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Interactive conversations for advanced learners of French

Hélène Jaccomard
University of Western Australia

Stricto senso interactive multimedia language aids are not wholly interactive. Language teachers use or design multimedia (MM) products which allow students to click here and there, fill up blanks or MCQs, read corrections in self correcting exercises, listen to songs, interviews, or watch film clips, all this at their own pace and their own level. Such teaching aids are certainly not to be decried. However interactive programs don't teach or allow to practice major skills required in the learning of languages. For instance written production made possible by such programs is limited in scope. Oral production is even more limited, reduced to repetition and recording at best, a serious shortcoming in language learning. In short if MM tools are "inter" they are not really "active". A true interactivity would mean that all four competencies are used (read, understand, write and speak) passive learners becoming active, going from consumers to producers of multimedia resources. They could thus have their written and oral confidence truly boosted and imagination unbridled.

In my quest for a better interactivity in the use of MM and in collaboration with colleagues from the UWA Arts Faculty MMC and Department of European Languages and Studies, I designed a pilot project, Interactive conversations (IC), that goes some way towards a true interactivity by making learners use a much wider range of skills than are usually afforded by so called interactive MM programs.

I. Project description

An interactive conversation allows the user to choose the direction a dialogue takes. Typically many answers to a particular utterance are offered to the user who, by clicking on the answer of his/her choice, determines the course of the scenario. On a much more modest scale, the underlying concept of an IC resembles "books where you are the hero". Instead of turning the pages, the user clicks on the computer screen on the written lines of her choice, and rather than read a character's utterances she can see and hear him say his lines. Users are therefore mobilising a large array of competencies integral to language learning.

An IC ("Boutique Dialog" [1]) had been devised in 1998 by a tutor of Italian, Michelle Valdrighi, with the help of the MMC programmer, Mike Fardon. Mike had been inspired by an artistic installation called "Virtual Persons" by Luc Courchesne (Université de Montréal).

Clearly the interactivity lies with the user of IC, also a learner of French, ICs becoming part of UWA Arts Faculty's growing MM language resources. More importantly however, instead of the teacher creating the IC, students themselves are the creators, or rather the IC's authors - a truly innovative feature in language teaching and learning. So, in 1999, I requested a group of twelve third year students of French to devise an "Interactive Conversation" as their main assignment accounting for 15% of the semester mark. Such a multimedia project was particularly suited to the course objectives (advanced, intensive French 312) devoted to language registers, relationships between language and culture, and cultural norms governing spoken exchanges.

Here are the tasks the Students-Authors had to carry out:

  1. They had to design a scenario between two speakers. In this instance I suggested a situation between an expert and a client. Students worked in pairs, one being the actor, the other the cameraman: it often gave rise to serious negotiating as most students would claim to be too camera shy to be the actor. Both students collaborated in the scripting of the scenario and the final digitising of film, compiling of resources and computer processing of text.

  2. For simplicity sake it was decided to limit the filming to the expert's utterances, and to write the multiple choice utterances of the client, the ones the user would click on to advance the story. Students therefore had to film the expert's utterances, using a digital video camera lent by the Multimedia Centre. They were asked to plan for at least 25 shots of the expert.

  3. Students had to digitise the successful film shots using a specific program. In fact at the time the technician found it easier to digitise the video segments himself whereas, now, students are able to carry out this task themselves using iMovie.

  4. Students then had to link film and text, and photos (which they learned to scan) if they wanted to add any. The program they used to link text and film is an authoring shell devised in 1996 by Mike Fardon, and refined over the years to adapt to technological advances and teachers' needs. I have previously outlined the all encompassing, user friendly features of this program, for authors and users alike, at the 2000 T&L forum held at Curtin University [2].

  5. Students were required to submit the written version of their scenarios for language corrections and comments. Finally they had to present their work to the class. I then explored their ICs and suggested improvements, which, if made, would add some points to their final mark.

II. Project time line

I set aside six sessions:
  1. Project description using "Boutique Dialog" as a model, and a simplified conversation, "Bathroom Dialog" created for the project.
  2. Building a scenario in the form of a diagram and filming it.
  3. Digitising film shots and learning to use StoryTime authoring shell;
  4. Two free sessions to work on their dialogues together with all staff involved (myself, and MMC's Mike Fardon and Michelle Valdrighi). These were actually not necessary as students readily understood their tasks, met and worked outside formal class hours.
  5. Presentation of their works to the wider group, whilst giving feedback on their learning experience.

III. Results

Here are the 6 resulting scenarios: Three choices are given: "Yes, global warming worries me a lot"; "No, I can't care less"; "Yes, I am worried, but what can I do, as a mere individual, to solve the evils of this world?".

If you click on the first answer, you're taken to the next screen where the expert says "What do you know about Green house effect"? To which you have again a choice of 3 answers. And so on. I must say that such a scenario, inspired by local news, is not devoid of humour and passion. If you follow the second thread of answers with the passerby saying she is not bothered by environmental issues, you end up with a (mock) fist fight!

The authors had to carry out some research on environmental issues as well as on the language of persuasion. In order to match topic and setting, they took the risk of filming outdoors; sound quality is surprisingly good considering. (Unfortunately they didn't submit their dialogue for correction; nor did they make any of the alterations I suggested once their work was presented, and their IC is therefore full of spelling and grammatical mistakes - which makes it a dubious resource for users/learners).

Now that the principle of an IC is understood, I won't go over the next five ICs in as much detail, limiting myself to outlining the topic chosen and the strengths and weaknesses of each:

All six creations can be seen at the following Internet address:


IV. Technology and logic in building scenarios

I will now go back on the actual process of creating an IC.

I showed students the "Boutique Dialog", and asked them to "deconstruct" it. All practically thought of a tree like structure as in Appendix 1.

Even with brief utterances as in this example, it is obvious that the tree is going to quickly inflate to an unmanageable mass. I therefore suggested to students that they number their lines and write the actual utterances and replies on a separate sheet of paper (Appendix 2).

The other tip I gave them was to circle segments that had to be filmed, and square reparties which would have to be written on the screen. Such a notation system can also be used to name each individual shot: so that in this Boutique dialog example, the shot of the expert saying "How can I help you" is called Shot 1, the second filmed segment, will be number 6; likewise those shots will be digitised mov1.mov and mov6.mov. It will then suffice to type in the responses (2, 3,4, 5, 7 and 8 in our example) and create links accordingly. Mov6 linking for instance to replies 7 and 8.

Another tip was to shoot each scene at least twice and film for a couple of seconds a flashcard held in front of the camera with the shot number. I also advised the cameramen to keep a shot list listing the various shoots and their respective quality in terms of acting, pronunciation, accuracy, lighting, and duration. That would make the digitising and editing stage much easier.

As to the other technological aspect of the exercise, students readily took to using the StoryTime authoring shell, quickly learning the main features of creating links with text and images or their film segments.

V. Marking

The final mark was based on 4 categories: Marks ranged between 72 and 90%. Both students in each pair received the same mark, whether actors or cameraman (whose pronunciation and acting could not be measured, although the cameraman was asked to direct the actor in particular in terms of pronunciation), and without being able to resolve their respective roles in the dialogue creation.

In their final presentation all students stressed that their workload for this assignment was heavy, more than 15 hours over and above the course hours. Despite some initial reservations from some students, they all worked well with the logic and technology required. In their final presentation they made fun of their mistakes and trial and error process, and took great pleasure and pride in learning how to become authors, often exploring advanced features of the programs. They were so delighted with their productions that they all bought the CD-ROM containing their ICs as an item to be included in their CVs. Their subjective evaluation also included the conviction they had acquired extra linguistic competencies in their topics which they often chose out of personal interest. They felt their fluency and confidence had improved. Likewise they welcomed the opportunity for collaborative work, as well as the involvement in creating authentic teaching resources for future students. Moreover they were aware that they had acquired transferable skills, in particular with regards to filming, digitising, and computer technology.

VI. Conclusions

One of the well founded concerns when we ask students to use new technologies is that the discipline will take second place. In this instance there was a danger that the language component would suffer from the amount of efforts required to master the technical aspects. The outcomes and subjective evaluation proved that this was not the case mainly because criteria for marking were set out clearly in terms of nature, length, and minimum number of utterances and replies. However more precise instructions will be given in future projects as to the weight of each component.

The following evaluation sheet attempts at fine tuning the allocation of marks:

Outcomes were of a sufficient quality to make these ICs an integral component of our interactive MM resources and were used by second year students this semester - these students asked when they would have a chance to create such interesting products.

In view of the results, colleagues from Italian, Chinese and German introduced ICs in their store of assignments for first up to third year levels. The Multimedia Centre is now the recipient of an ASCILITE CUTSD grant to work on a methodology and evaluation of these projects. Students and teachers are respondents at various stages with the view to refine the summative and formative evaluation.

During this second semester 2000 I also integrated the creation of ICs in a new Unit, "French for the Professions". My instructions are more focused this time and clarify the type of research expected and the acceptable scenarios which must relate to the themes covered in the Unit (politics, economics, sciences, fine arts, education, etc).

The 12 students of "French for the Professions" have indeed demonstrated that the ICs have kept their promises in terms of language acquisition, creativity and interactivity.


  1. "Introductory Italian Language", Michelle Valdrighi, 1998.

  2. For the use of such a program for pedagogical ends, see Jaccomard & Kinder, "Promoting multimedia projects among university language students", Professional Development Online Conference, Honolulu Community College, 21-23 April 1999. To be published in a special issue of CAUCE.

Please cite as: Jaccomard, H. (2001). Interactive conversations for advanced learners of French. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2001/jaccomard.html

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