The Libra Multimedia Authoring Environment and CALL Multimedia Courseware

Robert Fischer
and Michael Farris
Southwest Texas State University

This article describes the genesis of the Libra authoring system and provides a detailed view of the design of a courseware program created by means of it. Funds from multiyear grants supported the development and subsequent dissemination of the authoring system. Lessons learned during the dissemination of the authoring system underscore the need for more in-depth understanding of instructional design and the implementation of pedagogical principles by faculty authors in multimedia materials. Development of the courseware program described here reveals the substantial benefits to be gained by collection and analysis of various forms of student use data.


Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL), Libra Authoring System, Courseware, French, Beginning Learners


The Libra authoring environment was designed to enable faculty to create multimedia materials that focus on facilitating students' acquisition of listening comprehension proficiency in foreign languages. As such, the authoring system contains tools that allow faculty authors to present information to students (text, audio, graphics, and analog/digital video), to create learner assistance components (e.g., help screens, scripts, and dictionaries), and to make use of several kinds of question formats to verify students' comprehension. When the project team conceptualized Libra's design at the beginning of the project in 1990, we of course realized that


the authoring system had to be easy to use, but we also wished to make it sufficiently flexible to support the development of creative lessons that apply directly to students enrolled in classes at specific levels of instruction in individual educational contexts. The interplay between ease of use and flexibility has been a constant consideration throughout the development process.

The underlying research basis for the development of the authoring system included information processing theory and foreign language schema theory.1 Following from work by theorists in these two fields and suggestions by practitioners in foreign language teaching, we built provisions into the authoring system for explicating the logical structure of oral texts, providing advance organizers (e.g., generating hypotheses about the meaning of the text, describing characters and settings, and preteaching pertinent lexical and grammatical structures), and asking different kinds of comprehension questions supported by multimedia student feedback. The inclusion of authoring tools that reflected the central tenets of the underlying theories and teaching techniques was intended to permit faculty authors to develop lessons that modeled appropriate listening comprehension strategies and guided students in their effective use. Finally, we added procedures to make different kinds of learner assistance components such as help screens, written scripts of dialogues, and dictionaries (see Fischer & Farris, 1995). All of the design elements were included in the authoring system as preconstructed objects and templates that faculty authors could select and modify as needed when they created their student lessons.


Libra was developed by a project team based at Southwest Texas State University with the assistance of an initial three-year grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE). The team consisted of a Macintosh group with Robert Fischer, Michael Farris, and James Champion, and a PC group headed by Mary Ann Lyman-Hager, at that time, of The Pennsylvania State University. The project also benefited from the services of two consultants, Janet Swaffar of the University of Texas at Austin and John Underwood of Western Washington University. The project included the development of the authoring system and its use to create prototypical multimedia courseware in French, German, and Spanish. Both the authoring system and the resulting courseware programs were submitted to extensive evaluation.

The development grant was followed by a second three-year grant from FIPSE to disseminate the authoring system. This second grant supported a series of faculty training workshops at several institutions and collaborative projects with faculty at nine institutions: Carnegie Mellon Univer-


sity, the Catholic University of America, Northwestern University, the Pennsylvania State University, San Francisco State University, the University of Arkansas, the University of California at San Diego, the University of Colorado, and the University of Houston. Faculty at these institutions used the authoring system to create materials in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish. The dissemination project culminated in the publication of a volume of articles and reports on selected projects (see Fischer, 1997).


Preliminary discussions among the members of the project team and the consultants revealed that some lesson components were of fundamental importance in all CALL applications. Faculty authors needed to be able to present information to students, play videoclips, create hyperactive text, make icon-buttons, display learner assistance features, ask comprehension questions, and provide student feedback. The project team devoted several months to discussing these objects and experimented with a variety of design schemes. These efforts resulted in the creation of a basic display in the authoring system that contains the objects essential for lesson development (see Figure 1).2

Figure 1

Basic Objects in the Libra Authoring System 0x01 graphic


It should first be noted that lesson development takes place in a what-authors- see-is-what-students-get environment. Thus, the objects in Figure 1 that authors use and modify as they develop their materials are the same ones students use in the finished lesson.

At the upper right corner are preprogrammed navigation buttons that permit students to navigate through the lesson. Authors can modify the appearance and function of these buttons and delete some or all of them. At the lower right corner are a total of nine blank buttons that authors can use to call up help screens and to link to other objects and events. These buttons, called option buttons, are designed to be usable by students in every display in a given section of the lesson. Again, authors can modify the appearance and function of these buttons and delete unused buttons. At the lower left are videodisc player controls that can be defined to play specific segments from a videodisc. At the time of initial development of the authoring system, videodiscs were the primary source for video material. Digital video has now assumed that role and is included in the Macintosh version of Libra as customary QuickTime movies.

Authors can quickly make additional icon-buttons for individual displays in the lesson by using the tools in a tool bar provided in the authoring system. After making the buttons, authors choose icons for them and can then link them to events and objects listed in a pop-up menu in the link dialogue box (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Linking Possibilities in Libra 0x01 graphic


Learner assistance features include a generic help screen component, reading displays (which can be used to display written versions of spoken dialogues in listening comprehension lessons or to show texts in reading comprehension lessons), and dictionaries. The generic help screen is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3

Libra Generic Help Screen 0x01 graphic

Authors can use the generic help screen component to create a virtually unlimited number of help screens which they can make accessible to students at any point in the lesson. To enter text in the fields of the help screen (or, for that matter, in any field in the authoring system), authors unlock the fields and type as they would in any Macintosh application.

Figure 4 shows the reading display.


Figure 4

Libra Reading Display 0x01 graphic The reading display contains a large text field to the left and three smaller annotation fields to the right, all of which can be moved and reshaped to meet the requirements of specific lesson designs. (See, for example, the video script in Figure 11 below.) Again, to enter text in the large field to the left, authors unlock the field and type or paste passages of text from a word processing application. Authors make hyperactive text by selecting the relevant portions of text in the left field and entering textual annotations in a dialogue box that appears and/or choosing an object or event to link to in a pop-up menu. (See the list of objects and events in Figure 2 above.) This same procedure is used to make hyperactive text in any field in the authoring system.

Libra originally contained four different kinds of question formats: multiple choice, checklist, binary checklist, and icon-sorting (see Figures 5 to 8).3


Figure 5

Multiple Choice Question 0x01 graphic

Figure 6 Checklist Question 0x01 graphic


Figure 7

Binary Checklist Question 0x01 graphic

Figure 8 Icon-Sorting Question 0x01 graphic


The authoring system generates the structure and answer-processing logic appropriate to each question type. Authors insert the content of questions by unlocking the text fields and typing the question and its options. The feedback button at the lower left in all the question formats is preprogrammed to process students' answers and to display student feedback (text and multimedia). The only additional objects that have to be made to complete questions for the icon-sorting question in Figure 8 are moveable buttons. Authors make moveable buttons in the same way as other icon-buttons that students then click and drag into the relevant icon-sorting fields to answer questions.

Each question type is designed to serve a specific instructional purpose. Multiple choice questions are used to verify that students have understood a single (albeit perhaps abstract) point of information. Checklist questions confirm students' understanding of more complex sets of information by having them select more than one option to answer questions. Binary checklist questions, which have mutually exclusive horizontal pairs of checklist boxes, guide students to characterize people or events in binary terms (e.g., tall vs. short, hostile vs. friendly, rich vs. poor). Icon- sorting questions direct students to demonstrate their understanding of physical locations and relationships among characters. It is noteworthy that since the icon-sorting question format can generate up to 25 sorting fields and since buttons can display either icons or text, this question format has proven to support the greatest amount of instructional creativity among faculty authors.


As mentioned earlier, faculty authors have used Libra to create multimedia lessons in a variety of foreign languages. Some of these faculty authors received support from the FIPSE dissemination project, while others learned how to use Libra on their own.4 In particular, Franziska Lys has developed and distributed Drehort Neubrandenburg Interaktiv, a multimedia program for second-year German students based on Libra and additional software (see review of Drehort Neubrandenburg Interaktiv by Wittig Davis, 1999).

We describe here in some detail the design and production of a series of lessons in French that have been used as part of a first-semester course at Southwest Texas State University. Robert Fischer used Libra to create this series of lessons during the initial Libra development project and submitted them to rigorous evaluation. He then refined these lessons based on the results of that evaluation and subsequent analysis of student usage data collected by means of a tracking system built into a later version of the authoring system.5


The lessons were developed for the video program La Marée et ses secrets `The Tide and Its Secrets,' a series of five 15 minute episodes which portray the adventures of two young people vacationing in the town of Cancale on the seashore in western France. The story is a relatively simply mystery in which a rich store owner attempts to blackmail an oyster farmer into hiding stolen diamonds for him. The language of the video cannot be characterized as authentic because the dialogue is scripted and prepared for language learners. However, the level of language used in the dialogue and the virtually native speed at which the dialogue lines are delivered present substantial challenges to first-semester students.

The design of the lessons reflects the underlying principles of discourse processing theory and schema theory alluded to earlier. In addition, because the lessons were designed for first-semester students after only two weeks of instruction and focused on verifying their comprehension of the video material, much of the lesson content was written in English. The overall structure of the lessons includes an introduction, a series of advance organizers, presentation of the video material, several sets of comprehension questions supported by student feedback and help displays, and a final free recall protocol. Sample lesson content from the first lesson is discussed below.

After an initial splash screen, students view a display that explains the purpose of the lesson (see Figure 9).

Figure 9

Statement of the Purpose of the Lesson 0x01 graphic


The display provides a very brief explanation of the instructional purpose of the lesson and contains a single button that takes students directly to a procedural directions display that informs them how to use the lesson (see Figure 10).

Figure 10

Procedural Directions Display 0x01 graphic

The reason for this lock-step approach is that analysis of student data from the first version of the lesson revealed that some students apparently skimmed over the procedural directions and were not aware of the availability of some of the lesson's learner assistance components. Consequently, since it is important to ensure that students read the directions of the lesson, the program presents the lesson instructions in fixed order. Students cannot advance in the lesson until they have read all the instructions and seen all the lesson components. The first lesson instruction points out hyperactive phrases (the heavy gray underlining). When students click on the word “hyperactive,” the program displays a message about hyperactive phrases and then directs them to click on the option buttons at the lower right. These buttons are available in almost every display in the lesson and are the primary mechanism by which students access learner assistance features.


The leftmost option button calls up a script of the video (see Figure 11).

Figure 11

Script of the Video 0x01 graphic

The video script, modified from the reading display shown in figure 4 above, contains partial dialogue material, only the phrases that students must know in order to understand the story. The phrases are hyperactive and are linked to glosses that appear in the small annotation field beneath the script. The script display also contains buttons that provide students access to the full script of the video and a complete French-English dictionary of the words used in the video.

The second option button from the left calls up help screens that support the comprehension questions to follow later in the lesson. Each question has a separate help screen that provides hints to answer the question and focuses students' attention on relevant parts of the video. The help displays will be discussed more fully below.

The third option button calls up a “text map” of the story.6 The text map organizes students' viewing of the video and is the most prominent of the advance organizers in the lesson. The text map will be described in more detail below.


The rightmost option button calls up a display of the characters of the story. The character display provides information about the characters and is the first advance organizer students see after they leave the procedural directions display. As students read the final piece of information in the procedural directions display, a Continue button appears at the lower right and leads them to the character display shown in Figure 12.

Figure 12

Character Display 0x01 graphic

The icon-buttons in the character display represent the characters in the story, and the connecting lines suggest the relationships among them. For example, Yves Keravec (the far left icon-button) is the nephew of Lucien Keravec, who is accompanied to Cancale by Marie-Pierre Renaud, a classmate from Paris not related to the Keravec family. Clicking on the icon-button in the nodes calls up a brief description of the character and displays a still frame of the character from the video.

The character display is followed by the second advance organizer which describes the setting of the story in a series of three displays. These displays locate the region of France in which the action occurs and progressively focus on salient features in the town of Cancale.


After the introduction of the characters and the description of the setting of the story, the third advance organizer shows the text map of the episode of the story (see Figure 13).

Figure 13

Text Map of Episode One 0x01 graphic

Here, the buttons represent the various scenes of the episode, and the connecting lines the essential plot line of the story. The first button represents the arrival of the two young people in Saint Malo. In the second scene, two suspicious people exchange a mysterious package (the stolen diamonds). Afterwards, the two young people travel to Cancale by bus and arrive at the Keravec's house. While having lunch, the primary conspirator, Robert Lecoz, is described in a brief aside. After the meal, the two young characters take a walk in town and encounter the same suspicious characters from scene two.

The text map is the organizational center of the entire lesson. Its purpose is to break down the 15 minute video into more manageable chunks and, at the same time, to encourage students to comprehend the meaning of the story in terms of its internal structure. This kind of higher level processing is important to help students to develop a complete understanding of the meaning of the text. Students need to understand the text not only at the level of words and phrases but also at the level of larger units of discourse (e.g., scenes). The text map plays a key role in guiding


students to process information from the story in terms of these larger units and how these units fit together.

The program directs students to click on the buttons in the text map to see the final advance organizer and to view the individual scenes of the video. After viewing each scene and answering questions over it, the program returns students to the text map as a point of reference and to view the following scene. This consistent recycling of the text map serves to keep students constantly aware of the overall structure of the text.

In subsequent lessons, the text maps continue to identify scenes and to suggest the overall structure of the video episode, but they do not specify the content of the individual scenes. This gradual reduction of pedagogical scaffolding is intended to guide students to develop the information processing skills they need to extract information from other texts.

The final advance organizer is scene-specific and preteaches phrases that students must know in order to understand the primary message of the scene (see Figure 14).

Figure 14

Preteaching Phrases for Video Scenes 0x01 graphic

The sentence in Figure 14 is a key phrase in scene one. The phrase is hyperactive and is linked to the video such that when students click on it, they hear it pronounced by the character in the scene. The phrase Pardon, Monsieur. L'arrêt de car pour Cancale, s'il vous plaît. `Excuse me. The bus stop for Cancale, please.' in the figure above was included as an advance


organizer for scene one because it lays the ground work for an eventful bus trip in a later scene.

In addition to highlighting important scene-specific information, the hyperactive phrases in the lesson serve a general instructional purpose. It should be recalled that the Libra lessons were designed to be used by first- semester students after only two weeks of instruction. At this early point in the instruction, it is helpful for students to be able to see written phrases of French dialogue material because many students have difficulty identifying words in spoken utterances. The absence of word level stress in French obscures word boundaries, making it difficult for beginning learners whose native language is English to apprehend individual words. The availability of written versions of spoken phrases helps these students identify words and syntactic markers and thereby more easily parse sentences.

After students have completed the vocabulary advance organizer for a given scene, they proceed to view the video segment of this scene and answer comprehension questions over it. For example, after students view scene one, the first question confirms that they know the identity of the two young people (see Figure 15).

Figure 15

First Question on Scene One 0x01 graphic

This checklist question tells students to click on the names of the two characters. When students make errors, the program provides minimal


written diagnostic feedback and displays a help field at the upper right corner. The minimal diagnostic feedback is designed to maximize students' interaction with the video material. Instead of providing information to guide students to the correct answer, the feedback directs their attention to the help field. The message in the help field identifies one of the characters and tells students to click on the video button to play the segment of the scene in which the character identifies his traveling companion. If students need additional help, they may also consult the video script and eventually the dictionary.

It should be mentioned here that the design of the lesson prevents students from simply guessing the correct answer to questions on repeated trials. Feedback to incorrect answers not only displays written feedback and the help screen but also covers the question options with a transparent field which blocks students from immediately clicking on the question options again. It is only after students have clicked on the video button in the help screen to replay the video that the program removes the transparent field and allows students to answer the question again.

In addition, students cannot pass over the question and go on to the next without getting the correct answer because the question display does not contain any default navigation buttons. When students select the correct answer, the program shows a congratulatory feedback message and displays a button permitting students to continue (see Figure 16).

Figure 16

Correct Answer to Question One 0x01 graphic


Hiding and showing fields and buttons in this manner provides effective control over progression through the lesson.

Students continue the process of viewing scenes and answering questions on the scenes as they proceed through the lesson. The lesson makes use of all the question formats available in the authoring system listed in Figures 5 through 8 above to verify students' comprehension of the entire episode. Some questions focus on specific information communicated by the characters, while others engage students to consider implications and inferences of characters' statements and actions.

After students have answered all the questions on the episode, the lesson ends with a free recall protocol (see Figure 17).

Figure 17

Free Recall Protocol 0x01 graphic

This display instructs students to write a detailed summary of what they remember in the scrolling field of the Worksheet window. When they click on the Finished button, the program saves their summary to disk for review by the instructor.7

The series of lessons for La Marée et ses secrets allows beginning students to view video material that they would not likely be able to understand otherwise and gives a very complete view of their comprehension of


the content of that material. The design of the lessons—dividing the longer video text into shorter segments, presenting general and scene-specific advance organizers, verifying students' comprehension at various levels of understanding, and providing an opportunity for students to express their understanding of the video text in their own words—serves to create a rich language learning environment.

Modeling appropriate listening comprehension strategies and guiding their use in a multimedia course helps students to acquire the skills they need to understand other oral (and perhaps written) texts. It remains to investigate to what extent students transfer skills acquired in controlled CALL environments to processing information from other texts that have not been pedagogically prepared for language learners.


The development of the Libra authoring system and courseware created by means of it offer a number of lessons learned. The original motivation for Libra was to develop an easy-to-use, flexible authoring system supported by relevant theoretical precepts and teaching practices and maintain a clear instructional focus on listening comprehension. As we conducted faculty authoring workshops, we discovered that with little training faculty were able to use Libra's authoring tools to create innovative lessons that met the educational requirements of their individual institutions. In addition, the use of the authoring system by multiple developers provided invaluable lessons to the project team and helped us refine the product. Responding to requests by developers for new features and observing the diverse ways in which faculty authors used Libra enabled us to improve the authoring system in subsequent versions.

However, we also discovered that helping some faculty authors to understand the importance of basic principles of instructional design and the implementation of concepts derived from research in listening comprehension was a substantially greater challenge than guiding them through the technical use of Libra's authoring procedures. Because issues of lesson design and instructional principles are of primary importance in the development of effective multimedia courseware, we had to devote more time to discussing them than originally anticipated.

It is commonplace to note that technology is a tool, not a method; that is, technology should serve teaching methodology, not the other way around. Our experience working with faculty authors has shown this statement to be very true. Some faculty authors easily became enamored with technological tools at the expense of methodological considerations. As faculty authors continue to develop multimedia materials, it is essential that they begin the development process by addressing questions of instructional


design and then implement appropriate pedagogical features in support of that design.

The development of the courseware described here also included several important lessons. After initial specification of the instructional components and the overall design of the series of lessons, the developer created a prototype of the first lesson. He of course planned to have this prototype reviewed by consultants, who in fact provided helpful advice and guidance. He also planned to pilot the lesson with students but seriously underestimated the value of students' views of the lesson. Piloting of the prototype included observation of individual students using the lesson and a formative evaluation questionnaire focusing on its component parts. Analysis of the data collected by both techniques showed that several improvements were needed, ranging from explicit, yet concise, procedural directions to more clearly stated roles for instructional components and more balanced control of student navigation through the lesson. These lessons learned are discussed below

Similar to the traditional psycholinguistic principle of presenting only 5 ± 2 bits of information at one time (see, for example, Clark & Clark, 1977), the developer learned that the number of pieces of explanatory information in a single display should be limited to 3 ± 2. Observations of students' use of the preliminary version of the lesson indicated that they were able to deal with at most five informational elements and that this number exceeded the capacity of some students (leading to quizzical looks suggesting that these students did not know what they were to do).

Analysis of student questionnaire data revealed that many students did not take advantage of certain kinds of instructional components (help screens in particular) because they were not aware of the availability of these components. Subsequent analysis of tracker data confirmed many of these findings and revealed other findings on misuse of basic lesson components and unexpected patterns of navigation through the lesson. Taken together, the results of these analyses led the developer to design a more closely controlled environment in which students' latitude in the use of lesson components is somewhat restricted. It should be noted in this regard that the courseware remains a work in progress and may be further refined as more student data are collected and analyzed.

The primary message that emerged from our joint experience in training faculty to use the authoring system and from this developer's experience in creating the multimedia courseware described here is that instructional design needs to be the central concern in any development process. Questions about the value of implementing underlying language acquisition principles and design features in lessons need to be addressed by empirical investigation in the formative evaluation stages of the project. Analysis of student usage data (and eventual student performance data) is the linchpin in the development of effective multimedia materials.



1 Some of the major works in the field at the time were Altman (1989, 1990), Bacon and Finneman (1990), Bernhardt (1984), Bransford and Johnson (1972), Byrnes (1984), Canale et al. (1984), Carrell (1981, 1983, 1984, 1988a, 1988b), Chaudron and Richards (1986), Faerch and Kaspar (1986), Gernsbacher (1990), Green (1989), Johnson-Laird (1983), Joiner (1986), Kintsch (1974), Long (1989), Mueller (1980), Oller (1985), O'Malley et al. (1989), Richards (1983), Salomon (1979), Schank (1982), Singer (1990), Swaffar et al. (1991), and van Dijk and Kintsch (1983).

2 Version 2.0 of Libra is described in this article.

3 A fifth question format, an open response question format, has been added to the most recent version of the authoring system.

4 Faculty at the University of Colorado and the University of Minnesota have developed extensive Libra materials. Brian Lewis at the University of Colorado and Jenise Rowekamp at the University of Minnesota have been instrumental in guiding Libra development efforts at these two institutions. Jeff High at the University of Minnesota recently obtained a grant to develop first-year German materials using Libra. In addition, Claire Bartlett at Rice University and Edward Dixon at Georgetown University have played key roles in helping faculty at these institutions develop significant Libra materials. A project team at the University of Michigan headed by Raji M. Rammuny has obtained a multiyear grant to create materials in Arabic with Libra. Finally, graduate students at the Catholic University of America have been taking language learning technology modules in which Libra has figured prominently (see Kassen & Higgins, 1997).

5 The lessons described below were created with version 2.0 of Libra.

6 Block (1986) proposed the idea of the “text map” that shows the internal structure of texts to facilitate ESL students' reading comprehension. In addition, Mayer and Gallini (1990) investigated the use of pre-task and in-task schematic models to assist students' comprehension of technical materials.

7 Libra's tracker captures students' writing and all mouse clicks in text files either saved on the hard disk of the computer or sent to an e-mail address in a local area network. The tracking mechanism allows researchers to collect substantial data to investigate how students use multimedia CALL materials and to explore other issues in Second Language Acquisition.


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