Exercise - Carry out your own Peer Review

If you are new to the academic writing process, it can be very helpful to put yourselves in the position of someone reviewing an article. Read and make notes on the following article, then check your comments with the version provided at the end of the article.

You may not be familiar with the subject area but you can still assess the paper in terms of whether it says anything new, its research methodology, structure, presentation, usefulness in practice etc.

This article is reproduced by kind permission of Professor Gabriel Jacobs, Professor of European Business Management at University of Wales, Swansea, and remains his copyright.

Call Vocabulary Acquisition: The University Institute Experience

? K. and W.
French Section
School of Modern Languages
University Institute of


Computer Assisted Learning (CAL) is an area which is rapidly expanding amongst Higher Education institutions as the power of available hardware rises facilitating new and innovative HE teaching and learning environments. The University Institute of recently allocated funds to stimulate a learning technology program which was generally intended to impinge on all 4 Faculties within the insititution. Each faculty was asked to bring forward, software development schemes and bids for equipment and other, necessary resources such as human resources, consumables etc. The purpose of this paper is to describe the experience of a team of academics in the Department of French, School of Modern Languages within the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Studies at the University Institute of in the development of a Computer-assisted learning software program. Funding was made available from a central source to develop and implement a software program to assist French language learners to acquire vocabulary in “an innovative and measurably effective manner”. The software was implemented and tested on a cohort of level 2 students who had, in general, studied French for 8 years, and staff and students were consulted with regards to their reactions.

1. Introduction

With the increasing power of micro-computers in the HE sector Computer Assisted Learning (CAL) (Computer Aided Learning or CBL) is an area which is expanding greatly within Higher Education and it is important that higher education institutions recognise the full potential of this area in the teaching of students whether they are traditional post A Level students or students, involved in Lifelong Learning, attending part time or full time courses. The potential of micro-computers and multimedia courseware facilitates new and innovative teaching and learning environments (Bork, 1989) which have been proven to be highly cost-effective, offering visible benefits for student learning at relatively low cost. The University Institute of has approximately 19,000 students both full time and part time including “mature” students and they are divided into four Faculties: (i) Engineering, (ii) Education, (iii) Arts, Humanities and Social Studies, (iv) Science. Each of the 4 Faculties is semi-autonomous with regards to the allocation of funds but funding for special projects is decided upon centrally on a needs basis. Funds were recently allocated to stimulate a learning technology program which was intended to effect all five Faculties within the University campus.

The thinking behind this initiative (not quoted here directly from the original) was:

• To recognise the cost effectiveness of technology enhanced learning (TEL), especially CAL (CBL)
• To facilitate Student Centred and Peer Group Learning (Sebrechts et al. 1995)
• To facilitate student learning in order for them to be self sufficient within their learning environments (Taylor 1996)
• To enhance the employability of graduates by offering them the opportunity to learn personal transferable skills (PTS) in information technology (IT) (Barton 1994)
• To free lecturer hours for other activities (Taylor 1996)

Each Faculty was asked to put forward ideas (within a maximum of 2 A4 double-spaced pages), for software development programs and bids for necessary equipment, human resources, etc.. These proposals were considered by the Information Systems Sub-Committee of the University Institute Teaching Committee (Paper , 12th January 1999) and subsequently by the Vice-Chancellors Advisory Group (18 January 1999) and funds were eventually allocated accordingly including specific funds for the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Studies and in particular specific funds for certain members of the French Department academic staff “to develop a computer program or series of computer programs designed to enhance the student experience of vocabulary acquisition”. The present paper details the experience of one team1 of academics in the French Department within the School of Modern Languages which will hopefully have broadly based implications not only for other disciplines but also within other universities as a whole throughout the UK.

2. The Proposal

Vocabulary acquisition is naturally a basic skill for all language students and much research has been done in this domain at all levels from ab initio to advanced study (Chesters et al. 1992, Meara, 1997). A group of academics within the French Department decided upon the idea of designing a micro-computer program that would allow students to learn French vocabulary in such a way, that:

a) the learning would be faster
b) the lecturer input would be less
c) the effectiveness of learning would be enhanced

The team itself had all previously produced handouts in word processed form. Some academics had insisted that their students use word-processing (WP) for handing in assignments. The bid to the central university fund set aside for such projects was for a total of £15,500 to internally develop and implement the software program on a pilot basis. The bid was successful and work began immediately.

3. Learning Theory

It is important to stress that the proposal was not simply a response to a newly funded initiative, it was based on fundamental pedagogic principles. The team believes that Computer Aided Language Learning (C.A.L.L.) has the following advantages:

• it permits the learner to learn at their own individual pace (Allsop 1992)
• it permits the learner to make as many mistakes as they wish without demotivating them
• it permits learning to occur at times that are convenient to learners (Allsopp 1992)
• it permits the learner access to a whole range of support material that is not available in a conventional classroom (Kaye, 1994).
• it permits the sensitive learner to avoid the embarrassment of making mistakes in front of their peers (Johnson 1996).

Armed with these principals (on which members of the team will publish elsewhere in the future), the team were able to employ the time of a software programmer. The project was completed within the stipulated time span of 12 months from the date of the allocation of the funds.

4. The Project

Phase I: the team appointed a software programmer from the Academic Computing Centre within the University Institute using 10% of his time for six months. An early decision on his advice was to use an authoring program such as AuthorwareTM, IconAuthorTM, ToolBookTM or CBT ExpressTM. During the phase the team and the software programmer met on four occasions to discuss strategy at the planned Phase 1 strategy meetings.

Phase II: the programmer made suggestions of how the computer might be used to facilitate vocabulary learning, using graphics, “hot words”, access to a customised dictionary and a scoring system. Figure 1 shows a typical screen from the vocabulary acquisition program which was developed entitled TAVAC – Technology Assisted Vocabulary Acquisition (for French) using CBT ExpressTM. The programming was carried out by the software programmer but with the full involvement of the academic team.

As already mentioned, the proposal was based on fundamental pedagogic principles. The actual program was subsequently kept as simple as possible whilst allowing learning to effectively occur. It is important to stress that simplicity was the main aim, the project team were less interested in producing a “fancy” multimedia program design which would impress students and other staff than in having a simple program which did the job it was designed for. It is the belief of the authors of this paper that much C.A.L.L. software has been designed more with presentation than with learning effectiveness in mind. With TAVAC, screen design was a major factor and consequent upon some staff interviews within the Department of Computing and the Academic Computing Unit (Library and Information Services), it was decided that the simplest screen was one of the principle aims and objectives, even if it meant a certain loss of flexibility in the end user environment.

Figure 1: A screen from TAVAC the French vocabulary acquisition program developed and implemented by a team of academics from within the French Department, University Institute of showing the screen design and user interface

Within TAVAC a word is presented onscreen and the user is required to click on the translation that they think is correct, and on the correct gender (M = masculine, F = feminine) of the French word from a selection of several French words on the screen, some of which were deliberate mistakes (distractors). The correct word appears in a randomised position generated by the software amongst the other available words in the list.

A picture representing the word shown is also displayed onscreen. It is envisaged that in further developments of the program the displayed word will be pronounced for the user to listen to as and when required, but at the time of the trial it was considered an extra which might limit the use of the program, given that not all available machines for the students have sound cards. The user is required to click the correct word and gender. Immediate feedback is available, an incorrect answer is signalled to the user, and the user is asked to try again if the answer is an incorrect one. After 3 failed attempts (word and gender incorrect or either word or gender incorrect), the user is shown the correct answer onscreen. The incorrect word is saved in a users file on the hard disk and is displayed again the next time the program is used by the user provided that the user logs on with the same username. This facility can be ‘turned off’ by the user, but using the program in the default way was found to be ‘useful’ (35%), ‘very useful’ (21%) or ‘extremely useful’ (7%) in a series of questionnaires filled in by users after each session (after Phase III below). Staff reactions to the program varied from ‘simple’ to ‘very useful’.

Phase III: the prototype was tested on a level 2 class who had, in general, studied French for 8 years. Approximately 80% of the class (35 students) were female. Because the level of CIT competence in the students varied considerably, it was decided to implement the trial on a purely voluntary basis. Of the thirty-five students, 20 volunteered and a pre-test was delivered using traditional methods. The results are shown in figure 2.

Student Nos Test score (80 maximum) 0-10 11-30 31-50 51-80
20 3 (15%) 5 (25%) 8 (40%) 4 (20%)

Figure 2: Results of the pre-test delivered via traditional methods in the trial.

Phase IV: After 2 weeks of using the program (although it has to be noted that not all students had the same access to the program given timetable and room allocation and other constraints), students were asked to sit a specially designed examination. The results were as in Figure 3.

Student Nos
Test score (120 maximum) 0-20
21-65 66-90 91-120
12 1 (8%) 3 (25%) 4 (33%) 4 (33%)

Figure 3: Results of the specially designed examination sat by students

Disappointingly, eight of the students for one reason or another were obliged to withdraw from the trial. However the team believes that the results show, in a broad sense, the potential of CALL within HE. The results speak for themselves.

4.1 Reasons for withdrawal

It might be interesting and instructive for others considering similar trials, such as the one carried out by the authors of this paper, to give some indication of the obstacles that caused students to withdraw from the experiment. A questionnaire was issued to the 8 students who withdrew (33% of the original cohort) and four replies (50%) were received (Raffel 1991). The reasons given included:

• access to machines (i.e. locked laboratory, other students, etc.)
• deleted files (i.e. some students failed to save their work on a floppy disk and had their files on the hard disk of the micro-computer accidentally deleted by other users)
• ease of access to other media (i.e. books)
• certain minor bugs in the program which led to “learner frustration” (such bugs have now been fixed and in further trials which therefore not be an obstacle)

5. Discussion

This paper has discussed the efforts of a team of French Department academics within the University Institute of to design, implement, set-up, test, assess and evaluate a Computer assisted language program, entitled TAVAC, in four development and implementation phases lasting 11 months from February 1998 to December/January 1998/1999. A pre-test and post-test were carried out and feedback from staff and students were available in the form of distributed questionnaires and interviews. Some students withdrew from the trial and the reasons for their withdrawal are discussed above.

The team consisted of four academics and 10% of the time of a part-time software programmer. It’s report to the University identified a further project to take the ideas forward and to bring the benefits of C&IT to the students of University Institute ( and 1999). This further project will involve French syntactical and morphological structures. At the time of writing, no decision has yet been made about further central funding.

It is clear that not only does learning technology enhance the cost-effectiveness of learning and teaching but it increases the quality of the students learning experience and outcomes and offers the acquisition of personal transferable skills in the wide subject-domain of information technology. During the project the authors of this paper have become aware however of the need not to work in isolation from others in the field of technology aided learning since the wheel risks being reinvented in this rapidly expanding and dynamically moving field. Moving away from the narrow field of French vocabulary, it is clear that the trial discussed in this paper has implications for CBL as a whole.


1. The authors of this paper acknowledge the assistance and/or support of the following staff members of University Institute (the first two are members of the project team): D. (French Department), L. (French Department), G. (Registry), J. (Computer Science), A. (Hispanic Studies Department), as well as K. and D. of the University of who offered advice while implementing the project. The authors also wish to express their thanks to the Officers of the University who were able to provide the necessary funding for the project, and the research to be carried out.


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