Published in the ADFL [Association of Departments of Foreign Languages] Bulletin, 29.3 (Spring, 1998), 20-23.

Copyright © 1998 Association of Departments of Foreign Languages
Copyright © 1998 Daniel Eisenberg (

Foreign Language Instruction through Interactive Television
at Northern Arizona University

Daniel Eisenberg (

The author is Assistant for Information Technology to the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Northern Arizona University. This article is based on his presentation at ADFL Summer Seminar West, 26-28 June 1997, in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Northern Arizona University is charged with providing junior, senior, and graduate courses to Arizona's rural students. Freshman and sophomore courses are provided by the state's community colleges, although we requested and received an exemption to offer Elementary Chinese, since there was demand and few community colleges offered it.

To fulfill this part of NAU's mission, the university has, over the past decade, been a leader in distance education. NAU's Television Services operates a professional quality network, NAUNet. The largest television network in the state, NAUNet maintains and links a growing number of interactive classrooms across Arizona (27 as of summer 1997). Both video and audio are of broadcast quality.

The well-equipped classrooms facilitate use of the Internet and of multimedia material. Both Mac and PC computers are linked to the Internet (for instructor use only); cassette and CD players, as well as VCRs, are also available. Instructors are particularly happy with the Elmo camera, which displays and enlarges images from flat materials, such as books. Paper and markers, used with the Elmo camera, take the place of the chalkboard.

Each classroom has at least two video cameras, usually one focused on the instructor and the other on the students. The cameras are operated from a control room staffed by student workers. A large video monitor shows the students the class material; in the originating classroom, another shows the instructor the students at the remote sites (up to 9 receiving sites can be displayed in windows). Voice-activated microphones are located at each student station, and the professor uses a lapel microphone.

All classes are taped, but the tapes are recycled at the end of the semester. If the instructor requests, the tapes are placed in the library for two weeks for students to review them. By policy, NAU does not reuse tapes of televised classes in subsequent semesters.

NAUNet for Language Classes

During fall 1996, spring 1997, and fall 1997, we used these facilities to transmit foreign language classes. The classes included junior-level courses in conversational Spanish and Chicano literature, senior-level Spanish and Latin American civilization classes, and a course on Navajo language-teaching methodology. Since some sites are on the Arizona side of the Mexican border, with expansion into Mexico planned, a logical step, as yet untried, would be to originate some Spanish instruction from the border, using Mexican nationals.

Most classes originated on our home campus in Flagstaff, but others carne from Prescott and Yuma, at distances of 100 and 300 miles, respectively. In some classes, students in the same room as the instructor participated along with other students, distant from the instructor, who received the course via television. The instructor in Prescott taught to an empty classroom, with all students in Flagstaff.

By means of the television facilities, we were able to teach students we otherwise could not serve. This is the true accomplishment, which should be kept in mind throughout the following discussion. We were also able to supplement our regular faculty with well-qualified instructors from two other locations. We gained experience in this new medium, one that is likely to play a greater role in language instruction in the future. Many of the problems we encountered resulted from, or were exacerbated by, our unfamiliarity with the medium and the facilities.

Problems and Solutions

The difficulties in working with distant students were greater than we had anticipated. Class planning, preparation, and management proved to be more complex and time-consuming. Distant students, often nontraditional, required more support, and thus more faculty time, yet the means of providing the assistance were much more limited. Even telephone contact, and certainly e-mail, could be a problem with rural students.


The most serious problem, which affected every course, was the delay in transmission of assignments and exams. Our classroom mail service, structured around the movement of paper, has a goal of a week transit time in each direction. Instructor complaints, followed by experiments, showed that the goal was not being met.

Only a minority of students had access to e-mail, either at home or at the classroom site, and no one other than the instructor was available to teach correct coding of diacritical marks. Faxing was not an option: while the machines were available, student compositions and exams were difficult originals. They varied in size, often were stapled, shed paper fragments because they had been torn from spiral notebooks, or were faintly written. The camera operators did not have time to deal with such materials, nor was it their job to do more than put the exams in an envelope.

Because of these problems two weeks or more could pass between the time students took an exam, or turned in an assignment, and the time they received it back with grade and comments. Another consequence of the slow turnaround was that all assignments and examinations had to be sent out, in final form, at least a week before they were to be distributed.

The mail service plans to convert to high-speed fax transmission. Until then, our best solution has been to create our own system whenever practical. For the courses received in Flagstaff, department staff or faculty members (me) would send and receive materials by fax, duplicating and distributing them as needed. A professor at out largest remote site-NAU, Yuma-did the same for courses received there. This extra assistance worked well. Students and faculty members also used direct mail between their residences. Thus, at the cost of a little time, effort, and postage, this problem was temporarily solved.

Out-of-Class Interaction

All remote sites are equipped with NAU telephone numbers, and faculty members can call within Arizona at no charge. Instructors are encouraged, and funded, to visit the remote sites and to originate classes from one of the remote locations. Doing so was much appreciated by the students and an important step in building morale but usually meant a long drive and sometimes an overnight stay for the instructor.

Aside from these visits, student-faculty contact was provided by telephone (supplemented in some cases by e-mail; an experiment is under way using CUSeeMe video chat). This means of communication was not entirely satisfactory. Both students and instructors felt that the lack of face-to-face interaction outside of class was a significant limitation. Many students are uncomfortable calling instructors, even if encouraged to do so. For professors to initiate calls and locate remote students was very time-consuming, though it was often effective. Not all rural students have telephones, much less e-mail, at home.

For some of these students, it is a long drive to the NAU site, where campus telephones are available. They most commonly call immediately after class, before leaving the site. The university is unable to fund an 800 number for calls from student homes or pay phones. A promising option, not yet tested, is departmental funding of an individual 800 number for each professor involved. One such service is currently available for 12 cents a minute from Gritten Communications (800 466-1550).

Classroom Configuration

Another problem was the layout of the television classrooms. The arrangement of all but one of these classrooms is that of the lecture hall, in which the instructor talks from the front of the room. Students can ask questions of the instructor but cannot easily interact with each other. The manually operated cameras have difficulty following an instructor who moves around the room. For our lecture courses, such as Spanish Civilization, the layout worked well. But for a course in which students are to interact with each other, in pairs or groups, the format simply did not work.

Any of the classrooms can be reconfigured, but the task is too time-consuming to be done for a single class. In one of out classrooms the student seats are arranged in groups of five (although the audio equipment is not set up as in a language lab and does not permit the instructor to interact with multiple groups). Unfortunately, we did not learn about this room in time to schedule it for our conversation course; it was used, instead, for one semester of the civilization course, which should have been in a conventional room.

Equipment Reliability

Transmitting a televised course and providing full multimedia and Internet facilities involves a great deal of equipment. As with all equipment, keeping it running is a challenge. We were taught, in out training for television teaching, to come prepared with backup material in case of equipment failures, and failures were not rare. The network might go down briefly in the middle of class, or a monitor would fail and another be wheeled in, interrupting the class, and so on. Equipment for displaying or playing selected materials, such as the Internet connection, also could malfunction. Rather than rely on live Internet contact, slow and undependable under the best of circumstances, I made transparencies or computer files of all images before class.

Microphone problems were particularly vexing. Student microphones are permanently affixed to desks, and students have to lean forward to speak into them. (For a language class, wireless microphones would be preferable.) The microphones switch on when spoken into. The conversation course suffered especially from microphone problems. The microphones responded unevenly to student voices, and portions of statements were cut off. Compounding these problems was a still-unexplained lag in transmission time-a second or less, but still an obstacle to rapid interaction. The instructor would typically go on to another point before hearing a student's question or response. As might be expected, student comments on this course were negative. Probably we should have been more persistent in asking for repairs. At the time, we did not realize that the transmission delay was a repairable malfunction.

Other Problems

Less serious drawbacks involved the scheduling of TV classes (the hours available on the system were inconvenient), location of television classrooms (classrooms were in other buildings, and the distances could pose significant hardships in winter, or when materials had to be transported), and software for computers in the classrooms (faculty members sometimes wanted to use software unavailable on those computers). The need to give instructions in English to the camera operator sometimes broke the mood of a class conducted in the target language. For the Spanish conversation course, we requested and were assigned Spanish majors as operators.

Student Perspectives and Outcomes

Student feedback came from several sources: comments made by my own students and by students in a civilization class I visited to collect their views, a taped interview with self-selected students from the conversation class, and anonymous evaluations.

In general, the students said they would prefer a conventional class, with an instructor present. Students in the conversation class had high praise for their instructor, but, to our surprise, none felt that even a superior teacher could compensate for the limitations of the medium and for the microphone problems. Some even said that a "mediocre instructor" in person would have been preferable.

These students were on the home campus in Flagstaff. For most, it was their first televised course, and they were comparing it to their other, traditional, classroom courses. Students at remote sites, with fewer options, were more tolerant of the limitations of the delivery system.

Instructional outcomes were satisfactory, although we have not examined them in depth and reports are anecdotal. Students said they were satisfied with the learning they had achieved by the end of the semester, and both they and the instructors found that students taking televised courses were prepared for subsequent courses.

Conclusions from Our Experiences

1. Interactive television is an effective means of providing instruction in language, culture, and literature to students who cannot attend traditional, on-campus classes.

2. Instructional outcomes are satisfactory, although we have not studied them in depth.

3. Teaching via interactive television is more complicated and time-consuming for the instructor. This point needs to be taken into account when workload assignments are made.

4. The configuration of the classroom and the type of equipment have a significant impact on the language class.

5. Because of the hardware, the necessity for third parties (such as operators), and the logistical problems involved, the medium is less flexible than traditional teaching methods.

6. Both students and faculty members prefer to interact in person rather than via television. When traditional instruction is not practical, students are grateful for the technology that gives them an access to education.

The Future

Many of the problems we faced will be resolved as equipment, infrastructure, and policies for faculty workload continue to evolve. When all students use e-mail, when televised office hours are readily available, when exams and compositions can be transmitted digitally, the television teaching experience will be more convenient and more personal. The medium seems destined to remain, to some extent, different from a traditional classroom experience.

Yet it would be a mistake to reject this medium for language instruction or even to postpone its use. To return to my vision mentioned at the outset, interactive television offers opportunities in foreign language instruction as it does in no other field. A foreign language is, by definition, not the language of the location where the instruction takes place. We depend on contact with foreign countries, directly or indirectly, both for the training we receive and for the materials or experiences we provide our students.

The Internet already offers us priceless materials. Previously they were either prohibitively expensive and slow to arrive or unavailable at any price. Now newspapers from many countries can be read, free of charge, the same day they are published. Twenty-four-hour foreign language chat groups are well established. Online pen pals can be located, and incorporated into a course, much more easily. Foreign radio via the Internet is far more accessible than shortwave radio ever was. Live access to foreign television is coming soon. Although bandwidth limitations currently curtail its quality, it is authentic in a way that American-based foreign language programming cannot rival.

As network capacity improves and additional satellites are launched, video communications are sure to expand. Through television, in whatever form it is transmitted, some of the experiences of foreign study will be available to the many undergraduates who are unable to participate in programs abroad. A class or an individual in the United States could actually visit a street market in Peru and interact with the vendors. Correspondingly, opportunities for faculty members to reside and do research in foreign countries will expand, since instructors could teach their classes, via television, from overseas. In addition, language instruction will soon be offered by the target countries directly or through intermediaries to students in the United States and elsewhere. This will pose a unique challenge to our profession. The ability to link students at multiple sites means that less frequently taught languages, which few institutions can now offer-Korean, Thai, Polish, even Portuguese-can become economically viable.

We need to prepare ourselves and our profession for these changes.


Online References (updated;current as of July 1998)

NAU's Interactive Television Home Page:
Indices of foreign language newspapers:

 Spanish and Portuguese only:
Foreign language radio and television: (search for the language of interest)
Foreign language chat groups (not for beginners):
General information:
Pen pals: