Creating an online Computer Aided Language Learning Artefact, to support Key Stage 3 of the National Curriculum.


Nicholas A Crossland



Staffordshire University




Running head: Creating an online CALL artefact for the NGFL


This report reviews current factors that influence the design and function of Computer Aided Language Learning (CALL) artefacts based on the UK National Curriculum for the National Grid for Learning (NGfL). It evaluates how these factors could influence the production of an online multimedia artefact to teach ‘parts of the body’ to 11-14 years olds learning Modern Languages in school.


Chapter 1: Introduction

In recent years, as computers have become cheaper, more powerful and more widespread, their use in education has increased dramatically. They are now used to teach all ages, in virtually every subject area, including Modern Foreign Languages (MFL).

Although Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is used in all levels of education, from infant schools through to universities and adult education centres, Computer Aided Language Learning (CALL) is most commonly used in secondary schools (ages 11-16). This means that many multimedia artefacts are designed with pupils of this age in mind.

However, the quality and effectiveness vary enormously – often due to poor design or information structure, or just outdated technology.

This report will review current factors that influence the design and function of CALL artefacts, and how these factors have influenced the design of one particular CALL artefact – Alien Language.

Alien Language was created as a result of a brief to produce, in association with teachers and pupils, an online computer based learning artefact to support an aspect of the UK National Curriculum (NC). The artefacts must be designed to be part of the National Grid for Learning (NGfL), and be narrow in focus, deep in structure.



Chapter 2: Review

What it the National Curriculum?

The National Curriculum was first introduced to English schools between 1988 and 1992, to give all teachers a consistent plan of what every school pupil in the country should learn. In the introduction to the most recent revision of the National Curriculum (1999), the (then) Education Secretary, David Blunkett explains that the National Curriculum states what content should be taught, sets ‘attainment targets’ (AT’s) for pupils’ learning, and determines how pupils’ progress is assessed and monitored. While it provides targets of what should be learnt, it also includes flexibility for teachers to teach in the way that is best suited to them and their pupils.

Following the National Curriculum is a legal requirement for all state schools in England.  The Government publishes a handbook for each curriculum area detailing what should be taught at which age, and information to help teachers implement the curriculum into their teaching.

The National Curriculum is split into four ‘Key Stages’, each with its own curriculum and attainment targets:

Key Stage


School type


4 – 7 years

Infant School


7 – 11 years

Junior School


11 – 14 years

Secondary School


14 – 16 years

Secondary School (GCSE)


What does the National Curriculum say about languages?

MFL is, unlike every other subject, only compulsory at Key Stages 3 and 4, although the National Curriculum does provide ‘non-statutory guidance’ for teaching at Key Stage 2. According to the National Advisory Centre on Early Language Training (NACELT), only one in five primary schools teach MFL. This is mainly due to time constraints from other areas of the curriculum, and lack of specialist knowledge among primary school teachers. However, the Government’s recently announced plans (Ward, 2002) to optionally teach MFL from age seven in primary school means the UK may soon be in line with other European countries, where learning a foreign language is compulsory from an early age.

The UK National Curriculum for MFL is split into four attainment targets – listening, speaking, reading and writing. Each attainment target consists of eight ‘level descriptions’ of increasing difficulty, which describe the level of performance a pupil should show to be ranked at that level. Unlike some other NC subjects, the levels do not relate to specific topics within the subject, instead they give an indication of knowledge, skills and understanding of the target language. This is because the curriculum for MFL can include many different languages, for example French, German, Spanish, Russian, Chinese or Japanese, which all involve different structures, characters and other features, which, if specified individually would require a different curriculum for every possible language.

The National Curriculum for MFL (1999) indicates that pupils should:

·              Acquire knowledge and understanding of the target language

·              Develop language skills

·              Develop language-learning skills

·              Develop cultural awareness

Teachers are also encouraged to incorporate certain ‘cross-curricular’ skills into their lessons, including:

·              Spiritual, moral, social and cultural development

·              Communication, number, Information and Communication Technology (ICT), group-work, learning, problem solving and thinking skills

Likewise, skills learnt in MFL can be transferred to other areas of pupils’ education, for example:

·              Language structure and manipulation

·              Identifying gist and meaning of the unknown based on existing knowledge and other clues

·              Reading, writing, listening, speaking and memory skills

The National Curriculum (1999) states that during lessons, pupils and teachers are expected to use and respond in the target language (the language being learnt), and to only use English when necessary, for example discussing grammar or comparing the target language with English. This is an important consideration when designing a multimedia artefact, since all labels and instructions should be in the target language. However, as the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) argue in their Curriculum Software Initiative report for MFL (2000), this needs to be balanced against the need for pupils to work independently. This is often achieved through translation to English, or visual clues such as pictures, symbols or photos.

The National Curriculum (1999) states that by the end of Key Stage 3, pupils should be achieving level 5/6 in all four attainment targets. The statements of attainment at level 5 say that:

AT1: Listening & responding

Pupils understand and identify main points and specific details from familiar spoken language at near normal speed in everyday circumstances.

AT2: Speaking

Pupils make themselves understood with little or no difficulty while seeking and conveying information in short conversations about recent experiences, future plans, and everyday activities.

AT3: Reading and responding

Pupils understand written materials (including authentic materials) covering past, present and future events, identifying and noting main points and specific details, including opinions. They are generally confident in reading aloud, and in using reference materials.

AT4: Writing

Pupils produce short pieces of writing referring to recent experiences, future plans, everyday activities and opinions in simple sentences, with few mistakes. They use dictionaries or glossaries to check words they have learnt and to look up unknown words.


What does the National Curriculum say about ICT?

The National Curriculum (1999) states that ICT must be used in all subjects (apart from Physical Education) from Key Stage 2 onwards. 


What is the National Grid for Learning?

The NGfL was set up in 1998 by the government to provide a “national focal point for learning on the Internet” (About the NGfL, 2001). It provides a wide variety of information for teachers, learners (not just school children) and parents, as well as an index of links to good quality educational websites. The information provided on the site includes:

·              Advice and guidance

·              Learning / teaching materials

·              Reference materials

·              Career information, training and jobs

(An introduction to the NGfL, 2001)

In order to be listed on the NGfL, sites must meet certain criteria, which ensure they are reliable, trustworthy, and of educational value. These criteria include:

·              Having accurate, up-to-date and objective content

·              Being viewable on a wide range of browsers and systems

·              Legal aspects, including no copyright infringements

·              Having a clear way to provide feedback

·              Providing no direct access to undesirable materials or direct advertising

The NGfL sets minimum technical specifications too, to allow content to be viewed by the maximum number of people. Obviously this has an impact on the designer of any online artefact, who must keep within these guidelines. The latest version of the specifications  (NGfL: Ground rules and code of conduct for content providers: Technical Annex, second edition, 2001) is as follows:

·              800 x 600, 256 colour display (content may be built to higher specification but must degrade to this level without serious loss of quality)

·              A pointing device (e.g. mouse / trackball)

·              Netscape Navigator 4.0 and / or Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.01

·              Any plugins should be compatible with the above browsers, and where possible, the default plugins included with the browser should be used.

·              Platform independent – viewable on browsers running on: Windows 95+, Mac OS 7.5+, Risc OS, and mainstream Unix platforms.

·              Files should be stored in generic, cross-platform formats.

·              Baseline modem speed of 28.8Kbps

·              Optionally comply with Priority One of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (1999)


Ways of learning

It is essential to consider how a multimedia artefact will benefit the pupil – this requires consideration of the pedagogy and theories of learning surrounding language acquisition, which all affect the design and structure of the software. “The approaches and criteria used by developers as a basis for interface design are often based more on intuition and experience than on theory-based models” (Plass, 1998, p.35).

For a long time, much mainstream computer assisted learning software followed behaviourist theories of education – that the best way to learn was through drill and repeat exercises. This seemed to suit the way computers work – repeating questions infinitely, checking if an answer is correct or not, and keeping score. For language learning, this means, “the computer exists in isolation from the learner and from the language, as an occasional instructional tool to be used as needed” (Warschauer, 1999)

In the 1960s, Papert pioneered a new approach to teaching. This was based on the concept that rather than the computer asking questions, or telling the pupil what to do, the children would learn by telling the computer what to do, and learning from the results. This method had become known as ‘constructivist’ or ‘cognitive’ learning, since the child constructs his/her own path to knowledge (Druin, 1999). Papert and his colleagues used school children in the design process, testing and development of the Logo computer language. This was unusual at the time, and it was not until the late 1980s that it became commonplace for children to be used as testers of children’s software.

It is now widely accepted that cognitive learning is most appropriate for language teaching. Plass (1998) breaks down the cognitive learning process into six stages:

1.      Interpreting the performance goal

2.      Encoding or retrieving task-relevant declarative information

3.      Compiling and executing procedural knowledge

4.      Monitoring performance

5.      Identifying sources of error in performance

6.      Correcting errors in performance

If these stages can be incorporated into the design of a multimedia interface, in a way that eases pupils through this process, it should prove to be an effective cognitive learning tool.


The history of CALL

According to Delcloque (2000) CALL was first used in 1960, on the PLATO (Programming Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) system – a five million (US) dollar mainframe computer used both for teaching, as well as tracking progress and liasing between student and teachers (a facility which is still found on very few modern multimedia packages). Its first application in the field of CALL was teaching Russian. Many other languages followed, although the system was mainly used in rich universities with large computer science departments.

Mainframe systems like PLATO were used until the early 80s when microcomputers became commonplace in schools and universities, and the use of CALL became widespread. Around this time, videodisc players linked to computers brought the first taste of multimedia to learning – a concept that was, and still is, particularly appropriate to languages, as it could be used to convey sound and video on demand, allowing pupils to learn at their own pace. The invention of the CD-ROM in 1994 and World Wide Web in 1990 made computer assisted learning even more relevant to languages – although both technologies took several years to become widespread.


Why is multimedia appropriate for language learning?

Modern languages teachers have traditionally (in recent years) dealt with many different media – print, audio tapes, videos, slide projectors, overhead projectors, flashcards, etc. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, but all help with the language learning process; for example video can provide visual clues about what is being said, as well as reflecting the foreign culture, while written text is easier for beginners than spoken words, because it “stands still” (Davies & Hewer, 2001).

Multimedia uses electronic versions of all these traditional media, which can be combined, synchronised, and compared interactively. This kind of rich media experience is especially important “for the modern languages teacher for whom the spoken word is at least as important as the written” (Davies & Hewer, 2001).

Multimedia has several factors that make it especially appropriate for language learning:

1. Immediate feedback

When pupils do traditional paper based exercises, for example grammar, Davies and Hewer (2001) point out that “they often had to wait up to a week to get their work back, by which time they had moved on and tended to take more notice of their mark than their corrections”. Multimedia packages, however, can provide instant feedback – either offering a clue, or a correct answer with an explanation.

2. Pupils can move at their own pace

Faster pupils can continue to learn, accessing more detailed information about the target language, without being held back by slower pupils who may need a concept explaining several times. Rendall (1999) studied the behaviour of Key Stage 3 pupils using CALL, and noted that “the opportunity to repeat, manipulate and test oneself on a small amount of new language over and over again within a short space of time on the computer is welcomed by the majority of pupils rather than rejected.”

3. Motivation

MFL pupils find using computers highly motivating – “within 30 minutes even the most demotivated 14 year old would be too absorbed to notice the bell.” (Hewer, Rendall, Walker & Davies, 2001). Computers are associated with freedom, games and play by many children, which makes their use in school more appealing than an old-fashioned textbook.

Although multimedia is currently considered a ‘supplementary’ aspect of language learning, some believe that in the future it will become so ubiquitous that it will no longer be defined separately:

The truly powerful technologies are so integrated as to be invisible. We have no “BALL” (Book Assisted Language Learning), no “PALL” (Pen Assisted Language Learning), and no “LALL” (Library Assisted Language Learning). When we have no “CALL”, computers will have taken their place as a natural and powerful part of the language learning process. (Warschauer, 1999)


Why are online resources appropriate for language learning?

Recent teaching theory revolves around ‘constructivist’ and ‘socio-constructivist’ approaches – both considered communicative approaches, that put forward the ideas that pupils learn best from sharing experiences with their peers, with the teacher merely guiding them rather than simply passing down knowledge (Druin, 1996).

Online services seem to fit with these theories perfectly – for example, the Internet give pupils the ability to access authentic, up-to-date, topical online materials in the target language, such as daily news or film reviews, or to use real life websites, e.g. German rail timetables, or a French hotel search. The National Curriculum (1999) encourages the use of language “for real purposes” and “in a variety of contexts, including everyday activities, personal and social life, the world around us, the world of work and the international world”.

Pupils can also interact with others, including similarly aged speakers of the target language, over the Internet – via e-mail, e-mailing lists, chat rooms, and video conferencing. Electronic communication is considered less formal than traditional letter writing, so pupils may be more motivated than traditional ‘pen-pal’ schemes. It is well recognised that interaction is one of the best ways of learning – so called ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ (Lave & Wenger, 1991, as cited in Saarenkunnas, Kuure & Taalas, 2001).

Warschauer (1999) concludes that “all this points to the use of the computer as part of the environment of language learning, rather than just as an optional instrument. … Just as students learn to read and write in print environments, they also must learn to read and write in electronic environments for success in the 21st century.”

Online resources also give teachers access to many thousands of educational resources (for example, the NGfL and its associated links). These are produced not only by multimedia publishers, but often by fellow teachers, wishing to share the material they have created with other teachers. This material is nearly always available for free.

Despite the fact that most schools now have Internet access from the majority of their computers (DfES survey, 2001), many teachers prefer to download web pages and sites, and store them locally on their networks (Walker, Saarenkunnas, Kuure & Taalas, 2001). This is often due to bandwidth constraints, or to guard against a particular site being offline when it is required for a lesson, but also to keep pupils ‘on task’, without distraction from other (often unsuitable) material found on the Internet. Some teachers use off line storage to adapt downloaded material – either to change material that is too complex, or to tailor it to their particular needs. However, this is often not possible, for example due to complex server side interactivity. This aspect of usage should be considered, as part of the design process, by CALL developers.


What CALL resources are available?

The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency’s (BECTA) Curriculum Software Initiative report for MFL (2000) notes that much of the software used in teaching MFL consists of generic applications, rather than specific CALL software. For example word processors, web browsing, e-mail, and presentation packages are frequently used. Although CALL applications are also used, BECTA says that they “make up an inconsistent picture, some offering debatable value” (p. 3). Many packages are aimed at pupils revising at home, rather than for use in the classroom. Very few new classroom-based CALL packages are produced – mainly because of the limited size of the potential market for software publishers, compared with the more lucrative home market. This is also due to the increasing use of online materials, which offer more up-to-date information, more choice of authentic material, and interaction with others (including native speakers of the target language) than CD-ROMs.


What problems exist with CALL?

Despite having many advantages, several problems still exist with CALL, including:

·              Most software available only covers French, German and Spanish. Other languages, although part of the National Curriculum, have very few resources available. For example, 25 French sites are currently listed on the NGfL, but only 4 sites cover Russian.

·              Most software cannot accurately check grammar and offer intelligent feedback in the same way a human teacher can.

·              Technology is not advanced enough to ‘listen’ to the pupil speaking, and to offer guidance and feedback on their pronunciation and accent, let alone on their tone or appropriateness in the same way a human teacher can. Although technology and systems exist to offer basic speech recognition, they are largely ignored by most MFL teachers. Ehsani and Knodt (1998) argue that with an understanding of the limitations inherent in current technologies, they can still be put to good use in the language classroom.

·              Video and audio is intensive on computers and networks, while using CD-ROM based materials with large groups is also not practical. Many network managers and technicians do not appreciate how important multimedia elements are to CALL.

·              Many CALL products are simply drill and repeat exercises – with little regard for pedagogical concerns. According to Davies (2001), “the main reason why multimedia applications have not been widely adopted by language teachers is that the creators of multimedia applications have been singularly lacking in imagination”.


What type / specifications of computers are used in schools?

The most recent government figures from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), in their annual survey of ICT in schools (2001) show that in secondary schools, on average, 64% of computers are under 3 years old, and over 67% have multimedia facilities. There is evidence that computers are being replaced and upgraded increasingly rapidly – the 1998 survey found that 43% of computers were under 3 years old, and only 25% of computers had multimedia facilities. This means it is now possible to design with modern multimedia computers in mind, since they form the majority of machines used in schools, and older machines are constantly being replaced.


What type of Internet access is available in schools?

The Government’s target for the minimum level of ICT provision in secondary schools states that by 2002, every school should have some kind of Internet connection – and 20% of schools should have broadband access (DfES Statistics, 2001). The latest statistics state that over 99% of secondary schools now have an Internet connection, and that 84% of computers in secondary schools are linked to the Internet.

However, many of these connections are relatively slow – 74% of online secondary schools use ISDN2 or slower – this connection is shared between an average of 108 computers, which means, if several computers are accessing the Internet simultaneously, bandwidth available to each computer is very limited. For this reason it is very important to take bandwidth considerations into account when designing an online artefact.


How are computers used in the classroom?

The Government’s target for the minimum level of ICT provision in secondary schools states that by 2002, there should be a computer to pupil ratio of at least 1:7. (DfES Statistics, 2001). The current national average stands just above this at 7.1 pupils per computer, in secondary schools (DfES Statistics, 2001) – although obviously not every pupil in the school would be using a computer simultaneously, which means pupils often have a computer to themselves.

The use of computers within the teaching of modern foreign languages varies greatly between schools. The 2001 DfES survey of ICT in Schools found that 43% of schools make ‘substantial’ use of ICT in language teaching, while 57% make ‘little or no’ use. The research also questioned teachers as to whether they found ICT usage in each curriculum area to have a beneficial effect on learners. 42% of teachers thought that ICT had a ‘substantial’ beneficial effect, while 58% thought it had ‘little or no’ beneficial effect. One could draw the conclusion that, since these figures are remarkably similar (the proportion of schools that make substantial use of ICT in languages is almost exactly the same that consider it to have a beneficial effect), that increasing the amount of ICT usage in languages does actually increase the benefits enjoyed by pupils.

Hewer, Rendall, Walker and Davies (2001) note that when computers were first introduced into schools, due to their high cost and size, it was common for the teacher to bring one computer into a classroom, and teach the whole class using it. Teachers found that showing and participating in exercises on screen helped pupils’ confidence grow, and they were more willing to ‘have a go’ when the screen was the focus of the class, rather than when the person offering the answer was the centre of attention. Recently, as computers have become cheaper and more commonplace, most schools have computer labs (rooms full of networked computers), often with a specific lab for languages. There is some concern that this can lead to a ‘battery chicken’ approach to learning – rows of pupils all doing more or less the same thing, with no input from the teacher. (Davis, 2001)


Teachers’ training and experience

Another factor that affects computer usage in the classroom is teachers’ ICT experience and confidence. The DfES survey found that only 70% of teachers felt confident to use ICT in the curriculum, and that only 53% had received training in its use in the last two years. For this reason it is important that any CALL artefact should be easily usable by the teacher who may have little or no technical expertise.


Special Educational Needs

The National Curriculum (1999) makes allowances in MFL for pupils’ with disabilities that prevent them from achieving in a particular attainment target; for example, pupils with hearing impairments may not be able to complete the requirements for listening and responding. It recommends that where appropriate, these aspects should be discounted from assessment.


The input of teachers and pupils in the design process

The Web has enabled many teachers, both in the UK and around the world to publish and share their own course materials. However, teachers are generally not graphic designers or computer programmers, so much of the material to be found, while pedagogically functional, may not be visually pleasing, and aspects such as Human Computer Interaction (HCI) may not be to professional standards. Teachers do not have the time to learn multimedia authoring packages, in order to create educational artefacts, yet their role is key – since pedagogical considerations must take precedence over technical concerns.

One of the key factors to making a successful learning artefact is the ability for it to appeal to its users. Children are notoriously difficult to please; they have their own tastes, likes, dislikes, and needs, which are often different from adults’. As Druin (1999, p.1) points out, “designers of new technologies for children sometimes forget that young people are not just short adults”.

However, it is incorrect just to ask children what they want – as Nielsen (2001) points out, the “first rule of usability [is] – don’t listen to users” – the best way of finding out what works and what appeals to users is to observe them using computers, and see what they actually do. People, when questioned, tend to say what they think the researcher wants to hear. He gives the example of a shopping site asking its users if they wanted 3D views of products – while 50% of people may say ‘yes’, this really means they think 3D product views are ‘cool’ – not that they will use them, or even find them useful.

In order to make a CALL artefact as successful as possible, it is necessary to consult with both teachers (to ensure the final product is accurate and pedagogically sound), and children (to ensure it is something they will enjoy using and find stimulating). Testing the artefact with both groups at major stages of design and production is also important to ensure everything is proceeding correctly.

Gimeno-Sanz and Davies (2001) suggest that the development team of a CALL artefact should include at least:

·              A subject specialist, responsible for providing content and pedagogical input

·              A developer, with knowledge of an appropriate authoring package, e.g. Macromedia Director or Flash

·              A graphic designer – an artefact may have very effective content and programming, but if it is not visually accessible, the artefact will fail

And, where appropriate:

·              A sound engineer and video technician, if the artefact includes these media

·              A professional photographer

·              An instructional designer with a background in cognitive psychology and media technology

·              A native speaker, to provide authentic pronunciation recording

Plus, of course, a group of pupils to test the artefact.

Chapter 3: Methodology

Case study

The ‘Alien Language’ online CALL artefact was designed for pupils at Key Stage 3 of the National Curriculum. The artefact was to cover just one aspect of vocabulary that is taught by most schools. Although several topics, such as ‘Shopping’, ‘School’ and ‘Numbers’ were considered, it was decided that ‘Body Parts’ gave the most scope for visual learning, and interactive opportunities. The topic also encompassed ‘Illness’, as the vocabulary is very similar for both.

The artefact was to be used not as a primary teaching tool, but rather as reinforcement for vocabulary and sentence structures taught in the traditional way, in the classroom.


Learning objectives

The learning objectives of a CALL artefact, according to the National Curriculum, include:


National Curriculum for MFL reference

Learning and retaining vocabulary

Programme of study, 1c

Using language creatively and imaginatively

Programme of study, 5f

Producing and responding to different types of spoken and written language, including texts produced using ICT

Programme of study, 5d



When designing the artefact, it was assumed that its users would have

·              Previously been taught basic vocabulary and sentence structures of body parts, and illness

·              Knowledge of basic grammar techniques, for example pluralisation

·              Basic IT skills, including operating a mouse, and using a keyboard

·              A modern, multimedia computer with sound facilities

·              Access to the Web, and the Flash 5 plug-in



Pedagogical considerations

Instructions and commands must be consistent, clear and concise. This is both so the pupil can concentrate on learning the target language, rather than trying to understand what they are meant to be doing, but also because reading text and instruction on a computer screen is much more difficult and around 30% slower than reading from paper (Gimeno-Sanz & Davies, 2001).

Not all pupils learn at the same pace – within one secondary class there may be great variation in the maturity and intellect of the pupils. It was therefore considered useful to include difficulty options, for example ‘easy / hard’. This could change the vocabulary available, the time available to complete an exercise, or some other aspect of a particular activity. This approach, often found in computer games, can be used as an incentive to progress – for example once an activity has been completed at the easy level, it could then be attempted at a higher level. It also stops less able pupils being frustrated by an activity they cannot complete. In the initial version of the Alien Language, these facilities were not included. However they could be added in future versions.

As previously discussed, one of the advantages of CALL over traditional learning methods is the availability of instant, personal feedback on any problems or mistakes. It is generally accepted that any negative feedback should be meaningful, and offer suggestions on what mistake has been made, and what can be done to rectify it (extrinsic feedback), rather than simply giving a ‘Wrong’ or ‘Try again’ message (intrinsic feedback). In Alien Language, whenever a question is answered incorrectly, the correct answer is always shown immediately, and left on screen until the user clicks onto the next question – allowing them as much time as they require in order to read and understand the feedback they are given. In future versions, where an answer is nearly, but not quite correct, the pupil may be given the chance to correct their mistake, rather than be frustrated at getting a question wrong because of one minor error, although this will require complex artificial intelligence to acknowledge the difference between a minor and major error.

Positive feedback too can be useful for reinforcement. Gimeno-Sanz and Davies (2001) observed that pupils find it encouraging to receive positive feedback, either visually or aurally, on successfully completing an exercise. Several different positive messages have been included in Alien Language, which are shown upon successful completion of a question or activity.


Multimedia considerations

Druin et al (1998) observed and interviewed many children about their use, needs and wishes for technology, in an effort to involve them in the design process. They concluded that the main things that children want in technology are:

·              Control – children are generally reliant on others, and have their lives controlled by their parents. The feeling of owning or controlling an environment is very positive for them.

·              Social experiences – children naturally want to be with other children, and online or multimedia environments are no exception. Children tend to co-operate when focussing on a computer; this co-operation extended across age groups or geographical location, where no co-operation would usually take place or be possible.

·              Expressive tools – children like telling stories, making up games or building things.

To make the pupil feel more involved in the activities in Alien Language, they are asked to enter their name at the beginning – this is not only to allow (in future versions) teachers to track pupils’ progress, but also to allow personalisation throughout the artefact. So, for example, the pupils name appears above their score, and they are greeted personally in several of the activities (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Personalisation

Multimedia is especially useful for the learning of languages – it offers the ability to hear words pronounced, allowing the pupil to perfect his/her own pronunciation and accent. In traditional language learning, the user would have to rely on tapes, or the teacher to give a correct pronunciation of a foreign word or phrase. Using multimedia, the pupil can interactively repeat a word or phrase until they are happy with it.

The main methods of distributing multimedia over the web are:






·         Allows text and bitmap images

·         Basic interaction available via JavaScript

·         Quick to download

·         Settings (such as font size) can be overridden by users

·         Standard format that can be read by many different browsers and platforms

·         Only basic, non-standard support for sound

·         Different browsers, operating systems, and platforms all require separate coding and testing

·         Requires server-side programming to allow complex interaction


·         Allows text and vector images

·         Allows animation

·         Allows sound

·         Allows control over fonts

·         Complex interaction possible through ActionScript

·         Quick to download

·         Streams data

·         Appears identical across platforms

·         Requires plug-in

·         Requires specialist authoring software


Director Shockwave

·         Allows text, vector and bitmap images

·         Allows animation

·         Allows sound

·         Allows control over fonts

·         Complex interaction possible through Lingo

·         Streams data

·         Appears identical across platforms

·         Requires large plug-in download

·         Requires specialist authoring software


It was decided that the most appropriate media for Alien Language would be Macromedia Flash, because it allows complex interaction, animation, and feedback to the user. The required plug-in is installed on 98.3% of web-enabled computers (Macromedia, 2001), and if not preinstalled, is a very small download.



When designing a CALL artefact, there are two main methods of structuring the learning experience. The first is a linear structure, where pupils are shown examples and asked questions about fixed topics in a fixed order, in much the same way as a television documentary might show one concept after another, but with no control or interaction from the user. The pupil cannot progress to the next activity until the previous one is completed successfully. The order and content must be decided on in advance by either the artefact’s producers, or by a teacher, if such facilities exist in the software.

The second is an interactive structure, much like a website, which allows pupils to choose which order they visit lessons and activities, and move between them at a pace which is suitable for their learning abilities. Although this gives more freedom to the pupil, it also risks the pupil not attempting challenging activities, or clicking aimlessly around, with no focus to their learning.

One way of overcoming this problem is to design the software as a series of games or challenges. Competing against other pupils at the same machine or in the same class can be motivating, and encourages pupils to attempt activities, even those which they may consider too difficult, in order to get the highest score in the class, or to redo the activity, to improve on previous performances.

It is useful for the teacher to have some kind of method to check which pupils have attempted which activity. This may be through a tracking system, online database, or something as simple as symbols on the screen which can indicate to a supervising teacher at once whether the pupil has attempted an activity, and the level of achievement he / she has attained.

Figure 2: Ticks indicate which activities have been completed, and the score achieved

Alien Language uses large ticks on the navigation bar to indicate an activity has been completed, and displays the score achieved underneath (Figure 2). This allows the supervising teacher to quickly view how well the pupil is doing, and suggest which activities they need to repeat in order to improve their scores.



It was felt that rather than a series of disparate, abstract, generic activities, it would be more enjoyable for the intended audience if the whole artefact told a story, with activities themed in an imaginative way. Several settings were considered, but eventually it was decided that the artefact should be set aboard an alien space ship, whose mission is to collect specimens of creatures from around the galaxy. This gave opportunity to show alien creatures with different numbers of body parts, which would be more interesting than just looking at diagrams or picture of people, as normally found in language textbooks. Each activity was chosen, and ‘scripted’ so it fits in with the storyline.

Children are familiar with the concept of science fiction storylines, and it was hoped that pupils would find this much more enjoyable than simple exercises with no setting, or motive to complete them.


Separating content from functionality

Since the National Curriculum allows for a wide variety of languages to be learnt, yet all with the same attainment targets and levels of achievement, it seems reasonable that any activity that is pedagogically sound and useful for teaching one language should work in any other target language, simply by changing the language of the vocabulary, labels and instructions, but keeping the same graphics, activities and interface. Modern object oriented multimedia authoring systems, for example Macromedia Flash, mean it is easy to include multiple languages with very little extra download time – and the user can simply select which language they are learning from a list.

In Alien Language, all language content and user interface text is kept in external text files. This not only allows for easy updating and translating of material, but also means the artefact can easily be adapted to use different languages in the future, simply by loading a different file. It also means it can be used to teach English to foreign speakers. If a teacher wishes, for example, to change the wording of an instruction, to make it simpler, or harder, for more advanced students, it is possible for them to download the artefact and simply adapt the text file. In the future this could be achieved via online tools.

Figure 3: Extract from text file

During production, all elements of text were stored in a database, which could then generate the files to be loaded into the artefact. This allowed for simple updating of the text, and also carried out the appropriate character encoding (Figure 3) to allow it to be imported successfully into the artefact.


Design considerations

The visual and information design of an artefact is key to making it successful. While it may contain the best pedagogy, and the best content in the world, if the user cannot work out how to begin, what they have to do, where they have to go next, or what a particular button does, then they cannot gain any benefit from it. Similarly, if they have to spend all their mental processing power trying to decipher an interface or cryptic icons, they are concentrating less, and absorbing less of what they are meant to be learning.


Graphical style

Creating an appealing graphical style is key to the accessibility and effectiveness of an artefact – the world around most school children is very visual, fast moving, and active. Dull, unattractive pages would fail to engage pupils, which in turn would lead to them not receiving the full benefit of the information on offer.

Several visual styles were considered – including Plasticine animated models, and modern ‘club-style’ graphics. In the end, however, it was felt that a traditional cell-animation cartoon style was appropriate. Cartoons are popular and accessible by all ages, from children to adults, and are well suited to the Flash environments, since solid outlines and flat fill colours allow for very small file sizes.

Although set on a high tech spaceship, the style of the screens and activities was supposed to have a ‘Heath Robinson’ feel (Figure 4) – a spaceship held together by old fashioned technology. All the elements were also designed to be consistent across all activities – initially each activity was to have its own style of buttons, timer, etc. but it was felt that pupils may get confused by different interface on each screen, and a coherent approach would be more user friendly. A single design (Figures 5 and 6) was used for both for all activities (except ‘Who Want to be a Winner’).

Figure 4: Typical Heath Robinson contraption

Figure 5: Standard button

Figure 6: Standard timer



One of the most important design considerations is the choice of font. Reading text and instruction on a computer screen is much more difficult and around 30% slower than reading from paper (Gimeno-Sanz & Davies, 2001), which, combined with the fact that children may not be able to read as quickly or accurately as adults, especially in a foreign language, mean that any font must be clear and legible. One of the major hurdles with designing for the web in HTML is the lack of control over fonts, which relies on a user having a particular font installed on their system. Products such as Macromedia Flash have overcome this problem to an extent, by embedding fonts within the file itself, although this does add slightly (dependant upon the font) to the download time required.

Bernard, Mills, Frank and McKowen (2001) have investigated which of the standard (i.e. installed on most web enabled computers) fonts are most appealing and legible to children, and at which sizes. Their results showed that 14 pt Comic Sans (Figure 7) was ranked top in ease and speed of reading, and attractiveness. This may be because of its similarity to children’s handwriting, or that it looks ‘less adult’ and less formal than, for example, Times New Roman (which was ranked bottom in all categories, see figure 8).


a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z


Figure 7: 14 pt, Comic Sans


a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z


Figure 8: 14 pt, Times New Roman


It was decided to use Comic Sans for much of the text that appears in Alien Language – particularly any text that appears in speech bubbles, and text entered by the user. Other fonts were used for atmospheric and design reasons on some elements, but it was ensured that these were all clear, readable, and contained a full set of characters (including accents).



The teaching of MFL presents further technical challenges to the multimedia developer – foreign languages often require accented characters, or in some cases, for example Russian or Greek, completely different alphabets. Most European languages however use standard Roman characters, with most fonts generally including accented characters. With a standard English keyboard, accented characters are only accessible by entering a numeric code for the character (which must be looked up first, using a special application) while holding down the ALT key. For example to enter the character ‘è’ the user has to hold down ALT and enter 0232 on the numeric keypad. This may be a problem for disabled users, or younger children who have not developed the co-ordination skills required to accomplish this. There is also the problem of remembering the code numbers for dozens of different accents – French, for examples, commonly uses around 13 accented characters.

One common solution to this problem is the use of a small software program that provides direct access to the accented characters. One such example is FrKeys, by Patrick Smears of Camsoft (


Figure 9: FrKeys toolbar

Figure 10: Alien Language accents toolbar

This small toolbar (Figure 9) appears on top of all open windows, and clicking on an accented character inserts it into whatever application is currently open. However, in order to avoid any incompatibilities with Flash, or confusion for the user, for example when Alien Language is running full screen, it was decided that the artefact should include its own set of accent keys for activities that involve entering text (Figure 10). Although few of the body parts require accented characters, it was felt the feature should be included to allow for expansion to other languages in the future.



The minimum standard specified for sites included on the NGfL only permits the basic palette of colours available for web design, which is restricted to the 216 ‘Web safe’ colours that can be displayed on an 8-bit (256 colour) display on both Windows and Mac systems. Any graphics or photos which use more must degrade gracefully to this level, although the majority of systems in use today can display several thousand colours at once, which provides more realistic photos and higher quality graphics. Alien Language’s main navigation and activities use the web-safe colours, although some of the more detailed drawings use non-web-safe colours. However, these degrade gracefully, and the artefact is still useable on 256 colour display equipment.

It is also important for the designer to consider contrast between colours, for visually impaired users, who may need high levels of contrast between the text and the background in order to read it. Colour blindness is also a consideration – 8% of males, and 0.5% of females suffer from some kind of colour blindness (Hess, 2000). Certain colours, which to normally sighted people appear different, can all look the same to colour blind individuals. This can render certain colour schemes into just one large indistinguishable block. This aspect was not tested, as the group of user testers did not include any colour blind individuals. However, this is an area that may require further testing, in order to establish there are no problems for some pupils.


Sound and video

The use of sound in online CALL artefacts is limited by technical factors, since HTML does not natively allow sound to be used; instead plugins such as Apple QuickTime or Macromedia Flash must be used. However, the major hurdle to overcome is the large amount of bandwidth that good quality audio consumes. Recent advances in technology such as MP3 allow high compression of audio material, but the file size is, in practical terms, still constrained to short words or phrases, rather than entire lessons or real time communication. The use of Macromedia Flash allows sound to be preloaded and used interactively, either as background ambience, or in the foreground as a direct learning aid, for example pronunciation of foreign words. In order for the pronunciation of the key vocabulary to sound authentic and be reliable, it was necessary to use a native speaker of the language. A badly spoken, or mispronounced word would be as fatal an error as a spelling mistake, since the National Curriculum values listening and speaking equally as highly as reading and writing.

Some multimedia packages allow pupils to record their own voices, and play it back, comparing it against a native speaker. This allows the pupil to hear his/her voice as others hear it, which allows more accurate correction of any accent or pronunciation errors. However, this kind of interaction is not currently available with Flash, and relies on hardware that is not common to all computers, and so was not possible to implement in Alien Language.

Video, which has traditionally been used in MFL teaching in the past using VHS and Laserdiscs, also suffers from the same restrictions as audio, in an online environment. It requires large amounts of bandwidth, and even with a fast connection, picture and audio quality is often unacceptable for language learning, which relies on setting, context, gestures and facial expression to help convey the meaning of unfamiliar situations to pupils. Combined with the challenges of filming high quality video (both from a technical and an acting point of view), it was decided that video was not appropriate for this artefact.



When considering which activities to include in Alien Language, great care was taken to choose activities that would benefit from being carried out on a computer, rather than by traditional methods, for example adding sound, instant feedback, or animation.

All activities must have a stimulus, a response, and a learning objective. Several common values of each include:




·              Audio

·              Video

·              Visual (photo / drawing)

·              Written

·              Multiple choice answers

·              Free text answer

·              Drag and drop

·              Fill in the gaps

·              Clickable images

·              Reordering words

·              Speaking (either recorded onto computer or to a partner)

·              Sentence construction / grammar

·              Spelling

·              Vocabulary building

·              Reinforcement


When planning activities for Alien Language, an effort was made to include as wide a variety of activities as possible, to prevent them becoming too repetitive. There are several established types of activity incorporating many of the points above, that can be converted to multimedia use, including:

·              Hangman

·              Crossword

·              Word search

·              Matching words and pictures

·              Branching dialogues

·              Platform / console style game

·              Spelling games

·              Quiz games

Boyle (1997, p. 40) points out that games “promote imaginative engagement” and can “produce engagement and delight in learning”. Computer games are a part of popular culture, and are played by many children for pleasure. Although some adults might see them as frivolous and an un-educational waste of time, anything that appeals to, and motivates children, must have some positive benefits to their education.

It was decided to include the following activities:







Aliens need help identifying aliens to beam them aboard. Users must correctly identify the correct numbers of body parts.

Visual (drawings), Text (names of body parts)

Multiple choice (select the correct number)

Vocabulary building and reinforcement

Body Museum

Aliens need help labelling part of the body in their museum. Users have to correctly type the label for each specimen.

Visual (drawings)

Free text answer

Grammar, spelling, vocabulary building, reinforcement


Aliens are ill, and the doctor needs help identifying what is wrong with parts of the body.

Visual (drawings)

Reordering words

Sentence construction, grammar, reinforcement

‘Who Want to be a Winner’

Quiz show on the ship’s interactive TV. Asks multiple choice questions which get harder as the game progresses.


Multiple choice

Grammar, spelling, vocabulary building, reinforcement


In order to make the activities seem more like a computer game, a time limit of 30 seconds was included for each question, and a scoring system was included. This was to add some competitiveness and urgency to answering the questions – and to prevent pupils becoming distracted and losing interest in the activity. To encourage them to answer as quickly as possible, a bonus is given, depending how quickly the question has been answered.


Offline / non computer based activities

No learning artefact exists in isolation. In the case of Alien Language, it was intended to be used as support and revision for language that had already been taught to pupils. It was considered that there should be some kind of offline activity, particularly to test aspect such as speaking, which cannot be achieved successfully in software. It was also thought that downloaded worksheets for teachers to print and use in class, either before or after using the artefact would be useful.


Help and dictionaries

As mentioned previously, it is recognised by the National Curriculum and BECTA that in the field of language learning, access to, and knowing how to use dictionaries and glossaries correctly, is useful for revising existing words and essential for learning new ones.

Figure 11: Alien Language Dictionary

 It was decided to include a specialised dictionary in Alien Language, comprising the key vocabulary used in the artefact, represented visually. The dictionary (Figure 11) is available at any time by simply clicking an icon. However, it was considered that pupils may rely on the dictionary, and keep referring back to it for every question of every activity, and so some kind of penalty should be introduced to the pupil’s score every time the dictionary is viewed. User testing, however, found this was not a problem, and would unnecessarily penalise weaker students. Since the National Curriculum encourages the use of dictionaries, it was thought their use should not be punished.

One of the problems identified with existing multimedia products is the fact that instructions are only provided in the target language. Although this is recommended by the National Curriculum, in practice it leads to confusion, as teachers have to spend a lot of time explaining what pupils are meant to be doing, instead of simply teaching it. As previously discusses, BECTA (2000, p.2) note that “there is an argument in favour of target language menus, but this needs to be balanced against the need to enable pupils to work independently.”

A solution identified for Alien Language, was to include all instructions and interface elements in the target language, but make an instant translation into the pupils’ native language available by holding down the ‘Control’ key. This prevents them from completing the whole activity in their native language, but adds a ‘safety net’ so they can receive help, without interrupting the lesson or distracting the supervising teacher. It was also considered to put a ‘score’, of how many times it has been used. The teacher could then gauge how much help the pupil had required during the activity. However, this was not included in the current version of the artefact.


Information for teachers and parents

Whilst most of a CALL artefact is aimed at the end users (i.e. pupils), it is also helpful to include, either within the artefact, or in a separate package, notes on:

·              How to use the artefact

·              Troubleshooting guide, and how to get help

·              Information about how the artefact relates to the National Curriculum

·              The level of pupil performance it is aimed at, and how many hours of tuition it could provide

·              Options to allow the teacher to track the progress of individual pupils and classes.

(Gimeno-Sanz & Davies, 2001)

In the case of Alien Language, a separate HTML page is provided, externally to the main artefact, to allow parents and teachers to access this information. It was considered to include a web based tracking system, so teachers can track the progress of individual students and classes. However, this would require substantial server side programming and databases, as well as registration by teachers and / or pupils, and was not included in the initial version of the artefact.



Chapter 4: Results

User testing background

The Alien Language artefact was extensively trialled and user tested throughout its production. This was done with the assistance of Mary Hutson, Head of Languages at King Edward VI High School in Stafford. King Edward VI High School is a typical comprehensive school, catering for ages 11 – 18 years. It has good computer facilities, with a ratio of students to computers higher than the national average. ICT is used in most subjects, and most pupils are computer literate.


Initial research

Visits were carried out before the artefact was created, to establish the needs, likes and dislikes of the intended audience, and the semi-completed artefact was tested on the same group of children four months later. Opinions and ideas were also sought from several members of the teaching staff, regarding what kinds of activities are popular, what motivates pupils, and what activities should be avoided.

The vocabulary used in the artefact was based on that included in the textbook currently used by this, and many other schools, ‘Route Nationale’.

The group of children that took part in user testing were a lower-ability set of Year 7 pupils, which although not representative of the whole school population, provided a range of abilities and needs.

After the initial research session, it was discovered that pupils enjoyed surfing the web, and producing creative materials (such as posters), particularly when they could print their work at the end of the session. Pupils enjoyed participating in several different activities over the course of a lesson, and so wanted something that did not require a long attention span. Teachers mentioned that pupils like doing things they are not meant to – such as defacing photos on web sites, or playing games when they are meant to be working, and that if an artefact included this sort of activity, pupils would enjoy it, since it did not seem to them as if they are working!


User testing results

During user testing it was found that adding elements of competitiveness, such as score, and a timer, greatly helped the motivation of the pupils, particularly amongst boys.

Several problems occurred with pupils not recognising graphics. Several were redrawn in order to make identification clearer. There was also an element of confusion identifying between similar parts of the body, for example distinguishing between shoulders, arms and hands (Figure 12).

Figure 12: Arm, or hand?

Another problem was the portrayal of ‘hidden’ parts of the body, for example stomachs, throats and backs. This was overcome, to an extent, by creating aliens with particularly prominent versions of these features (Figure 13). These problems are to be addressed in future updates to the artefact.

Figure 13: One way of representing a sore throat

Several usability problems were identified, including the ‘dials’ that were used on the ‘Transporter’ activity (Figure 14). It was not immediately obvious how to operate them, and many users did not recognise that they turned to different numbers. These were eventually replaced by sliding switches (Figure 15), which have a much more obvious interface, and work much more successfully.

Figure 14: Old dial

Figure 15: New dial

It was also pointed out that download times may be a problem – the artefact is currently nearly 500Kb in size. Several aspects of the artefact could be optimised to reduce this, or to minimise the interruption, some kind of game or animation to play while the download is taking place would benefit the user. Many UK school do access the Web through a high speed connection (as mentioned previously), and / or cache content to allow fast retrieval from local networks. Since Alien Language does not, at the moment, require any server side activity, once the artefact has been cached locally, it should not need online access again, allowing future access attempts to be much quicker. So, for example, if 20 pupils in the same class access the artefact, it only has to be downloaded once.

Further user testing will be carried out when the next version of the artefact is produced, including other languages than French. This should also include a wider sample, possibly including younger children.


Chapter 5: Discussion

Future developments

There are several areas of Alien Language that can, and will be developed in the future:

·              Improve quality, and animate icons on navigation bar

·              Choice of multiple languages including French, Spanish, German and English. Any language can be chosen as the native language, and any as the target, to allow the artefact’s use in many different countries.

·              Improve graphical style throughout, to aim for a consistent and professional look and feel.

·              Sound can help create atmosphere and mood, so more background sound and sound effects would produce a better artefact

·              Inclusion of user tracking features, so teachers can check the progress of their students, even when they are working independently, or at home.

·              More offline worksheets, and possibly more activities that allow two players to participate on the same computer at once.

·              Inclusion of some kind of creative activity, possible as a distraction while data is being downloaded. For example a paint activity where pupils could colour an alien, or a ‘construct-an-alien’ activity.

·              More user testing using a wider range of pupils

Because of the cartoon style and accessibility of Alien Language, in the future it may be useful for younger children than the target audience of 11-14 year olds. As mentioned previously, the Government plans to offer MFL in primary schools by 2012, meaning in the future there may be an increasing market for CALL artefacts aimed at a younger audience.

The ideas and concepts of Alien Language could be developed further to cover other topics and aspects of language – in theory a whole language could be taught using the fun games and characters that have been established here.


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