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2.1 The learning context

Nearly all the Modern Languages students who use the Southampton Language Centre are taking a language as part of their degree, either as Single or Combined Honours in Modern Languages or as non-specialist linguists whose course is oriented towards their home discipline area. They are all encouraged to use the facilities and resources as an important part of the study process, and many have timetabled self-access sessions when a class teacher is present to advise and supervise. Many members of staff also integrate self-access work into teaching modules and students carry out this work in their own time. Some of the work specified, such as listening comprehension or CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning) exercises, is itemised and completed by individuals working on their own. Other work is more open-ended and aims to promote general language competence rather than specific skills. An example is work relating to a particular topic (see 3.1), where learners are more likely to operate in small groups, carrying out research, discussing findings and preparing presentations. It is for this kind of topic-based research that staff have become aware of the potential of the Internet and the World Wide Web (see 5.4).

2.2 Training and support

Training and support is crucial if language learning is to be effective in a self-access environment. All first-year and new learners are given a general introductory tour of the Language Centre while more focused sessions on, for example, the use of CALL or the Web, are arranged for classes as requested. Study guides suggesting best use of a particular facility, a resources assistant to help with technical problems and suggest relevant materials, and an evening language advisory service all aim to support both staff and students. Staff development seminars and newsletters are also used to disseminate information and encourage the necessary new skills.

It was in this context of supported self-access that the World Wide Web was first made available to users of the Language Centre during the academic year 1994-1995. While very few students arrived acquainted with its existence or potential, academic staff showed generally more awareness and came to training seminars to explore possibilities for learning and research. Several class teachers arranged Web training sessions for their classes; one of these being the teacher of French whose class is described in the study (see 3.1).

In the current academic year 1995-1996 most learners now have some appreciation of the existence and the extent of the Internet (a number of learners in the interview study referred to the ‘media hype’ surrounding the Web, a situation which seems to have significantly raised its profile) and it has become generally more available at public workstations across the campus. In the Language Centre, study guides posted next to workstations, advertised training sessions and School of Modern Languages’ Home Pages with lists of ‘clickable’ starting points for a number of languages (Dutch, English as a Foreign Language, French, German, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese) point the novice user in the right direction, in the latter case using Netscape, the Language Centre’s Web browser. Some staff also run introductory sessions and suggest useful Web addresses.

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