Phillip Towndrow


"CALL is still a fairly new field. While the number of its practitioners is increasing, most language teachers are as yet at the stage of having only a vague notion of what the field offers" (Hubbard, 1996, p. 32). Hubbard's observation, apart from being a bold one, prompts those involved in Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) to set about the task of understanding their involvement with the medium in order to better serve those for which it is provided.

This paper is inspired by the work of Hubbard (1992,1996). It examines the use of a particular kind of software by a group of undergraduate Arab students at the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) in a case-study format. The purpose of the study is to examine the perceived benefits of computers in a language learning programme through an assessment of the appropriateness and effectiveness of custom-designed software.

It is hoped that the findings of this report will be of interest to language teachers, course designers and programme administrators who, like the author, seek to understand the student-computer learning interactions they plan and implement.


If it is accepted that the computer can service the learner's needs in a variety of ways, then it can be shown that language programme administrators, curriculum designers, course materials writers and teachers all have expectations about the way the computer can assist language learning in local environments. These expectations are usually based on the long-standing (Higgins & Johns, 1984) and wide-ranging arguments (Pennington, 1996) in favour of utilising the power of computers in the language classroom.

Given the number of CALL environments around the world, the computer is, without doubt, expected to support a diverse set of usage patterns. One way of describing these patterns is to examine the pedagogic objectives assumed in software designs, in particular, the roles assigned to the machine in computer-learner interactions (Higgins, 1988; Towndrow, 1996). In the context of the present study, it was envisaged by course administrators and software designers that the computer would act as a device enabling the "guided discovery" of correct answers in reading comprehension exercises. This would be achieved through a process of exploration that fostered a spirit of individual endeavour and learner-autonomy. The end result would be the development of text-attack skills like scanning and the recognition of the discoursal features of texts.


The United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) is situated in the "garden-city" of Al Ain in the Abu Dhabi Emirate, UAE. The case-study was conducted within the University General Requirements Unit: English programme, which sets out to provide all first-year students with the linguistic and learning skills necessary for contemporary undergraduate study. This, in the author's opinion, is no small undertaking as Emirati learners feel more comfortable with teacher-led instruction that does not feature high levels of ambiguity and analysis.

The case-study was conducted during the Fall 1996 semester and involved around 14% of the female students (n=188) taking "English 3", a 144-hour, lower-intermediate EAP-focussed course designed in-house to address the students' specific needs and interests. CALL was a required component of the course (approximately 32 hours), and played an important role in supporting and reinforcing classroom-based instruction. Typically, students would spend about 2 hours a week with their regular classroom instructor in Power Macintosh equipped labs using authored and scripted courseware. The following section provides a detailed description of an English 3 computer exercise.


Of the 11 programs available to English 3 students, 6 were scripted in-house using HYPERCARD ver. 2.2; a mixed-media software developers' tool for the Apple Macintosh. The content for the HYPERCARD stacks was designed to practice a variety of academic discourse patterns seen in class. Figure 1 is an example screen from a stack entitled "Classification 1".1 This shows a partially finished reading comprehension exercise that involves the completion of a "tree-diagram" by selecting words and phrases from the scrolling field at the top of the screen. The full version of the text is given in Appendix 1.

Figure 1: Example English 3 HYPERCARD screen from Classification 1

The exploratory nature of the Classification exercise above derives from the navigational features of the stack. The stack developers envisaged that when the tree-diagram was completed, feedback on correctness would delivered by clicking the mouse on the "Check Answers" button in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. The script for this button incorporates a complex series of checking routines that scrutinise the student's selections. For example, suppose that the sub-categories "developed countries" and "undeveloped nations" were transposed in the diagram. The button script would return the following feedback to the student:

"That is not quite right. There are MORE than TWO examples of diseases in "poorer nations."

It was expected, then, that this response would prompt the student to reconsider her selections by returning to a closer analysis of the text and the diagram.


The proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating and the students' reactions to the CALL component of the English 3 course were sought through a courseware evaluation questionnaire administered towards the end of the course (see Appendix 2). Opinions were sought through open- and closed-ended questions on a wide range of topics ranging from the frequency of use of programs to their perceived degrees of difficulty and usefulness. Overall, the feedback2 received was favourable and the English 3 course administrators, designers and teachers were satisfied with the results. For example, of the students who had used the programs available, 70% indicated that they liked what they had used. Furthermore, 79% of the respondents stated the belief that the software was useful in helping them with their studies. If the customer is right, then the English 3 software was, according to these indicators, on target.

However, as mentioned, students were also asked to say how easy or difficult they found the software exercises. The results in this area were as follows: 56% of those who replied said the programs were "easy" and 26% reacted by stating that the programs were "difficult". Now, when these data were computed, their significance in the light of the previously reported findings, was called into question. It is reasonable to assume that some students rose to the challenge of the "difficult" material and found that it eventually helped them to learn. But, what about those who were not able to do this? Was the software too difficult to be of use to them thus calling into question the appropriateness and effectiveness of the programs provided?

In order to address these issues, it was decided to look at the manner in which the software was employed within the study-group. This was done by attempting to assess the amount of experimentation that took place with the exploratory software described above.

It is suggested that an impression of the patterns of interaction at the English 3 computer can be provided by looking at what happened when the student-machine relationship was in "crisis"; that is, what happened when the students did not understand some aspect of the computer activity they were working on? Accordingly, respondents were asked to indicate their preferred problem-solving strategy by completing the following phrase: "When I do not understand the computer activity ...". A summary of the responses received to this survey item is given in Table 1.

Table 1: Problem Solving Strategies at the Computer

The results in Table 1 clearly show that it was the teacher, not the computer or friends, who was referred to when the "exploratory" computer activities were not understood. This finding, given the learner-centred expectations for the software, was somewhat unexpected. The following section discusses this issue in relation to the software and the study-group.


Two reasons can be put forward as to why the study-group students hesitated to use the computer to solve their difficulties. First, it may have been the case that the software did not provide the help required. With the Classification exercise shown in Figure 1 above, this is likely given that the HYPERCARD stack did not include cards explaining program navigation or vocabulary. 3 On the other hand, students were, almost without fail, familiar with similar exercises from their textbooks and so were not "cold" to the program's objectives.

Second, the data suggest and personal laboratory experience would tend to confirm, that some English 3 students were unable or unwilling to experiment with the software to solve their own difficulties at the machine. In these instances students predictably became frustrated with the computer and lost interest in what they were meant to be doing. It might be argued that these students had not "bought into" CALL knowing that the medium did not suit their learning style or that they preferred a human learning resource to a technological one. Be that as it may; from a courseware designer's point of view, the computer was failing to perform as intended and one is left to speculate as to why this failure occurred to the extent that it did.

This identified failure could have its origins in the orientation of students towards the computer as a teaching and learning device. It is posited that some students felt more comfortable in the situation where the locus of instruction was external to them (the use of drill and practice software would fit this brief). Therefore, when these students were required to initiate and control their learning they felt ill-at-ease preferring the teacher to control matters from the sidelines. Put another way, these students did not "fit" (Hubbard, 1996) the software provided.

If a mismatching of software and students existed within the study-group, then we can usefully ask what can be done to rectify this matter. As Higgins (1988) explained, a reluctance to experiment with software that requires exploration, could result from too much respect for the machine. If this is the case, then a considerable change in attitude towards technology would be required by the English 3 students experiencing difficulties with software and this leads us towards a well-trodden path in CALL methodology.

Within the scope of the author's experience with the student population under consideration, changes in attitudes towards learning and teaching cannot be accomplished overnight. Given the widespread preference for teacher-fronted instruction in the classroom, "novel" approaches to learning require a long, hard-sell. Furthermore, the mere incorporation of computer hardware and software in a language course will not work the magic either. The presence of technology cannot stand alone as it invariably falls danger to being viewed with suspicion if its purpose is not made explicit. What is required then, (and this has been known by CALL practitioners for a long time now), is pedagogic support. This means, in the first place, that the teacher, can make the difference between success and failure especially in CALL requiring exploration (Jones, 1986). Given this, the teacher's responsibility is to recognise and then utilise the power of the computer to assist teaching and this takes us beyond simply supplying the answers to exercises from the sidelines. Once the computer is successfully integrated into classroom practice, the CALL-aware teacher is empowered to assist language learning from a student-centred perspective. The methodology at the heart of this strategy is to instruct students to make informed choices about how to learn at the computer.4 Anything short of this is likely to reduce the effectiveness of CALL.

However, it should not only be teachers who are charged with the mission of recognising and utilising the power of CALL. When course designers and language programme administrators are considering how the computer can support their goals and objectives, issues of CALL implementation, notably, teacher preparation, must be included on their agendas. Once again, the effectiveness of CALL requiring exploration is potentially compromised when teachers are not adequately supported at the administrative level. How this is done is a vastly unexplored area and the subject of another discussion.


This paper has attempted to understand the extent to which exploratory software, exemplified here through custom-designed "guided discovery" exercises, was appropriate and effective in a local CALL environment. The case-study reported findings from a courseware evaluation study showing that the majority of students considered that the CALL provided supported and reinforced their classroom-based instruction. At the same time, a separate questionnaire item uncovered that 26% of respondents felt that the programs they used were "difficult". This finding was, to a certain extent, unexpected and led to a discussion of why some students were unable or unwilling to exploit the software as intended.

The case-study highlights the importance of teacher participation in CALL and suggests that the medium is most effective when exploited by teachers to assist their teaching. Furthermore, it is clear that teachers require support from course administrators and material writers to enable them to facilitate local curricula thrusts; for example, self-direction at the computer.

These points may come across as mundane to some readers. However, they need to be raised in order to clarify notions about what CALL has to offer in practical terms. In the local environment, the case-study findings led to improvements in software design and a recognition of the fact that more needed to be done outside of the classroom to support teachers using CALL. It is hoped that these reflections will also be of use to other CALL practitioners who wish to understand their CALL and maximise its effectiveness.


  1. Classification 1 (1995) was scripted in-house at the UAEU by John Willcocks (text by C. Cleary).
  2. I am indebted to the UAEU for allowing me to use data presented in this section. I also wish to thank Clair Stuart of the General Requirements Unit (UAEU) for her advice and assistance in the reparation of these findings.
  3. These shortcomings were addressed in a subsequent Classification HYPERCARD Stack.
  4. Compare with Nunan and Lamb (1996, p.156)


Diseases which Kill

There are many diseases which are serious enough to cause death. The main killers fall into two groups according to the region of the world where they are most common - the main difference between the two regions being the amount of preventative medicine available. They are the developed countries or industrial countries on the one hand, and the poorer nations or undeveloped nations on the other. In much of the industrial world, preventative measures such as clean water, drainage systems and child-immunization have been in place for over a century. Consequently, the most common killer diseases are related to old age, stress and diet. Obvious examples are cancer and heart disease, which cause nearly half the deaths in Europe and North America. These "rich man's" diseases are less frequent in poorer countries. There, most people die from diseases which disappeared from the developed world many years ago. These diseases fall into two main classes, according to how they are carried to the population. One class includes insect-carried diseases such as malaria and sleeping sickness. In the other class there are water-carried diseases like hepatitis and cholera. This is of course a simple picture which is becoming more and more complicated as poorer countries develop, and as the big industrial cities become poorer and dirtier.


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