lnteractivity in CALL Courseware Design Carla Meskill University of Massachusetts/Boston

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1 lnteractivity in CALL Courseware Design Carla Meskill University of Massachusetts/Boston ABSTRACT: This article discusses three crucial elements to be considered in the design of CALL. These design attributes, environment, visuals, and timing, play key roles in determining and assessing the presently unclear notion of interactivity in CALL courseware. KEYWORDS: CALL design, courseware, environments, interactivity, language instruction, timing, video, visuals The term interactivity is becoming more and more closely associated with some ideal relationship between language learners and CALL courseware. Not an advertisement for teaching software exists that does not, in some way, boast of the programs as being interactive, meaning in some way, very good. As with most popularly coined words whose true definitions grey with overuse, the notion of interactivity in teaching technologies has become, and risks remaining, vague. Interactive is now almost a generic term that not only software publishers, but others involved in the discussion of CALL feel obligated to use to refer to some ideal that has yet to be clearly defined, let alone observed. Clearly, there are many sides or dimensions to the issue of courseware interactivity. It is by considering specific CALL program design features which must determine this quality that the term interactive can best be approached. Courseware generated environments, along with the use of visuals and timing, can be good starting points from which to isolate and look critically at design issues for CALL. Environment In general, computers are currently viewed as tools for students to think with, not as master taskmakers (Higgins 1983, Stevens 1984, Underwood 1984). Drill and practice may have its place in language learning, for a variety of subordinate skills must be automatic to contribute to the productive working memory (Gagne 1982). Yet the trend in language teaching curricula has been to use the language or, more specifically, create environments which promote and CALICO Journal, Volume 5 Number 1 9

2 encourage real communication by language students. Attempts at creating a rich linguistic environment for students almost always mean creating a place for students to make mistakes, discuss them, and ultimately acquire language. The content, or rules, grow out of such an environment. In this way, students can feel free to explore various uses of the language through employing the language for immediate, meaningful communication. The teacher provides a situation, an "as if" in which students willingly suspend their disbelief long enough to take a part and participate as the group explores a new environment and experiments with usage. As with successful language classroom environments, computergenerated environments must be dynamic, flexible, challenging, and engaging. From drill, practice and tutorial to games and simulations, effective language teaching courseware must invite active participation by the student if the ultimate goal of acquisition is to be reached. An energetic, forward-moving environment which engages the student's curiosity and encourages a willing suspension of disbelief can achieve effects similar to, if not superior to, teachergenerated classroom environments. Attractive environments which invite exploration, experimentation, and risk-taking have the design attributes which enable the type of interactivity conducive to language acquisition. Visuals Easily readable, uncluttered and consistently laid out screen displays best effect positive learning outcomes in all subject areas. Second language instruction, being no exception, requires an even greater degree of clarity in text layout and general display quality for obvious reasons. Text is not just a medium for conveying information. It is, to a great extent, what is being taught: the target language. For this reason it is important that text be written in a structurally clear and grammatical way yet have a conversational rather than bookish tone. It is also important that text appear properly highlighted in well-chosen areas on the screen for easiest access. Consistency and regularity in word choice and patterns will determine the ability of the user to interact with the system. In addition to today's sophisticated high resolution graphics capabilities, the incorporation of running video and sequences of video still frames are forcing CALL designers to consider a myriad of implications concerning yet another medium: the pictorial. Common sense would say that the principles of employing pictures (and video) as teaching aids in the classroom can be applied. CALICO Journal, Volume 5 Number 1 10

3 Rather than having a teacher present to guide learning and focus attention, there is a microprocessor. Visuals can clarify a great deal such as context and nonverbal language in action. But on the other hand, poorly planned or gratuitous visual images send mixed messages. This is a danger when confusions and requests for clarification can only be directed to a computer screen. To take advantage of the dynamic and intrinsically motivating aspect of computer accessed visuals, innovation in instructional strategies becomes paramount. Display units, or frames, can be classified into three types, depending on the sort of communication presented. In order to arouse general attentional processes and to signal a home state or navigational landmark, title frames announcing the beginning of major sections of the program can be used. Color, graphic layouts, and the consistent use of icons can help capture the learner's attention (a major goal to any instructional process). These display units also help to place language learners within a lesson, the purpose of which is being made clear through these title frames. The second type of frame is the information frame. The third, the userinput frame in which the user is required to input before the program can continue. Again, clear, concise explanations written in simple, straightforward English are called for, especially when learning a second language. Students do not need to deal with added complexities such as unclear choices and instructions, which would serve as a serious barrier to the interchange. Negotiating one's way through the program via the target language can be made a valuable part of the learning process. Each of the frames should communicate a complete thought so each press of the key is made a part of the communication process part of the conversation. In designing computer graphics and/or producing video segments for CALL courseware, cross-cultural considerations (a must in designing any L2 materials) are particularly important. Regardless of the content focus of the course, L2 students are simultaneously learning the target language AND systems of the target culture. Metamessages are transmitted visually through software. Programs, no matter how much a designer may insist to the contrary, have personalities. The choice of wording, along with the general layout and use of color, communicate a particular set of attitudes toward the subject matter as well as toward the learners themselves. Thus, the learner can either be challenged or bored, comfortable or intimidated, educated or frustrated, accepted as a foreigner or alienated. CALICO Journal, Volume 5 Number 1 11

4 Timing A critical element in the computer-generated environment is timing. The timing of the system's responses as well as the timing required on the part of the user is a key consideration in attempting to maintain a consistent, natural flow in the program. Approximate real time, or conversational interactions is also greatly affected by timing. Achieving an effective balance of these elements is an essential part of designing an effective interactive program. System-user interactions, like teacher-student, audiotape-student, and textbook-student interactions should be modeled after spoken discourse: we speak in complete thoughts. The system's responses, in order to "keep the conversation going," should be complete thoughts, not quick partial responses which sacrifice the conversational aspect of the learning process. Likewise, learners should be allowed to respond in complete thoughts in order to appropriately participate in the dialogue. In attempting to balance program time with real time, the designer must take into account lexical, syntactic and semantic timing. According to Foley and Van Dam, this is the hierarchy of appropriate response times which correspond to various levels of closure (Foley, Van Dam, 1983). Closure is the feeling that one has of having completed a task or unit of communicative interaction and is a factor that strongly influences successful language production. Lexical timing is the shortest possible response time (any fraction up to one second of real time). An analogy of lexical time is physical reflex time when direct stimulation occurs. An example of an appropriate instance of lexical time is when a user inputs the word "Hello" an appropriate, natural reflex time to this would-be quite short "Hi." Syntactic timing involves the pace at which both the system and the user string together responses. Again, input and responses should approximate as closely as possible conversational interaction in real time. This is easily achievable on the part of the system. Learners should never have to wait unnecessarily while the system laboriously displays a long response letter by letter. It is good practice for language learners to see what is being displayed appear in logical chunks of discourse. Discourse should be divided at logical syntactic breaks which is more often than not the way we really speak. Inasmuch as the conversation taking place is in the target language, and the person on the other end of the conversation is not a native speaker, his or her response time will reflect the need for extra time. Extra time will be needed to think of vocabulary, to string ideas together lexically, and for self-monitoring. CALICO Journal, Volume 5 Number 1 12

5 The system can, in this case, be the perfect conversation partner by not only having infinite patience, but by offering advice, clarification, and correction as the student inputs. Semantic timing concerns thoughtful answers. Thoughtful answers are answers which take what should appear to be, by comparison, relatively lengthy consideration by the system. If thoughtful answers come unnaturally quick as responses on the screen, the authenticity of the interaction is destroyed. The system could take up to ten seconds to "formulate" a thoughtful answer for the user. The user should be, and is, thanks to the most patient of partners, allowed sufficient time to respond thoughtfully. If one of the goals of CALL software is to expose the learner as much as possible to an intricacy as fundamental to communication as timing, then ideally, the above timing rules must be consistently followed for maximum learner benefit through quality interaction. Conclusion The discussion of design when assessing the quality of student-computer interaction must take into account content, goal, and the elements of design that affect desired outcomes. If language is in fact acquired, as opposed to learned, then quantifiably verifiable learning outcomes are not of interest. Language instruction has as its goal a process. Language instruction is, to a great extent, what happens along the way. How language is processed and used, and the quality of interaction, is what can determine an effective piece of courseware. References Cohen, V. B. January "Criteria for the Evaluation of Microcomputer Courseware," Educational Technology. Foley, J. D. and A. Van Dam Fundamentals of Interactive Computer Graphics, Addison-Wesley. Gagne, R. June "Developments in Learning Psychology," Educational Technology. Higgins, J. September "Can Computers Teach?", CALICO Journal. Malone, T. and J. Levin. "Microcomputers in Education: Cognitive and Social Design Principles," Report of a Conference held March 12-14, 1981, at the University of California, San Diego, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation. CALICO Journal, Volume 5 Number 1 13

6 Stevens, V. September "Implications of Research and Theory Concerning the Influence of Choice and Control on the Effectiveness of CALL," CALICO Journal. Underwood, J Linguistics, Computers and the Language Teachers, Newbury House, Rowley, MA. Author's Biodata Carla Meskill is currently Director of the Interactive Video Language Laboratory at the University of Massachusetts/Boston. In addition to CALL-IV materials development, she teaches graduate courses in Instructional Design for students in the Bilingual/ESL Graduate Program. Author's Address Carla Meskill Bilingual/ESL Graduate Program University of Massachusetts Harbor Campus Boston, MA CALICO Journal, Volume 5 Number 1 14

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