Language Learning via the Web

Michael D. Bush
Brigham Young University

Paper presented at the 1996 Symposium of the
Computer Aided Language Instruction Consortium (CALICO)
Albuquerque, NM, 29 May 1996
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Few, if any, technological innovations have enjoyed such a meteoric rise in the public consciousness as have the Internet and associated World Wide Web technologies. Currently doubling in size roughly every 50 days, the growth in the Web is nothing short of extraordinary.

Within many quarters in education this attention is raising expectations that Net-based technology will be useful for delivering educationally sound materials to any student - anywhere. Indeed, materials are already starting to appear on the Web. The main question at this point seems to be "Are we ready to transition all or some of our lesson materials from current delivery systems to the Net?" If so, then there is a great need for work on the types of instructional interactions that can be supported on the Net as well as for investigation into the ways these can be implemented.


The success of the Web is inseparable from the relatively standard and widely available browser interfaces such as Netscape Navigator, Mosaic, and Microsoft's Internet Explorer. This important ingredient, combined with the simple data storage and retrieval mechanism that is being used, all create an architecture that is easily scaleable from simple to very powerful systems and is distributable via a straight-forward communications protocol. Developed at the European Center for Particle Physics (CERN) and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) in Illinois, these elements employ and are embodied in the HyperText Transport Protocol (HTTP) and the HyperText Markup Language (HTML) that are the crucial elements of the Web today.

Nevertheless, the current status of the system is one typified by two fundamental shortcomings: organization and bandwidth. In the first regard, someone in the not too distant past described the Web as much like a huge, wonderful library. You enter the front door and there are all the books - piled in the middle of the floor. The second difficulty is illustrated quite well by a recent colleague in foreign language education. When asked whether she was doing anything on the Web, she replied, "Oh, you mean the World Wide Wait?" It is easy to understand that these two comments illustrate the need for easier access to information and faster ways to distribute it.

Organization seems to be coming quickly, as evidenced by the increasing number of powerful search engines that now exist on the Web. And increased bandwidth is supposedly just around the corner, some say, to follow on the heels of the de-regulation made possible by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Any assessment of the current status of the Web for the delivery of instruction would be incomplete without consideration of two final difficulties. First, the current business model is unclear for anyone wishing to use the Net as a distribution medium as part of a self-supporting publishing enterprise. It is not clear that quality interactive materials will be widely available until someone can make money distributing them. Second, the levels of interaction are inadequate for certain forms of instruction when compared with current interactive multimedia delivery systems.

Business Model

Free!?!? Many people seem to be obsessed with the notion that everything should be free on the Net. Moreover, some individuals have assumed the role of self-appointed guardian and have pledged, vigilante-style, to punish anyone who violates humanity's supposed innate right to freely access anything present on the Net. Unfortunately, one often gets what one pays for, as is witnessed by the numerous "cob-Web" infested corners of the Net that haven't been touched since their initial creation eons ago in terms of the Web's incredible time scale. Furthermore, the issues of protecting intellectual property rights and finding appropriate financial incentives surpass technical problems in their complexity. Thus, it is clear that something needs to be done to create a vibrant, self-supporting system that will continue to be worth our attention.

Nevertheless, there are dangers in picking inappropriate solutions. James Boyle, Professor of Law at American University recently wrote of the immediacy of the problem in the New York Times, and said that not having appropriate ground rules for an information society is:

Boyle's concerns focus on the wholesale awards that governments are making to anyone who claims the rights to some assumed form of intellectual property. Lawmakers and politicians are "granting monopolies over information and information products that make the monopolies of the 19th century robber barons look like penny-ante operations." Furthermore, MasterCard and Visa, along with their high-tech partners such as Microsoft and Netscape, promise to provide the means to enable the copyright holders to collect their due. Visa's site has the press release and you can also link to MasterCard's site.

The challenge, therefore, is to create a system that uses the payment mechanisms that are being put into place, all the while remaining something less than overly restrictive in how the system deals with intellectual property. While it is necessary to protect the efforts of content developers, it is also crucial not to stymie creativity in other quarters through the use of unnecessarily prohibitive copyright rules and regulations, problems that perhaps dwarf technical issues.

Interaction Limitations

As we will see below, there are applications of Web technology that are already becoming available for language learning. It is important to understand, however, that the types of materials that are suitable for access via the Web are different from those available on interactive videodisc or CD-ROM. This situation stems mainly from bandwidth limitations as mentioned above, which limits the real-time transmission of data in sufficient quantity, making it difficult to include motion video and audio of sufficient fidelity to make them useful for language learning applications.

Finally, the traditional HTML model of static page display with hypertext branching is limited in its ability to provide such simple interactions as answer judging as we often see in interactive materials today. This click and branch methodology is fine for accessing reference materials but is limited in its application to tutorials. Even when materials are designed for some semblance of flow in a question/feedback instructional strategy, delays between a learner's click and the subsequent response (the system latency) can be disconcerting, due to the delays often encountered on our present Web-based system. But, as we shall see, there are ways to address some of these concerns that provide somewhat adequate solutions in the near-term. In the longer term we will have the same level of functionality that is possible with CD-ROM technology today.


There are several styles of user/system interaction possible in standard Web configurations. Let's first examine an older genre that continues to have an effect on current approaches for using Internet and Web technologies.

Computer Mediated Communication

One of the first uses of the Internet and other digital technologies has been computer-mediated communications. These can be divided into two broad categories: Synchronous and Asynchronous. With "asynchronous applications", messages are either E-Mailed or posted on a system where, upon login, users are notified of the new postings they have not yet accessed. Example systems have traditionally been computer conferencing and computer bulletin boards. In Synchronous Applications users are online at the same time, exchanging messages and other information in real time as they communicate. Examples of this category are Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and Multiple User Domain (MUD) (or Multiple User Dungeon to some, named in honor of the first text-based adventure game). This class of interaction system is used for social role playing and is being supplemented as well by the newer MOO for "MUD, Object-Oriented", MUSH "Multi-user Shared Hallucination", and MIT's MediaMOO. Access Steve Thorne's Web page on these technologies for more information. Also see John December's resource list on computer-mediated communication for additional information on these topics in their more generic, non-language learning specific settings. There are also Web based MOO systems under development such as "JHM," an interesting site described as "an ongoing project to investigate text-based virtual realities." Visit the Web entrance to see how a site functions that is not based on static Web pages.

There are interesting benefits to be derived from this type of application as users use the environment to communicate in foreign languages. The interfaces are text-based at present and are not often accessible via the Web, but it is nevertheless becoming clear that significant amounts of communication in the target language is currently possible using this approach. Web-based software that makes connection a bit easier will perhaps become available. As one example, learn about MundoHispano.

Unlike initial E-Mail-oriented systems, Web-based systems allow for truly multimedia, synchronous communication. For example, the Forefront Group, Inc. has software called RoundTable which allows users to exchange documents of all sorts as they participate in the conference. To access an ongoing session you need a Plug-In Module for your NetScape Navigator browser. The server is selling for $199 for a 5 user system and $995 for the unlimited version. See "" to download the software necessary for a demonstration. The company has had chat sessions entitled among others: French People Talking, Israel, Italian, Japan, German Chat, La Escuela, Deutsch am runden Tisch, Egypt, and Montréal.

As a simple way to use the Web to promote collaborative work in my French Teaching Methods course, I have developed a straight-forward approach that uses Common Gateway Interface (CGI) scripts programmed in the commonly available PERL scripting language that I have running on the server. I combined these scripts with Netscape's frame capability to create a screen with which even the most computer-intimidated student can feel comfortable. Students access a common page for current assignments and activities. One link from that page takes them to a class roster and from there they can link to each student's Teaching Philosophy. The Philosophy statement appears within the Netscape browser in the top frame of the two that appear on the screen. A form for posting comments is available in the bottom frame on the screen, in which they can also read the comments posted by the other students. The initial CGI script I used to create this interaction came from Matt Wright's Guestbook script.

Traditional Browsing

The first and most well-known method has been "Web browsing." Web sites along with home pages and other Web pages are springing up everywhere on the Internet at a rate that makes their numbers almost impossible to track. Pages oriented toward language learning are also widely available and impossible to completely explore. The Foreign Language Learning Center at Southern Methodist University is a good example of the types of materials that can be "brought together" for access from one site. The Agora Language Marketplace ("") has assembled a broad collection of references and links to other sites and resources. Although language-specific for French, the HAPAX experimental site at Sweet Briar College is interesting in its breadth and contains about 30 major headings from Art and Architecture to Transportation. Each of these individual headings has numerous individual site references.

Benefits for language learning in this mode are not much unlike those available at a library, although access via browsing can at times be intriguing in its connection to the topic of interest. There is certainly something psychologically imposing about a site on France - located in France. Ease and readiness of access are definite advantages. While excursions through a multitude of Web sites can be intriguing, they are difficult to relate to a focused language-learning program.

Browsing and authoring are the most traditional of all Web-oriented activities. To browse, the user needs a browser such as the classic Mosaic, Netscape Navigator, or Microsoft's Internet Assistant. A complete list of authoring tools is staggering in its scope and keeping track of authoring tools is almost as difficult as for Web pages. Traditional tools have been those such as SoftQuad's HotMetal (perhaps from the image of the now passé, lead type of yesteryear's publishing industry and HTML or HyperText Markup Language, the tagging system that allows for page composition and formatting for the Web). Microsoft is distributing a free, add-on product for Word 6.0 and 7.0 called Internet Assistant that turns their word processor into an interesting Web page development tool. WordPerfect has the same capability. Netscape Navigator has its Gold version for authoring that allows files to be opened not only for browsing but also for editing. When a Web server's security system has been properly configured, Navigator Gold can even "publish" the pages that have been edited on the developer's local hard drive. Finally, a new tool from Sausage Software in Australia called HotDog has been garnering a lot of attention recently in the press.

Guided Browsing

One straight-forward approach for increasing interaction with materials on the Web can be termed "Guided Browsing." Teachers, instead of telling students, "Go surf the Web!", can say to them, "Set your browser to '' and complete Units 1 and 2 by next Monday!" After finding the lesson, students can then print the answer sheet and then complete the lesson by following the links provided on the lesson's Web page. These particular materials were developed by Andreas Lixl-Purcell, Professor of German at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in conjunction with the Department of Foreign Languages at the US Air Force Academy and represent a major step forward in developing useful strategies for Web access.

Web-Based Tutorials

Some might term this form of Web access akin to "automating the past". Theoretically, however, making audio available directly from within a lesson is a step forward as one can observe at "".

Nevertheless, using some materials via the Internet can be quite tedious to say the least. In one example, one clicks on an earphone icon next to the vowel "a" only to wait 40 seconds to hear a the pronunciation that lasts a fraction of a second. To repeat the audio, one goes through the same procedure, with the second time taking a couple of seconds for the system to set itself up to play back the sound.

Tutorial-Based Browsing

The next class of interactions, tutorials that interface with the Web, is a step beyond the technique of Web-Based Tutorials mentioned above. It essentially uses a more traditional authoring system as a basis for lesson development and retrieves information on the Web in those cases when the instructional designer has deemed it to be useful.

I am currently investigating this approach using IconAuthor 7.0 from Aimtech Corporation. Aimtech's Universal Media Access architecture allows the development of a lesson that uses resources from any mix of: the Web, the local hard drive, a CD-ROM, or the local area network (LAN), etc. The lesson developer thus has complete control over screen design as well as over the sequence of materials that the learner needs. It is up to the developer to establish the appropriate locus of control (learner vs system) based on the instructional design being implemented. With this model, either type of control is possible.

Dump and Run

Dump and Run is what we might call the "brute force" methodology for addressing the system latency or bandwidth problems mentioned above. The local system administrator in a school setting or even users themselves essentially obtain materials from the remote site so they can be run directly from the local system.

Traditionally this is accomplished using the classic File Transfer Protocol (FTP) approach or the newer approach where the Web browsing tool captures the necessary materials from the remote system and places them on a local hard drive. With FTP, the software supplier uses a tool such as PKZIP by PKWare) to place a combined and compressed form (on PCs, a "zipped" file) on the server. The user can then obtain the file using traditional FTP software or even access from within Web browsers. Users place the copy they download from the remote site onto their local hard drive and then decompress it using the reverse process (PKUNZIP) as in our PC example.

Some browsers can also be set to capture assets to the local hard drive as they are accessed. Other tools such as Web Whacker from the Forefront Group, Inc. allow the user to download or "Whack" Web pages or entire Web sites at will from the remote server to a local hard drive. Using this software, all resources accessed by a browser on each static HTML page are downloaded and re-linked on the local system.

Unfortunately, there are several potential difficulties with this approach. First, it is not clear that systems that use CGI scripts as part of the interactions created on the server side will work when downloaded. Second, there is the potential problem of hard drive space at the local workstation. Content taken from the Net could well take up many megabytes and create updating and maintenance issues. Finally, there will be copyright restrictions for certain sites and resources, most likely making it illegal to do wholesale downloads of particular sets of materials.

Distributed Interactive Multimedia

The final category of interactions is one that is garnering the most attention today with respect to developments surrounding the Web. Going beyond HTML markup commands in a static Web page, this approach does more than increase interactivity on the server side through the use of CGI scripts that tailor what users see. This approach also avoids some of the negative elements of pre-placing assets on the user's local system for quicker access than is possible on the Net.

Fitting into this category are developments such as the Java programming language from Sun Microsystems, Macromedia's Shockwave for Director, and RealAudio's "Audio on Demand for the Internet". Not wanting to be outdone, Microsoft has forged ahead with several strategic partnerships and a multithrust approach that includes new tools and capabilities such as Microsoft described for their ActiveX Technologies. There is now a site totally dedicated to ActiveX.

As perhaps the most well known Web development, Java "applets" exist as program statements embedded in a Web page that is downloaded into a Java-enabled Web browser. Once the page is displayed on the screen, the user can interact with the content much like other multimedia applications developed using conventional authoring systems for standalone workstations. But the problem of bandwidth restrictions for delivering content such as audio and animations still exists. To address this problem, RealAudio and ShockWave technologies basically "stream" the audio or animations over the network as they are played. Upon initial access, the user experiences a slight delay as the first data in the stream are buffered on the local workstation. Thereafter, the data is played as it is received, making highly interactive Web applications possible.


The incredible, almost organic, growth of the Internet and the Web is opening up interesting forms of communication that promise to revolutionize the way many things are done. The extent to which foreign language learning will benefit from this revolution will be determined initially by the degree with which communication via the medium will closely reflect the ways that language has traditionally been used, and then perhaps move on to new paradigms. Second, there remains the need to be able to organize experiences in hyperspace in ways that books and film organize one's experience with stories, and instruction and research organize a learners experience with knowledge. As the technical and economic problems are solved, making the Information Superhighway a reality, interactions and delivery strategies such as those outlined here will help language educators begin to explore ways to move ahead in developing interesting pedagogy.


Boyle, James. (1996) Sold Out. New York Times, 31 March 1996.

Bush, Michael. (1996) World Wide Web Technology: What's Hot and What's Not, Multimedia Monitor, XIV, 2, February 1996, 15-19. Access this article here...

Jerram, Peter. (1996) Java Rising. New Media Magazine, January 29, 1996, 30.

Hahn, Harley & Stout, Rick. (1994) The Internet Complete Reference. Berkeley: Osborne McGraw-Hill.

Sigler, Douglas. (1996) HTML Toolbox. Internet World, 7, 2, April 1996, 51-52.

Venditto, Gus. (1996) Dueling Tools. Internet World, 7, 2, April 1996, 36-49.


Michael Bush, involved in programming different computers in various ways and using them to solve diverse problems over the past 27 years, has a very wide range of experience in the uses of high technology in education. At the US Air Force Academy he developed technology solutions for language learning and played an instrumental role in the installation of what was probably the first operational interactive videodisc-based language learning center of its kind and size on any college campus in the world. Since his retirement from the Academy in August, 1992, Professor Bush has been serving as Associate Professor of French and Instructional Science at Brigham Young University.

For more information see the author's home page.


Dr. Michael D. Bush
4013 JKHB
Brigham Young University
Provo, Utah 84602
Tel: (801) 378-4515 Fax: (801) 378-4649
Copyright © by Michael D. Bush. 1996. Permission is hereby granted to CALICO to publish and distribute as needed in any official publications of that organization.