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Flash 5 and MX as a CALL Software developing tool


Introduction

As a teacher in a large Australian language centre primarily catering for Asian students there is a large amount of anecdotal evidence which supports the opinion that Western academic writing is a particular problem for them. There are several problems that adversly affect these students performance; sentence level structures can be almost the opposite of their own language, essay and paragraph level structures also have major differences, there are a variety of writing systems, finally there are generally fewer "friends" between English and Asian vocabularies when compared to European languages. These four factors combine to make an Asian student's acquisition and use of academic English a difficult enterprise.

"Paragraph Power" (1988) by George M.Rooks shows this structural difference with a diagram which represents an Asian style essay as a spiral, while the Western version has a clear hierachy. Students rarely come close to having a complete understanding of what is expected of them before they actually start courses, this holds true even after they have completed EAP or IAP courses at language centres. In "Studying in Australia" (1988) Ballard and Clanchy cite an example of a Japanese Economics student who had problems throughout his first year of study because he approached his essay writing tasks from a Japanese standpoint.

For a variety of reasons the popularity of English language universities continues to grow and the pressure on International students to achieve is very high. This pressure to achieve is often transferred onto the teachers of academic and IELTS exam classes. These teachers are subject to stress because of the personal needs of the students and also the large amount of marking required in such classes.

There is a large body of printed material that supports the teaching of these skills and also some quite interesting free material on the internet. The Victoria University's Academic writing module is a particularly interesting case. This is a large unit of work which has been authored in Hot Potatoes and includes a large proportion of the structural content usually given in academic writing texts. This web-page is attractive and professional with completely interactive content, however, it is weakened by a lack of repetition and limited practice. Much of the other Internet material in this field is based around reference works with a greater or lesser amount of practice.

A personal view of mine is that textual structure has some aspects in common with traditional grammar from an SLA point of view. By this I mean that to a certain extent it follows the observed behaviour in grammar of only being acquired when the language process has reached a certain stage. The form can be explained ad nauseum yet will not be wholly accessible to the student until this point of departure is reached. When academic English is introduced to native speakers it is when they already have a very high operational knowledge of the language, this certainly cannot be said about international students. I would suggest several ways of overcoming this barrier. Firstly the learning of structure can be taught from a much lower level, such as pre-intermediate. This can be facilitated by introducing it through exercises which concentrate on meaning combined with form. Extended exposure to increasingly difficult exercises could allow the organisation of essays to be acquired without explicit teaching of topic sentences, supporting sentences and conclusions.

The teaching of genre and structure can be supported by the process of grammatical consciousness-raising. This is an organic view of language learning which does two important things. First, it rejects the split between subconscious acquisition and conscious learning, and also the assumption that once something has been taught it will have necessarily been learnt. With this in mind there is no shortage of material which supports conscious learning with in-depth discussions of discourse types yet not as much which supports acquisition with repeated, intensively cognitive tasks.

Jeremy Harmer (1991) gives several examples of exercises designed to make students aware of discourse level grammar. The first important example focuses on referencing features, 'they, them, it', for example. The second focuses on replacing topic sentences that have been removed from a text. These skills are helpful both in productive and receptive skills which is why the replacement task is a large feature of the Cambridge general English exams.

From the above observations it is clear that an electronic exercise which would produce some form of guided acquistion fits into my concept of language learning. As such the following discussion of Flash will primarily concentrate on its text handling features but other aspects which fit into the concept of guided acquisition will also be discussed.


Flash

People who are familiar with Flash through the internet will probably have read the preceeding section and been slightly perplexed by the predominance of reference to text and writing skills in relation to Flash. Flash is justly popular for its animation and sound capabilities yet hardly known for its other qualities. Flash interactivity has progressed from simple navigation buttons to its current point where it has extensive text, number and object processing abilities. As an educationalist concerned with issues of learner autonomy, motivation and teacher workload the interactive aspects of Flash are essential for giving any effective feedback to students. The use of animation and embedded quicktime movies is useful, but only when combined with ActionScript processing.

As a program for educational software developers Flash 5 has many features which support various styles of learning. However, there are several aspects that are particularly useful when considering the previously mentioned environment and the learning needs of these students. The primary strengths of Flash 5 are twofold, firstly it can accept dynamic content from a range of sources (text files, ASP pages, databases), secondly ActionScript has evolved into a reasonably powerful data processing language. These two aspects will be considered seperately.

Authorability

As Flash can accept dynamic content it is possible to update exercises relatively simply in response to the changing demands of exams and curriculums. The time and level of expertise needed to produce these is largely dependent on the complexity required, a factor largely centred on the mode of presentation. Courses in language centres do not need fully intelligent feedback as materials can be designed in-house to complement the content of courses. This is especially true for exercises made for consumption in the CALL lessons but also holds for materials designed for independent access. Distance learning materials do need to give more flexibility in terms of guidance, feedback and possible answers and therefore take longer to author. The most useful aspect of Flash is that it can read data from simple text files, which is very important as this removes the necessity to have particularly specialist knowledge to create exercises.

The simple way that exercises can be produced frees teachers from professional materials developers and also allows for a large body of course relevant work to be produced. This could foster the acquisition of concepts through repeated exposure to tasks which demand cognitive processing. Once students are sub-consciously aware of structures they will be much more likely to understand when the rationale is verbalised in an explicit manner.

Processing

Once we have the material it is important to be able to process it some way in order to give feedback. As Flash has the ability to process items individually in a graphical way (drag and drop for example) and also to take various types of text (sentences and words) for processing by dissection and addition there is considerable flexibility.

Drag and drop style exercises are more suitable for low levels as they do not need the same level of commitment as actually entering text or even a multiple choice answer. In addition they do not have the same level of authenticity. Arranging text boxes in order does not show the correct paragraph appearance and the way sentences flow from one to another. This is a very important feature to consider as some Asian students, notably Koreans and Thais, have understandable difficulty in conceptualising paragraphs and sentences. Having said this drag and drop does have a place in educational software. Flash allows you to create dragable objects and by placing a dynamic text field on the object we can change the content of the exercise easily.

At higher levels ActionScript has a wide variety of functions for processing text strings and arrays which allows for some intelligence to be given to exercises. By some intelligence I mean that it can basically be used for removing the most predictable errors that students will make when giving responses. These can include typing in upper-case, missing out important punctuation, spelling mistakes and including extraneous information. It certainly cannot accept all of the possible answers which would work in a meaning based free entry cloze exercise (functional level clozes are a different matter though).

For processing text entries ActionScript can reduce the text to lower case (toLowerCase) and then process it character by character by removing them individually (string.slice) with a loop. The results can be compared to the correct answer which is processed in the same way. This action is useful for giving feedback in drag and drop style exercises too. If there is the possiblitity of students including extraneous information the possibly correct answer can be searched for using the substring function. This can find items within long strings of text. Long sentences can be converted to arrays containing individual words (using string.split) which can then be manipulated using array functions. Arrays can be broken down into other arrays representing different parts of the sentence and then compared to correct answers. This last process is interesting but probably has few practical applications as it would involve students being guided into producing a nearly identical sentence to the exercise designer.

One of the advantages of Flash as a programming interface compared to other object based programming languages is that objects actually have a concrete existence in it. By this I mean that if you create a text box in a Flash movie you can actually see it as a physical entity and can give it properties. The same type of activity in JavaScript requires the conceptualisation of an abstract object, a difficult process when dealing with a programming language which is a completely alien environment. As it is a programming interface, as opposed to a plain language, there are various aids to a new programmer. Firstly the normal code box automatically checks the syntax. Secondly there is a command (trace) which allows you to track specific variables as they change. Finally there is a debugging window which allows you to watch object properties and all the variables in a movie.

Conclusion

Flash 5 is a very powerful tool for teachers with or without technical knowledge. If the animation component is subordinated to the interactive programming functions the interface actually becomes much more user friendly and is not outside the ability of teachers who may be interested. Large functions and behaviours can be built up in a modular fashion from basic single action functions working with simple instances of movie clips. I strongly believe that a situation where CALL professionals (and teachers) are able to ask programmers to produce software to educational specifications with an understanding of the programming needed will extend the power of e-learning. This is much preferable to a situation where educationalists and programmers are almost working at cross purposes, with educationalists asking for something that is impossible and programmers not understanding why. ActionScript is simple enough to understand and powerful enough to create useful applications. Due to these qualities it can provide specialist teachers with this essential understanding.


Bibliography


Ballard, B. and Clanchy, J. 1988. Studying in Australia. Longman Cheshire
Harmer, J. 1991. The Practice of English Language Teaching. Longman
Nunan, D. 1995. Language Teaching Methodology. Prentice Hall
Oshima, A. and Hogue, A. 1991. Academic English Writing. Longman
Swan, M. and Smith, B. 1987. Learner English. Cambridge
Rooks. G. M. 1988. Paragraph Power. Hodder and Stoughton


 

This site created by
Charlie Williams M.A.
Claire Weetman M.Ed.

23rd June 2003