his/her inferences. This time, though, instead of listening in uninterrupted fashion, the student decides to pause at various points. This is in order to allow him/her to reflect on and organise the audio input into meaningful units. This is achieved by pressing the space-bar. Pressing P or clicking the Play button with the mouse button continues playback of the recording.
(c) Still not completely satisfied, the leaner decides to listen to the material on a "speech-by-speech" basis. For instance, if Bob and Martha are talking to one another, he/she would wish to listen to each set of utterances in isolation.To achieve this he/she presses on the word which indicates who is speaking. In the example below, the learner would click on the word Bob.
(d) The learner now decides
to focus on individual sentences. He/she highlights each sentence in turn,
and tries to guess the words by writing them down on a piece of paper. The Xs on the screen provide guidance as to what the words might be.
(e) Still unsure as to the
sense of portions of the sentence, he/she then selects the problem word
or words and switches
to display mode 2. This is achieved by pressing the letter M and then typing the number 2 in the pop-up box. This immediately reveals the words underneath the highlighted portion of the screen. Only highlighted words are revealed at this stage. The student is now able to check his/her guesses against the original recording and adjust his/her inferences and inferencing mechanisms accordingly.
(f) It happens that one of the words encountered is unknown. The student selects it and asks for help (by pressing ?). A popup window appears. The student consults the relevant field and is given a gloss of the meaning.
(g) The student now deides to listen to the troublesome sentence on a word-by-word basis and is puzzled by the fact that the words in isolation seem to bear no resemblance to the words in context. He/ she decides to ask the teacher about this phenomenon at the next opportunity. However, armed with this new set of awarenesses the students will now be in a better position to cope with the rest of the text and will have developed a better understanding or, at least, intuition about the nature of linguistic perception.
(h) Satisfied, he/she now switches back to mode 1 and continues the scan of the recording. The crucial feature of this kind of interaction is the problem-solving and awareness-raising aspects of the activities. Learners must give themselves the opportunity to grapple with difficulty before looking up the answer.
As the recording of the sentences is digital, it is easily possible to use software packages to filter each [y] sound so as to enhance the perception of the problem sounds by learners of French. This is what has been done with the exercise's first model sentence:
The student follows the teacher's instructions and uses SBPLAY's built in facility for playing highlighted sentences backward one word at a time. This is done using the <ALT><R> combination of keys. SBPLAY plays back the sentence on a word by word basis as illustrated below.
The opposite kind of build-up exercise is also possible and very valuable in the case of yes/no questions in French. To achieve this the student types <ALT><F> and SBPLAY does the rest and produces a forward build-up.
In the case of the above example a second and perhaps unnoticed perceptual event is also occurring. Because each of the [y] sounds has been enhanced electronically, the student is working not only on intonation but on the pronunciation of a troublesome sound as well. Thus a double advantage is derived from the exercise. Of course, this is not due to anything that SBPLAY does but to the lesson structure developed by the teacher which is then facilitated by the computer program.
After the recommended period of perceptual training, the student then decides to practise saying the question. He/she uses the mouse to press the S-Rec (i.e. student record) button, waits for 2 seconds, says the sentence and then presses the <ESC> key. The student's voice has now been recorded and can be compared immediately and repeatedly with the original model. This is achieved by highlighting the model sentence and pressing the <ENTER> key to play it. The student's voice is heard by clicking on the S-Play (i. e. student play) button. Comparison between the native speaker voice and the student's voice can occur as many times as is required and the student's voice is preserved until he/she records over it.
In the case described above, the teacher had decided to use SBPLAY not so much as a listening comprehension support system but as a language laboratory substitute. In fact our hypothetical student need not have used specially-prepared pedagogic materials at all although he/she would not have benefited from the enhanced perception derived from the electronic filtering of [y]. Indeed, our particular student could have derived significant advantages from doing this sort of work with the ESL materials that he/she had been using previously or, for that matter, with any other comprehension material available be it in ESL or in LOTE.
Thus, a major advantage of a system such as this is that it can allow learners to develop an awareness of intonative and other pronunciation phenomena in the context of authentic language production. It is then possible for the student to practise these phenomena with no additional authoring effort on the part of the teacher beyond that already exerted in the preparation of the original listening materials. In this context, every set of listening comprehension materials could, in fact, also be thought of as containing innumerable language laboratory exercises and any student could practise any of a multitude of authentic intonation and pronunciation patterns.
Thus, for most applications, SBPLAY not only replaces the standard audio-active-comparative language laboratory but supersedes it immediately in quite significant ways. It does so at a functional level through the availability of genuinely authentic materials for practice purposes, by providing much greater control over recorded materials, by reducing the authoring effort to a minimum and by costing only a fraction of traditional systems.
1. This article was written by A-P. Lian and appeared as Chapter 7 in Lian, A-P., Hoven, D. L. and Hudson, T. J.: Audio-Video Computer Enhanced Language Learning and the Development of Listening Comprehension Skills, Australian Second Language Learning Project, 1993, pp. 75-92. It presents a description of a software package evolved by Andrew Lian, Tim Hudson and Debra Hoven. Some of the concepts of SBPLAY form the basis for a system written by Andrew Lian and Ania Lian: MMBrowse).