EESE 5/2001

Internet Teaching - Guest Editor: Thomas Kühn (Berlin)


Linguistics for Beginners: The Past, Present, and Future of an Online Tutorial

Guido Ipsen (Kassel)

1.     Intention

Every winter semester about 120 students start courses in the languages department of Kassel University in which English linguistics are involved. As beginners in the subject the students require, in this their first semester, additional individual help and guidance to learn the necessary basic methodological skills. However, teaching any subject at this level is time-consuming due to the need for regular assessment; this is particularly so with those students new to the subject who have to be taught and examined at beginner's level by only one lecturer.

In later semesters the students will specialize in linguistics, literature, or British and American studies that will require them to purchase expensive introductions to these subjects. Students who might not subsequently require linguistics might consider some of this expenditure to be unnecessary in regard to the latter subject.

The intention of 'Linguistics for Beginners' (LfB) was to provide as large a number of students as possible with relevant material and at the same time to create a practical means of assessment. By focusing on definitions and short explanations of linguistic terminology through an online tutorial the lectures would be free for questions and discussions. At the same time it was deemed advantageous that students would become familiar with the new media and that their linguistic competence in English would be strengthened.

2.     Past

Consideration of existing introductions to basic linguistics and related material by important authors was the starting point for the tutorial and after a year of collating, rewriting, and providing graphs, diagrams, and illustrations, an 85-page reader was produced that contained introductory articles on all linguistic disciplines ranging from the history of English to computational linguistics. Language acquisition, phonetics, phonology, syntax, semantics, semiotics, pragmatics, text linguistics, and sociolinguistics were amongst the topics included. This version was produced in printed form so that the students could focus on the contents without the additional cognitive load of the electronic media.

Each chapter of the reader contained enough material for one or two session. After its introduction in the winter semester 1995/96, the students were asked to give their opinion on the reader and the way the information was presented. From the feedback obtained a redesign was affected in which some articles were shortened whilst others had to be extended.

In the following year an electronic Web-based hypertext version was implemented with voice recordings of all texts by a native speaker of English for multisensory purposes. Many features of the printed version such as paragraph length had been prepared for this step, as each major paragraph was to become a single hypertext node, so that scrolling pages would not magnify the cognitive load.

Unfortunately, because in 1996 about three quarters of the first semester students had no personal access to the Web, the pragmatics of the learning situation did not allow the printed version to be totally abandoned and in the event the participants in the essential feedback exercise numbered only 32 students. Although I am convinced that input from a variety of media is beneficial, it would have been desirable, for evaluation purposes, to have had a test group that did not have to depend on printed media. However, due to the use of flexible editing techniques, material could easily be converted from the hypertext version to the printed version.

By 1997/98 the situation had improved sufficiently, as by then some 50% of the students had access to the Web, that it became feasible to undertake the assessments online. Although some students were reluctant to fill in the onscreen forms, others were encouraged by the technology and generally the online assessments were a success. Correction, due to standardized formats, took less time and the implementation of various testing methods suited the students.

3.     Present

Today, LfB consists of about 300 hypertext pages with each page having its own natural language support and it has been in frequent use between the years 1995 and 2000. During this period changes had been continuously implemented but currently LfB is undergoing a major redesign and the whole project is to be modified. Therefore, only material relevant to our present students is currently kept online at:

Recognition for LfB has been earned through the award "cool site" from the Netscape Open Directory Project. This can be seen at:

4.     Future

The re-designing of the LfB project will address the structure and the content as well as the interface, which had been specifically designed for students who would have contact with a lecturer each week. LfB must now be converted into a format that will make it easily accessible to the general public; the hypertext base transferred into a database for editing purposes and the diagrams converted into self-explaining and self-building animations. Many other multimedia features, such as audible support for various phonemes and English dialects, etc. must also be developed.

An important feature of the redesign will be a 'self-test' facility, which will enable students, without the help of a lecturer, to ascertain the extent of their own knowledge. The didactic 'self-test' facility will provide an intelligent means to this end beyond relying on a simple 'yes/no' answering method. For more convenient usage, a search facility, index, and guided tour will also be provided.

As regards the contents, the short explanations previously intended to support the seminars are not practical for the impersonal online requirement of a tutorial and therefore many explanations will have to be extended and more definitions added. This will mean an overall increase in the size of LfB to an expected total after the redesign of 500 hypertext pages.

In its new format LfB 2001 will be a basic tutorial for any student of linguistics looking for more than mere terminology.

5.     Resumée

The task of producing online tutorial material has proved a worthwhile experience and academics undertaking such projects can now rely on a variety of software solutions for editing hypertexts or managing sites. However, projects such as LfB are always a new journey into some hitherto uncharted area of programming, design, and user response. LfB has been a success at the University of Kassel (for where it was initially solely intended), due to the fact that the development time stretched over years, rather than merely months or weeks. My experience is that this length of time is always needed at universities for the non-profit programming of large information hyperbases. Today, introductory notes and test material are frequently distributed via the Web and it is desirable that the LfB experience sketched in this paper encourages colleagues to produce their own Internet solutions.