My Plans for the FSI courses

Article by Darren Kenny

So what are my plans for the FSI language courses?

Update: 22nd October 2020

In this post, I will show you my plans for the FSI language courses. You can also play with the prototype application I have developed.

But before that...

As discussed in my previous post (the pros and cons of the fsi courses), there exist a number of issues with the FSI courses. 

I identified these issues as below.

  1. Quality of audio
  2. Hard for beginners
  3. Sexist language
  4. Diplomat focused language
  5. Obsolete language
  6. Large PDFs, many audio files
  7. No social element
  8. Often cited as boring

I foresee the FSI work being broken up into two phases. Phase 1 will be improving the existing courses. Phase 2 will be creating new, original course material. I'll cover the above issues later on in the article, citing possible solutions to them. But for now, let's talk about phase 1. 

Phase 1 - Ease of use

So my previous experience using the FSI language courses, in terms of usability has not been great.

You see, I'm always on the move and I don't always have my laptop with me. This makes using the FSI courses inconvenient - due to the number of audio files and the large PDFs at 400 pages or more each.

I can't do this whilst waiting for a bus.

PDF never really adapted well for use on mobile or tablet. The FSI PDF's are large and cumbersome, spanning over 300 pages sometimes. They don't deal well with low-performance devices like tablets and mobiles.

...and then there is the god awful task of trying to marry-up the page with the audio. 

But the courses can be great to use as pure audio courses if you load up all the audio and away you go. But visual learners really appreciate seeing the words and reading grammar explanations, charts, and imagery.

Course Usability

I have been working on making the courses easier to use, on mobile, tablet, and PC.

App BETA version

I've been working to digitize the Spanish for Latin America course to get an idea of how to structure the courses and to figure out how I want to interact with them and what will benefit people.

Have a play with Spanish for Latin America.

The benefits of this app are:

  1. Use on mobile and tablet with ease! Use on the go. (note: turn mobile horizontal for best use)
  2. No more managing audio files
  3. No more large and slow downloads 
  4. No more pdfs - the pages have been turned into web friendly images and load on demand
  5. No more page-to-audio matching - each page's audio plays automatically.
  6. No more remembering which page you on - the app will resume where you last left off (coming soon)
  7. Easy pausing and resuming of audio with overlay panel
  8. Easy skipping of audio, back and forward - repeat those unheard words!
  9. Pages turn automatically with audio.

I'm pushing hard to get a full course out for people to use, but it's time consuming work. I have recently asked for donations to help keep the application development going as well as the free course hosting.

If you would like to help donate towards this digitization effort, then please consider a donation here at my Gumroad account - donate today here

An old example prototype

Update: Everything about this old prototype is now defunct

The below image shows an old prototype that I developed. I have abandoned this for now as it is fair too complex and time consuming to index all the data. 

fsi web application explained

FSI Course Example Video


The application is designed to work the same on mobile, tablet, and desktop. 

There are two progress indicators to give you an idea of where you are in the section and current exercise.

To be able to re-listen to audio or skip ahead to the next item, you can cycle back and forth via the chevron buttons. You can go to the next page of exercises via the 'previous' and 'next' buttons.

To encourage users to not skip the audio, you can only page next once you have listened to all the audio for the current page.

You can pause the audio and replay it if you wish. You can restart the audio as well.

The foreign text and English translation are synchronized with the audio, so you will always know what is being said and have the accompanying translations.

The application automatically moves onto the next page once the audio has completed.

What is coming up soon?

In order for you to keep track of your lesson progress with the FSI language courses, I will need to develop a course portal. Somewhere you can log into and see your current courses, and resume it from where you last were.

A design has been mocked up as below.

fsi web application dashboard


Phase 2 - Creating new course material

So let's revisit the primary issues with the FSI courses:

  1. Quality of audio
  2. Hard for beginners
  3. Sexist language
  4. Diplomat focused language
  5. Obsolete language
  6. Large PDFs, many audio files
  7. No social element
  8. Often cited as boring

Each of these issues picks fault with the existing course material. I don't believe that without creating new course material that these issues can be adequately addressed. Let's talk them over below.

Quality of audio

What can be done about the quality of the audio? Well, it is not too hard to remaster the audio. I have been experimenting with this, using the free audio tool Audacity to reduce static noise. This plagues the German Basic courses. 

However, the audio quality is still poor. It is possible that in phase two, I'll look to find native speakers in order to get the courses re-recorded.

Hard for beginners

The courses were designed for diplomats, who are often, experienced language learners in an environment that would nurture their learning. They would be accompanied by a teacher/instructor who would guide them through the course material, beginners have none of this. 

There are two main problems for beginners with these courses. The lack of clear instruction and the pace of instruction.

The way in which I have designed the application (from my technical perspective), means that I can manipulate the existing material in any way that I want. I can add new material. I can change the order of exercises, how to do the exercises, how to pass a unit etc.

So to aid beginners, I can add more instruction text, add instruction audio or videos, and educate them on how to use the course. I can provide the means to message me directly to help them use the course. I can provide tests at the end of audio exercises to make sure that they don't progress until they have a good understanding of the material before progressing.

The possibilities are endless and I'm exploring new options every day.

Sexist language / Diplomat focused language / Obsolete language

These three issues come as a package because they are all about the course dialogue.

There is not much that can be done about this as the courses stand.

Obsolete language can be flagged as obsolete. So, for example, the use of 'Fräulein' in German has long since fallen out of favor and is often cited as sexist due to it referencing an unmarried woman. People should use Frau instead.

In order to do this, I would need a native speaker for each language to scan the course material, flag any obsolete words and offer a potential replacement.

No social element / Often cited as boring

The courses can be boring, I can attest to that. The monotone audio, the repeated drills, the sheer depth of material to cover.

So how can this be improved? Well, I have been thinking of a number of ways. 

The interactive elements of the course will be more exciting to use. Quizzes at the end of each module will test your retention of the information. Without a decent score, you'll not be able to progress onto the next unit. 

Testing your progress with quizzes encourages learners to continue. There will also be a means to share your progress with other learners, creating a fun competitive environment. 

It's also possible to create a social element to the courses. A forum for like-minded language learners, challenges.

Update - Is this something you want?

So I originally started looking into this a few years ago (2015). However, life got in the way and progress stopped. It's now 2020, most of us are in lockdown, but I'm full of renewed enthusiasm for my original plans.

But before I commit my time and resources to this project, I need to know. Is this something you want? What could make the course better for you?

Please let me know either in the comments or via email directly and I will respond.