Centre for Excellence in Multimedia Language Learning

Author(s): Karin Duffner, Elisabeth Lillie, Gregory Toner
Institution/Organisation: University of Ulster (UK)


1.1 Scope of the initiative

The Centre for Excellence in Multimedia Language Learning was established in 2005, building on existing good practice in the School of Languages and Literature at the University of Ulster. It is part of a wider national initiative of Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning established to reward and develop further excellent learning and teaching in UK Higher Education. In England this is funded by HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) and in Northern Ireland for the CETL NI initiative by the Department of Employment and Learning Northern Ireland. There are seven CETLs in various subject areas in Northern Ireland (see: http://www.delni.gov.uk/index/further-and-higher-education/higher-education/role-structure-he-division/he-policy/he-teaching-and-learning.htm) and seventy-four in England (for England see http://www.hefce.ac.uk/Learning/TInits/cetl/).

The core aim is to improve student learning through the use and development of appropriate teaching methods and the provision of suitable learning resources using multimedia learning technology, specifically exploiting the dynamic functionality of multimedia language laboratories. In the multimedia laboratories at the University of Ulster, a teacher can monitor students’ progress, broadcast the teacher’s screen to the whole class, set up work groups of linked stations, and intervene and assist where they identify a problem. The facilities offer an exciting opportunity to develop sophisticated forms of classroom-based multimedia teaching that will enhance the student experience and enrich their learning.

1.2 Range of languages learned

Languages taught in the School of Languages and Literature include: Irish, French, German, Spanish, Chinese and English. Innovations undertaken by the Centre for Excellence in Multimedia Language Learning have been designed and implemented in the first instance for Irish and French modules particularly, with a view to disseminating ideas to the other languages and transferring practice where appropriate, for example, staff in Spanish have been actively using the labs and integrating multimedia into their teaching.

1.3 Learning outcomes

The key learning outcome of the initiative as a whole is to improve student engagement in class. By devising pedagogy which ensures that students maintain an active presence in class, the initiative has concentrated on increased motivation and participation by students. Another important learning outcome has been the promotion of learner autonomy, responsibility and self-assessment. Development of ICT skills and other life skills/transferable skills such as collaboration, negotiation, group-work and time-management are also fostered in this environment. A number of modules in Irish and French were selected for development in the areas of grammar, translation, pronunciation and oral classes, as described in 1.4.

A staff survey of laboratory teaching helped to assess resource needs and identify areas for staff development workshops, just-in-time training and individual guidance. As a consequence to an incremental, supportive approach for staff, the number of colleagues using the multimedia facilities continues to grow and student satisfaction is very high.

1.4 Practical realisation

The CEMLL core team, consisting of a director, learning/language technologists and a technician, designed, implemented and evaluated four innovations initially which target key areas of language teaching and learning. These place the student at the centre of the learning process, incorporating active learning techniques for use in class under teacher supervision, to combat student passivity. These were trialled over the course of at least one full semester within core or main/major elements of Ulster’s language degree programmes. Through the development of these innovations, CEMLL has also been able to trial and use a wide range of software and Internet communication tools.

  1. Teaching for Transition - Computerised diagnostic tests have been developed to help individual students identify weaknesses in grammar. A range of remedial CALL exercises have also been developed in parallel, covering common problems encountered. The results of the diagnostic tests inform teachers of student attainment levels much more quickly than paper-based methods and provide a benchmark against which to evaluate student progress during the semester.
  2. Task-based Learning - Task-based learning is an approach to language learning which aims to make language learning more meaningful and, therefore, more memorable. The task becomes the primary focus of the classroom. Using the resource-rich environment of the multimedia language labs, students can work in pairs and groups to complete tasks, to access materials over the Internet, use specially prepared materials and make oral or written presentations.
  3. Pronunciation Development in Irish - Students of Irish suffer from a lack of suitable commercial resources from which to acquire skills in pronunciation and accent. The adoption of a dynamic teaching solution involves the development of multimedia resources for use in the multimedia labs and the integration of other media into exercises that will help to contextualise the sounds and show them being used in a natural setting, with an overarching aim of building good pronunciation into students’ speech.
  4. Translation Skills in French - To develop further the integration of computer technology into translation modules by developing flexible alternatives so that students can access translation materials off-campus, materials have been prepared and hosted in WebCT, the University VLE (Virtual Learning Environment). This allows students to interact with classroom resources at a time, place and pace of their convenience.

Other projects now include:




2.1 Context

As early adopters of technology in language teaching and learning (tape-based language labs, TV-based labs, satellite television (1985), medithèques and most notably, computer-assisted language learning (CALL) (1984), the School of Languages and Literature at the University of Ulster has consistently embraced opportunities for change. Since 2001, the School has instigated a rolling programme of technology provision, investing heavily in multimedia language laboratories (one on its Magee campus, one in Coleraine and a recently opened lab at the Belfast campus) as well as Languages Resource Centres on both the Coleraine and Magee campuses.

The expansion of multimedia facilities across the University provides increased capacity and a platform for the development of dynamic teaching; however, enhanced opportunities provided by digital technology have to be directed by developments in pedagogy. In 2005, on the strength of excellence in teaching and research on multimedia language pedagogy, the School was awarded £825,000 over five years through the DELNI-funded Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) initiative, to establish the Centre for Excellence in Multimedia Language Learning (CEMLL) to develop multimedia-based teaching methods and to support the skills and interest of staff in the adoption of technology solutions. Irish and French were chosen as the languages upon which to concentrate innovations initially, given that numbers of staff and students involved in these languages are larger than for others taught in the University of Ulster.

2.2 Strategic goals of the initiative

The central goal is to transform the learning environment through the provision of suitable learning resources using multimedia learning technology and the development of appropriate pedagogy. The networked classroom management system in the labs allows teachers to monitor student progress, assess their understanding and provide assistance when needed, and has allowed a transformation of the way in which languages are taught in the following respects:

The labs are linked to a wider supportive learning environment. Materials and software used in class under teacher/tutor direction are made available to students for independent study, through WebCT or the Multimedia Resource Unit (MMRU). Language students benefit from bespoke resources that CEMLL has developed (mostly quickly and cheaply) to bridge gaps in provision and lessen dependence on commercially-produced software and materials, often unsuitable for third level language programmes.


Key indicators of success in motivating students and promoting learning include 1) improved engagement; 2) increased student satisfaction with the learning process, 3) transferability of innovations, and 4) staff uptake of labs

  1. Improved engagement - Retention and performance rates in both Irish and French have improved significantly since the introduction of multimedia language teaching. Teachers comment on improved attendance and increased engagement in class. The implementation of WebCT for most language modules in Irish and French has been favourably received, with students requesting more material to be made available in that medium.
  2. Student satisfaction – With few exceptions, students report positively about multimedia language teaching in the innovation evaluations and also via the University “Teaching Questionnaires”, all of which provide documentary evidence of student satisfaction. Quotations from students given below illustrate that they recognise the pedagogical benefits of the approach, which is in keeping with current educational thinking on key components of successful learning:
    Active Learning
    I really enjoyed the crossword-making class. This is where I spoke the most Irish.
    The way we got to practice the methods on the computer straight after the lecturer was finished explaining it, was very beneficial

    Autonomous learning
    When you are shown what to do you can practise by yourself and use the computer to learn, there is more time for you to pick up things instead of waiting for the rest of the class.
    Personalised Learning
    …helpful because it gives you a chance to work as a class, or one to one with your lecturer.
    …very useful and gave me an idea of how well I understood the topics.
    …encouraged you to do better the next time

    Dynamic Learning environment
    …quick access to documents and one can go back and do one’s work again
    …the ability to check … and to correct and therefore I was constantly learning from my mistakes which were identified quickly.
  3. Transferability of innovations - Collectively the innovations are having considerable impact as they involve a number of staff on different campuses, and together target students of French, German, Spanish and Irish in a number of different modules. Trials in one language are transferred to the teaching of another language, as in, for example:
    • a translation model devised for French which has been successfully adopted in Irish
    • grammar materials prepared for first year students based on the Coleraine campus which are now shared across different year groups and courses, as well as with students on the Magee campus
    • the online platform developed for the Year abroad / Diploma in Area Studies which has been extended to support staff and students in French, Spanish and German
    • pedagogy which will be shared with staff using the new lab in Belfast
  4. Uptake by Staff - There has been a considerable increase in the use of the multimedia language labs by staff in Languages and Media and interest has been shown by staff in other disciplines as well.

Colleagues have been invited to propose their own projects for development (e.g. Interactive Interpreting), helping us to facilitate further development of pedagogy to enhance student learning.

In addition, the success of the initiative is also evident from the wider recognition afforded the Centre through the positive reports from external evaluators and through acknowledgement from the academic community via papers, presentations and workshops given by CEMLL staff.

Validation - Multimedia language teaching has been written into the course specification documents for Modern Languages and Irish and received the endorsement of recent revalidation exercises in 2005 and 2008 in Modern Languages and Irish respectively. External examiners praise the integration of IT into learning and assessment and the successful deployment of resources by the students.

Contributions to HE Sector - Papers and presentations given on the teaching innovations have been positively received at various external events. CEMLL staff have also organised three Symposia to share good practice (held in London, March 2007, Nottingham, June 2008, and Belfast, September 2009), all of which were well attended and positively reviewed. CEMLL team members have been specifically invited to participate in a number of conferences: EUROCALL regional workshops, LLAS conferences, a LLAS/CETLs workshop and to provide workshops at a number of HE institutions on the setting up, maintenance and pedagogical use of multimedia language labs.

Project activity has also formed the basis for contributions to pedagogical research, including:

Barr, D. (2008). Computer-enhanced grammar teaching. In F. Zhang and B. Barber (eds) Handbook of Research on Computer-Enhanced Language Acquisition and Learning (New York: Information Science Reference, 2008), pp. 101 – 113

Barr, D. (2007). joint editor of the Handbook of Research on Computer Enhanced Language Acquisition and Learning (Canberra: 2007).

Barr, D. (2006). Guest editor of the journal Computer assisted language learning: UCALL 2005, 19 (4-5) (London: 2006)

Barr, D., Leakey, J., & Ranchoux, A. (2005). TOLD like it is! An Evaluation of an Integrated Oral Development Project. Language Learning & Technology [online journal], Volume 9, Number 3, pp.55-78.


Leakey, J. (2006). Evaluation of a one-year trial of Auralog's TellMeMore Education (version 7) software package in a higher education context. CALL-EJ [online journal], Vol. 8, No.1.

Leakey, J., & Ranchoux, A. (2006). BLINGUA - A blended language learning approach for CALL. Computer Assisted Language Learning Vol. 19, Nos. 4 & 5, October 2006, pp. 357 – 372


Toner, G., Barr, D., Carvalho Martins, S., Wright, V. (2008). Multimedia Language Learning in UK HIgher Education (Coleraine: 2008).

Other involvement in research / publications may be found on the CEMLL website http://www.cemll.ulster.ac.uk/site/centre%20research/Evaluation


Provision of technological infrastructure - The modern facilities for staff and students at the University of Ulster include the networked lab environments, up-to-date hardware and software, easy access to resources for staff and students via the University VLE (WebCT) and a self-access centre called the Multimedia Resource Unit.

Availability of Support
- An expert technician plays a pivotal role in maintaining a strong technical infrastructure that facilitates effective teaching, including daily support for the multimedia labs, technical assistance for staff using them and the development of web resources.

Learning/language technologists are also on hand to provide training and support, develop teaching strategies, offer assistance and guidance, measure outcomes and improvement, conduct research and disseminate good practice

Design and Development
- There is a need to devote time to allow for experimentation and practice to develop expertise. For this reason staff access to resources should be accommodated e.g. network storage possibilities, specific software available in offices, dedicated areas for preparation, adequate availability of laptops/computers, appropriate timetabling and so forth.

Reviewing pedagogy - Each pedagogical innovation goes through a process of organic development, of which an evaluation framework forms an integral component. Staff and student feedback is captured through a variety of qualitative and quantitative data-gathering measures such as questionnaires, focus groups and semi-structured interviews, enabling us to make necessary revisions, contributing to an iterative cycle of improvement. Subsequent implementations have reflected a more coherent learning experience for the student, from one year to the next and across a programme of study.

Support structures
- An Executive Committee and a Steering Group guide, monitor and direct progress. Regular meetings are held and annual progress reports are submitted to the committees for review. A development plan outlining our goals also incorporates strategies for monitoring, evaluation and dissemination. Regular team meetings ensure that team members work systematically.


5.1 Lessons to be learned at institutional level


Financial Support & Ongoing investment - Fundamentally, a source of funding is required to dedicate specific resources to such an initiative. Considerable investment needs to be made to ensure a modern infrastructure is put in place and maintained. This includes initial trialling of equipment, ongoing enhancement and expansion of facilities, an allocation of budget for maintenance, equipment degeneration or replacement. In addition to the allocation of physical resources or dedicated teaching/learning/self-access spaces, there are wider implications for cabling or wi-fi provision across the institution. Involvement of information and administration services is also useful to co-ordinate issues such as server provision and management, password and sign-on accounts for students and staff.

Leadership - While the initiative should respond to the needs of the institution and involve key stakeholders, it should be integrated within the teaching environment. Direction and leadership from the Head of School for example, can ensure teaching/learning goals are promoted. Other supportive structures, such as the Steering Group Committee advising on activities, are also valuable. Institutional recognition should allow opportunities for pedagogical research and dissemination in the Faculty, University and at external events and conferences.

Staff Ownership - It needs to be recognised that staff involvement manifests itself on different levels and in various guises. Staff should be afforded choice and opportunities for engagement with technology that suits their needs, interests and abilities. Some colleagues are comfortable with technology and enthusiastic about embedding it in their teaching. Others may be equally committed to improving the student experience but prefer to support their peers through participation in planning and curriculum development even if they themselves may be unwilling to employ the technology in their own teaching.

Sustained Support & Continuous Professional Development - As noted above, both technical and pedagogical support is vital. A technician can organise the purchase, installation and maintenance of a technological infrastructure. A learning technologist can identify needs or training requirements and also provide pedagogical ideas so that staff can focus on relevant, targeted projects. Support for existing users, new staff, and inexperienced staff or those uncomfortable with technology is an ongoing requirement. Institutional resources can facilitate this need for staff training through a variety of channels e.g. induction, continuing professional development, individual support, targeted support and general dissemination activities.

5.2 Broader implications

Meeting Student Needs and Expectations - Given that technology pervades every aspect of modern life, students can expect that it should have a purposeful use in education also, in terms of teaching, learning, access to resources, collaboration and communication. There should be ongoing initiatives for continuous exploration, development and expansion of effective technology integration in teaching and learning. This will have implications for continuing professional development of staff as well as student induction programmes.

Design of Technology-rich Spaces - The design of technology-rich learning spaces is of considerable interest to many educational institutions, in particular with regard to concerns of future-proofing such learning environments as much as possible and providing flexibility so that the infrastructure allows for different uses, accommodates different functionalities and teaching modes.

Development of ICT Skills - Additional professional benefits perceived by both staff and students include the high levels of transferable IT skills and advanced communication and presentation skills which students acquire through class participation, as indicated by student comment below:
It also increases my computer literacy and is a good medium for modern education.
It also was interesting to learn there was such a programme and could be used through Irish

Intellectual Property Rights and Copyright - These issues may also be of concern in terms of publishing materials or making electronic learning materials available on the Internet.