ERIC Identifier: ED327066
Publication Date: 1990-12-00
Author: Clifford, Ray
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington
Foreign Languages and Distance Education: The Next
Best Thing to Being There. ERIC Digest.
Although the label "distance learning" could be applied to any situation
where students are learning at remote sites, the term is normally restricted
to teaching via satellite or other long-distance telecommunication technology.
One author defines distance learning as "an educational process in which
a significant proportion of the teaching is conducted by someone removed
in space and/or time from the learner" (Perraton, 1980, p.10). Two-way
communication between teacher and student can take place through writing,
television phone-in programs, two-way video, or telephone (Davis, 1988).
The label "distance learning" is catchy, but, unfortunately, easily over
interpreted. Most systems to which this label is applied are simply one-way
broadcasting stations that transmit audio and video signals to students
at one or more remote sites. However, other systems are available that
provide two-way audio, and, in some cases, even two-way video between the
teacher and the students.
Distance learning technologies present many new options for teaching
foreign languages that will further expand the range of instructional techniques
in the same way that language labs, television, and computers have augmented
the standard classroom. It is important in reviewing these distance learning
options to distinguish among their various levels of capability as these
systems place different constraints on the instructional process. For instance,
one-way, presentation-only systems have been criticized as providing nothing
more than a video distribution system that could be replicated by mailing
video tapes to students. The lack of immediate two-way interaction that
characterizes many distance education programs seems contrary to the aims
of foreign language teaching. However, with this interaction appropriately
used, distance technologies can support the goals of foreign language pedagogy.
Instructional strategies that encourage student-teacher and student-student
dialogue and learner autonomy in distance learning situations must be incorporated
into instruction (Davis, 1988).
WHY IS DISTANCE LEARNING USED?
The strongest argument for distance education is its potential to provide
instruction to students who, because of distance, time, or financial constraints,
do not have access to traditional learning opportunities or specialized
courses (Davis, 1988). Distance learning courses have been developed to
provide equal access to an educational opportunity for schools, especially
rural ones, that have to operate with a limited curriculum and staff (Wohlert,
1989). The objective is to provide courses in foreign languages to schools
where it would not otherwise be possible for students to study them. The
potential for providing instruction in the less commonly taught languages
is particularly enhanced by distance technology. In many cases, the guiding
principle is for distance learning courses not to become permanent, but
to serve as a stepping stone to hiring a regular classroom instructor by
laying the basis for a viable language program, especially in the less
commonly taught languages (Kataoka, 1987).
HOW CAN DISTANCE LEARNING PROVIDE THE INTERACTION NECESSARY FOR DEVELOPING
FOREIGN LANGUAGE SKILLS?
The success of distance learning in developing students' foreign language
skills depends on the ability of the instructional program to provide language
learning in face-to-face settings. This capability can now be provided
through two-way satellite communications that allow teachers to communicate
with students at each site and to provide the interaction needed for development
of second language skills.
WHY HASN'T THIS TWO-WAY OPTION BEEN USED MORE EXTENSIVELY?
Using satellite broadcasts for true telecommunications, rather than
merely as a delivery and distribution system for canned video presentations,
is still very expensive. Television signals are more expensive to transmit
than voice signals because of the increased amount of electronic information
that must be transmitted. Because sufficient information is transmitted
to refresh the video display screen thirty times a second, most of this
information is associated with the video portion of the signal. To reduce
the amount of information transmitted and, therefore, the communication
costs, newer technologies compress the audio and video signals prior to
transmission. For the same reason, they also refresh the video image at
a slower rate, which makes the movements of the teacher and students appear
blurred and choppy. Although this level of resolution is adequate to establish
two-way communication for video teleconferences, the picture sampling rate
is inadequate to capture detailed lip movements, giving the impression
that the audio track is not always synchronized with the picture. This
lack of video detail is normally only a minor irritant, but it could be
important in trying to teach or demonstrate correct pronunciation.
ARE THERE EXAMPLES OF PROGRAMS THAT TEACH LANGUAGES VIA DISTANCE
The British and Canadian governments have both tried teaching languages
through distance education. The national British program, established to
teach French by radio and television, found it beneficial to augment the
broadcasts with a course-linked magazine to increase learner involvement,
with local study groups to allow students the opportunity to practice the
language learned in the course, and with a telephone question-and-answer
service to provide students with a channel for two-way communication (Rybak,
1984). A Canadian home study program was implemented in Manitoba, Ontario,
and British Columbia to teach English as a second language using the telephone.
Students work through units in a workbook using audiotapes. At specified
points in each unit, the teacher provides the student with feedback over
the telephone. The telephone conversation also provides the student with
oral practice. The teacher records the telephone conversation and sends
a tape to the student to review. A 1988 evaluation of the program revealed
that both teachers and students were satisfied with the program (Selman,
In the United States, the number of foreign language programs using
distance learning is growing, and at least six states offer foreign language
instruction to outlying schools through satellite communication technology.
Most of these programs are broadcast from a central location and have local
teaching assistants who interact with the students. In a few instances,
two-way, interactive instruction is provided. Two counties in Maryland
have interactive distance learning programs that use standard cable TV
technology, and the Mississippi State Department of Education is now developing
the same capability using fiber optic technology.
"The Televised Japanese Language Program," developed at North Carolina
State University (NCSU), provides instruction in Japanese to ten colleges
and universities in five Southeastern states. The program videotapes a
live, unrehearsed class session at NCSU and then sends the unedited videotape
to participating institutions. Students view the videotapes and participate
in the course by 1) doing practice activities designed by NCSU instructors
(for many of the exercises, additional visual aids are sent to the participating
institutions); 2) completing the same homework assignments as those given
to NCSU students; 3) taking the same quizzes and exams as those taken by
NCSU students; 4) having access to special telephone office hours with
NCSU instructors; and 5) visiting the NCSU instructor on campus. A native
Japanese-speaking tutor is present in each classroom during the video presentation
and afterwards to help students with the activities (Kataoka, 1987).
HOW EFFECTIVE IS FOREIGN LANGUAGE TEACHING VIA DISTANCE LEARNING?
Several studies have been conducted on student achievement in distance
education foreign language courses, but because of small sample sizes or
non-random selection of students, the results are difficult to interpret.
In university-level Japanese, no statistically significant differences
were found between the classroom-based students at North Carolina State
University and the students participating in the "Televised Japanese Language
Program" (Kataoka, 1987).
In one experimental study, researchers found that after two semesters
of German instruction, students enrolled in a telecourse did not achieve
the proficiency levels attained by on-campus students taking the same course
(Johnson and Van Iten, 1984). However, in the case of high school "German
by Satellite" classes, where the university textbook and other materials
are used, and where grades are based on university standards, the test
data indicated that 18 percent of all students in the program were earning
an unadjusted grade of A. In addition to test scores, "German by Satellite"
students had top placement in seven interscholastic contests (Wohlert,
WHAT ARE SOME KEYS TO SUCCESSFUL DISTANCE LEARNING PROGRAMS?
- Live interaction between the instructor and the students during the
- The presence of a classroom teacher in the remote sites who is involved
in the learning process. In some cases, these cooperating or coordinating
teachers are studying the language along with the students with the intention
of completing a teaching minor.
- The regular use of other media, such as computers, speech recognition
devices, audiotapes, and workbooks in a comprehensive approach to distance
learning (Wohlert, 1989).
- The involvement and support of school administrators.
- The use of electronic mailboxes (which all students and cooperating
site teachers use), or a toll-free phone number with recording machine.
Is distance learning the next best thing to being there? Experience
to date provides only an ambiguous answer. A cross-discipline review of
distance learning by the United States Congress, Office of Technology Assessment
(1989), reports that, in most cases, distance learning appears to be as
effective as on site, face-to-face instruction in the classroom, but evidence
in K-12 education is incomplete. It is clear that the teaching of foreign
languages presents special instructional challenges. In those situations
where geographic or administrative factors mandate distance learning as
the preferred delivery option, it must be remembered that the amount of
communicative interaction provided will be a crucial factor in the foreign
language acquisition process.
Davis, J.N. (1988). Distance education and foreign language education:
Towards a coherent approach. "Foreign Language Annals, (21)" 6, pp547-550.
Johnson, M.S., & Van Iten, H.B. (1984). An attempt at televised
foreign language instruction. "ADFL Bulletin, (16)" 1, pp35-38.
Kataoka, H. (1987). Long-distance language learning: The second year
of televised Japanese. "Journal of Educational Techniques and Technologies,
(20)" 2, pp43-50.
Perraton, H. (1980). Overcoming the distance in community education.
"Teaching at a Distance (18)."
Rybak, S. (1984). Foreign languages by radio and television: A national
support strategy for adult home-learners. "British Journal of Language
Teaching, (22)" 3, pp151-159.
Selman, M. (1988). Learning language at a distance. "TESL Talk, (15)"
U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment. (1989). "Linking for
learning: A new course for education." OTA-SET-430 Washington, DC: U.S.
Government Printing Office.
Wohlert, H.S. (1989). German by satellite: Technology-enhanced distance
learning. In W.F. Smith (Ed.), "Modern technology in foreign language education:
Applications and projects." Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Co.
Satellite Services offering Foreign Language Courses (adapted from Media
& Methods, Sep/Oct 1989, pp22-23).
The Arts and Sciences Teleconferencing Service (ASTS) (German, Russian).
Part of the Midlands Consortium Star Schools Project. Oklahoma State University,
Stillwater, OK 74078-0276.
The Satellite Communications Educational Programming Network (STEP)
(Japanese, Spanish, English). ESD 101, W. 1025 Indiana Ave., Spokane, WA
TI-IN (Japanese, Spanish, Foreign Language Alternatives Laboratory,
Foreign Language in the Elementary School, and teacher training programs)
TI-IN Network, 1000 Central Pkwy North, Suite 1908, San Antonio, TX 78232
The Satellite Educational Resources Consortium (SERC) (Japanese, Russian,
teacher in-service courses) (800) 476-5001.