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Get Away From the Gap! - An Innovative Approach to Learning Content Design for Language Courses

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“Get away from the Gap!” – An Innovative Approach to Learning Content Design for Language Courses

Timo Kozlowski

Teacher, Learning Content Designer, Goethe-Institut Thailand

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Presentation Slides


Most of existing e-learning language courses suffer from bad content design with a strong emphasis on closed grammar exercises, so there is not enough attention on any language’s primary goal: communication. So the focus of learning content design for language courses should focus more on communication skills. This is especially important professional use of language, like in the tourism industry.

To boost develop in the region, the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs funded the conception of a German course for tourism in the Tsunami-affected regions, in the case of Thailand, Phuket. The language course was targeted towards professionals in the tourism industry with some basic knowledge of German. Also, the course was conceived as a blended learning course with learning content provided through a Learning Management System (Moodle, in this case) to give the students an opportunity to improve their German knowledge without having to stop working during course time.

In the design of the German language course our primary goal was to tackle this i ssue about the relevancy. On the one hand, existing material usually has no specific target group, especially in local aspects. So we included information and material directly from Phuket, Thailand, because the course is be held there. On the other hand, we opted to move away from more closed forms of E-Learning exercises, e.g., gap-filling exercises. Instead, we concentrated on open assignm ents that focuse on communication skills and social interaction, like forum and chat assignments.

Included in this course are also contact classes every Saturday, in which communication skills are further practised, and also new grammar structures introduced.

This course was held two times now – one time as part of the German curriculum at Prince of Songkhla University. Both times, students and teachers were delighted with the results

Introduction – Requirements for Language Teaching for Tourism

Languag e is hard knowledge, isn't it? Grammar, vocabulary, and pragmatic use of language literally take ages to change, don't they? In general, this assertion is true, but the finer you differentiate the use of language, the more rapid you perceive changes – especially in technology- or business-oriented usage of language. George Siemens discusses this growing tendency towards change:

“Over the last several decades, more of our knowledge has shifted to soft knowledge. When things change rapidly, many knowledge elements do not have time to harden before they are replaced or amended. Managing hard and soft knowledge (as a continuum, not distinct points) requires different processes.”1

In a language course for tourism, authors and content designers have to find a balance between the hard knowledge (structures, vocabulary) and soft knowledge (pragmatism, intercultural communication, local knowledge). Existing textbooks on German for Tourism2 are good on hard knowledge, but they fail to provide relevant soft knowledge. This becomes especially appearant, when the learners come from a non-western background.

Usually, textbooks on German for Tourism focus on situations in German speaking countries (Germany, Austria and Switzerland), but instead of Wiener Schnitzel waiters in Thailand need to know the German expression for Tom Yum Koong, Thai tour guides need to describe Thai temples, not medieval churches.

Apart from such rather hard facts also comes soft knowledge, too, like recommendable places for guest. Static places of knowledge like books are at disadvantage when it comes to provide such soft knowledge to learners. Web-based training can not only fill in this gap, it can fully replace textbooks because it adds a new dimension to learning – communication that is embedded in the learning content already. Forums and Learning Management Systems are just the beginning. More recent web 2.0 technologies like blogs, or podcasts can enable learners to share their knowledge with others. Prerequisite is that the learning content design does neither try to emulate books, nor should it indulge itself into closed exercises like gap-filling, only.

This course was conceived by Timo Kozlowski and Stefan Haering, with some additional material by Helmut Frielinghaus, and it was initiated by Holger Roth. Under the sponsorship of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we designed a German language course for tourism, targeted especially at the southern Thai province Phuket. Inspired by the textbook Willkommen!!!3, we decided to go as local as possible, and to include as much communication as possible into the design of this course.4 This distinguishes our course from available e-learning solutions on the market. They concentrate to a large extent on closed exercises, that may be technologically quite advanced, yet at the same also pedagogically limited.

Leading Principles in Course Design

To adapt our course better to the requirements of Thai people working in the tourism industry, we applied the following principles to the content design.

Our target group are professionals who work already in the tourism industries. Therefore they should be able to complete the learning assignments next to their normal job during the low season. This implies the amount of exercises on the one hand, and on the other hand the flexibility of the finished course. Everyday work load for service staff in the tourism sector can vary from one day to the other, and so this has to be taken in account, too.

Our primary objective was to design a language course that contains relevant content for the job. As mentioned above, most textbooks for tourism focus on situations in Germany (or the western world). We decided to derive our content from the situation on Phuket and include it into the course. So, students have to present a spa on the island, they have to prepare a programme for a day-trip on Phuket, etc. That way, students can bring in their experiences, build up new knowledge upon it, expand their knowledge of German with relevant vocabulary, and share knowledge with other students in the course.

Another important aspect are communication skills. Common grammar structures are selected in respect to their relevancy for communication in the tourism industry. Instead of setting up a grid of grammar structures beforehand, typical situations are layed out first, then phrases and communication strategies are worked out, and then relevant grammar structures are selected. The choice of situations is loosely based upon the level A2 within the Common European Framework of References for Languages (CEFR)5, and situations are chosen accordingly. After a brief examination of the CEFR's Can-Do-descriptions, we found that there is some ground uncovered yet, when it comes to languages in tourism – the descriptions for tourism are less elaborated than those for general language use, and focuse on tourists who travel another country, not on people working in the tourism industry.

Primary attention is given to listening comprehension . Each lesson builds up upon a photo story with embedded audio. The central characters are a German couple from Stuttgart, Helmut and Christine Nonnenmacher, who are on vacation on Phuket for the first time. They face different situations, which many tourists have to deal with, like lost luggage, getting sick, booking a day trip, etc. Situations, phrases, and grammar are incorporated into this photo story. In that respect, this course is modelled after the general German language textbook “Schritte” 6 .

The different lessons incorporate each one job profile into the learning content. Among others, these profiles entail transfer guides, receptionist at a hotel, receptionist at a spa, etc.

Intercultural communication is also an important aspect for this course. Being able to understand the words and sentences of a guest does not guarantee that hotel staff with a different cultural background really understands the problems that a guest confronts him with. Perhaps in the eyes of local people it's not a problem, but the guest perceives it as a problem. One example: When tourists reserve a room with certain specifictions in middle- or low-range hotels, hotel staff does not always take such a reservation as serious as the guests, and when the guests arrive, the desired room might not be available. So learners in this course have to deal with these different mindsets to a certain extent so that they can better understand what guests from German-speaking countries view as important, or as a problem – how these guests show their disappointment or even anger, and how they could solve such a problem in a constructive way.

And another important element of the course is the exchange and sharing of knowledge among learners. Special emphasis is put on sharing of experiences with guests.

Description of the Final Course

The final course is hosted at the Moodle7 site which is run by the Goethe-Institut Thailand8. Moodle was our tool of choice not only because it was in use at our institution before, but also because the built-in learning tools allow a learning content design that was more communication-based and less focused on closed exercises, e.g. gap-filling exercises. Accordingly, generic Moodle tools are used to provide the course with a consistent design in line with the design of the overall site.9

The course entails six different lessons, each with a different main topic.10 Every lesson is thought to be completed in either one or two weeks, according to students' needs.

The topics of the six lessons are:

  • Arrival at Phuket Airport.
  • Transfer to the Hotel
  • Arrival at the Hotel
  • Health and Wellness
  • Day Trips
  • Phuket and its Surroundings

I will present lesson one (Arriving at Phuket Airport) as an example for the rest of the course.

The main aspects of this lesson is asking for someone's name, writing down names, introducing yourself, and handling problems at arrival. The entry level is rather basic by choice, to give students the chance to get acquainted with the – possibly new for individual students – form of language learning via web, and without having to struggle with new language structures at the same time.

Listening Comprehension Story

As mentioned above, the course contains a photo story with audio provided in MP3 format. In lesson one, Herr and Frau Nonnenmacher – the couple from Germany –  arrive at Phuket Airport. One piece of luggage is missing, so the transfer guide leads them to the airline office, where they file the missing luggage report.

The story is followed by some right-or-wrong questions, and a small writing assignment to summarize the events.

Chat Assignments

Chats are scheduled to take place once a week. There are two types of chat assignments provided for the tutor to choose from.

Chat 1 is an introduction chat. Learning goal is for students to get to know each other. Students should prepare five questions, and ask someone in the chat room. The tutor acts as a moderator.

Chat 2 is a role playing chat. Each student is assigned a role. Either, they are a guest who arrives at the airport, or they are transfer guides who have to pick up one particular guest. The tutor sends these students information about this guest by email, e.g. name, departure city, airline, and hotel. But their information about the person they have to pick up is incomplete. So, they have to ask the arriving guests yes/no questions to find the right person.

Apart from being a preliminary exercise on communication structures, chats serve as an anchor point during the week when students meet virtually. In that respect, it is a vital structural element to help students focusing on the course assignments because they have one more fixed date during the week apart from contact classes.

We also made another experience during the first course: Students who feel shy to talk in front of the class in a normal classroom, feel more secure when they join a chat room from a computer within an environment they feel more comfortable with. Eventually, they take part in a greater extent in a chat than in a classroom situation.

Chats are made a topic again in contact classes to sensitise students for improvements of their use of language. Please refer to Teaching the Pilot Course.


Forums are used for assignments that focused on the exchange of information. The tutor's role is mainly to be a facilitator who should encourage students reacting to each other. One example for that kind of assignment is that students should tell about problems of tourists at the airport that they have experienced. After some initial postings, students should react to them and give advice on such situations.

Depending on the learners’ language proficiency, some forum assignments could also be exercised in their mother tongue, although in the pilot course this never happened. Students tried to communicate in German.

Students should have the chance to use language in a more free way than closed exercises can deliver. As in normal communication, making yourself understood is the key factor, not grammatically correct sentences. So the tutor did not correct forum postings directly, or in public, as this would discourage students from participating. However, they received an individual reply by email from the tutor, so that they can see their strengths and weaknesses.

Forum postings were also re-used in contact classes to sensitise students for improvements of their use of language. Please refer to Teaching the Pilot Course.

Information Material

We also provided a selection of information material in each lesson, like descriptions of the relevant grammar structures, transcripts of audio texts, etc.

Closed Exercises

A more traditional approach to e-learning content is chosen for smaller amounts of exercises that concentrate on practising grammar structures, check student’s understanding of the story, or require a student-to-tutor interaction, when students have to phrase answers themselves and correction through software is not feasible.

Teaching the Pilot Course

This course is designed to run for eight weeks with contact classes held once a week. However, the concept proved to be flexible enough to hold this course in the German for Tourism programme at Prince of Songkhla University’s Phuket campus.11

Participants could join the pilot course for free, provided they worked in the tourism sector and had a basic knowledge of German. Applicants had to do a language screening before they could join the class. The target number of participants was and will be about 12 persons. For future courses students and/or employers will have to pay course fees to cover the costs for the teacher/tutor and a suitable room for the contact classes.

The pilot course consisted in the beginning of 12 people working in various fields of the tourism industries – tour and transfer guides, a bell manager of a 1st class hotel, and office staff from a main German tour operator. As diverse as the participants' jobs were their language abilities – they ranged from the targeted entry level – end of A1, beginning of A2 – to a rather advanced level of proficiency – in oral use estimated level B2 or better.

The pilot course was held by two teachers, Timo Kozlowski from the Goethe-Institut Thailand, and Farid Achour, teacher in the German programme of Prince of Songkhla University. The university also provided the infrastructure (classroom, internet access, beamer, visualizer) for contact classes.

Contact classes are designed to interact with online lessons, so that they add to each other, and form a unit of online learning and classroom learning.

There is a simple fact, why a tourism course cannot work without contact classes: Language in hotels, etc. is mostly used oral. Most online assignments require written answers, so there’s a gap that needs to be closed, and that’s where contact classes come in. In a way, what students learn online is like learning swimming outside of the water – you learn the right movements, but it’s not the real thing. So, contact classes are like going to the pool to practice swimming in water but still in a protected environment. When students try their acquired skills on the open sea – i.e. at their working places – they can rely on what they practiced before, and build up on that.

Online learning and contact classes have to be linked together so that they both add to each other. Connections are made mainly through two ways:

Preparation for next week – Bigger projects that students should work on are prepared, e.g. making up learning groups, assigning tasks to single students or groups, etc. Grammar structures that students get to know and work with during the following week are also introduced in contact classes, so that the tutor gets a first-hand feedback whether students understood, or  questions about the topic remain.

Review of the past week – Many assignments require open production of texts, etc. by the  students. Open assignments are nearer to real-life usage of language, but reviewing such tasks cannot be done by software. You need a person who has experience in using German in general and in the specifics of German for Tourism to provide students with a worthwhile feedback. So chatlogs, forum postings are reviewed in various ways – looking for mistakes together, the tutor is there for questions about the past week’s content, and grammar structures that students practiced the week before are rehearsed in different situations. And also, students can present projects they had worked on the week before.

Learning stations are chosen quite often as the teaching method in contact classes, because they enhances student's experience from online learning to offline learning, and complement it. On Moodle, students can choose their own learning path, and learning stations give them to a certain degree the freedom to choose exercises on topics they are interested in. A typical learning station scenario consists of six to eight stations that students can choose from individually. Typical exercises contain dialogue training, vocabulary repetition, repetition of structures, or open assignments. At last but not at least, learning stations provide the tutor with a good way to adress single student's need in a group that is very heterogeneous in language proficiency.


At the beginning there were 12 students in the course, 7 of them finished it. Students who bailed out said that the time they had was not enough to do the exercises. However, two of the drop-outs had a language level way above the level we aimed at for this course – one person held a bachelor degree in German from Chiang Mai University –, so it might be possible that for them the provided content was too easy, and thus it did not appeal to them in that respect.

On the last day of the pilot course, we asked the remaining 7 students to fill out an anonymous evaluation form. The feedback from this group was overall positive. The most important trends in this eveluation are:

Students liked the form of blended learning as applied in the course. Some pointed out that they could easily arrange work duty with learning, or that they could repeat online lessons as often as they want, or until they understand.

Online learning was new to all participants, and some had technical difficulties, e.g. with streaming mp3 files, or the overall the not so good internet infrastructure on Phuket. Nonetheless, all students answered that they enjoyed online learning.

Conclusion – How to Overcome Shortcomings of Traditional E-Learning Methods for Language Courses

  1. Open exercises where students have to work with language in a creative way are definitely worthwhile for students, but they have to be relevant for them. They bring in a social element to e-learning that CD-ROM based courses alone cannot provide. Eventually open and social elements should be focused on in content design, especially for language courses.
  2. Closed exercises also have their merit. According to the course's log files, students liked to do those closed exercises, as they get an instant feedback, which is unambiguous (either right or wrong), they are quite often viewed like games, and they can be done more quickly. But the higher the language level gets, the less useful they get. Advanced use of language is rather ambiguous, and right now software algorithms cannot cope with this.
  3. In training on the job, it is more likely for a teacher to have heterogeneous group than a homogeneous one. Blended learning can include students with heterogeneous levels of knowledge, provided this is taken in account from the point of content design onwards to teaching the course. Open exercises should present the tutor and the students with choices of exercises that are diverse in their difficulties, so that advanced and non-advanced can do exercises that are apt to their respective level of proficiency.
  4. E-Learning as a whole is rather slow in adapting to the world of students. Today's web 2.0 techniques – blogging, folksonomy, podcasting, etc. – are only at the beginning in e-learning. In the future – inclusion of web 2.0 techniques12, and the changes in the definition of knowledge13 – especially in business scenarios – will be the main challenge for learning content designers.

Figure 1 Course webpage



  • Alte 2002, The ALTE Can Do Project. English version, viewed 29 January, 2008 <http://www.alte.org/can_do/alte_cando.pdf>.
  • Barberis, P & Bruno, E 2001, Deutsch im Hotel. Korrespondenz. Max Hueber: Ismaning, Germany.
  • Bernhardt, T & Kirchner, M 2007, E-Learning 2.0  im Einsatz. „Du bist der Autor!“ - Vom Nutzer zum Wikiblog-Caster. Werner Hülsbusch: Boizenburg, Germany.
  • Bovermann, M et al. 2003, Schritte. Deutsch als Fremdsprache . Max Hueber. Ismaning, Germany.
  • Cohen, U 2000, Zimmer frei neu. Deutsch im Hotel. Langenscheidt: Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Zürich, New York.
  • Cohen, U 2001, Herzlich willkommen neu . Langenscheidt: Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Zürich, New York
  • Indrawidjaja, E 2004, Willkommen!!!: Ein Deutsch-Lehrwerk für den Tourismus / Pelajaran Bahasa Jerman untuk Pariwisata . Jakarta: Katalis 2004.
  • Lévy-Hillerich, D 2004, Kommunikation im Tourismus . Goethe-Institut; München.
  • Siemens, G 2006, Knowing Knowledge , viewed 5 February, 2008, <http://www.knowingknowledge.com/book.php>.


1 Siemens 2006, p. 18.


2 Cohen 2000; Barberis & Brune 2001; Lévy-Hillerich 2004;

3 Indrawidjaja 2004.

4 A presentation of the course is available online at www.goetheonline.org/course/view.php?id=3 Please use the Guest Account to log in. Enrolment key for this course is “Tutorenschulung”.

5 Alte 2002, p. 39ff.

6 Bovermann et.al. 2003.

7 http://www.moodle.org (viewed 13.02.2008)

8 http://www.goetheonline.org (viewed 13.02.2008)

9 See Figure 1.

10 The follow-up course is scheduled for June 2008. It will also contain six lessons with the following topics:

    • Formalities of booking
    • Shopping in Bangkok
    • Eating and Drinking in Thailand
    • Sightseeing in Bangkok
    • Flight to Phuket – National Flights within Thailand
    • Departure

11 The course at Prince of Songkhla University (PSU) was held from the beginning of November to the end of December 2007 with 2 weeks for each lesson. There were 46 students participating, among these were 7 students who graduated already but wanted to brush up their German. The rest had studied German for 4 semesters at the university before. The overall level of language proficiency was at the beginning of A2 level. This course was held by Farid Achour.

12 See Bernhard & Kirchner, 2007.

13 See Siemens, 2006.