Zöe Handley is an OUP Research Fellow in Applied Linguistics at the Department of Education, Oxford University, which has recently conducted a systematic review of the research on the use of new technologies in EFL, particularly at primary and secondary level. This post is the first in a series to introduce and examine that research. An accompanying video interview with Zöe will be available soon.
Multimedia has long been used in language learning to respond to students’ different learning styles, but what evidence is there for its effectiveness?
In our review, we identified nine studies involving multimedia. The majority focused on vocabulary. I will use three of these studies to illustrate the available evidence for the effectiveness of the use of multimedia in language learning.
All three studies present positive findings with respect to the use of multimedia, but to different degrees. Let’s take a look at each study in turn.
Broad media comparison
The first study is an example of a broad media comparison in which multimedia software is compared with traditional classroom instruction.
The study (Tsou et al., 2002) compared a word learning system which integrated graphics and animations to illustrate function words with traditional classroom instruction. It found that students who received multimedia instruction improved more and were more motivated than those who received traditional classroom instruction.
Single media comparison
The second study is an example of a media comparison which focuses on just one medium, namely video. It compares traditional instruction plus video with traditional instruction alone.
Silverman and Hines (2009) found that both English language learners (ELLs) and native speakers (NSs) who used video clips to illustrate vocabulary items showed greater improvements in vocabulary knowledge than those who did not receive the multimedia instruction. They also found that use of the multimedia system narrowed the gap in vocabulary knowledge between the ELLs and NSs.
Multimedia within CALL software
The third study (Kim and Gilman, 2008) is a systematic comparison of the effectiveness of different media (text, reduced visual text, spoken text, and graphics) for vocabulary presentation within a piece of CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning) software.
This study found that not all media have the same effect on vocabulary acquisition. It found that while graphics do support vocabulary acquisition, combining media does not necessarily increase vocabulary acquisition.
Broad media comparisons, such as Tsou et al (2002), were originally motivated by a need to justify the cost of investing in CALL. I, like many others before me, question their usefulness. In such broad comparisons it is impossible to attribute learning gains to any particular attribute of the computer. Moreover, the relevance of CALL/non-CALL comparisons today is questionable, given the widespread availability of technology in schools.
The more narrowly focused studies such as Kim and Gilman (2008), which systematically compare different attributes of the computer, are much more informative. Not only do they permit us to relate gains to a particular attribute of the computer, and make links to theories of second language acquisition, they also allow researchers to build a body of evidence upon which to base the design of future CALL software. This is because the studies focus on features of technology which are common to a number of different computer applications (e.g. graphics).
Such narrowly focused studies do, however, also have their limitations. While they make it easy to link learning gains to attributes of the computer, the results may not generalize to real classrooms.
The question therefore remains as to what questions we need to ask in CALL evaluations. Is it still necessary to justify investment in technology for EFL? Or, should we rather focus on refining the design of CALL software through more narrowly focused and systematic studies?