SBPLAY: An Audiovisual Browser and Language Laboratory Substitute1

1. Introduction
As a result of the research and practical considerations discussed in other parts of this report, it was decided to construct a new learning tool which could be used by teachers to develop and deliver listening comprehension materials.

Though materials are part of this project they should be seen principally as having exemplary value only. The most positive outcome of this project is probably a set of intellectual frameworks and tools which teachers can then re-use, in independent fashion, to create their own materials, so that they can be in charge of what is going on rather than having someone elses's work and ideas imposed on them.

Although originally designed for the development of listening comprehension, SBPLAY's design gave rise to an unforeseen and important spin-off. As well as providing listening comprehension support, SBPLAY can also function, at no extra cost, as an enhanced audio-active-comparative language laboratory. In fact, its use as a language laboratory could lead to significant cost savings or to the provision, of a facility which would otherwise not have been available because of its unreasonable cost.

The characteristics of SBPLAY are summarised below. The system should

2. Description of SBPLAY
With all the above constraints in mind, SBPLAY was developed.

2.1 Hardware requirements After an extensive survey conducted as part of this project, the following harware requirements were decided upon:

2.2 How SBPLAY works
As outlined earlier, SBPLAY is basically a sophisticated browser which places control of learning clearly into the hands of the learner.

This means effectively, that learners should be able to decide what they want to listen to, the number of times they would like to do so, the order in which they listen to specific items, the size of each item and the amount of help which they wish to access.

At the same time, it was felt that it would be useful if the system could also be made available for work organised according to a pattern set by the teacher. Such control, however, would not be built into the system but exercised by the student on the advice of the teacher who might, perhaps, supply the information in the form of a work-sheet. Thus the final decision-making responsibility would always remain with the student, hence the crucial importance of autonomy development.

Because SBPLAY is a tool for authoring and delivery of materials and is not constrained in scope, new activities which capitalise on its features are certain to be found as teachers and learners exercise their imaginations.

An insight into the way that SBPLAY works will now be given by examining the ways in which an author would produce the materials and a student might access them. Details of how to perform each task may be found at the end of this chapter.

3. A teacher's perspective: authoring (preparing) lesson materials
First, the listening material has to be found. In order to be used by SBPLAY, it must be either in the form of a videodisc (specially made for pedagogic used or re-purposed) or in the form of an audio recording stored on the hard disk and created with the help of the Soundblaster card (VOC format).

Once the raw material has been found, the SBPLAY lesson is constructed around a written text, usually a transcript of the listening material. This is typed in using a standard word processor or text editor. The written inforination must be saved as "text" and not in native word processing format.

Each line of text consists of a first word which serves to designate a speaker. The rest of the line consists of the words uttered, at that time, by that particular speaker. e.g.

A "word" is bound by white spaces or punctuation. In the examples just given, the line uttered by Bob has 7 "words" in it, while the line uttered by Speaker_1 consists of only 1 "word".

This structure is important as it is the basis for the way in which SBPLAY interacts with the user.

The text information is saved in a file.

The author then runs SBPLAY specifying whether the raw materials is in videodisc or VOC format.

The author is now faced with a screen which displays the transcript in the following way. The letters of all the words in the text, with the exception of the first word in each line, i.e. the word which designates a speaker, have been replaced by a capital X.


becomes and becomes This is also what the learner normally sees on first entering the program. From a learner's perspective, the purpose of such a procedure is two-fold: The teacher then switches to Mode 3 by giving the appropriate command. This instantly reveals all of the hidden letters.

It will now benecessary to provide the program with the necessary information for playing the listening material. This information is given through a procedure called indexing.

In the case of SBPLAY, indexing requires the teacher to determine where each word is to be found on the videodisc or in the sound file and to store that information in a file.

In order to do this, it should be possible to require SBPLAY to play each word separately and, if possible, to play from any arbitrary word in the transcript to any other arbitrary word. This is achieved by placing the mouse cursor on a word and then double-clicking (i.e. pressing the left mouse button twice in quick succession) on that word. The word is then highlighted visually on the screen. Once this has happened, the teacher types a ? character (i.e. a question mark). This will pop up a special window in which information can now be entered and saved.

Information can be entered in 4 distinct categories:

Each word in the transcript is then indexed separately (for details of how to index see the appropriate section) and the information saved Other information such as an explanation, a gloss or comments is also entered in the appropriate fields.

The material is then ready for use by learners.

In the first instance, indexing and the other procedures might seem "fiddly" but they are not difficult. Naturally, some thought has to be given to the sorts of things that should be included in the comments and gloss fields and, as a result, some preparation is likely to be required

With experience, however, it should be possible to process a short recording in a relatively short time (hours rather than days). Given that each set of materials can then be used for a long time (many years if the recording is chosen carefully), shared with other institutions, distributed across the nation or the world through computer networks and used in class and self-access modes, this is not a major time investment. With the right communication and sharing infrastructure, it should also be possible to receive materials developed by other persons and thus increase dramatically one's stock of local resources at little or no cost.

4. A learner's perspective: interacting with SBPLAY
This section will describe features of SBPLAYI which are relevant to learners interacting with the system. For a full description of commands, please consult the appropriate section of this report.

From a learner's point of view, the position is relatively simple.

When a lesson is begun, learners are shown a screen consisting of words converted to upper case or lower case Xs. e.g.

As SBPLAY is a browser, students are now free to go through the material in whatever way they like. They can go forward or backward through the text in large or small pieces, they can stop and start at will or play from any arbitrary point to any other arbitrary point. These functions are facilitated by the provision of cassette player-style controls in the form of buttons on the screen which are accessed through the mouse.

In addition and, most importantly, learners can click on any word on the screen then click on a second word. This will highlight all words between the first and second clicks. If the <ENTER> key or the right mouse button is now pressed, the highlighted words (and only the highlighted words) will now be played. The ability to play from any arbitrary word to any other arbitrary word is perhaps SBPLAY's most valuable feature. It is valuable in itself but other features are also based on it.

A hypothetical session by a learner a the computer will illustrate the value of some of the features mentioned above. It will also introduce relevant features not mentioned so far.

The learner (an overseas student who is studying both ESL and French) runs SBPLAY and is confronted with a screenful of words converted to Xs. This is known as display mode 1.

Some time later, remembering that the French teacher had asked him/her to practise yes/no questions in French and the [y] sound, our hypothetical student calls up a specially-prepared corrective phonetics lesson. This lesson presents the student with sets of yes/no questions containing the troublesome French sound [y].

As the recording of the sentences is digital, it is easily possible to use software packages to filter each [y] sound so as to enhance the perception of the problem sounds by learners of French. This is what has been done with the exercise's first model sentence:

As in the case of most yes/no questions in French, the beginning intonation is low and flat. This flatness is maintained until the word bus where the intonation rises very sharply.

The student follows the teacher's instructions and uses SBPLAY's built in facility for playing highlighted sentences backward one word at a time. This is done using the <ALT><R> combination of keys. SBPLAY plays back the sentence on a word by word basis as illustrated below.

When given the command, SBPLAY produces this sequence automatically, intercalating a wait of about 200 milliseconds between the words. If required, this wait can be made longer so as to separate out the words more. However, such an adjustment is usually not necessary. The importance of this kind of regressive build-up exercise is that it focuses the student's attention on the rise at the end of the question.

The opposite kind of build-up exercise is also possible and very valuable in the case of yes/no questions in French. To achieve this the student types <ALT><F> and SBPLAY does the rest and produces a forward build-up.

In this case, emphasis is placed on the contrast between the flatness and low pitch of the beginning of the question and the very sharp rise found at the end. Thus, with a simple automatic procedure students' awarenesses can be developed considerably.

In the case of the above example a second and perhaps unnoticed perceptual event is also occurring. Because each of the [y] sounds has been enhanced electronically, the student is working not only on intonation but on the pronunciation of a troublesome sound as well. Thus a double advantage is derived from the exercise. Of course, this is not due to anything that SBPLAY does but to the lesson structure developed by the teacher which is then facilitated by the computer program.

After the recommended period of perceptual training, the student then decides to practise saying the question. He/she uses the mouse to press the S-Rec (i.e. student record) button, waits for 2 seconds, says the sentence and then presses the <ESC> key. The student's voice has now been recorded and can be compared immediately and repeatedly with the original model. This is achieved by highlighting the model sentence and pressing the <ENTER> key to play it. The student's voice is heard by clicking on the S-Play (i. e. student play) button. Comparison between the native speaker voice and the student's voice can occur as many times as is required and the student's voice is preserved until he/she records over it.

In the case described above, the teacher had decided to use SBPLAY not so much as a listening comprehension support system but as a language laboratory substitute. In fact our hypothetical student need not have used specially-prepared pedagogic materials at all although he/she would not have benefited from the enhanced perception derived from the electronic filtering of [y]. Indeed, our particular student could have derived significant advantages from doing this sort of work with the ESL materials that he/she had been using previously or, for that matter, with any other comprehension material available be it in ESL or in LOTE.

Thus, a major advantage of a system such as this is that it can allow learners to develop an awareness of intonative and other pronunciation phenomena in the context of authentic language production. It is then possible for the student to practise these phenomena with no additional authoring effort on the part of the teacher beyond that already exerted in the preparation of the original listening materials. In this context, every set of listening comprehension materials could, in fact, also be thought of as containing innumerable language laboratory exercises and any student could practise any of a multitude of authentic intonation and pronunciation patterns.

Thus, for most applications, SBPLAY not only replaces the standard audio-active-comparative language laboratory but supersedes it immediately in quite significant ways. It does so at a functional level through the availability of genuinely authentic materials for practice purposes, by providing much greater control over recorded materials, by reducing the authoring effort to a minimum and by costing only a fraction of traditional systems.


1. This article was written by A-P. Lian and appeared as Chapter 7 in Lian, A-P., Hoven, D. L. and Hudson, T. J.: Audio-Video Computer Enhanced Language Learning and the Development of Listening Comprehension Skills, Australian Second Language Learning Project, 1993, pp. 75-92. It presents a description of a software package evolved by Andrew Lian, Tim Hudson and Debra Hoven. Some of the concepts of SBPLAY form the basis for a system written by Andrew Lian and Ania Lian: MMBrowse).