November/December 2001 // Case Studies
Computer-Based Technologies in Foreign Language Education
by Scott Windham
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Scott Windham "Computer-Based Technologies in Foreign Language Education" The Technology Source, November/December 2001. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

I taught German language courses as a teaching fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) from 1995 to 2000, a period of tremendous change in computer technology there. When I arrived, computer labs were small and Internet use was limited; five years later, first-year students were required to have laptops, many departments had begun distance learning initiatives, and Internet use had become commonplace. By turning those activities that were difficult or impossible a few years ago into everyday occurrences, this growth has had a dramatic impact on the way our German language courses are taught.

The Need for Context-rich Materials in Foreign Language Teaching

In our department, German is taught entirely by immersion. Since all courses are based on the notion that maximum contact with the target language yields maximum learning, the use of English during class is prohibited, even in introductory courses. The advantage of this approach is that it allows us to address all four critical skills in language learning: speaking, listening, writing, and reading. The challenge of this approach is to find appropriate teaching and learning materials that (1) address the specific language skills to be honed, (2) engage the students' interest, and (3) provide a culturally and linguistically realistic context. Alice Omaggio Hadley (2001) and others have argued that students learn best when they engage the target language in context, as it is used by native speakers. To put it slightly differently, it is better for students, particularly those in intermediate and advanced classes, to read an authentic newspaper article or short story than to consider a fabricated passage written especially for a textbook. In the same vein, it is better for students to listen to a radio advertisement than to hear a fictional dialogue taped by two linguists in a Frankfurt studio. Realistic samples aid learning not only because they are more interesting to students, but also because they are situated in realistic contexts of the kind that one actually encounters in the country where the language is used. When students engage a foreign language in a culturally significant context, the language becomes a living, working tool for them.

Addressing These Needs Without Internet Use

Traditionally, such realistic, contextual samples of spoken and written German have not been readily available. Innovative instructors have addressed this limitation by subscribing to weekly German-language periodicals, showing videos provided by publishers and education firms such as the Goethe Institut, or playing taped conversations between native speakers, recorded in studios by linguists or in-house by teaching fellows. Other popular materials have included German-language pop songs (we even had a German version of "She Loves Me," recorded in German by the Beatles) and clips of television commercials taped by teaching faculty while abroad.

These solutions were effective and continue to be used today. Their most significant limitations, however, can be summed up in three important concepts: access, appropriateness, and currency.

Access. Widespread access to these materials is one of the greatest challenges. Since subscriptions to foreign periodicals are expensive, students cannot be expected to subscribe on their own to Die Zeit for the benefit of discussing two articles each month. When I wanted to use current news articles in class, I had to photocopy the article for each student, hand out the copies in class, and discuss the article in a later session. Access to audio and video materials was similarly difficult to arrange. In addition to the excellent, commercially produced audio-visual materials provided by publishers and education firms, I frequently used videotapes of German-language television in my teaching; television advertisements were my favorites, because they are short, use realistic dialogue, employ a form familiar to students, and pair spoken language with an abundance of visual cues (which enables learning). Unfortunately, two problems arose with both the commercially produced and the home-grown resources. For one, it was virtually impossible to provide examples of German television and radio to students, unless you had tapes from a recent trip abroad or had the time and inclination to tape—and watch—hours of infrequently-broadcast German programming on the international television station Scola. Limited funds also restricted the number of commercially produced materials available to us, and practical considerations meant that student access to the materials that we did have?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùincluding the taped advertisements we produced on our own?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùwas circumscribed. Although students could check out videos from the language lab, the prospect of 100 students in six sections of German 2 coordinating the checkout of one video tape presented a significant logistical problem. This meant that I had to dedicate a good amount of class time to showing the video, and two to three viewings were usually necessary for good comprehension. Furthermore, since some students often needed even more viewings, I faced the dilemma of occupying even more class time or leaving some students behind.

Appropriateness. The appropriateness of the materials that were accessible was a second problem. When choosing newspaper articles to assign, I had to find an article that was neither too difficult from a language perspective (imagine asking immigrants who struggle with English to decipher an article in The New York Times), nor too long to read in a couple of hours, nor too far beyond the political awareness and verbal capacity of my students. Since I generally had access to only one or two major German-language newspapers, this search was often fruitless. Finding useful audio and video materials also combined problems of access with problems of appropriateness. One cassette of television advertisements might include as many as 30 commercials, each of varying difficulty and therefore of varying appropriateness for in-class use. At one point, I contemplated editing the taped commercials in order to organize them by level of difficulty?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùone tape for German 1, one for German 2, and so on?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùbefore I realized the overwhelming logistical difficulty presented (and time required) by such a project.

Currency. Finally, all of the authentic resources we used became dated after a few years or even a few months. German-language newspapers often do not reach the instructor until they are nearly a week old, by which time circumstances may have changed. Commercials painstakingly recorded in the 1980s now look ridiculous to students and may advertise products with which they are not familiar—which invalidates the advantages of using such tapes. The object of using authentic resources is to present contextual uses of language; if the context has changed in the interim, the benefits are significantly diminished.

Web-based Solutions to These Needs

The introduction of the Internet into teaching quickly presented solutions to these dilemmas. In the fall of 1997, with a grant from UNC-CH's Center for Teaching and Learning, a colleague and I created the German Department's first course Web site. In addition to a grammar handbook that we created and links to language-instruction Web sites, the site also included links to German-language resources such as online periodicals, maps, online radio stations, and cultural and literary sites.

The original site evolved slowly but consistently. In the summer and fall of 2000—with a grant from UNC-CH's Faculty Information Technology Advisory Committee (sponsored by UNC-CH and IBM)—I directed the construction of a new teaching resources Web site to house resources for language teaching. The grammar handbook created in 1997 as part of the original course site is now one among hundreds of useful teaching and learning materials available at the new site. This site also includes in-class learning activities; at-home projects such as Webquests and virtual field trips; extensive audio and video materials (including online television and radio broadcasts); links to professional and commercial language-teaching sites; printable grammar, vocabulary, and reading comprehension exercises (soon to be formatted for online submission); links to museums and other cultural sites; a library of maps and images; and course-related information such as syllabi and course policy sheets. Instructors have access to a wealth of ready-made materials available for insertion into course Web sites or for immediate in-class use, as well as suggestions for traditional, non-computer-based activities.

The site nicely solves the problems of access, appropriateness, and currency that I identified with using traditional materials. Using the link to German periodicals, for example, instructors can now search dozens of newspapers and magazines online rather than reading through one or two print periodicals in the library. In the fall of 2000, while teaching German 3, I regularly read the headlines of the 10 largest German-language periodicals (some sites even provide short synopses) and selected one or several articles to be used for class. I then entered the assignments onto the online syllabus to be read outside of class. Using the link for suggested activities and exercises, I next chose a suitable in-class activity for the assigned articles. This process, which took me less than an hour, would have taken much longer using print resources. Not only did I (and my students) have immediate access to a wide array of periodicals—which increased my chances of finding articles that were appropriate in terms of difficulty, length, and scope—but I also no longer had to spend time photocopying and handing out materials. All the articles I found were highly current, almost always representing that day's top stories rather than last week's news. The Internet thus helped me solve the problems of access, appropriateness, and currency in one fell swoop.

The site even more dramatically resolves the problems I identified in utilizing audio and video resources. Using standard video conversion technologies available at UNC-CH's Center for Instructional Technology, my colleagues and I converted the videotapes of German television commercials into streaming format and uploaded them onto the audio/video section of the site. We later added comprehension exercises and links to similar resources borrowed from other institutions. Now that the advertisements are digitized and available online, they are easy to organize by difficulty (solving the problem of appropriateness) and to delete or replace when they become dated (solving the problem of currency). Improved access is one of the greatest advantages: students no longer have to check out videos from the language lab, and instructors no longer have to dedicate class time to showing the tapes. Students may watch the ads as many times as they like before class, and instructors may use class time more productively for exercises that build on the video clip, instead of playing and replaying the clip to ensure comprehension. As with most online video, quality suffers because of bandwidth problems, particularly for students who live off-campus and use a modem to access the resources. Nonetheless, the quality is acceptable, and students have not expressed serious complaints.

Copyright provisions have prevented us from uploading commercially produced audio-visual materials to our Web site, but the major publishers and commercial and professional sites (such as the American Association of Teachers of German) have placed an exceptionally rich array of teaching and learning materials online for free public access. In addition, many German-language radio stations have real-time or archived broadcasts online, and at least two of the major television networks now archive and make available their news broadcasts and documentaries. These resources are professionally maintained, are of the highest quality, and always remain in touch with current events. Taken together, these developments represent a huge innovation in the number and quality of resources available, quickly and easily, to language instructors.


I had neither adequate time nor sufficient resources to conduct a scientific assessment of learning outcomes, but three pieces of evidence lead me to conclude that the use of Internet-based resources represents a true innovation in language instruction. First, many of these resources correspond more closely than traditional resources to the theories that inform my teaching practice?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùnamely, that students learn best when they engage the target language in a culturally rich and culturally significant context. Student responses to the new resources, as measured by informal (verbal) in-class surveys and formal (written) course assessments, have been enthusiastic; for the most part, students note in their evaluations that these resources aid their learning. Additionally, student skills in at least two of the four critical areas?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùlistening and reading?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùhave improved, as measured by comprehension exercises conducted as homework or in class.

For myself, improved access to an ever-expanding list of teaching and learning resources represents the greatest advantage of the Internet. As I mentioned earlier, I regularly assigned television and radio broadcasts and newspaper articles as homework in my last semester of teaching?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùsomething virtually unthinkable only five years ago. The number of available resources continues to grow, making possible activities I had not even imagined when I began teaching. To name but a handful, Lyrikline provides full-text German poems along with original recordings of poets reading their own work, German for Travelers has audio examples of common phrases, and museums (some of them completely virtual, such as LeMO) offer access to art, history, music, and more. There are also sites for German grammar and vocabulary review, online dictionaries and thesauri, cultural information and city guides, political information (including links to the Bundestag and German political parties), and tourist, traffic, and weather information?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùall resources that make contextual learning easier than ever before. Finally, in addition to the increased access to authentic German-language materials, there is a wealth of teaching and learning resources on the Web developed especially for German language instruction. Our department's site links to three standouts: the site of the German Department at Davidson College, the site of Andreas Lixl, a professor at UNC-Greensboro, and the resources site of the Goethe Institut.

German instructors at UNC-CH are beginning to recognize that the resources Web site that my colleagues and I created provides a convenient storehouse for the teaching materials produced over the years by professors and teaching fellows. Materials that had a tendency to get lost or deteriorate in the sometimes haphazard storage systems of individual instructors can now be permanently housed online, and instructors can quickly and easily share materials, as well as modify them, at any time from any place. There have been obstacles to integrating Web-based materials into the German language curriculum at UNC-CH, not the least of which has been instructor resistance. While many teaching fellows embrace the new technologies, others resist their integration into the shared syllabi, out of fear that the new materials will require more preparation time than standard materials from a textbook. Beyond that, both insufficient funding for the development and maintenance of Web-based materials and a lack of institutional support for a dedicated computer-technology teaching fellow in our department force a few teaching fellows to maintain the site on their own. These problems notwithstanding, the Internet has revolutionized the way language is taught simply by providing more and better resources—and better access—than were previously available. The last five years have been a period of tremendous change, largely for the better, in our department's approach to teaching German. As resources and institutional support continue to expand, students and instructors alike are sure to realize even greater benefits.


Hadley, A. O. (2001). Teaching language in context (3rd ed.). Boston: Heinle and Heinle.

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