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Speaking the language

Teresa MacKinnon, School of Modern Languages and Cultures

Published August 2013

Principle Teaching Fellow Teresa MacKinnon discusses how Warwick is expanding its technological teaching methods at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures.

A young girl reads from a blackboardThe University’s Language Centre runs academic, business and lifelong learning language courses. Established in 1964, its first technology was valve open-reel tape recorders. Since then technology has moved on rapidly and in 2011 an online, cutting edge virtual learning environment (VLE) based on Moodle 2.1 was rolled out to 1500 of the Language Centre’s academic students. Today that platform is known as Languages@Warwick and has 4,500 users. Principle Teaching Fellow Teresa MacKinnon is the driving force behind the project and explains its benefits to both tutors and students.

“There’s been a huge shift in terms of how we expect to use technology at the Language Centre in the past five to six years” MacKinnon says. Just as students routinely use information technology for other university courses, so language teaching is embracing the benefits of cyberspace and online tools. That's why MacKinnon trialled the use of Moodle software to build a VLE for the language centre, prior to its implementation in October 2011. From the start MacKinnon knew that the project needed to have a wide user base in order to be cost effective. She chose Moodle after researching different VLEs and pinpointing the department’s needs such as a simple user interface and clear delivery of sound.

Warwick Language Centre’s VLE is at the forefront of cutting edge technology. Its benefits, Mackinnon points out, are clear. The online tools foster the development of good intercultural communication and emphasise international employability skills. They allow students and teachers to collaborate and engage with each other. Students can practice their pronunciation on the voice board; watch and listen to online presentations; take part in a live online class; and listen to voice messages and announcements. One particular use is for ‘catch up’ podcasts of previous classes – very handy for exam revision.

Lack of confidence in speaking a foreign language has sometimes been an issue for learners. Having their speaking tasks recorded and shared with their peers caused a few students a little anxiety at first but they soon acclimatised. One student of Japanese on the pilot commented that it was “good to hear feedback regarding pronunciation and articulation”. Another said “I think it is a brilliant idea for oral practice – really excellent”.

It’s not just the students who had to learn to become both familiar with and confident using voice technology. Part of MacKinnon’s role is to support and engage both students and teachers to use voice technology. The key is to understand a tutor’s needs, provide ongoing training and explain how the VLE can benefit them. MacKinnon is aware that each language teacher has their own teaching and learning style and will want to decide the level of online activity in their lessons and define their practice as they go.

When students upload and share clips of their spoken activities using voice or video recordings it’s natural for tutors to worry about error correction. What if the students learn poor pronunciation or grammar from each other? This shouldn’t happen says MacKinnon. Tutors have the ability in the VLE to listen to activities, post feedback and upload personal support. “Think about it as a natural process of learning a language.” We all made mistakes when we learnt our mother tongue as children. By sharing each other's audio clips, students build the confidence to ‘have a go’ and also in this shared peer activity “develop the analytical and critical skills to improve”.

As part of the VLE rollout a ‘virtual French exchange’ will allow French undergraduates on their year abroad to keep in contact with each other and collaborate in an informal environment. Enterprise instant messaging allows them to communicate with others on their module. Students of French at the Language Centre also take part in a virtual exchange with their counterparts learning English at the Université Blaise Pascale in the region of Auvergne, France. Social networking is part of the interactive package along with an integrated messaging system to connect students to each other for voice/text or video conversations and collaboration via a shared whiteboard and application sharing.

Whilst she acknowledges that “technology will never completely replace the social human aspect” it’s not the end of the learning journey for MacKinnon. The VLE was chosen and built to be future proof. The platform is available on mobile devices. An account of this development is available in this recently published e-book. “All the possible learning and teaching activities that language teachers need to make happen can happen through Languages@Warwick.”

Teresa MacKinnonTeresa MacKinnon has over 25 years of language teaching experience. She holds an MA in Post Compulsory Education and is Principle Teaching Fellow (e-learning) in the University of Warwick’s School of Modern Languages and Cultures.



Image: Language barrier might widen gaps in learning by World Bank Photo Collection (via Flickr)