Multimedia Russian Course Designed for Better, More Individualized Instruction

When Mark Kaiser began considering how to use computers to teach, his initial intentions were to reduce time spent on "busy" work. But the end result, he believes, could point to dramatically new structures in university curricula.

Kaiser, a professor of Russian in the Department of Foreign Languages at Illinois State University, says what got him interested in using computers for his academic work was the drudgery of homework. "I was spending two or three hours a night correcting homework. I thought, 'There has to be a better way for a Ph.D. to spend time with students than correcting basic grammar mistakes.'" Plus, students have to wait days to receive feedback.

Creates His Own Courseware

About a year ago, Kaiser attended a training course that included instruction in Multimedia Toolbook, a multimedia authoring program from Asymetrix Corp. of Bellevue, Wash. "That brief training session gave me enough motivation and experience to enable me to do a lot of little things for my courses, " he explains. "Since then, my programming skills have grown, and I'm now doing much more sophisticated things."

Kaiser's first full-featured product is an entry-level, multimedia Russian course designed to augment a popular first-year textbook, Golosa, published by Prentice-Hall. Kaiser used the Multimedia Toolbook/CBT Edition to develop exercises that use sound and visual media to transmit grammatical and cultural information.

The exercises -- built with Toolbook CBT's templates and easily configured features such as buttons, toolbars and borders -- correspond to units in Golosa. They incorporate more than 1,500 files of digitized sound recordings, ranging from syllables and short words used in teaching the alphabet to minute-long dialogs used to develop listening comprehension skills.

The professor also created a series of quizzes on each unit to test a student's progress. Kaiser created a master list of about 150 potential questions. The software then randomizes them so every quiz contains 30 to 40 questions randomly selected from the master list. Each student's scores in a database are also tracked and archived.

To use his program, ISU provided $30,000 for a computer lab outfitted with furniture and eight multimedia PCs boasting 90MHz and 120MHz Intel Pentium processors. Another set of similarly equipped PCs has been budgeted.

How It Instructs

Kaiser's introductory Russian class is split into groups of three or four students, with each group meeting with him three times a week for 30-minute sessions of intensive conversation practice. The remainder of the week, students spend class time in the lab, where they go through each textbook unit at their own pace.

"Language teachers are always plagued by the levels of proficiency in first- and second-year students," Kaiser comments. "Some students struggle, while others are bored with the pace. And in the typical class, you teach a unit for two weeks, everyone takes the same test, and you move on, ready or not.

"With this system, each student can work through the materials at the pace they are most comfortable with. Yet each student must also achieve a certain proficiency level before going on," Kaiser explains. "At the same time, the smaller groups meeting with me give each student greater individualized instruction and feedback."

Kaiser says the program affects how both students and faculty spend their time. "I rely on it to teach basic listening comprehension and grammar. It gives students instantaneous feedback on grammar; and through its use of pictures, video and sound, it also provides cultural information."

"Most important, it enables me to spend my time working with students in small groups or individually" he says. "This program is going to revolutionize the curriculum for Russian language study."

Future Plans

Kaiser hopes to market his multimedia Russian language program. He is also working on a higher-level course containing an anthology of Russian p'etry containing recordings of p'ems, biographical data for p'ets, and a grammatical guide for every word.

"My real dream is to construct a whole new course devoid of the old 'book' metaphor," Kaiser notes. "It would not have a page-by-page metaphor, but would put students in a fluid, interactive situation where all along they would be engaged in the language.

"I think these kinds of multimedia applications will revolutionize education."

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.