Exploiting Internet resources offline

Paper presented at the Language Teaching Online Conference
University of Ghent, Belgium, 8 May 1998
Graham Davies

A few changes have been made to this article to reflect new developments and dead URLs have been removed or updated. The reader is directed to Module 2.3 at the ICT for Language Teachers website for more comprehensive and up-to-date information on this topic: http://www.ict4lt.org/en/en_mod2-3.htm

Links checked 9 December 2011

The World Wide Web is a remarkable invention, dating back only to 1989 when Tim Berners-Lee's brilliant flash of insight spawned HTML and the browser. Seeking a solution to the problem of information continually getting lost while he was working at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva, Tim Berners-Lee came up with the idea of the World Wide Web. As a newcomer to CERN, he found it difficult to find out what was going on. This is typical of many organisations, where information is structured like a web and details of past projects often get lost. The newcomer to an organisation gleans information haphazardly, through various documents and newsletters, gossip and discussions with colleagues in the corridor. The browser - the key to the Web - is essentially a simple idea, but its impact has been immense. Since the release of the first browser in 1993 it has been possible for the layman to get at information that computer scientists have been able to get at for years. In addition, the Web has opened up millions of new channels of communication. See: http://www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/

It is clear, however, that the breathtaking growth of the Web is leading to information overload. Finding what you want is not easy. An article titled "Internet Mania", written by Michael Bush in 1996, includes a quotation that summarises the situation: "The Web is like one great big, wonderful library. You enter the front door, and there are all the books... piled in the middle of the floor!". In other words, the cataloguing system of the Web is non-existent. Search engines are a great help, but if you search for a common word or term you can end up with more references than you can cope with. I recently tried using Alta Vista to search for the string "computer assisted language learning", and I was presented with over 5000 references!

There is a great deal of talk at present about the death of the printed word. While it may be true to say that motion pictures and TV have had a negative effect on people's reading habits, the Web has probably had the opposite effect. The Web consists largely of texts, an increasing number of which are enhanced by photographs, sound and video. While I regularly use the Web to locate a text, I never read more than a couple of paragraphs from the screen. I always download and print the text so that I can sit in a comfortable armchair and read it in the normal way. In other words, I am continuing to read from the printed page - as I have done for more than 50 years. Most people find it difficult to read large chunks of text from a TV or computer screen. It has been estimated that reading from the screen is 25%-30% slower than reading from the printed page. In this respect, new technology is less effective than that invented by Caxton. See Section 3.3 of Module 3.2 at the ICT for Language Teachers website under the heading "Writing for the screen": http://www.ict4lt.org/en/en_mod3-3.htm

This article is beginning to sound very negative about the Web. To redress the balance, I should point out that I am a regular user of the Web, and I spend at least half an hour every day of the week "surfing" the Web and adding to my comprehensive list of Favourite Websites: http://www.camsoftpartners.co.uk/websites.htm As I indicated at the beginning of this article, the Web is a remarkable invention. I am concerned, however, that there appears to be a current belief among language teachers that the Web is the only relevant manifestation of Information and Communications Technology (ICT). As Claire Bradin pointed out in her paper "The Dark Side of the Web", which she presented at the 1997 FLEAT III conference, University of Victoria, Canada, many language teachers who are newcomers to ICT assume mistakenly that "doing it on the Web" is the only way to deliver computer assisted language learning (CALL) and have little idea of CALL before the advent of the Web. The consequences of this belief are that the advantages of offline technology are often unknown to the new generation of language teachers, who are unaware that more elaborate and faster interactivity than that currently offered on the Web was available on microcomputers as long as 15 years ago: http://edvista.com/claire/darkweb/index.html

I do not wish to play down the imaginative use of the Web that is being made by many language teachers. There is a risk, however, that the technology offered by the Web will end up driving the pedagogy - or rather holding back the pedagogy, as it is simply not yet possible to use the Web for certain types of applications. Accessing the Web at peak times (i.e. while the USA is awake) is S-L-O-W. Sound and video take an eternity to download. Exploiting what you find on the Web takes time. And the Web can be addictive, leading users to spend hours in aimless, unstructured browsing. I have expressed these views in more detail elsewhere (Davies 1997).

It is suggested that the reader of this article tries to access the following three websites to find out for him/herself how long it takes to access the sound and video clips and to decide if the sound and video quality is adequate for language learners:

  1. BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk
  2. TV5: A site maintained by TV5, the French language broadcasting station: http://www.tv5.org
  3. Tagesschau: German language news broadcasts: http://www.tagesschau.de

I would argue that the language teacher would be better advised to stick to more traditional media if high quality sound and video is required, namely:

  1. live radio, audiocassettes, audio CDs and CD-ROMs for sound;
  2. live TV, videocassettes for video.

The slowness of accessing the Web at peak times can, however, be overcome by downloading Web pages in advance so that they can be used by learners offline. Tools such as WebWhacker by Blue Squirrel enable the user to save Web pages, including text, graphics and HTML links, directly to the local hard drive: http://www.bluesquirrel.com/products/webwhacker/. However, beware of copyright restrictions on downloading other people's sites. You should always check the Terms of Use at a website before downloading it in whole or in part. In addition, I would recommend the language teacher to take a close look at the wealth of useful offline applications, e.g. CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs: see Davies (1998), an article in which I discuss the shortcomings of the National Curriculum (England) with regard to ICT in the context of Modern Foreign Languages.

Finding what you want on the Web - just as finding what you want in a book, on an audiocassette tape or on a videocassette tape - is only the first step. Having found a suitable text or picture, the language teacher has to decide what to do with it. I use the Web to build up my personal corpus of authentic texts. The corpus can then be accessed offline with a concordance package such as MonoConc, enabling:

  1. the teacher to find examples of authentic usage to demonstrate a point of grammar, typical collocations, etc;
  2. the teacher to generate exercises based on examples drawn from a variety of corpora;
  3. the student to work out rules of grammar and usage for him/herself by searching for key words in context;
  4. the student to develop a critical attitude towards explicit rules of language.

Here I am indebted to Tim Johns, University of Birmingham, who pioneered the concept of Data-Driven Learning (DDL) and wrote one of the first commercially available classroom concordancers, MicroConcord. See Module 2.4 at the ICT for Language Teachers website for more comprehensive and up-to-date information on this topic: http://www.ict4lt.org/en/en_mod2-4.htm

There are numerous sites on the Web which offer language courses and language exercises. A selection can be found on my Favourite Websites page at http://www.camsoftpartners.co.uk/websites.htm, and many more have been documented by Felix (1998) and Felix (2001) Creating exercises on the Web is relatively easy. A Web authoring package, known as Hot Potatoes, which has been developed by Martin Holmes and Stewart Arneil at the University of Victoria, Canada, is now available: http://hotpot.uvic.ca. This package consists of a suite of five Web authoring tools for language teachers - and it's free! It enables the language teacher to create his/her own Web exercises in Windows or Mac format:

  1. multiple-choice quizzes
  2. jumbled sentences
  3. short-answer questions
  4. gap-fill exercises
  5. crosswords

Hot Potatoes was demonstrated at EUROCALL 98, University of Leuven, Belgium: see the EUROCALL main website for the conference link: http://www.eurocall-languages.org. This may indicate the way ahead, but Web technology still has a long way to go before we can expect the sophisticated kind of interaction that offline CALL can offer. Web exercises are best restricted to text. Although it is technically possible to include audio and video in Web exercises, learners are likely to become extremely frustrated with the long delays in downloading audio and video clips. While it is possible to "stream" audio and video the quality usually suffers: see my reference to the three websites above . A hybrid approach, such as that adopted by Matthew Fox, Southampton Institute, makes more sense. Matthew Fox piloted an Internet-based course in French for business users during the mid-1990s (Fox 1998). The course was delivered in distance-learning mode, whereby students communicated with their tutors by email, the Web, by telephone and by videoconferencing. But the core materials that the students worked with were supplied on CD-ROM. This enabled them to do exercises involving the playback of sound recordings offline, so that they did not have to experience the long delays that would have occured if they had accessed the recordings via the Web. The quality of the sound recordings was first-rate - which is what language learners and teachers should expect. I have a strong view that quality should never be compromised by technology. I can listen to high-quality sound on my stereo system and view high-quality TV broadcasts and recordings on a standard VCR and TV set at home, and this is the least I owe to my students. [Author's update 2005: The situation regarding the delivery of audio materials via the Web has improved considerably, but it is far from perfect and I would still argue in favour of a hybrid approach, especially when using video.]

There is no question, however, that the Web is an excellent source of authentic materials. Using texts gleaned from the Web, it is easy to develop sets of meaningful exercises offline. A variety of text-reconstruction exercises can be created with my own Fun with Texts package. All the teacher has to do is find a text and then copy-and-paste it into Fun with Texts. The computer does the rest. Gap-filling and multiple-choice exercises - including pictures and sound - can be created with my GapKit package. This flexible package works on the same principle as Fun with Texts: i.e. all the teacher has to do is find a suitable text and convert it into a set of exercises. GapKit, however, gives the teacher more control than Fun with Texts over the way the exercises are presented to the student. Demos of both these packages can be downloaded from Camsoft's website: http://www.camsoftpartners.co.uk. Finally, however, the busy language teacher may decide an off-the-shelf CD-ROM is the best solution: see Module 2.2 (Introduction to multimedia CALL) at the ICT for Language Teachers website: http://www.ict4lt.org/en/en_mod2-2.htm


Bush M. (1996) "Internet mania: World Wide Web technology: What's hot and what's not!" Multimedia Monitor, February 1996, Phillips Business Information Inc.

Davies G. (1997) "Lessons from the past, lessons for the future: 20 years of CALL", in Korsvold A-K. & Rüschoff B. (eds.) New technologies in language learning and teaching. Strasbourg: Council of Europe. An updated version is available on the Web at: http://www.camsoftpartners.co.uk/coegdd1.htm

Davies G. (1998 - regularly updated) "Information and Communications Technology and Modern Foreign Languages in the National Curriculum: some personal views": http://www.camsoftpartners.co.uk/ictmfl.htm

Felix U. (1998) Virtual language learning: finding the gems among the pebbles, Language Australia, Melbourne.

Felix U. (2001) Beyond Babel: language learning online, Melbourne: Language Australia. Reviewed at: http://www.camsoftpartners.co.uk/FelixReview.htm

Felix U. (2003) (ed.) Language learning online: towards best practice, Lisse: Swets & Zeitlinger.

Fox M. (1998) "Breaking down the distance barriers: perceptions and practice in technology-mediated distance language acquisition", ReCALL 10, 1: 59-67. Available at: http://www.eurocall-languages.org/recall/pdf/rvol10no1.pdf

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