Computer-Assisted Language Learning and Distance Education


Dominique A. M. X. Abrioux

VOL. 4, No. 1, 20-35


Whereas computer applications are frequently used in the teaching of second languages in traditional educational settings, foreign language teaching at a distance has all but ignored the potential which this medium holds. After examining the use which computers can be put to in distance education in general, this paper analyzes applications which are particular to second language teaching at a distance. The paper also presents specific ways in which computer-assisted language learning can help remedy some of the difficulties faced by the distance learner of a second language.


L'apprentissage des langues en situation traditionnelle fait de plus en plus appel à l'enseignement assisté par ordinateur. Il n'en est pas ainsi, cependant, dans le cas de l'enseignement à distance.

Cette étude met en valeur les utilisations méthodiques de l'ordinateur comme outil d'apprentisage dans la formation à distance et fait l'analyse des possibilités qu'elles offrent de remédier à certaines des faiblesses méthodologiques dans l'enseignement à distance des langues.


Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) has received considerable attention during the current decade from academics and researchers in campus-based institutions. They have discussed developments in hardware, new software products, and the advantages and disadvantages as reported in recent experiments which integrated CALL into more traditional language learning environments, mainly at the post-secondary level. A review of the literature reveals that during the 1980s more than 20 books and hundreds of articles have been published in this field. CALL has found a place in the teaching of many second languages, be they romance, germanic, slavic, oriental, or even classical. A survey of Canadian universities which was conducted in 1985/1986, for example, found that one institution in three used computers for teaching one or more of 12 second languages and almost all the universities that did not were interested in doing so (Craven & Sinyor, 1987). This shows a marked increase when compared to the results of Olsen's earlier survey of four-year American colleges (Olsen, 1980).

The situation, however, is very different insofar as the use of or experimentation with CALL in distance education is concerned. One is hard pressed to find a reference to the application of computers in learning languages at a distance, and articles on the topic are practically non-existent. Even Zetterstein (1986), who dedicates a chapter to distance learning in his book New Technologies in Language Learning, primarily enumerates applications in distance education which are not concerned with language teaching. One must conclude, therefore, either that computer-applied learning has not had an impact on the methodology used to teach languages at a distance or that academics have not had an opportunity to report on their work in this area.1 If the Canadian situation is any indication, the former is more likely to be true, since it was reported at the Oslo ICDE conference that CALL had not yet made its entry into distance education in Canada (Karpiak, 1988). Support for the general applicability of this conclusion is provided by a recent questionnaire distributed by the FernUniversität of the Federal Republic of Germany, which, even though it seeks to determine the skills and the methodology used internationally in language teaching at a distance, makes only one passing reference to computers (one can respond "by computer" to a question which asks how students communicate with the institution).

Computer-Assisted Instruction and Distance Education

The reluctance to introduce CALL into distance education is more easily understood when one recognizes that distance education in general has made little use of computer technology as a facilitator of the learning process. What is true of CALL and the teaching of languages at a distance is also true of Computer-Assisted Instruction (CAI) and distance education in general.

Researchers in the 1980s continue to refer to the future of CAI and distance education (Kaufman, 1986; Bates, 1986); they find little to report about the present and past. (The British Open University, or BOU, which has used Computer Aided Learning [CAL] in many science, mathematics, and technology courses, is somewhat of an exception.) In fact, Laaser (1988) suggests that the two most significant ventures by distance education institutions into the field of CAI (the STEB-Project at the FernUniversität and the CYCLOPS project at the BOU) proved to be expensive add-ons which failed to live up to expectations.

Distance educators refer to three distinct applications of computers to the home-study environment. Since these will form the framework for examining possible applications of CAI to distance education, it is important that they be understood. These applications are Computer Managed Instruction, Computer Aided Learning, and Computer Conferencing. (For a more detailed discussion of computers in distance education, see Bates, 1986; Lampikoski, 1984; and O'Shea, 1984.)

Computer Managed Instruction (CMI)

CMI focuses on the computer as a management tool which facilitates the administration of the learning process. It can enable (to name but a few features) the electronic counselling of students, on-line registration, institutional (registrarial) record keeping, tracking of student progress through a particular course, exam generation, testing, data banking, and so on.

In this regard, the needs of the institution involved in distance education are very similar to those of the campus-based organization. They may be more complex in cases where continuous year-round enrollment has to be accommodated, and it is true that the distance which separates the learner from the institution undoubtedly complicates all relationships and interaction between the learner and the administrative processes of the institution, but the functions are for the most part characteristic of both campus- and distance-based institutions. However, there is at least one particular use of CMI in distance education. Using the computerized printing process commonly known as desk-top publishing, courses can be produced much faster than was traditionally the case, and packages can be updated regularly.

Clearly, there is (and ought to be) little controversy about introducing CMI into the operational structures of distance education institutions. Decisions must be based on practical questions, most importantly cost-effectiveness and cost-efficiency. A word of warning, however, is in order: all institutions operate within fixed budgets, and it is imperative that the advantages of investing in this area be weighed against cuts of restricted growth in others, for the decision to invest in one area automatically means failure to support or expand another. This is true not only of software decisions but also of hardware acquisitions, which, even though they may be presented as "donations" from established companies, nevertheless require considerable operating funds on an annual basis.

Computer Aided Learning (CAL)

CAL consists of software applications which endeavor to teach students, through pre-structured and programmed materials, different concepts and subject matter. This courseware either replaces or supplements material which students are expected to acquire through other media (print, television, audio cassette, and so forth). By and large, CAL software falls into two categories: tutorials and simulation.

Concern with transferring CAL into the distance education environment is based on both epistemological and financial grounds. The first focuses on the reification of knowledge and the perceived incongruity between CAL and what the learning process ought to be concerned with. Bates (1986) recognizes that some of the more routine, time-consuming functions currently being performed by tutors could be effectively handled by CAL, but he expresses severe reservations about the consequences which would flow if CAL were to be introduced as a substitute for tutors:

At the moment, only a "live" tutor can adjust to changes in the learner as knowledge develops or can assist learners to develop new knowledge. CAL provides a very restrictive learning environment; a "live" teacher is needed to create a rich learning environment, and CAL of course does little to encourage the social aspects of learning. (p. 49)

Financial concerns lie at the root of problems associated both with the quality and the accessibility of CAL. Inasmuch as the first is concerned, distance educators (Bates, 1986; Kaufman, 1986; Lampikoski, 1987) repeat the often-heard cry of all educators who have been involved in CAL: top quality CAL is expensive and time-consuming to produce, and much of what is around is rather mediocre as a result of the high development costs. Moreover, the time that is required to develop software of high quality means that the courseware seldom matches the potential which new hardware (which is constantly surfacing) offers.

The problem of accessibility is one which is particular to distance education, at least if home-study access is deemed essential. Sophisticated CAL may require more memory than the average home-computer can provide, and on-line access contributes to institutional costs considerably. One solution to these problems lies in an expanded use of regional centres, but this is impossible in the case of some distance institutions and a major disadvantage in the case of others.

There may well be two other reasons why distance teaching institutions have failed to jump on the CAL bandwagon. First, the promise held out in the past by other new media (television, for example) has never fully materialized and this has left many distance educators skeptical or, at the very least, conservative about new technologies. Second, tele-teaching organizations are heavily committed, both in terms of capital and human investment, to other media (print in the case of the western world, print and television in the case of China, for example) and significant CAL developments would require a shift in resources that cannot be easily entertained.

When placed in this context, one can better understand why CAL has not made its mark on distance delivery systems and why, where it has surfaced, it has not been particularly well received.

Not surprisingly, it is a different kind of computerized application, one which does not replace existing instructional processes, which has attracted considerable attention from those involved in distance teaching: computer conferencing.

Computer Conferencing

Computer conferencing is the name given to an electronic network which enables individuals to communicate via computers in delayed asynchronic time either as a group, or between two individuals, or with a database. (For a detailed analysis of educational applications of computer conferencing, consult Kaye, 1987; and McCreary & Van Duren, 1987.)

In its simplest form, electronic mail (e-mail) has been used by distance educators to allow for speedy and effective two-way communication between an instructor and a student or between two students (Scriven, 1988), thereby facilitating the clarification of course-related problems, discussion between students, and communication in general. Kaye (1987) also reports on the use of e-mail between course manager and course tutors in order to permit rapid communication concerning difficulties encountered when offering a new BOU course.

Other academics (Harasim, 1986; Paulsen & Rekkedal, 1988) have reported on the use of computer conferencing as an integral teaching component of a distance education course. In these instances, the course tutors conduct electronic tutorials for students who have been assigned to them. At the British Open University, Kaye is experimenting with this model in the BOU's Introduction to Technology course. Bates (1986) finds this kind of communication most profitable, since it reassigns the primary importance of two-way communication to the teaching process. Gledhill and Dudley (1988) found that students who had difficulty participating in a real-time seminar felt more at ease in the electronic computer conference mode. Of equal significance are the many references in the literature to the fact that computer conferencing allows students to feel part of a group, the absence of which is considered by many educators to be a significant shortcoming of individualized home-study learning.

Since computer conferencing is considered a means to an end, a tool for communication rather than a piece of courseware, it suffers little from the problems associated with CAL. Costs are incurred, both in establishing the network and in supporting communication charges, but these need not, and indeed must not, be significant add-ons. One means of preventing additional operating costs may be for computer conferencing to be used as a replacement for other support systems such as telephone or in-person tutorials. The minimal requirements for hardware have led many institutions either to expect students to equip themselves or to arrange for inexpensive leasing. Insofar as communication charges are concerned, these are far from prohibitive and should be covered, according to institutional policy, either by the student or the teaching establishment.

CAI Applications to Teaching Languages at a Distance

Whereas we have described the present situation of CAL applications to second language teaching at a distance as practically non-existent, we believe not only that many of the advantages have been missed, but also that new developments have made and will continue to make it difficult to ignore CALL as a tool for aiding the language learner at a distance. In expounding the benefits that computers can bring to the tele-teaching of second languages, however, it will become evident that the case for second language learning at a distance maybe quite different from the general directions elaborated upon in the previous section: for teaching languages at a distance, CAL may prove to be a much more important tool than computer conferencing.

Present Status of CALL Hardware

While it would be foolish to fall into the trap that has lured many of those who have demonstrated an interest in CAL, namely an emphasis on the hardware at the expense of the software, it is nevertheless necessary to address briefly the computer-related media at the disposal of CALL.

It is generally agreed that the advantages of microcomputers far outweigh those of mainframe systems. Moreover, as far as CALL is concerned, the IBM or IBM-compatible machine is emerging as the educational standard (Craven & Sinyor, 1987; Higgins, 1987).

Of greater significance, given that we are still some time away from speech synthesizers of acceptable quality for most language instruction, are the uses which microcomputers are being put to in order to incorporate audio and video material into CALL lessons. This flows logically from the emphasis which has been placed in recent second language teaching and learning re-search on the important role which listening to authentic, natural language plays in second language acquisition or learning.

While the older PLATO curriculum, for example, demonstrated that computers could be used in combination with tape recorders, slide projectors, and other such media, recent hardware developments have allowed for fast and precise random access to connected audio and/or video equipment. Where audio is concerned, Tandberg developed and marketed the prototype computer-controlled tape recorder (TCCR 530) and both Sony and Tandberg now have random-access cassette recorders on the market (Tandberg TAL 812, Sony CAX-50). These allow for branching to different recorded segments, with access, in a 60- minute tape, in under 60 seconds. Given the cost of this technology, and the facility with which instructional material can be recorded and copied, it would appear that random-access tape recorders are a better investment for today's CALL developer than are random-access audio floppy (Instavox) or compact discs, which, while they provide even quicker access to different segments of recorded material, are not user recordable. Of course, this situation could change rather quickly. (For a detailed exposition of audio- enhanced CALL, see Dunkel, 1987.)

While random-access audio is affordable and usable today, the same is not true of interactive video. Significant experimentation with optical video-discs in language learning has occurred during the 1980s, most notably at Brigham Young University where a Spanish program called Montevidisco was developed (Schneider & Bennion, 1983), but the costs remain prohibitive. Consequently, the potential of a learning system which provides random access to computer text, motion picture sequences, still frames, dual audio track, and student voice-activated cassette recorder, while ideally suited to CALL, will remain severely limited.

Until the cost of purchasing appropriate hardware and developing interactive videodisc materials drops considerably, this medium will remain experimental, without general application in different language learning environments. Unfortunately, computer-controlled videotape machines are not really a temporary solution, even if they are used in isolated cases (see Little & Davis, 1986 for an example). Unlike material on cassette recorders, material on videotape cannot be randomly accessed and hence cannot facilitate branching routines.

Computer-Managed Instruction Applications

Testing applications (cited above), which examined the possible general uses of CMI in a distance education setting, merit particular attention from educators who are engaged in second language teaching at a distance. Currently discussion is limited to summative evaluation, since formative testing ought rightfully to be classified as a CALL rather than a CMI activity.

Given the availability of adequate hardware, computer-assisted tests can be devised to evaluate skills in listening and understanding, reading and understanding, writing, and even speaking. There are of course limits to the functions that a computer and its peripherally controlled equipment can perform, but the combination of a microcomputer (text presentation, multiple choice, true/false, clozing, parsing) and a randomly controlled audio device does enable significant summative testing to occur. To date, however, references to computerized testing applications in second language instruction at a distance have been limited, as in Zetterstein's (1986) case, to computerized marking of student answer sheets. Pusack (1984) and Wyatt (1984) have, however, drawn attention to actual and possible applications of the kind that we are envisaging here in more traditional learning environments.

In summative evaluation, the emphasis is of necessity placed on assessing a student's knowledge rather than on facilitating further knowledge acquisition. It follows that testing of this kind can occur either prior to a student's enrolling in a particular course or during the enrollment period. In the first case, the assessment can serve either as a diagnostic/placement test or as a challenge examination. The one seeks to determine the level or course which it is appropriate for a student to enrol in; the other, in institutions whose academic regulations permit this, tests the student's prior knowledge and decides whether or not, on the basis of previously acquired knowledge, a student can be given credit for a particular course without enrolling in it. On the other hand, summative evaluation within a course primarily tests to determine how much of the material and how many of the concepts presented in a course have been understood and mastered by a student. Both these kinds of summative testing provide particular problems for language instruction at a distance, problems which computer applications can help to resolve.

If determining a language student's entry level is difficult for traditional campus-based institutions, it is all the more so in the case of distance-based post-secondary operations where students are often older and have interrupted their studies at some point. Not only does one have to address the issue of the faux debutants, that is of the many students who claim to be real beginners when in fact they are not, but, more importantly, one is also obliged to ensure that returning students possess in practice (not just on paper) the prerequisite skills on which a course may be built. While some would argue that the locus of responsibility does not necessarily lie with the institution, it would be foolhardy to suggest that it rests entirely with the student. In campus-based institutions, students have access to their peers and to faculty advisors when faced with decisions of this kind. Some students at a distance may be fortunate enough to have a student advisor or counsellor, but rarely will this individual be in a position to advise students adequately in this regard. Computer-assisted evaluation, on the the other hand, could serve as a primary, if not the sole, medium for determining whether or not a student possesses the required preparation for a specific second language course.

In fact, Wyatt (1984) has argued in favor of the development of computer-adaptive testing for placement tests, in part because these would be more humane and user friendly than non-computerized tests, since the former could branch students according to their level and thereby greatly reduce the number of questions which are beyond their competence. In a distance education setting, one can envisage developing one placement test which, by the appropriate use of branching, could recommend which of several courses a particular student would be adequately prepared for.

Computerizing challenge examinations and summative examinations within a course (normally final examinations) allows not only for the individualization of the testing material through data banking, but also for the testing in a removed location, of audio comprehension and speech generation. If this proves to be a time-consuming task in traditional learning environments, the distant educator is further hampered by the distance between the learner and the teacher. In this instance, different configurations of computer- controlled cassette recorders, providing audio comprehension or incorporating speech production via voice- activated recording capability, would prove to be a viable alternative to current practice.

CALL Applications

Discussion of the relative worth of the various software developed during the past 10 to 15 years for second language learners has been heavily influenced by different theories of second language teaching. At the heart of the question is Krashen's (1982) distinction between "learning" and "acquisition" and the resulting emphasis which has been placed on the communicative approach to language learning by both supporters and detractors of Krashen's thesis. Just as the audio- lingual methods of the 1960s and 1970s (symbolized in many ways by the use that language laboratories were put to) have had difficulty weathering the storm, so to have the behaviorist drills that have been synonymous with CALL during the past 15 years. Underwood (1984) is one of several who believe that the value of the computer as a learning aid in language acquisition lies in the use of creative communicative software (games and simulations) rather than in the use of "wrong-try-again" drills. Not only does he consider the latter to be unimaginative and boring, but he is also concerned that they emphasize form rather than content and in so doing replicate many of the shortcomings that one finds in most classrooms: the "classic" form of CALL recreates precisely those features of the classroom we are trying to avoid: it is teacher- (ie. computer-) controlled, evaluative and highly structured. (p. 49)

On the other hand, many educators believe that Krashen's model goes too far and that language students do have to perform some learning tasks if the appropriate balance between fluency and accuracy is to be achieved. They would argue, then, that CALL drill and practice work serves a valuable function, since its use permits teachers to focus on developing other communicative skills during class time.

The question of who controls the student's learning environment ought not to be a major concern at this stage, since applications can be programmed to permit full or restricted movement through different sections or branches. What is critical, however, is that software that is developed for tutorial activity reinforce the use of the target language throughout and utilize vocabulary and situations which are natural and life-like.

Where distance learning CALL applications are concerned, there is room for both regular drill and practice tutorials and for communicative simulations. The truth is that with the separation of the learner and the teacher, drill and practice CALL does not duplicate classroom activities in the case of distance learning. For the home-study student, drill and practice normally means doing an exercise and then either waiting a long time to have it corrected or checking an answer key. In contrast, computer-assisted exercises are both interactive and communicative, in that they can analyze a student's response immediately, acknowledge the right answer, and, if the student is incorrect, provide either advice, the right answer, or an explanation of the error. This opportunity for immediate formative evaluation constitutes one of the primary strengths of CALL, a strength which ought to be all the more attractive to distance educators who are constantly searching for new ways of providing students with timely feedback.

This type of CALL could represent a major step forward in serving the needs of the distant learner in disciplines such as second language learning where drills and practice can serve an important role. Fortunately, there is considerable standardization in curriculum at the beginner and intermediate levels, even if the approaches and the methodologies vary considerably, and each institution need not embark on a software development program in order to make CALL drills and practice available to its students. For reasons both of accessibility and suitability as a medium, CALL software will in the foreseeable future remain an optional, complementary component of the distance delivered language course, and course designers should be able to purchase appropriate software or at the very most develop their own programs from a template.

This is less true in the case of other software which relies not only on the availability of a microcomputer but also of peripheral equipment. Given our earlier discussion of hardware, we will limit ourselves to possible CALL applications of computer-controlled random-access cassette recorders since this medium is one which several distance educational institutions (at least those that provide for student access to microcomputers) ought to be in a position to benefit from.

In the first instance, this technology allows students to develop listening comprehension skills in a superior manner to the methodologies currently used in distance education settings. Although this is considered to be a crucial step in language acquisition and argued by some to be so important that speech generation should be delayed until the learner has sufficiently well mastered it, distance educators for very practical reasons have had difficulty in developing this skill in their students. Some courses rely on television and radio, others on audio cassettes, but none of these media on its own is fully satisfactory since feedback is either not provided at all or is provided after such a delay that it must be practically worthless. Random-accessed cassette recorders, on the other hand, allow students to listen to prerecorded material (preferably natural, real-life situations) and for assistance to be provided through the microcomputer and the cassette recorder according to the needs of the individual student. This may take various forms: replaying the material at an identical or slower speed, breaking down the material into shorter utterances, providing assistance with vocabulary, formative testing, branching to easier or more difficult material, and so on. Even the formative testing of understanding can be provided either visually (by computer), orally (by cassette recorder), or in both ways (although the student's input will have to be entered via the keyboard). Such a system is both more comprehensive and easier to access technologically than were earlier comprehension-based exercises of the orally cued, multi-slot substitution type developed for PLATO IV.

The same hardware configuration allows for another learning activity which the separation of learner and teacher renders impractical: dictation. In this instance the microcomputer and cassette recorder are used in order to develop both listening and writing skills. Assistance and evaluation must also be incorporated so that students can benefit fully from the activity, for without interaction of this sort, one might just as well send distant learners a taped dictation and an answer sheet.

The current emphasis on developing communicative programs which engage the student in a conversation with the computer also has merit in the distance education environment. Much has been written on the prototype program, Eliza, and its various offshoots (see Kossuth, 1984; Underwood, 1984). Agor (1984) describes communicative software in which the student interacts not with a psychologist, as in Eliza's case, but with a supermarket, asking whether or not different products are available. It would seem that software of this kind (simulated telephone conversations, face-to-face dialogues in which one asks for directions, and so on), even though it is limited by the fact that the computer can only recognize that which it has been programmed to recognize, can be developed taking into account real life-like situations, thereby engaging the student in meaningful communication. It is, however, difficult to envisage ways in which these applications, or for that matter the adventure games which are now equally popular, are particularly appropriate to the distant learning environment.

Computer Conferencing Applications

The support which this medium can provide to all distant learners, as noted above, is equally applicable in the case of language learners. The normal goal of language acquisition is communication in the target language; even if oral communication is generally more highly valued than written communication, the close relationship between the two facilitates mutual reinforcement.

The BBC experience in teaching languages at a distance has shown that home-study students request and make good use of auxiliary support systems, including course-linked magazines, postal question-and- answer services, and study groups (Rybak, 1984). Notwithstanding the technological problems which different symbols and even alphabets may give rise to, these are the types of activities to which computer conferencing lends itself well. Moreover, they concern real-life situations which should require students to communicate in the target language in a natural way. While some of these two-way or multi-directional communications would be better served by oral exchanges, the implementation of a computer conference network would be a distinct improvement, whether or not tutorial support is already being provided by mail or telephone. Similarly, while the use of electronic mail would in and of itself allow for a much speedier exchange of assignments and their correction, computer conferencing would enable course designers to build peer review and assignment correction by students taking more senior courses right into the curriculum.


Teachers of second languages at a distance must make every attempt to provide students with the best possible learning experience. Classroom instructors have at their disposal an assortment of media and methodologies which they can blend to meet the needs of their particular audience. The good language teacher picks and chooses from amongst these in order to develop a personal methodology which maximizes both his or her ability as a teacher and the student's potential as a learner.

This kind of flexibility is not readily available to the distant educator, although innovative systems have been developed and are currently in use. (See Abrioux, 1982; Karpiak, 1985; Stringer, Shale, & Abrioux, 1982.) None, however, seems to have benefitted from the considerable work which has been conducted in developing and analyzing different computer applications to second language learning. Given that the separation of learner and teacher is common to both computer-assisted and distance learning, distance educators would do well to delve into this area more systematically.

Course designers, however, must be careful not to implement applications of CALL which are more expensive than other media, less accessible, or simply inappropriate. While this paper has argued for the utilization of random-access cassette recorders, it will have been noted that, with the exception of summative evaluation, speech generation is not presented as a useful application. To encourage such a use would be to ignore one of the principal lessons of the language laboratory experiences of the 1960s and 1970s: uncontrolled, unmonitored audiolingual drills are not only boring but also ineffective.

Where possible, distance education courses should make use of computers and applications which either provide a new, worthwhile learning experience or improve on existing methodologies. For reasons of accessibility, CALL software and other applications will for some time yet have to be considered as peripheral enhancements. While very sound and obvious pedagogical reasons suggest that computers will probably never represent the ideal complete learning system for those interested in acquiring a second language, the fact remains that as part of a distance education system computers could perform important functions which are at present either done inadequately or not at all.


1. The author of this article is currently conducting a detailed survey of CALL in distance learning situations and intends to report his findings later this year.


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Dominique A. M. X. Abrioux (Ph.D.) is Associate Professor of French and Dean of Arts and Sciences at Athabasca University. In addition to developing the French Language Program at that institution, he has published in the areas of second language learning at a distance, student support systems for distance learners, and bilingual university education.