Language learning software opens new avenues for teaching


About six years ago, the process for teaching American Sign Language at the University of Minnesota was one ripe with inefficiencies. Standard procedure for testing was that a student would record 30-45 minutes of signing with a video camera, and then submit the tape to an ASL instructor who would be tasked with watching and grading about 40 such videos.

This approach inevitably created a bottleneck, wherein students would have to wait 3 – 5 weeks to receive feedback that amounted to a grade and a few text comments.

The U’s Department of Learning and Technologies set out to develop a better tech-based solution and came up with Avenue ASL, which launched in 2006. This software utilizes Flash Media Server to stream, record and store real-time webcam videos. The settings for the program were tweaked to ensure a nice crisp frame rate that would pick up all the intricacies of reading sign language.

This new system has made it easier for students to record and submit their mid-terms while yielding additional benefits.

“Once we were able to record and archive the students’ performance, we found out the most transformative aspect of Avenue is in the feedback,” says Charles Miller, a co-director at the LT Media Lab. He points out that in addition to grades and comments, instructors could now record a short video for each student, providing specific, visual pointers on how to improve on their weaknesses.

Where it once took over a month for students to receive feedback on these performances, now they could receive it the next day. This changed the entire curriculum for the University’s ASL program, enabling students to complete these types of exercises multiple times per week rather than a couple times per semester. On average, about 400,000 to 500,000 videos per semester run through Avenue’s software.

The program has been widely popular, embraced outside of the 2,000-plus ASL students per year that the U. Avenue is currently being used by 25,000 students across the U.S., ranging from K-12 to small colleges and even some organizations. Soon, the number of users will explode.

That’s because this fall, the LT Media Lab is launching v3, which will be open for anyone to purchase.

This new iteration of Avenue is designed for use with all world languages, expanding well beyond ASL. The applications don’t necessarily stop at language learning, though. For his part, Miller is excited to see what types of uses people conjure for the software once it’s out there. He sees it being utilized by institutions for internal training, job interviews and things he and his team have never thought of.

“When we’ve presented it internationally for the last five years, we always get really wacky ideas for how people want to use it when they see the technology,” he says. “Now it’s matured to the level that we can release it for that open use, so it’s a pretty exciting time for the project and the Media Lab.”