Using the Virtual Campus for language learning: A case study in pedagogical and practical approach to using ICT

Authors: Anu Bissonauth-Bedford and Tricia Coverdale-Jones


This paper considers the ways in which a learning platform can be used for language classes within the higher education context. The platform, the Virtual Campus, incorporates a number of features and facilities including the use of the multimedia platform for final year French materials, and the discussion lists for second-year students of English as a Foreign Language. In an attempt to explore possible ways in which information and communications technology (ICT) could be used in an innovative manner in the final level French classes, a research project was piloted at the University of Lincoln (formerly the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside) in 2000-2001.

This article was added to our website on 18/12/02 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

Table of contents


This paper was originally presented at the Setting the Agenda: Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education conference, 24-26 June 2002.


The aims of the first project were twofold:

  • to create a theme-based multimedia tasks and resources on La francophonie dans le monde on the Virtual Campus;
  • to allow students to prepare effectively for seminars and assessments.

The second project involved a discussion list for second year students of EFL. The students involved were almost all Chinese in one group, with a comparison drawn with another group of mainly Swedish students. The theme of the discussion list was cultural differences in teaching and learning style. Discussions took place both in seminar groups and via the electronic medium. The message style of both groups is also compared.

In this paper, we will explore the pedagogical implications and practical approaches of integrating the use of technology in the teaching curriculum.


Since 1990 we have been using ICT for language learning on a large university network made available to all students both on campus and remotely. This has grown from about 400 workstations in 1990 to about 1000 in 2002. The use of the university network has been pioneered by linguists for language learning software as well as for other subjects, initially Business and Finance. Ideas for the use of software led to the design and the setting up of the 'Virtual Campus' as a platform for course administration as well as delivery and communication with students. Inevitably this has led to some replication of tools between the network or intranet and the 'Virtual Campus'

The integration of ICT into teaching is perceived as a natural way to extend the traditional teaching resources i.e. lectures and seminars, capitalising on some of the potential of new technologies e.g. multimedia combining sound, text and images. Not only is it seen as an economic way of developing teaching and learning resources, making them available to a large number of students, but also, as Davis (2002: 9) points out, teaching practitioners all over Europe feel pressured into using ICT as a way of enhancing the quality of their teaching and learning experience of their students.

At the University of Lincoln, the Teaching and Learning Development Fund (TLDF) awarded funding to produce resources on the 'Virtual Campus' as part of the research and curriculum development at the University. This paper looks at how we as linguists have tried to develop the capabilities of the 'Virtual Campus' in ways which were not previously available to us (or were available in a different form, e.g. mailserver programmes, networked multimedia, CD-ROMs). The two case studies that follow illustrate two very different approaches to integrating ICT into the curriculum with a view to enhance the language skills of the students in the department.

Case Study 1: The Francophone dossier

Rationale and design

In the French subject group, we felt that there was a need to provide our final year students, who had spent a year abroad as part of their exchange programme, with an opportunity to reinforce their language skills and further develop their knowledge of the French-speaking world, a topic studied at that level. We were thus provided with a small grant to carry out a research project aiming to:

  • produce innovative teaching and learning resources integrated into the curriculum and enhance the French language provision at final year level
  • devise linguistically challenging activities to consolidate cultural mobility and extend the knowledge and understanding of the francophone world
  • provide increasing opportunities for independent learning and group work by using new technologies

The use of the University's intranet system costs virtually nothing, as the 'Virtual Campus' is freely accessible to tutors and registered students. Video resources on the 'Virtual Campus' were created for web-based delivery, in the Real Media format which is also accessible off-campus. A front sheet with suggestions was also included based on the difficulties that students had reported back at the end of the trial session.

Integration into the curriculum

The second semester at final year level is dedicated to the study of the challenges of the French-speaking world in the 21st century. Approximately a month was spent on the topic of 'Maurice: île francophone' as a case study of a non-European francophone island - a member of the Commonwealth with its own linguistic paradoxes. The dossier was composed of four chapters using authentic video extracts depicting Mauritians from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds talking about their home town, profession and perception of life in a multilingual and multicultural society. Each week, students had to work independently to prepare a chapter for the following seminar. Students could access the dossier from any workstation within the University until 10p.m and at weekends during term time.

Each multimedia chapter had an introduction followed by instructions and a set of comprehension questions in the target language. Students could also navigate their way across subcategories (history of Mauritius, socio cultural elements, transcripts of the video extracts) and click on the appropriate links and hyperlinks that were provided on every page to further their knowledge and understanding of the topic.

The open format of questions aimed at encouraging students to develop their writing skills and hopefully, prepare effectively for their end of semester essay in French. We further exploited this dossier by asking students to prepare a summary of the chapters in English as a way of practising for their summary and translation examinations at the end of the year.

The seminars were designed to complement independent work by combining input from the tutor and interactive discussion with the students using a communicative approach. Our aim here was twofold: the seminars compensate for some of the limitations of ICT, namely the absence of a language teacher. As Felix (2001: 358) puts it '...however highly one rates the potential of the web, it is difficult to imagine that ...[it] will ever replace best practice face-to-face teaching' (quoted in Davies 2001: 35).

Secondly, we felt that guided independent study would provide a more coherent and cohesive approach to meet our students' needs and enhance their language skills. Thus we have tried to address the issue of support, guidance and cohesion raised by Nesi (1998: 111) in the development of her electronic English for Academic Purposes courses using the internet.

Results and evaluation

At the end of the semester, students were asked to fill in a questionnaire on aspects they had liked and disliked about the dossier, and whether they felt it had been useful in preparing for their assessment. Evaluation shows that the francophone dossier was received very favourably by students who viewed it as interesting and informative and had helped them to prepare effectively for their assessments as can be seen from the sample of comments below:

  • learning about life in a French-speaking country other than France was very interesting, as I have never looked at these countries before.
  • I think I have learnt a lot about 'la francophonie à l'île Maurice and the exercises have been useful. Watching the video once in seminars and then being able to listen to it again I think is good practice for the listening exam
  • I think the dossier is well-structured and covers lots of aspects of Mauritius. It was also interesting to hear Creole.
  • ...le travail en groupe dans chaque cours au sujet du résumé et traduction a été très laborieux... (the group work in each seminar on the summary and translation has been very hard)
  • Oui je pense que le dossier a été très convenable au sujet de la francophonie et la préparation aux examens. Mais j'aimerais regarder plusieurs régions différentes de la Francophonie. (Yes I think that the dossier was suited to the topic of 'la francophonie', but I would like to see other francophone regions).

Students were also encouraged to write and send their comments either in English or in French on an electronic discussion list provided at the end of the dossier. We were disappointed to note that only a few students used this discussion list. We were not able to investigate the reason for this but it would seem that students may have been unwilling to participate in a discussion list after having spent one to two hours preparing for their seminars where they could interact. Another reason could be that students preferred not to do so as it was not assessed.


In the near future we would have liked to encourage similar initiatives in German or Spanish and disseminating our results to the wider academic community. As students' feedback shows, our choice for developing such teaching and learning resources seems justified. However, with the continuous decline in student numbers for modern languages at our institution and very little funding available, our short-term goal appears to be problematic.

Case Study 2: Discussion lists in EFL

The discussion lists area of the 'Virtual Campus' is used as a collaborative tool in many learning situations across a wide range of subjects, as well as in industrial situations where they are used, for example, multinational projects. The use of discussion lists at the university has spread from use in languages (pilot project in 1996 with language students abroad) to most subjects, to a varying degree, and varying degrees of participation from learners. As with other software, experience has shown that some classroom introduction and activity enables and encourages students to use the software available (Coverdale-Jones 1998).

Collaborative learning is well established as a bedrock for communicative activities in language learning. The shift in emphasis from information technology to communication technology has also led to increased interest in all forms of CMC (computer-mediated conferencing). Collaboration through communication is a standard aim of language teaching, although the results or findings from studies of the use of ICT in language learning are difficult to quantify. This pilot study aimed to use the discussion groups or lists specifically for cross-cultural awareness in EFL students who were taking a semester abroad in Lincoln or Hull. Qualitative data was collected in the form of message content analysis and observation.

'Virtual Campus' discussion groups

The Discussion Groups area of the 'Virtual Campus' system allows users to post messages to the whole group easily, and is similar to other virtual learning environments such as Blackboard or WebCT. The figure below illustrates a menu from the discussion list area on the 'Virtual Campus', a closed system only accessible to staff and students at the University of Lincoln.

(Note: this is a closed system which can only accessed by staff and students of the University of Lincoln.)

Message title Name of sender (1) Date & time Click to see who has read this posting (2)
If Mr. Rutherford came to Sweden JOAKIM 008070180 28/2/01 10:23 7
hot chicks JOHAN 008070200 28/2/01 10:23 11
chickens!!! KARIN 008069800 28/2/01 10:21 10
Expectations   26/2/01 12:06 7
Patrik, that's me...   21/2/01 10:57 10
This is Joakim JOAKIM 008070180 21/2/01 10:56 9
Discussion JOAKIM 008070180 21/2/01 10:56 9
Reply of Ina-M.   21/2/01 10:55 10
Welcome [10 in thread] Tricia Coverdale-Jones TCJONES 19/2/01 10:38 12

Figure 1: 'Virtual Campus' menu system message list

This view shows the setup of the system and allows the user to see how many responses have been sent to a message. Clicking on these would open up a tree of responses and responses to responses, also how many other people the message had been read by and how many replies had been sent.

'Virtual Campus' menu system tree diagrams

Figure 2: 'Virtual Campus' menu system tree diagrams

Student response style

A noticeable difference in the use of discussion lists was the response styles of the group of Swedish/German students and the group of Chinese students. Examples of this can be seen in the following messages sent on the topic of differences in the roles of teacher and student within one's culture (3):

Example from a Swedish student

  • hum you do have put a lot of thinking in this how unusual. But unfortunately I cant say I agree with your answer. I advice you to try again and maybe you will come up with something better

From the two bright guys

  • Interaction, humour

Example from a Chinese student

  • I don't know cause I will never be a teacher cause teacher must be very patient, I can bear the students who are too naugty.
  • good marks
  • dynamic circumstance
  • british teachers teach too little, need to read lots of books myself and do so much homework. In china, we have text books and teachers will point out the important points to us.
  • Serious, less fluent (4).

These typical examples show a fluency and confidence on the part of the Swedes and Germans in an educational setting and in the use of communications technology. The latter may of course be influenced by the use of text messaging and chatlines as a leisure pursuit. Whilst the use of chatlines is noticeably increasing among students from mainland China, and may be stated as one of a student's favourite activities ('I like shopping and chatting.'), the answers given here show a difference in style and in the relevance of humorous interaction in a classroom setting. They also show a difference in attitudes towards the teacher's role in the classroom.

Teaching and Learning issues

The responses to the questions on teaching and learning have not yet been fully analysed and will be described only briefly here. Even in the short space of time allocated to the discussion list participation, clear differences emerge from the questions set.

Question Chinese students Swedish/Germanstudents
What should a good teacher do?
  • Teach what students need with his or her heart
  • Excellent teaching method, students enjoy listening
  • I think that a good teacher should be good prepared and give structure to the unit. ... give clear directions about literature expected to be studied and follow it during the course.
What should a good student do?
  • Respect, finish homework, not late,correct attitude
  • I prefer shopping and chatting online
  • He or she should be awake during the lesson and make notes about what the teacher is _ritain_ng as important
What happens in a good lesson?
  • Dynamic circumstance
    focus on listening to what the teacher are talking
  • Students understand what they teach
  • That depends on the course, if the students are to find the info on their own or ara to be given the information from the tutor. ... the tutor gives the information and discuss it. Time is given to ask questions.
Think about differences between the style of learning in your country and Britain.
  • british teachers teach too little, need to read lots of books myself and do so much homework. In china, we have text books and teachers will point out the important points to us.
  • The teaching and learning style in china is totally different from what we do here .We have more 50 students in one class room. ...My teacher is very curel (sic), where we will seat depend on our mark.If we can not get high mark,we will seat in back of class
  • In Britain you discuss more than we actually would to in a Swedish seminar. In Sweden seminars are more about teaching than discussing. During a semester we have four courses, but we study only two units at the time. While in _ritain you have five courses, all at the same time.
    (Swedish student)
  • less hours of classes in Britain
    less homework to do in Britain
    - less oral participation in classes in Britain
    - teachers often hold a monologue in Britain
    - attendance of students in Britain is worse
    (German student)

Figure 3: Students comments on teaching and learning


The use of discussion lists as a means of participation in a classroom activity can be very useful as an extra tool for language tutors. The rationale for using this in class rather than out was that previous attempts to involve students had been less successful in getting full participation. In addition, the outputs could be printed off and used as the basis for classroom discussions and other work, both in terms of content (teaching and learning issues, cultural differences in business practice) and for language work (error analysis of typical errors). Fortunately, students also have unexpected responses not anticipated by the tutor:

I do like the second part of your class, because it provides a very good opportunity to do the excersise of writing within a limited time. A lot of mistakes will appear during the process and you can correct them for us. It's very nice.


In conclusion therefore, on the basis of our experience with ICT with language students, the use of the 'Virtual Campus' as a successful learning platform requires the following factors to be taken into consideration when designing courses to encourage independent learning and working with ICT:
integration of ICT into the curriculum, classwork and assessment of the course;
the involvement from the tutor can take the form of practical seminars or workshops built into the teaching programme 'to help students develop their learning and study skills, so that they have the ability to take control over their own learning' (Kukulska-Hulme1999: 10);
goal setting and reporting back through tutorials to monitor progress;
monitoring of discussion lists, even though time-consuming, enhances learning;
problems in persuading students to use discussion lists (can be overcome by using discussion lists as a class activity, by trying to effect a change in students' culture regarding out-of-class activities, and a recognition that even "lurkers" (passive readers) are learning something.

However, from our own experience it would seem that given the context of changes in higher education and the benefits outlined in the introduction, the use of ICT remains unavoidable. However, we would tend to agree with Kukulska -Hulme's (ibid) view that 'a student centred learning approach does not mean no involvement from the tutor'.


1. Some names have been deleted as the students are no longer attending UL. Surnames have been deleted for the sake of anonymity.
2. This leads to page where the users can see a list of names of others who have read the message.
3. All student messages are in their original form without correction of spelling mistakes etc.
4. My comments are in italics.