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Teaching European Literature and Culture with C & IT
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Teachers and Technicians: working together for effective use of information technology in language and literature

Gavin Burnage
University of Cambridge

Helping university teachers to work with computers is increasingly becoming a full time occupation: there are many of us who spend our time setting up computing resources for teaching and learning, designing and programming, and enticing staff and students into using them. This article looks at recent work in the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages at the University of Cambridge, which decided to invest in full-time support for a Computer-Assisted Language Learning Facility in 1996. The aim was to integrate language learning software, and computing in general, into the Faculty's teaching and research. Money was found both for hardware and software and, importantly, a full-time member of staff appointed to an academic rather than a technical post. Well-attested practices at traditional universities do not change easily, but this strategy has meant that the advantages of computing are becoming understood and accepted, and computer use is slowly gaining ground in areas where it is appropriate and helpful. There follows a description of work and training taking place with the well-known computer-assisted translation package TransIt-Tiger, the World Wide Web, and software development both for the collaborative Italia 2000 project and internal Faculty use, plus observations and conclusions arising from these experiences extending over the past two years. There is also a passing consideration of the concept of 're-usable' software, with the argument that it is not just 'shell' programs but the flexible application of teachers' and programmers' expertise when used together which constitutes highly effective re-use.

Starting Points

In any department or faculty, there tends to be a wide range of attitudes towards computing. There are always those few who have no current interest in computing, and never intend to develop an interest in computing. Conversely, there are those few who are knowledgable, keen, and able to produce all manner of computer-based materials. The majority lie in-between: they profess some interest and have varying degrees of competence, and almost all say they would like to do more if only they had more time. Training and time management are key issues.

Email, the World Wide Web, and existing CALL and literature resources have been amongst the starting points for much training of staff. at Cambridge. Whilst the local Computing Service provides useful, general courses on some of these topics, it is the courses which are directed towards language and literature which impress and enthuse the most. Experienced members of staff are often happy to share their experiences and show their work, and good computing presentations from those who are already well-respected in their subject are always effective.

'Shell' Programs: TransIt-Tiger

As well as showing many existing items of software, training has gone on to include the use of 'shell' programs, with which teachers can quickly develop their own software. The importance of providing adaptable software is currently well recognised, and shell programs which allow teachers to create their own software with minimal technical skills are becoming more and more common place. One such for modern languages is TransIt-Tiger, developed by Doug and June Thompson from work at the University of Hull (1) to support translation activities in a higher education context. A common misconception is that Tiger is a machine translation program which corrects a student's efforts or provides a translation; rather it forms a structured framework in which students can work on a translation for themselves, and might best be described as computer-assisted translation.

Central to the Tiger software are passages to be translated either into or out of English. For each passage there is an introduction which sets the scene, linguistically, historically or in any other appropriate way, to be viewed before attempting a translation. Two hypertext versions are provided to help students examine the passage in more detail, one provides links from words and phrases in the text to a glossary, where simple definitions are provided, and the other which provides links to annotations such as questions, suggestions, and comments at key points throughout the passage. Ready-made translations are available to the student after entering a given password. After having studied the passage with all the information that is made available, students can start the formulation of a translation of their own, which can be saved to disk or printed out.

This framework appeals immediately to most language teachers who are involved with teaching translation. They appreciate the usefulness of providing links from the text to a glossary in which the definitions are appropriate to the context; one teacher noted that as well as making life a little easier for students, this also makes marking easier for staff, since routine vocabulary errors across a batch of translations are avoided. They are even more impressed with the 'Hints' section since they themselves can add exactly the annotations they want for the passages which they select. The annotations can include stylistic observation and literary criticism, or historical background, or even matter relevant to other areas of course work. The ready-made translations can also be used flexibly: with access controlled by password they can be used to provoke ideas while the student is translating, or used after the translation has been marked and returned to the student. Although the authors of the shell are keen to state that the ready-made translations are not necessarily 'model' answers, the ready-made translations can be 'classic' translations for comparison and discussion, and this is particularly useful when the task in hand is in teaching the art of translation rather than a straightforward translation exercise (though using published classic translations is of course subject to the provisions of copyright law).

Since face-to-face teaching time is limited, the provision of computer-based translation frees up that time: it can be used for preparation before a class, or to follow up after a class, and, since it adequately deals with many of things which the teachers would cover face-to-face, only a short amount of time may need to be devoted in class to any matters arising from the package before moving on to a related or totally different subject.

From a technical point of view it is not too demanding for staff to implement TransIt-Tiger translation passages for themselves. In fact, since they frequently have word-processing and email skills, attempting the TransIt-Tiger shell is a realistic 'next step', an enjoyable challenge. Most learn new computing skills or consolidate existing ones from the experience and gain confidence from seeing their passage completed. Once implemented, TransIt-Tiger passages can be re-used as lecture notes tend to be, and can be readily corrected or altered. A bank of material relating to one particular course can be built up, with students visiting the CALL Facility routinely every week to work on the current passage. One excellent example in Cambridge has been Dr Sarah Kay's provision of twelve medieval Occitan passages (2) for students following this course.

Screenshot from Medieval Occitan package

Fig. 1. Hint sections from Dr. Sarah Kay's medieval Occitan package.

The TransIt-Tiger shell is not without its problems for new users, of course, but overcoming these problems can be a useful extension of computing skills and knowledge. One particular problem is 'importing' text: the shell helpfully accepts text for the passage, the glossary, the hints and so on from a floppy disk, with the proviso that it must be in 'text only' format. For those whose use of electronic text is limited to word-processing and printing on their personal computer, this requirement is, at first, confusing. An explanation - that 'text only' text is simply words without all the word processor formatting and layout - and instructions on how to save a file as 'text only' have to be given.

Another problem is the provision of accented and special characters. Many teachers work with Apple Macintoshes, while TransIt-Tiger is a PC program only. This creates problems when transferring text from one system to another, as the two systems may use different character sets. To correct these characters, or if they choose to enter the text directly rather than import it, new strategies for typing accented characters may have to be learned. Although the combination of better software and more widely-accepted character standards such as ISO8859 mean that accented characters are now handled more easily than ever, learning ways of dealing with them are still useful additions to a language and literature teacher's skills.

Another challenge for teachers is getting to grips with the Tiger interface: although largely well-designed, there tends inititally to be some confusion about moving round the package, particularly from the set-up section to the section where new passages are included. There are other, more subtle pitfalls, such as a limit on the number of words which can appear in the opening titles, so that the long course titles familiar to many academics simply do not fit, and an alarming bug, which causes the loss of data when the title of a passage within the package is too long (3). Most of these difficulties are slight, and the understanding and overcoming of them is a useful exercise for those getting to grips with more advanced computing: learning any new package requires time and patience.

On completing a passage in the TransIt-Tiger shell in a workshop, most teachers seem, quite rightly, satisfied with themselves and their work and progress. Usually passages are added immediately to the Tiger framework and some teachers then return to correct and amend their work, and add more passages. After the workshop, certain people will add new passages at short notice as their teaching requires; others add them on a regular basis, just as they might draw up lesson plans or lecture notes. A few remain resistant: having followed the introduction to TransIt-Tiger and the subsequent workshop, one teacher concluded after some thought that the package did nothing which could not be achieved with pen and paper. He argued that printouts of all the relevant sections could be made, and handed round to students. The truth of his conclusion was offset by the fact that few, if any, teachers prepare printed referenced sheets in this way: the TransIt-Tiger shell provides a coherent framework for translation work, and its flexibility and usefulness depend on the ease with which electronic text can be manipulated by computer.

The TransIt-Tiger workshops have been useful in providing students with material developed by their teachers specifically for use within their chosen courses. Teachers have faced and met new challenges in their use of computing for teaching and learning. All have benefitted from the flexibility that the use of the program can bring. More widely, it has provoked discussion about the nature of electronic text, and the utility of computing in the teaching of language and literature.

The World Wide Web

The World Wide Web is an area with which both teaching and administrative staff need to be familiar. Most faculties and departments in universities throughout the country now have their own server, and staff can readily produce and publish materials of all kinds on the Web, both for local use and more widespread viewing. The greater capabilities of the Web have also coincided with an increase of interest in distance learning: people geographically disparate can follow the same course, and readily work with their teacher and fellow students.

In Cambridge, the fact that students following the same course are taught across the city in different colleges as well attending lectures at the central site means that the Web has the potential to serve as an important source of course information and administration. Although the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages has its own extensive web pages (4), a coherent, comprehensive approach to the provision of departmental pages, and pages relating to coursework, has yet to emerge. Often the burden of web page preparation falls on the already heavily-laden shoulders of departmental secretaries, whose heavy workload means they have little time to devote to learning web skills, and as with academic staff, some secretarial staff are keen to learn the required skills whilst others are more wary.

Many teaching staff are still unaware of what the Web can offer. In these circumstances, a workshop which introduces the Web to modern linguists is usually enjoyable: reviewing the best sites and facilities available around the world can be an impressive revelation. Conversely, the problems of technical limitations, poor scholarship, and information overload also need to be understood. After gaining familiarity with the Web the next step is to encourage staff to create their own pages. Although many packages exist to assist in the authoring of web pages, and should be used for the creation of all but the most simple web pages, a basic understanding of HyperText Markup Language is highly desirable: it makes the creation and correction of web pages a more clearly defined and understood task. Although an HTML file initially looks bewildering in the extreme, much of importance within it can be explained in terms academic staff readily understand such as the identification of paragraphs, headings, and lists. Once some raw HTML coding can be done, the use of general-purpose web page creating software is conceptually more straightforward, as is the correction of existing web pages. Other, more general skills that are used in web page creation are opening and amending a web file on a local machine with the use of a browser and a text editing system, understanding directory hierarchies and file naming, and transferring the finished articles to a remote server. Finally, since HTML is a less complex form of SGML, an awareness of low-level textual markup can act for a few as a useful introduction to the intricate world of electronic text encoding as recommended by the Text Encoding Initiative.

Spanish Translation Pages - Click to view

Fig. 2. Geoffrey Kantaris' Spanish Translation Pages.

Some staff are perfectly capable of creating their own pages without assistance, and their work can be quickly added to the Web and integrated into course work. In the Department of Spanish, Geoffrey Kantaris created a page of translation resources, using the Web to do much of what TransIt-Tiger does (5) and Chris Pountain created electronic versions of set texts, which are password controlled for use by course students only (6). Examples elsewhere which demonstrate how effectively teachers can use the Web for the delivery of course material include the work of Charlie Mansfield and Tony McNeil at the University of Sunderland (7), and Donna van Handle in the Department of German at Mount Holyoke College (8). In other cases, departments have opted to pay for postgraduate or other assistance in the preparation of web resources. The Department of Italian's pages were created by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim (9) and the Department of Linguistics pages (10) were initially created by Guy Deutscher; or, as with the German Department's pages (11), rely on the adaptability and industry of secretarial staff. These varied solutions to the problem of web page creation have resulted from a number of factors. Even with the provision of training, and technical assistance on-hand, not all staff feel competent to deal with the increased demands which web authoring makes on them. Most staff are quite capable of creating simple web pages but would prefer others to take on the task because of the constraints on their time; this is especially true of larger collections of web pages such as course notes or electronic versions of set texts.

Computer Assisted Language Learning software

Another fruitful area of IT-based teaching is through the design and implementation of sophisticated computer assisted language learning and language-related software. Quite rightly, many designers currently emphasize the need for software which is created by teachers themselves, and which can be rewritten or amended rather than becoming out of date; the TransIt-Tiger shell discussed above is one good example of this. Several other packages exist which allow teachers to create their own programs or packages quickly and efficiently; examples include what is to some the typical face of CALL software, the Wida Authoring Shell (12) which allows teachers to create gap-filling and other, mainly textual, exercises (though the latest version also allows for the use of pictures, sound, and video). However, while many teachers recognise the usefulness of creating their own software, there remain also those who want to make use of good, ready-made software, without the need to learn how to adapt and create their own; just as not all teachers want to write their own text book, not all teachers want to create their own software, not least because of time pressures. So in addition to re-usable shell programs there remains a need for programs which are ready to use in class. And naturally there is also the need for someone to create such ready-made programs.

Increasingly, University departments are capable of producing professional quality software for higher education. Authoring software such as Asymetrix ToolBook and Macromedia Director incorporate full programming capabilities, allowing the creation of software where the design, content and functionality are not restricted because of assumptions which have been made in the design of otherwise excellent shell programs. Add to this sophisticated software for the manipulation of digital images and video, such as Adobe's Photoshop, Illustrator, Premiere, and AfterEffects, all currently available to the academic community at advantageous rates, and the possibilities are enormous. The main consequence of such increased potential is that specialised computing staff are usually needed to maximise what can be achieved. Ideally the computing staff should be familiar with language learning and literature, and the teachers should be familiar with the possibilities which computing offers; it is the dynamic combination of expertise which yields the best results.

Working together: collaborative projects within and between universities

The Italia 2000 project (13) illustrates some of the principles described above. Italia was a collaborative, European Community funded project which involved teachers and others from thirteen Universities in Britain, Ireland, Spain, and Italy. The project took a selection of authentic video material specifically for use in intermediate and advanced Italian language learning, and created several half-hour television programmes, each comprised of a number of clips on a certain cultural theme. These programmes were broadcast by satellite and on BBC 2's The Learning Zone. Considerable effort also went into producing back-up material in the form of workbooks and CALL software. The software ranges from 'traditional' CALL software produced at the University of Aberystwyth (14) with an authoring package, Lacuna, to software on CD-ROM (15), produced at the University of Cambridge, which incorporates video footage into the heart of language learning exercises (16), to web-based software which uses the Java programming language with RealAudio and RealVideo footage (17). The realization of all these aims involved close cooperation between those with technical expertise and those with linguistic expertise.

Italia 2000 screenshot - Click to view

Fig. 3. Screenshot from Italia 2000 CD 1.

In the case of the video-based software produced in the University of Cambridge, the development began on a prototyping basis with French and Italian video clips. Experimentation and evaluation carried out with the input of Peter Dyson, former Director of Oxford University Language Centre (18) and subsequently other teachers involved with the project, resulted in the emergence of certain suitable exercise types. The exercises were often traditional in appearance, testing and teaching vocabulary and listening comprehension, and promoting active dialogue with the material learned. Crucially, though, they incorporated the video material at a fundamental level: each section of the software is based around a clip taken from the television programmes, and typically, each question in an exercise is associated with a short extract from the clip, selected to help students arrive at the right answer. These short extracts appear instantly, and can be replayed over and over; digital video contrasts with traditional video tape in allowing the precise manipulation of the recordings so that a particular video frame can be precisely pinpointed.

A set of exercise types was then agreed upon, and detailed guidelines were prepared to assist the teachers in creating the content of the exercises (19). From a selection of eight exercise types, teachers selected and prepared those which they thought were the most suitable, and specified which of the numerous short extracts from their clip were to be associated with each question.

In practice, some teachers understood and applied the guidelines better than others. The best results come from those who understood computing and its possibilities, though without necessarily having the skills to design and program. On the design and technical side, the fact that the programmer had a knowledge of language learning and linguistics meant there was sensitivity and understanding for the aims and methods of the teachers. The final part of this balance of skills and interests came with evaluation and use of the software with students who were willing to test and comment on the software, either informally, or as part of a formal testing programme (20).

'Use of German' specimen exam paper - Click to view

Fig. 4. Screenshot of 'Use of German' specimen exam paper.

The work of this collaborative project has naturally fed into activities taking place locally in Cambridge. The software produced for the Italia 2000 CD-ROM is effectively being 're-used' for other languages. Work completed includes gap-filling tests for ab initio students of Spanish based on the first year examination paper (21), and a short program using a cartoon strip to teach the past historic tense in French (22). Work in progress includes an extensive specimen exam paper for the 'Use of German' course (23), a paper which both students and staff find particularly challenging. The course uses computer-based techniques and exercises to familiarize students with the exam paper and how to approach it, and and a prototype CD of video-based software (24) for use by intermediate/advanced learners of German in schools and universities. Here the re-use consists of quickly reapplying design and programming techniques and approaches which have been successful elsewhere, sometimes even down to the programming code written. The advantage of re-use is clear: these approaches are readily being applied to local circumstances and requirements, including the all-important examinations, but also retain the freedom and flexibility which programming languages such as ToolBook offer.

Screenshot of cartoon strip for teaching past historic tense

Fig. 5. Computer-based cartoon strip to teach the past historic tense in French.


Computing currently offers many possibilities to teachers and students of languages and literature. Training staff in this area might involve familiarizing them with ready-made CALL programs, or creating software for specific purposes using shell programs such as TransIt-Tiger. Acquiring familiarity with electronic text - either specific texts, or language corpora, particularly with the use of concordancing software - is another. Using the Web for research and as a resource bank, as well as for publication and distribution of academic and administrative material, is also growing. As staff become more familiar with computing, they can apply it appropriately with their students, and produce computer-based work of their own or contribute confidently to larger-scale projects. It is possible to draw some general conclusions from the experiences described above.

The primary recommendation for success is to have more full-time staff whose chief function is to facilitate the integration of computing with teaching and research on a subject-specific basis. This should be in addition to technical support, where the person involved is responsible for installing and maintaining machines and dealing with technical problems which arise daily - tasks which would deflect attention and time from activity such as staff training and the cooperative development of software. The fact that such a post is academic rather than technical further confirms that distinction. This approach to IT development helps to remove some of the burden from those individuals who, typically, do some computing on top of their lecturing duties, and often become inundated with requests for computing help from colleagues.

Cooperation and the blending of expertise are crucial to the development of good computer software. When designers, programmers and teachers work together with a sympathetic understanding of each other's work, the end results are generally effective and usable, especially when combined with feedback and evaluation from the students for whom the software or computer-based activity is intended.

The chief difficulty for many staff is devoting time to computer-based work, and building on skills which are taught to them. Sometimes the busiest and most determined do succeed in producing excellent results, but in most cases the demands of lecturing and student teaching and supervision preclude it. Departments should increasingly look for arrangements which will allow staff time to consolidate and apply computing skills. One other important advance would be full recognition for software as a publication, both as research where appropriate and as teaching provision: many of those whose work is listed in the notes accompanying this article still officially risk having their efforts not fully accredited in research and teaching assessments.

The final consideration is of course the cost, both of staff time and equipment. Education planners recognise that communication and information technology is going to play an increasingly important role in Higher Education. If that potential is to be realised, funding strategies need to reflect the need for specialist staff, and staff and teacher training, not just at national level, but also at local level: such an approach will help maximise that dynamic interaction of pedagogical and technical expertise which our students deserve.

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  1. TransIt-Tiger: for the origins of this software see: Thompson, Doug and Thompson, June. ‘Advanced (Technical) Translation (Italian/English): a pilot project’ in Language Learning with Computers: an Educational Challenge. Hall, A. and Baumgartner, P. (eds). (WISL, Klagenfurt, 1991).
  2. Kay, Sarah. Medieval Occitan and Form in Troubadour Poetry. [TransIt-Tiger computer-assisted translation programs], (Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages, University of Cambridge, 1998).
  3. A new version of the shell was due for release in the Autumn of 1998; this release may well also address some of the issues of the user interface. Information about this bug and the forthcoming new version of the TransIt-Tiger shell were provided in email correspondence: Jenny Parsons, J.A.Parsons@selc.hull.ac.uk, (7th August 1998), TransIt-TIGER assignment names [email to TELL User Group, TELLuser@mailbase.ac.uk]
  4. Burnage, Gavin, gb218@cam.ac.uk, Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages , University of Cambridge. <http://www.mml.cam.ac.uk>.
  5. Kantaris, Geoffrey, egk10@cam.ac.uk. EGK Teaching Resources. (Cambridge: University of Cambridge,1998). <http://www.cus.cam.ac.uk/~egk10/>.
  6. Chris Pountain prepared a range of literary and linguistic texts for teaching purposes within the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Cambridge only.
  7. Mansfield, Charlie, charlie.mansfield@sunderland.ac.uk , and McNeill, Tony, tony.mcneill@sunderland.ac.uk. The Communiqué Home Page and Information Gateway. <http://www.sunderland.ac.uk/~us0cma/comm.html>.
  8. See courses listed under German in Mount Holyoke College Course Web Pages <http://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/> or contact Donna C van Handle, dvanhand@mtholyoke.edu.
  9. Fonseca-Wollheim, Corinna da, ccd23@cam.ac.uk, Dipartimento di Italiano, University of Cambridge, (1998). <http://www.mml.cam.ac.uk/italian/>.
  10. Deutscher, Guy, gd116@cus.cam.ac.uk and Nolan, Francis, fjn1@cus.cam.ac.uk, Department of Linguistics, University of Cambridge. <http://www.mml.cam.ac.uk/ling/index.htm>.
  11. 11. Pearce, Virginia, vp206@cus.cam.ac.uk , Department of German, University of Cambridge. <http://www.mml.cam.ac.uk/german/index.htm>.
  12. For more information about Wida software, see <http://www.wida.co.uk/>.
  13. There are currently two web sites with full details of the project: one is available from the University of Wales at Aberystwyth <http://ital2000.aber.ac.uk/>, the other is available from the University of Oxford <http://www.italia-2000.com>. In 1998, Giunti Multimedia published a selection of material from the project in the form of a video tape, a workbook, a CD-ROM, floppy disk and a web site. References to these and other Italia 2000 materials below refer to items mostly for project use.
  14. Andreaux, Alberto, via@aber.ac.uk, Feroldi, Anttinietta, via@aber.ac.uk, Vincentelli, Adriano, via@aber.ac.uk, Italia 2000 CALL Software (1998). <http://ital2000.aber.ac.uk> 1
  15. Two CDs were produced for internal project use: Burnage, Gavin, et al. Italia 2000 CD-1, [CD-ROM: video-based CALL software] (1996). Burnage, Gavin, et al. Italia 2000 CD-2, [CD-ROM: video-based CALL software] (1996).
  16. For detailed working papers in preparation for publication concerning the design, implementation and evaluation of this software, see Burnage, Gavin. Italia 2000 Video Software, (Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 1998). <http://canto.mml.cam.ac.uk/ital2000/CD/>.
  17. Emmet, Jason; Gilham, Angela et al. Italia 2000 - Learning Italian on the Internet, (Oxford: University of Oxford, 1998). <http://www.italia-2000.com/>.
  18. Bishop, Graham; Dyson, Peter and Worth-Stylianou, Valerie. Dossiers France Télévision [video cassette and workbook] (London: John Murray, 1995).
  19. Burnage, Gavin. Italia 2000 Video Software - Notes for Teachers Providing Exercises (Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 1997). <http://canto.mml.cam.ac.uk/ital2000/CD/exercises.html>.
  20. See 16.
  21. Frost, Ann and Burnage, Gavin. ‘Spanish Part 1A Option A, Paper SPA1: Gap-filling Exercises.’ [4 computer-based tests] (1998).
  22. Burnage, Gavin. ‘Passé Simple - Eau de Rose.’ [computer-based exercise] University of Cambridge; for internal use only. (1998)
  23. Burnage, Gavin; Künzl-Snodgrass, Anne-Marie; Midgley, David; von Schönfeld, Silke and Stewart, Mary. ‘MML Tripos Part 1A Specimen Paper: Use of German (B1).’ [computer software] (1998, work in progress).
  24. Burnage, Gavin; Künzl-Snodgrass, Anne-Marie; von Schönfeld, Silke and Young, Chris. Untitled. (1998, work in progress).

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Teaching European Literature and Culture with Communication and Information Technologies
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