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Speaking Their Language: UCLA Language Courses Use Online Voice Tools

By Linda L. Briggs

It’s tough to master a new language without speaking it, of course. So it follows that language courses that incorporate speaking as much as possible can help students learn faster and better, and help professors better assess their progress.

To that end, the Center for Digital Humanities at UCLA, part of UCLA’s Center for World Languages, has been using a suite of communication tools that allows students to use online tools they’re familiar with, such as e-mail, chat rooms, and discussion boards, with a voice component. The Center for Digital Humanities serves the humanities division at UCLA, which encompasses most of the language teaching and learning groups at the university.

The Web-based tools in use at the center, including the new Wimba Voice Tools 5.0, are from software developer Horizon Wimba. Wimba designs Web-based collaboration software for online education, language learning, and interactive communication.

UCLA has been using Wimba communication products for several years, according to Ted Liu, the foreign language IT coordinator for the center, including Voice E-mail, Voice Discussion Board, Voice Presentation, and Voice Authoring, as well as Wimba’s Oral Assessment Builder.

“You can sum up most of the communications tools [from Wimba] as existing text tools that have been empowered by voice,” Liu says. “The discussion board is just like a regular discussion board, [for example], but you have the option of listening and recording your voice.”

Using the voice e-mail, voice discussion boards, and real-time voice chat room tools from Wimba, instructors and students can interact one-to-one or one-to-many. Instructors can also use the Wimba software for oral assessments, allowing them to listen more than once to a student’s spoken reply to a test question. The oral assessment tool can also be used to give students extra speaking assignments, or to assess student improvement and give individual feedback.

Using a voice presentation tool included with Wimba Voice Tools, instructors can create online presentations by combining Web-based content with accompanying text and their own recorded voice message. Students, in turn, can post their own audio comments. With Wimba Voice Tools version 5.0, users can import and export common audio formats like WAV and MP3, allowing students to port audio files to an iPod or other MP3 player.

New tools created in Wimba can be linked to UCLA’s course management system, WebCT Campus Edition, through WebCT’s Add Page tool, Liu says, making the function appear as part of WebCT. In addition, Wimba can interact with WebCT through a PowerLink function that UCLA is now experimenting with outside the production environment.

Wimba is especially strong when used by instructors as a tool to “enable the human touch to really carry through,” Liu says, by increasing the frequency of instructor-student interactions and reducing the turn-around time of instructor response. Because language professors can use Wimba to listen to student utterances more than once, “they can give a good evaluation from several different aspects of the language,” Liu says. “We found that this is really beneficial for oral exams,” for example.

Instead of face-to-face oral exams of perhaps 10 minutes per student, instructors can record student responses and listen to them repeatedly to evaluate various aspects of the spoken language. After the exam, Liu explains, students “can go back, listen to the question prompts, listen to their answers, and listen to the feedback.”

Overall, “the main things students like is…the repeatability, and the increased interaction with instructors,” Liu says.

Wimba is a Web-based product; users need an Internet connection and a computer with a browser such as Apple Safari or Windows Internet Explorer, along with a version of the Java Runtime Environment. To record, a microphone is also required.

One basic use for Wimba is adding a voice component to e-mail. For example, a Wimba voice e-mail tool allows language students to write a standard text email in any language, or the sender can record a voice email and send it. The receiver can then play the audio message, and can reply via voice or text. The recording can be listened to repeatedly or shared with others, including the instructor.

The new Wimba Voice Tools 5.0 is sold as an annual subscription license based on a school’s full-time enrollment; a typical annual license starts at $6,500.

Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif.

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