Implementing videoconferencing and e-learning environments for widening participation in education: the languages for e-Business (Le-B) and ATLAS programmes

Authors: Rita Mascia and Christel Schroeder


The Language and Culture for Business (LCB) Programme at the University of Luton (UoL), partially funded by the European Social Fund (ESF), has designed innovative business language programmes targeted at Small and Medium sized Enterprises (SMEs) and focused on widening access to learning for learners from rural areas and time challenged business students. In this paper we will report on the success of the LCB programmes in relation to academic achievement and qualifications, and discuss issues on 'Best Practice' related to two programmes: LCB’s Videoconferencing delivery which is the teaching and learning of business language skills via an inter-active two-way video link between tutor and learners, replicating a classroom situation. LCB’s ATLAS which is an on-line distance learning programme providing opportunities for independent learning in a networked environment.

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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 Nuffield Languages Inquiry (2000) found that there is little practical support in relation to language training for SMEs: for instance only 7% of companies in the UK are prepared to fund language training (2). As language training is normally delivered face-to-face, time release for employees results in loss of valuable staff time.

In order to solve these problems faced by SMEs, LCB - supported by the ESF - is currently running two projects: the 'Languages for e-Business' (LeB2), delivered by UoL in collaboration with other higher and further education institutions across the eastern region, and ATLAS - a distance learning programme. Both projects deliver business language training with a strong focus on language activities related to electronic commerce.

LeB2 Videoconference link

Training delivery

Videoconferencing delivery takes place between the video suite at the UoL and the Learning Resources Centre in Framlingham, Suffolk. To date 59 students have benefited from this training.

After an initial piloting phase, classes have been running for the past one and a half years in Business French, Spanish and German. The LeB2 programme consists of three blocks of ten weeks of training and each class comprises of four hours’ teaching.

Trials in the pilot phase showed that it was crucial to develop a personal relationship between tutors and students at the start of the course. Thus the first class normally takes place ‘in situ’ with the tutor travelling to Framlingham to deliver it face-to-face. For the remainder of each block of ten weeks, tutors teach by video-link.

Teaching and learning implications

In the pilot phase, the delivery by videoconference was met with some resistance and some scepticism. There were reservations from staff about the sound quality that was thought to be a hindrance for learning pronunciation, and reservations about the duration of the programme i.e. duration not sufficient to cover the syllabus leading to the Oxford and Cambridge Royal Society of Arts (OCR) examination.

Due to visual constrictions on the videoconferencing screen, the maximum number of students per group is 6, although a more suitable number is 4 or 5. The reduced number of students allowed in each class creates implications for teaching because many language activities (e.g. role-play) can only be done if there is a certain number of people in the room. As a result, delegate retention is especially important in language training by videoconferencing.

Student support is also slightly different from traditional face-to-face delivery. Students submit a number of pieces of their work via facsimile or e-mail and make great use of the telephone to keep in touch with the tutors to compensate for the lack of face-to-face contact.

Communication during videoconferencing is also different from communication in face-to-face delivery. Because of sound quality, people cannot all talk together as sometimes happens in a traditional classroom. This limitation affects the way tutors interact with the students. For instance, tutors often give positive feedback while the learner speaks but that sort of interaction, cannot take place in this environment as the tutor has to limit the feedback to specific instances either at the beginning or at the end of a student task.

Learning via videoconference link also requires a lot of visual concentration thus preparing good visuals for a videoconference class is crucial to its success. Tutors and IT staff sat mock classes from remote locations and tried different styles of PowerPoint slides until they agreed on an optimum choice for bullet points, font size, background colour and colour coding. Thus, a standardised style was adopted across the three languages.

Tutors also have had to ‘re-think’ the way they teach. Their mannerisms and body language expressions - previously unnoticed - become a source of distraction for the learners when they are visible on screen. However, tutors have access to a double screen to monitor that their teaching style suits the videoconference medium: one for viewing the students and one for viewing their image. For instance, if they use flash cards or objects for their classes, they can check that the way they are holding the card or the object gives the students a view free from reflection of the light.


The students start with a set of ten business language units and a CD for the dialogues and listening exercises. Additionally they receive a ‘Study at Work Portfolio’ which consists of five study packs of distance learning material complete with an audiotape and a series of progress check assignments. Moreover, students are equipped with a series of templates for answering the phone in the target language that they have to fill in with the correct terminology, and include these complementary materials in their portfolios. Finally, lessons can be ‘re-visited’ through the use of recorded videos (also used for retention purposes i.e. sent to absent students after class).

The tutors use the following materials:

  • PowerPoint slides
  • flash cards and objects to stimulate the students’ interest (the lack of physical proximity between tutors and students had to be compensated with a higher level of diversification in the learning and teaching activities)
  • CD ROM exercises
  • Internet for web-based activities.


All the students who undertook the OCR exam were successfully awarded the Certificate in Business Language Competence (CBLC).


Students provided very positive feedback on the programme during the piloting phase of 2000. See below a selection of comments:

'My tutor has been so enthusiastic - some of it has to rub off! My thanks to Patricia'

'I have had a chance to use my Spanish and I am motivated.'

'We are going to try to appoint an agent in Spain year. I will be in a better position to communicate with our agent and their customers.'

'The main benefit I perceive from the LCB course in relation to the company is a much greater understanding, verbally and written, of how to communicate more effectively with European customers - to benefit both parties.'

'I have found the LCB format most helpful, the benefits of working in a small group, and particularly in building confidence in oral work.'

'…Finding course challenging but very good. Found the video of the course very helpful for catching up on missed sessions.'

The students’ answers from a survey carried out at the end of 2001 were also very encouraging (100% satisfaction for the overall programme, with students satisfied about the pace of the course, the teaching standard, quality of materials and student support). Asked whether they rated the course 'poor, satisfactory, good or very good', 80% of students answered ‘very good’ and 20% ‘good’.

Best Practice

The following guidelines are suggested:

  • Classes should be limited to a maximum of 6 students to accommodate visual limitations related to videoconference technology.


  • Lessons should be not longer than 4 hours as this type of training - heavily relying on technology - is more tiring than traditional classroom training.


  • The use of characters, colours and fonts for material that appears on the screen should be optimised and activities should be varied.


  • Tutors should make sure participants know how to communicate effectively using videoconferencing link, for instance reminding them not to tap pens or other objects near the microphone as this makes communication difficult.


  • Open evenings, induction days and the first class taken on site are essential for establishing a relationship between tutors and students and train in the use of the technology.


  • Tutors need to be trained in the technology since issues such as mannerisms, public speaking skills and the added stress from having to manage a new technology and knowing that one is being recorded, all affect the training.


  • Classes should be recorded, thus allowing students to ‘re-sit’ them for revision and allowing tutors to evaluate their on-screen performance and learn valuable lessons both on a personal and a pedagogical level.


  • Extra support should be given to students, using other forms of contact such as e-mail, fax and telephone, to reassure them of progress made.

ATLAS On-line learning

Training delivery

The 70-hour ATLAS distance learning programme aims at training e-learners, who typically bring with them prior Spanish and German language skills at beginners’ level.

The structure of ATLAS is of horizontal and vertical modularity, allowing students to proceed at their own pace, when the time suits them and in the order that they prefer. ATLAS is still in its pilot phase with 2 fully networked modules, and module 3 currently in the last test phase.

Teaching and learning implications

In the context of the ATLAS project, LCB have taken a humanistic cognitive perspective on the teaching of language using computer technology which incorporates elements of humanistic methodology (Stevick 1990), cognitive learning theories (McLaughlin 1987; O'Malley & Chamot 1990), and sociocultural theories of language learning (Halliday 1993; Wells 1994).

ATLAS’ philosophy - largely influenced by R.M. Smith’s (1982) – is based on the belief that adult language learners should be supported to:

  • determine their own learning objectives;
  • choose relevant ways of achieving them;
  • evaluate progress according to their needs.

Tutors give students informed control over the access to training and delivery, choice of training needs like task, topic or function, and a choice of progression speed informed by personalised working/study plans. Students work at their own pace and level, and receive immediate as well as personalised feedback. In terms of group dynamics, the ATLAS design enables learners to pool their knowledge in effective ways through networking room facilities.


The complete course programme consists of 3 modules totaling 70 learning hours. Each of the 3 modules features six individually accessible sections with online materials and additional language resources through dictionaries, on-line library and printable and audible quick reference guides with most commonly used phrases covering functions associated with relevant business scenarios.

Each of the six sections embraces the following elements:

  • a function/topic driven index with individual task references;
  • computer assessed and separately referenced OCR preparation tasks;
  • a language structure guide;
  • a quick reference guide of audio clips;
  • cultural information;
  • tutor guidance notes;
  • links to: index, tutorial/networking/business news room, telephone conference booking system, dictionary, library, and Notepad for individual delegate notes.


Among the activities and tasks are:

  • multiple choice/gap-fill/ problem-based/ listening comprehension tasks;
  • contextual communicative scenarios;
  • oral response tasks;
  • role-play scripting & practice;
  • conversational exchanges via telephone conferences, discussions, and information exchanges.


Based on generic role-play templates, students have the opportunity to script conversational situations featuring their individual business scenarios, find suitable study partners through networking room facilities to practice these scenarios. These exchanges are self, peer and tutor assessed.


Formal examinations will take place in November 2002. However, assessment of current students has produced promising results with a realistic potential of further progress.


The evidence so far collected is from 14 active students learning Spanish and German who provided feedback on their e-learning experience. The feedback focuses around the themes listed below which are followed by quotes from participating learners:

Navigation of the site

  • 'On the whole very good, only real problem was when answering forms if you wanted to go back over the information preceding it'
  • 'I would prefer some kind of bookmark to help me access the point where I last left off. I'm now going to use the note book for this.'
  • 'Good except that the 'back', 'forward' and 'exit' functions are not available on-screen once into the course material'

Usability of on-line materials

  • 'I'm not a great fan of forums, but the system ATLAS is using is easy to understand and use, the large typeface is welcome'
  • '…Would like to see a little more telephone chatter scenarios for greetings and polite conversations'.
  • 'I have not used the material much as yet but I recognise the benefit of having live and topical material for discussion made available'.

Tutor support and guidance

  • 'Haven’t used this facility to its fullest, but tutor support has been excellent when required'
  • 'The service given by tutor support and guidance provided by ATLAS is excellent'
  • 'The tutor support is excellent, when I first looked at the work on this site I was put off, imagining it would be at too high a level for my ability. C. S. managed to persuade me it wasn't and I'm very pleased she did. Without such excellent tutorial input I’m sure this course just wouldn't work.'
  • 'Very encouraging. The programme and web site have been well explained and demonstrated and the tutor has made herself very accessible'

Progress achieved

  • 'The fact that you get marks as you go along is extremely helpful as you are immediately aware of any weaknesses and can address these before proceeding'
  • 'We are pleased with the progress we have made so far in the German language, all thanks to the tutor'

Networking facilities

  • 'The networking facilities in support of social communications are excellent'
  • 'I have had not yet started using these'
  • 'I enjoy the chats and it's useful to compare notes'
  • 'I think that this aspect of the course may present something of a challenge to those who are not used to using chat-rooms or communication on-line in this way. I am willing but may be, in reality slightly reluctant'.

Suggestions for improvement

  • 'Whilst an introduction was provided, I didn’t bother reading it and got stuck in and learnt the hard way. Perhaps, if this page were compulsory reading before gaining access to the module it would be more useful. My only real criticism is that it would be better to go through each section of the module stage by stage, rather than having the option of selecting which bits you wanted to do … I found the study plan very helpful and when its put in black and white what you should be achieving each week, its more of an incentive to complete it, or even exceed it.'
  • 'It would be very useful to have the on-line support documents available in pop-up windows, a link to real player download would have been useful when I started'
  • 'I think further backup like tapes and common questions/answers in German/English worksheets to aid on phone calls would be a good starter for learning new phrases'.

A complete evaluation report of the whole programme will be available in 2003.

Best Practice

Preliminary findings on the use of the ATLAS e-learning environment showed us the importance of maintaining a balance of learner autonomy and tutor intervention.

One potential pitfall of computer-assisted learning and particularly e-learning is the technology itself. The ATLAS team use a Training Plan Questionnaire which is an example of good practice relating to the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in higher education, tackling potential problems, such as ICT literacy, at the source.

Clear indication of tutor and peer availability is also recommended together with assessment feedback timetables. During module progression, it is advisable that tutors maintain regular weekly contact with the students via telephone, e-mail and fax.

Individual tutor guidance and opportunities via telephone conference topics and timetable should be provided to e-learners to practice real-life conversational exchanges.

On-line programmes should undergo thorough testing and analysis by critical users and preferably learners before being offered as a training programme.


The videoconferencing link is an effective and successful way of delivering business language training to rural companies and time challenged students.

From our experience with the videoconference training it emerged that learners and tutors need to feel confortable with the technology used and to undertake ICT training before language tuition can actually begin.

Face-to-face contact between tutor and learner is important in videoconference training and we recommend that at the beginning of the programme tutors teach the first class on site. Once a personal relationship has been established and videoconference training takes place, student support should be frequent and varied.

The commitment and effort made by students and staff, which resulted in a 100% success rate in gaining qualifications, confirms that language training by videoconferencing can be successfully achieved and can solve the problem of remoteness for learners who cannot attend traditionally taught language classes.

The goal and structure of the ATLAS course exploit new technology to the full and move technology from the margins to the core of language learning. The ATLAS programme places a lot of emphasis on promoting autonomous learning by encouraging students’ pro-active approaches and organisation of their learning, ensuring that guidelines for appropriate supervision are clearly explained. The potential of ATLAS derives from its format: a web-based learning accessible anywhere and anytime through computer terminals, supported by tutors in networked environments and which includes preparation for external examinations leading to accreditation of oral and aural skills (CBLC).

Finally, another potential for educational development of ATLAS on-line learning is the scalability of the programme. Being based on templates and authoring tools, ATLAS can be adapted to immediate delegate needs or include different languages and different business scenarios.


  1. Contact details: and University of Luton, Language and Culture for Business, Vicarage St, Room J303/6, Luton LU1 3JU, Bedfordshire, England.
  2. Department for Education and Employment (2000)


website of ATLAS:

website of Language & Culture for Business (LCB):


Department for Education and Employment (2000), Labour Market and Skills Trends 2000. Prolog

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