Computer Aided Learning / Teaching

Gerhard FH Schmittinger
Lecturer, MA, THED.
University Albstadt-Sigmaringen, Germany



The computer can be an invaluable teaching aid which not only relieves the teacher of cumbersome routine tasks such as marking, but allows students to practice their skills with an ever patient „electronic teacher“. Limited lecture periods mean limited contact time with students. By using computer programs a teacher can focus on those sections in class where personal contact deems necessary. Finding the correct teaching / learning program is often not that easy and to develop an own program can be quite costly. By working together as a team an own program which fulfils most requirements can be compiled.

General Background

Having to find an alternative is often the result of circumstances. When the German student numbers at the University of Zululand (South Africa) dropped, the only alternative seemed to be to move the German course into the evening timeslot where there was less competition. This however meant that the eight lecture units per week were reduced to four, two double periods per week.  Needless to say that this was simply not enough for a foreign language course, a course where written skills as well as oral communication were of equal importance.

The University had at that stage a Plato-Centre (computer centre) which was amongst others used for English exercises and tests. As this centre was also open during the evenings and thus available to part-time students, it seemed to be an ideal solution: grammar and exercises in the centre and the main focus on oral during class.

With no programming skills at all but with the help of the ever patient Plato co-ordinator a German language program was born. As my programming skills improved I started experimenting, converting ideas into computer programs, observing student reaction, noting likes and dislikes, noting what worked and what did not.

Over the years the program modules, now running under Windows, grew, so did the competition and nowadays there are a variety of language teaching / learning programs available.

Program Modules: experiments and some observations

A main problem with commercial computer programs is that they mostly leave no scope for own initiative and ideas. Whereas lessons in a textbook can be left out, can be replaced with own notes and vocabulary, this “added” information can often not be incorporated into a computer program. Some more flexible programs (i.e. ILIAS) can not be downloaded to a personal computer for home use. Often such programs require a computer literacy level for input which is above the average “teacher level”.

Developing own ideas into computer programs often poses two problems: cost and understanding. The programmer often fails to understand what is required, spending hours to get to some acceptable result, as the “developer” often finds it difficult to convey the exact wishes – and programmers are programmers, not teachers. To programmers a program works – the user just has to press the button, if he/she can find it at first glance. Functionality is more important than user friendliness.

The ideal computer program must be tested and it can only be properly tested in the classroom. EXAMPLES:

1. Often students make simple “mistakes” which lead to unpredictable results.
During a vocabulary test some students scored zero although all answers on manual check were correct. On observing student input it was found that some students pressed the space-bar before entering their answer. When the computer compared, the answer did not match as there was an empty space in front.

2. During a learning phase where a vocabulary list German / English was displayed  it was noted that students held their hand in front of the screen to “blot out” the one language. A simple solution: a button which switched off one of the languages was added.

3. One of the test modules selected at random ten words from a vocabulary list, showing first the “language to learn” and the student had to enter the “home language”. In each case the correct answer was given (when the student answer was incorrect) the moment the student had entered the translation and pressed the “accepted-key”.  After ten entries the program switched,  showing “home language” and the student had to enter the “language to learn”.  It was noted that students paused, looked at all the results and only then switched to the “home / to learn” answer section. This was cheating, or was it? Surely the program had to be changed!? Experimenting with various versions it was discovered that this “relearn phase” not only gave the student an advantage in the test, but it actually made him/her remember the vocabulary better – thus the original version was left.

Learning should be fun, both for the learner and for the teacher. As a small game for a foreign language beginners course I created a multiple input module which asked numerous questions such as: What is your name? / What are your hobbies? etc. Once the student had entered the answers to a series of questions, the program responded: xxxx is such a stupid name. / Only idiots have xxxx as a hobby!   Of course the students did not understand all the answers, they wanted to know what the computer had said. Laughter, a rude computer (not me!). When tested many months later, this vocabulary was still very much alive. This “provocative learning” proved to be a very effective tool teaching new vocabulary.

Some other observations also proved to be quite interesting:

1. When they had a choice, most students rather did regular written exercises than multiple choice questions. Written exercises also improved their spelling.

2. It was found that vocabulary lists comprising eight to ten words were remembered best, and short phrases were remembered better than single words.

3. In the ideal dialogue (to memorise) each person only spoke four to five times, preferably short sentences.

4. Sound exercises give students the opportunity to listen to the correct pronunciation and to record their own voice. However some students still had problems hearing the difference when comparing the computer recording with their own voice recording.

The Workshop

The aim of the workshop is to show and experience hands-on how simple computer programs can assist the teacher and learner, how computer aided learning can be fun. The use of dialogues, games, tests and exercises, pronunciation as well as data analysis tools will be briefly discussed using various computer modules as examples. At the same time it will be shown how computers can save time, eliminate cumbersome routine tasks and how to analyse student data to identify problems.