Multi-Media Tool (language)

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Mon Apr 4 00:48:36 UTC 2005

UW language faculty create multimedia training tool

Les Chappell, 03/30/05

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

"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.

Les Chappell is a staff writer for WTN and can be reached at
les at

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