Autonomous acquisition of Italian culture within language learning: the experience of CAMILLE (Cultural Awareness Modules to Improve Language Learning Experience)

Author: Elena Polisca


This contribution focuses on an innovative e-learning project recently initiated at the University of Manchester. CAMILLE (Cultural Awareness Modules to Improve Language Learning Experience) aims to design, develop and implement innovative e-learning resources to enhance students’ awareness of Italian culture (understood in the widest sense) in support of their language learning experience. The paper presents some of the content and resources that have been developed for the project, and discusses how this innovative e-learning approach to teaching Italian culture fits into the language learning experience of different groups of students.

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Table of contents

Languages in Higher Education Conference 2008: transitions and connections

This paper was originally presented at our conference: transitions and connections , 8-9 July 2008.


The issue of “culture teaching” has become increasingly relevant for all practitioners involved in language education, to the extent that Calvert referred to the raising of cultural awareness as the “hidden curriculum” of foreign language teaching (Calvert (1999: 56)). However, due to timetable and curriculum constraints, the inclusion of culture teaching often comes second to the teaching of the language at all levels of education (cf. Ciccarelli 1996: 563; Senior 1998), and tutors find making room for the inclusion of the raising of cultural awareness in their classes a challenge(for the debate on language teaching and the raising of cultural awareness cf. Broady (2004: 68)). Within the division of Italian Studies, tutors at the University of Manchester have therefore developed an innovative VLE (Virtual Learning Environment)-based project aimed at supplementing and enhancing students’ language learning experience by providing learning objects with a sharp focus on Italian culture, which tie in with the core language teaching at all levels of the curriculum.


In any one year, the University of Manchester recruits around 350 students to study Italian both at degree level within Italian Studies and as a university-wide subject alongside another main degree area with the LEAP (Language Experience for All Programme) programme.
Through end-of-year evaluation questionnaires, tutors of both Italian Studies and LEAP found a common area highlighted by the different cohorts of students with regard to the raising (and teaching) of cultural awareness. Students commented that, due to poor provision of cultural awareness within both programmes, “courses were not intellectually stimulating” (LEAP) and that “insufficient preparation for the Year Abroad experience” was provided (Italian Studies). Thus, in collaboration with a learning technologist from CEEBL (Centre for Excellence in Enquiry-Based Learning), a bid for a new project was successfully put in through the e-Learning fund in order to reconsider the approach to language teaching and cultural awareness.


CAMILLE is a Blackboard-based project that focuses on specific areas of Italian culture by providing students with a holistic approach to the raising of cultural (and language) awareness. In this respect, the benefits of using computer-aided technology for language teaching are well documented (Belz, 2002 2003; Furstenberg et al. 2001; O’Dowd 2003; Polisca 2006; Thorne 2003; Warschauer and Kern 2000). Specifically, CAMILLE offers an interactive, media-rich environment through which students are exposed to an aspect of Italian culture of their choice in an engaging manner. Each learning module provides video-clips, sound files, pictures, links to related areas of interest, a glossary, and texts that have been approved by tutors and can be accessed directly, all under one roof.

The aims of CAMILLE are: i) to increase students’ culture acquisition; ii) to give students the opportunity to learn about Italian culture in a relaxed VLE; iii) to continue to develop students’ language skills; iv) to help students take responsibility for their own learning; v) to improve students’ IT skills; and vi) to give students the chance to find out more on a specific cultural aspect of Italy independently within a supervised VLE.

Because CAMILLE has been designed with students’ interests in mind, a questionnaire was circulated in the initial phases of the project in order to elicit students’ preferences as to the areas of Italian culture about which they wished to learn more. A questionnaire was therefore given to six language groups at different levels of the curriculum, containing both closed-format questions (e.g. broad areas of potential interest in Italian culture, set issues and themes, social and everyday issues in Italy) and open-format questions (e.g. names of cities, geographical areas, famous Italians).

The results of the questionnaire eventually formed the basis of the content of CAMILLE, whereby each learning object / module is based on one aspect of Italian culture, working from the most popular to the least popular according to students’ preferences as indicated by their responses to the questionnaire.

Figure 1: CAMILLE welcome page

Figure 1: CAMILLE welcome page

Each module is based on an authentic core text in Italian and provides two levels of access: intermediate and advanced. Students learn about Italian culture by carrying out tailor-made exercises such as gap-filling, yes / no answers, multiple choice, matching exercises, guided writing, lexical exercises, free writing etc. in order to make the most of the assessment tools offered by the VLE. The intermediate level proposes more guided exercises that tend to focus on textual comprehension, while the advanced level offers the opportunity to manipulate the text more thoroughly.

Figure 2: Opera module, main page

Figure 2: Opera module, main page

Each module offers a particular insight into a topic, and the topics have therefore been narrowed down for this purpose. The Italian cuisine module, for instance, presents students with a variety of recipes from one specific region (Le Marche); the module offers a built-in glossary with pictures to help students learn about the recipes of that region. The exercises focus on the geographical diversity of Le Marche, which inevitably impinges on its recipes, and on the glossary of cookery terms. The module also offers helpful hints on the history of the region, with the opportunity to visit websites (approved by the language tutors) which have been linked to both in the main text and in the interactive glossary. By completing the module, students gain an understanding of the gastronomic diversity of Le Marche with the hope that, inspired by the interactive work they carried out, they feel interested enough to find out more for themselves.

Figure 3: Italian cuisine, core text with auto-generated glossary terms linking to CAMILLE’s Media Library

Figure 3: Italian cuisine, core text with auto-generated glossary terms linking to CAMILLE’s Media Library

Each module also supplies answers to the exercises in order to encourage students to continue working on CAMILLE by providing immediate feedback. Feedback is of a formative nature, in that it is not limited to a dry yes / no answer, but provides further explanations and links to related areas in order to elucidate a particular aspect of a specific answer. It is therefore hoped that students will feel stimulated to continue researching the topic on which they are working, thus going beyond the learning object itself.


At the end of the pilot project in February 2008, the feedback collected through a number of student testers was overwhelmingly positive both from Italian Studies and LEAP students. The outcomes clearly show that CAMILLE is fulfilling its aims as a tool to raise and facilitate cultural awareness and acquisition, with students making the following comments:

“I found the module really interesting and stimulating … the questions made me look at the information (and search for it by myself) beyond the module, which I found great as an extension of the knowledge about Italian cinematography.” (Pre-intermediate student, LEAP)

“I have learnt about many aspects of culture that I had not previously come across.” (Intermediate student, Italian Studies)

“CAMILLE is interactive; the tasks are diverse and the use of audio tools keeps the student interested. … All tasks are user-friendly and with useful links for more in-depth information.” (Advanced student, Italian Studies)  

These positive results have encouraged tutors to continue developing new modules throughout the summer of 2008 in advance of CAMILLE’s formal launch at the start of the new academic year in September 2008.

Technical issues

The devising of the modules was carried out jointly by the Italian tutors involved in the project, while the learning technologist dealt with the technical issues that inevitably arose with the creation of the first few learning objects. The tutors and the learning technologist worked together closely in order to achieve the best results without compromising on the content of the sessions or the tools available within the VLE. All modules were built using Dreamweaver for the creation of new style sheets, whereas the assessment and quiz tools were built directly into Blackboard. As far as the integration of videos and sound files was concerned, some MP3s and videos were streamed from the University server, while others, where available, were embedded from YouTube.

However, the main issue regarding the formulation of modules using authentic material and the inclusion of authentic sound and video files, as well as pictures, was undoubtedly copyright. Whenever possible, JISC, University-licensed sources (i.e. EDINA image and media repositories) and copyright-free sources were used (e.g. Flickr, Wikimedia Commons). In all other instances, each copyright holder was contacted individually in order to get permission to reproduce their material within a controlled environment for educational purposes. Although dealing with this part of the project was undeniably time-consuming, tutors were advised by the University to pursue this route due to the lack of University copyright licences regarding materials produced outside of the UK. Within CAMILLE all sources were subsequently acknowledged.

The future of CAMILLE

When CAMILLE is officially opened to the wider Italian Studies and LEAP student populations in September 2008, the modules will be formally integrated within the core language courses for both programmes. In particular, for Italian Studies, CAMILLE will be linked to the Independent Language Learning Programme (ILLP) for years one and two of the curriculum. In accordance with its remit, CAMILLE will help students achieve a more thorough understanding of Italian culture as part of their compulsory, credit-rated programme of independent language learning, with a special focus, for year two students, on the cultural preparation for their Year Abroad (YA) experience the following year. For final year students, CAMILLE will be made available as an extra tool aimed at retaining and enriching students’ cultural acquisition after the period of residence abroad, alongside the credit-rated core language coursework.

Similarly, CAMILLE will be integrated within the LEAP courses at all levels of language teaching and learning, particularly for those courses involved with the credit-rated Tandem modules (for an account of the success of the Tandem programmes, cf. Truscott and Morley 2001; Morley and Truscott 2003).

 As far as the long-term future is concerned, tutors currently involved in the development of CAMILLE envisage restructuring the coursework for the YA experience with the new modules in mind. In particular, it is envisaged that students who spend time in Italy as part of their degree will engage in fieldwork of both a linguistic and a cultural nature. CAMILLE will offer students the opportunity to investigate thoroughly a cultural area in which they are strongly interested. Using CAMILLE as a starting point, students will be able to research and develop linguistic exercises that will form part of the compulsory coursework required to gain credits and proceed to their final year of study.

It is also envisaged that within the next couple of academic years CAMILLE will become so engrained within the Italian Studies curriculum that it will be considered as a general marker of language progression for the transition between years two to four as far as independent language learning is concerned. In particular, students in year two and about to embark on the YA experience will be expected to be able to carry out the intermediate level modules with some degree of support (e.g. dictionary) before their departure. Equally, upon their return the same students should be able to complete the advanced level modules fairly easily. The integration of CAMILLE within the period of residence abroad therefore fulfils two aims. In the first instance, it will help students gain the necessary coursework credits required to progress to their final year of study. Second, it will help students gain a sharper focus on Italian cultural topics in a structured manner.

Concluding remarks

Working on CAMILLE has proved to be a very positive and fruitful experience for the developers and students testers alike. In particular, from a pedagogical perspective, CAMILLE has helped tutors to develop learning activities with a sharper focus on cultural acquisition alongside the formally taught classes, in a way that students find enjoyable and engaging. In this respect, CAMILLE is being put forward as a replicable model across different institutional settings as far as the raising of cultural awareness in concerned. It is felt that, despite copyright restrictions, the concept of the project would be straightforward to replicate in order to benefit a wider student community. However, in order for the project to be implemented successfully, it is recommended that all parties involved work together closely, in particular as regards cooperation between the figures of the leading academic and the e-learning technologist.


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Related links

School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures

LEAP - Language Experience for All Programme