Madison, Wis. — Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have created an interactive multimedia tool for learning languages, the Multimedia LessonBuilder. The computer program tests foreign language students on several levels, helping them learn with audio and visual components.
“It’s a way to guide an individual into creating a lesson that incorporates audio MP3 files and compressed flash video files,” said Benjamin Rifkin, chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at UW-Madison and one of the project’s founders.
Rifkin said the university is looking into publishing the system beyond UW-Madison – possibly adapting it for corporate training – but these talks have gotten no further than “casual discussions of interest”. For now, they are focused on branching out by providing parts of the system via the College of Letters and Sciences licensing service.
The project began in June 1999 as part of UW-Madison’s Engage program, which works to expand tech-based learning initiatives. A team of foreign language faculty and students worked with the Division of Information Technology to devise Web-based projects teaching Russian, Spanish, and English as a second language.
While working on these lessons, the team began looking at taking the ideas of Web-based lessons and figuring out how they could be mass-produced. By the time their initial contract with Transforming Teaching Through Technology ended in June 2003, they had developed two pieces of software for that purpose.
“In the first grant period, we created three widgets – the lessons—and then we created two widget makers – the software,” Rifkin said.
LessonBuilder extends the early successes by providing a blueprint to help teachers develop lesson plans, leading them through the steps of developing a multimedia presentation. They are shown where audio and video clips of recordings of gestures, speeches and cultural facts, helping them develop questions that have one or more possible answers.
Educators have free rein to customize the lesson. “The clips can be anything – excerpts from films, TV shows, or video-based material in the language being studied that the instructor creates himself,” said Dianna Murphy, project director and associate director of UW-Madison’s language institute.
Multimedia Annotator, a companion system to the LessonBuilder, allows users to insert a series of notes into the presentations. Captions, text comments and alternative audio/video recordings can be overlayed into the film with microsecond timing, allowing professors to emphasize facts that are important to the lesson.
Rifkin said a benefit of the combination is that it allows teachers using it to “group in terms of sequence”, meaning they can prioritize what information the students see first. Recordings, transcripts and translations can be combined in the best way for a lesson, switched around depending on the teacher’s needs.
According to Murphy the system works with all the languages offered by the UW-Madison curriculum. It still has some problems with right-to-left languages like Persian, although it can display the characters correctly.
Professors have used the programs to create two video-based learning programs in UW-Madison courses. Rifkin is involved in the RAILS (Russian Advanced Interactive Listening Series) program to teach Slavic languages, while Professor Magdalena Hunter has created Utamaduni Online for Swahili lessons.
LessonBuilder has also received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to develop 24 programs for advanced Russian comprehension, with the first three programs already online. Twelve more systems are scheduled to be released in May, and the final group is scheduled for June of 2006.