An integrated on-line/classroom-based language-learning environment

Authors: Anny King, Christoph Zähner, Nicola Howells, Nebojsa Radic and Anita Ogier


The University of Cambridge believes that languages should be available to all, and has decided that the best way to nurture the learning of languages is to integrate classroom teaching with on-line learning. This paper describes the language programme (CULP) that the University runs.

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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 Language Centre (LC) was established as an academic service in 1990 to respond to the increasing demand for language learning in all sections of the University of Cambridge. Since its creation the Language Centre has worked on the issue of harnessing new technologies to support language learning and teaching throughout the University. Self-access facilities have been available in the Independent Learning Centre (ILC) since its inception and currently 140 languages learned on a self-access basis are on offer. The post of Language Learning Adviser (LLA) was created in 1990. It was the first post of this kind in the UK. The LLA supports ILC learners by discussing learning needs and helping in the planning of individual learning programmes.

The University and a 'Languages for All Policy'

Within the University, language competence has now become a necessary component of 'graduateness' and it is recognised that language learning is making our graduates truly open to other cultures, more marketable, flexible and adaptable. Such attributes, all of which are associated with the language learning process, have been identified as among the key attributes which employers look for in graduates. Indeed we believe that the adaptability, cultural openness and communicative competence associated with the language learning process are core and indispensable qualities of educated citizens living and working in the knowledge societies of the 21st century.

The Centre's main mission

The Centre's main mission is to provide language learning opportunities for all members of the University. The Language Centre is well placed to meet this dual challenge of quantity and quality - providing for an increased quantity of learners with varying and diverse needs, and the maintenance of excellence, which is the hallmark of Cambridge University.

Over the years there have been many conflicting theories about language learning and teaching Since the Language Centre puts learners firmly in the centre of the learning process, it believes that learner support through a rich, flexible and supportive environment is the best way to nurture language learning. It is with this in mind that we decided that the best way forward was to integrate classroom teaching and on-line learning. This is done by using technology wisely and appropriately, i.e., using it in the language learning process for what it delivers best - listening and reading skills - whilst maintaining the social environment of the classroom for what it does best - speaking and writing skills. This is the pedagogical basis of the Cambridge University Language Programme (CULP).

Cambridge University Language Programme (CULP)

The Language Centre is now actively involved in the development of content for on-line delivery underpinned by the appropriate, sound methodology. Since Michaelmas 2000 it has been running taught courses in French, German and Spanish at Basic and Intermediate Levels as part of this programme. Students are selected primarily on motivation. The courses offer 2 hours' contact time per week with 1 hour of on-line learning support material, which is specifically developed in-house, integrated into the teaching and accessible on any PC throughout the University. CULP is sponsored by BTexact Technologies(1) .


CULP is inspired by the Council of Europe's communicative approach, which permeates the classroom teaching and the on-line learning material developed by the LC team and integrated in the teaching.

The course comprises 13 units and for eleven of these units, the syllabus is a functional/ notional one. Each unit represents 2 hours of on-line work, of which 1 hour is essential to progress within CULP. The input is either video or audio-based and is primarily done within the classroom. To help students comprehend the language input, there are many learning tools at their disposal: a video or audio transcript, a list of functions with their translations, activities for understanding the language input, manipulating it and reproducing it, grammar support presented visually with simple language so that students can understand how the language works at a glance and cultural notes in both the target language and in English. And finally each unit ends with a self-assessment activity that covers the main functions, vocabulary and grammar points of the unit and which is mostly presented in a role-play format.

The other two units use a topic-based approach and offer visual and/or audio and printed texts on the same topic. This approach is based on the integration of different media. It offers a rich learning environment in which the same topic is presented differently in each medium, thus using similar language but different registers. This 'media integration' maximises the strengths of each medium whilst minimising their weaknesses. The supportive learning tools on offer include numerous activities for both comprehension and reproduction of the language together with activities aimed at extending students' vocabulary. There are also grammar explanations, grammar-based activities and cultural notes.

The integration of teaching and on-line - a new learning culture

In order to support teaching and enhance learning, CULP offers a rich, flexible and supportive environment to its learners at all times through the integration of classroom teaching and on-line learning support. There is teacher and peer support in the classroom through oral communication, real-time interaction, group/pair work and the negotiation of meaning. There is flexible support in the on-line material in terms of time, space (2) and pace.There is rich input through the diversity of resources put at the disposal of the learners who are truly empowered with various tools, which help them develop their learning skills further. Whenever appropriate a link to the mother tongue (here English) is made in order to help students reflect on either the similarities or the differences between the target language and their L1 (this in turn helps them reflect on their mother tongue)

Since learners learn in different ways, the LC has a varied approach, using both an inductive and a deductive approach. There are three major steps to this approach: (i) rich and varied comprehensible input through video or audio whether in the classroom or on-line followed by support for comprehension through the use (amongst other things) of prior knowledge and/or prediction techniques, (ii) manipulation of language through various activities using the same structures and vocabulary but in different contexts and finally (iii) reproduction, via role-play type activities through classroom and/or on-line activities, which are made to be realistic and relevant to learners' interests.

CULP - Design Principles

The design of CULP is based around the concept of a community of practic (3) where learning is seen primarily as an emergent social process involving both participation (negotiation of meaning, intersubjectivity) and reification (material elements like syllabi, materials, tools et cetera). Learning is construed as a process of participation, which transforms the identity of the participating: through participation the individual acquires new skills and competencies and extends and modifies their understanding of the practice in which they are engaged. Learning is thus seen as the result of participating in an open-ended and always under-specified process rather than following a predetermined series of logically ordered steps. Open-endedness and under-specification do not, however, imply a lack of structure: the reified artefacts of learning, syllabi, materials and tools provide a framework which guide the learning process - the learning process is a response to this framework without being determined by it.

The community of practice forms the primary locus of the learning process. It is not an abstract concept but a concrete reality, which in the case of CULP can be identified as the tutorial group consisting of fifteen to twenty students and their tutor. The on-line part of the course provides the primary artefact that supports the learning processes that take place in that group. A continuous effort is required to balance the inherently reifying nature of the media with the need to design for its integration into dynamic group-based interactions. Traditionally, computer-based learning has tended to follow explicitly or implicitly a paradigm of programmed learning focusing on taking the individual learner through a series of predetermined steps aimed at obtaining pre-defined and fully specified learning objectives. As a framework supporting the activities of a community of practice, the on-line element of CULP on the other hand had to be designed to help the individual learner to prepare for open-ended, face-to-face (human-to-human) interaction by offering opportunities to practice skills like listening and reading, to familiarize themselves with new vocabulary and language structures and to manipulate language; as it were, off-line and in reflective mode. None of these activities are however exclusive to the on-line element of the course. They all feed into the process of participation in the community of practice, where the real business of interaction and negotiation of meaning takes place. The whole learning environment resembles a force field with four poles:


  • Human-to-human interaction (peer-to-peer, peer-to-tutor);
  • Participation (active engagement in interchange and the negotiation of meaning);
  • Reification (learning targets, materials, tools);
  • On-line (technologically mediated access to other participants (4) and learning materials).

The various aspects of language learning exist in this force field not as a static constellation but as continuously shifting elements in an emergent process of learning.

The challenge facing the design of the on-line part of the course lies in marrying the intrinsic features of the media and their technological aspects with the demands of an open and flexible learning environment. The best way to meet this challenge seems to lie in trying to establish a reasonably tight feedback loop between the system designers on the one hand and the individuals directly involved in the communities of practice engaged in language learning on the other. This requires an open architecture of the system, which allows for easy modifications and adaptations to the emerging needs of the learners. As far as possible and within given practical constraints the on-line system itself must retain an emergent character ensuring that reification does not become fossilization. Traditional means of responding to user feedback, like regular questionnaires and a direct line of feedback to the developers help this process but the most crucial factor perhaps is played by the tutor. From a global perspective, CULP involves three different types of communities of practice: the tutorial groups, the community of teachers and the community of developers and technical support. The individual tutor who shares a common understanding and shared practices with other tutors through being a member of the community of teachers functions as an important broker between the different types of communities. The tutor is a core member of the tutorial group and the community of teachers but he also places a role in the community of developers. The involvement of the tutor in the latter may vary from individual to individual. Some are engaged in the core process of producing the on-line system as content providers while others are only engaged in a more peripheral role, offering a permanent channel of feedback from the community of learners to the community of developers, thus ensuring that the two communities continue to evolve in parallel.

Support for CULP

Support in the language-learning process is available to the learners on the CULP programme from their classroom teachers, the course administrators as well as the advising system in the Independent Learning Centre (ILC). This framework corresponds to what Calvert calls 'reciprocity,' which aims to assist in the development of learners' autonomy (the awareness of what it means to learn a language) and responsibility (learners' decisions about what they learn, how much they learn and how they learn)(5).
The advising system helps to:

  • encourage learners who need, are interested in and suited to CULP to join the programme;
  • provide guidance relating to learning strategies as well as recommendations of resources to strengthen learners' weak areas or complement their skills during the course;
  • encourage life-long learning post-CULP.

The support takes place mainly in the form of one-to-one advising or counselling sessions. However, an additional function of the advising system working in tandem with CULP is to encourage collaborative learning beyond the classroom. Students are assisted in setting up discussion groups or informal learning circles that meet regularly and use the varied materials available in the Independent Learning Centre to continue their learning. These groups structure their own classes or meetings with specific focuses or academic interests around the CULP programme.

The independent learning strategy gives students the opportunity to reflect on their learning and develop meta-cognitive and cognitive awareness of the language learning process as autonomous learners. This awareness develops through the experience of the different learning environments characteristic of CULP: class, on-line and independent study. The most important aim of the advising service is to turn the control of the learning process over to the students and empower them for ongoing learning in all contexts, while at the same time providing ongoing support. Reflection on the purposes of learning and the benefits of the CULP environment encourage integrative rather than instrumental motivation, and it has become evident that many post-CULP students go on to study or work abroad, or work towards non-credit bearing, internationally recognised language exam qualifications. Many learners on the CULP programme also register for the Centre's Conversation Exchange Scheme with native speakers for sustained oral practice of the language they are learning.

An example of collaborative learning that emanated from CULP is the French Discussion Group initiative which emerged from the CULP course as a result of students who had previously accomplished A level French, registered for the course because they doubted their present ability beyond the intermediate level, but regained their competence faster than expected, thereby finding the course too easy. The pilot French Discussion Group that was formed followed the same principles as a 'learning circle':

  • Autonomous learning achieved through student co-ordination of the lesson plans and classes with support from the Language Learning Consultant.
  • Student reflection on successful learning techniques and individual learning styles.
  • Student commitment to the learning process.
  • Interdependent learning with intermittent native-speaker guidance.

The success of the French Discussion Group has set a precedent for the incorporation of similar Discussion Groups as an extension of the CULP programme for upper intermediate to advanced level learners.

Overall, the advising system highlights the diversity of learning experiences embedded in the CULP framework and provides extra support to complement the curriculum's interactive and reflective nature.

Further development

To meet the major challenges of the future we are developing and expanding our current on-line provision. Some of these initiatives include Italian at the Basic level, discussion forums for all CULP language courses, as well as dossiers in French, German and Spanish for higher-level learners We firmly believe that needs come before means and thus the high level, robust technical expertise developed by the Centre over the years will continue to be integrated with the Centre's pedagogical learner-centred approach. It is this combination and the constant dialogue between pedagogy and technology that provides the basis for the Centre's current on-line provision.

We believe that the creation of a rich, flexible and supportive learning environment will be instrumental in answering the diverse needs of all sectors of the University community. This we have already started doing through the many different opportunities offered today by the Centre - self-study with support, taught courses with on-line support, discussion groups with support and on-line provision for both specialist and non-specialist learners.

In business today the importance of multi-culture and multi-lingual skills cannot be understated. CULP is a great example of innovation in language learning, giving a broad spectrum of undergraduates in University environments the opportunity to develop extremely valuable skills in a fun way. Technology also has a key role to play, bringing opportunities for interactive and distance learning. The Cambridge University Language Programme is a great example of this and an accolade to the staff who put it together.

                                                                                                Stewart Davies, Chief Executive of BTexact Technologies(6)


1. BTexact Technologies, presented eighteen CULP BTexact Technologies Awards of £100 each to the most deserving students.

2. Next academic year, we will have a CULP Forum to encourage students to share their learning experience and help one another.

3. Etienne Wenger. (2000) Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press.

4. Given the particular context of CULP computer-mediated communication between participants plays only a minor role

5. Calvert, Mike. (1999) 'Tandem: a vehicle for language and intercultural learning' Language Learning Journal, 19: 58.

6. Opening speech of Stewart Davies, BTexact Technologies Language Awards, 15/5/02, New Hall