Proceedings of the JOURNEES D'ETUDES INTERNATIONALES "Les Technologies de l'Information et de la Communication au service des Relations Internationales des Etablissements d'Enseignement Supérieur et de Recherche",  Nice and Sophia Antipolis, November 17, 18 and 19, 1999. In press: Autumn 2000, on Internet:

The role of ICT in international co-operation in Speech Communication Sciences education

Gerrit Bloothooft
Utrecht University
co-ordinator Socrates Thematic Network "Speech Communication Sciences"
home page:


Speech Communication Sciences are the disciplines of Phonetics, Spoken Language Engineering and Speech and Language Therapy. Phonetics is the study of how humans communicate by speech and the differentiation between the sounds of the world’s languages. Spoken Language Engineering is the investigation of how we can make computers speak and understand. In the area of Speech and Language Therapy, the pathologies of speech and language are studied and therapies are investigated to determine which may be useful for patients. During the last decade active international co-operation has been developed, starting with the organisation of student mobility and cumulating in reflections on future education within the framework of a prestigious Socrates Thematic Network on Speech Communication Sciences ( The network consists of 102 university departments from 22 countries that are members or associated members of the European Union. It has the support of four international organisations. The use of information and communication technologies proved indispensable for effective co-operation in all actions, although the human factor remained essential as well. The experiences will be evaluated in this paper.

Putting networks together

The type of international co-operation that suits a discipline highly depends on its embedding in university structures. Phonetics, which is the oldest of the disciplines in Speech Communication Sciences, has firm strongholds in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, and the Netherlands, but is less developed in many other European countries. Departments are small and receive moderate numbers of students. In Phonetics strong personal links exist and initiatives for international co-operation in the early nineties immediately received wide interest and were developed at a European level. Since Phonetics is the experimental study of human speech, computers were introduced early in both research and education. In many cases they were the first ones in the Humanities faculties. Electronic communication was already in place when the European network of education, within the Erasmus framework, was developed. Full implementation was achieved in a few years. In 1993 student mobility was established between a consortium of 30 universities (including Spoken Language Engineering).

Although the area of Spoken Language Engineering is much younger, it has rapidly developed and can be studied as a specialisation in departments of electrical engineering or computer science. It was soon recognised that co-operation in education should not only be pursued among technical universities, but that cross-disciplinary co-operation with the Phonetics departments in humanities faculties should be sought. This indeed was realised, due to wide spread e-mail connections with these departments. A very good example of the use of e-mail was the development of a handbook of European Studies in Phonetic and Speech Communication in 1995. Full coverage of 169 sites in 27 European countries could be achieved in only nine months.

Speech and Language Therapy has experienced quite a different embedding. In some countries the study is part of academic education, in other countries it is higher professional education, while in other countries the discipline is just starting to be recognised. The educational load of Speech and Language Therapy is high compared to Phonetics and Spoken Language Engineering, and has seen an influx of hundreds of students a year per department. Large scale international co-operation together with Phonetics and Spoken Language Engineering started in 1996 within the framework of a Socrates Thematic network. Even in the application phase it highlighted that the area of Speech and Language Therapy was not very well connected to electronic communication (with better situations in academic environments in the United Kingdom, Sweden and Finland). As a consequence, only a limited participation of departments could be achieved (given the usual tight deadlines which can be met only by using e-mail in the preparation phase). However, even though well-connected pioneers were active in the Thematic Network, it was still impossible to raise feedback, with reasonable notice, from the wider group of departments by using surface mail. At the same time web-based questionnaires were already being used by the phoneticians with good success. Even though the current situation is improving quickly for staff members in the area of Speech and Language Therapy, we can learn from this experience that the introduction of new communication technologies has the danger that a difference is created between those who have access and those who have not. One should recognise this and not neglect the latter.

At the heart of human communication

Speech is the first modality through which humans communicate. Together with the area of Natural Language Processing, Speech Communication Sciences can be named Human Language Technologies, which are at the very heart of ICT. This implies that all kinds of ICT technologies, including those that are important for education, are topics of study in our area. To name a few: multi-modal human-machine interaction, information access and processing, machine translation, and dialogue systems including speech generation and speech recognition. A special interest group of the International Speech Communication Association <> is devoted to Integrating Speech Technology in (Language) Learning (InSTIL, <>). This is not to say that all of the current curricula in Speech Communication Sciences have outstanding and innovative facilities using ICT although good examples can be found.

ICT and organisation

In the previous paragraphs it has been reiterated that e-mail was an essential tool in building effective networks, from the initial phase of making an application and finding partners, to the phase of creating output using the knowledge and experience of the whole network. Still, e-mail is no more than a tool. Effective organisation also requires effective co-ordination, and the commitment of network contacts. This is obviously the human and social factor. Experience would suggest that annual contact between the core network members (on average one per country) cannot be missed. The change in organisation of student mobility from Erasmus International Co-operation Programmes, with it’s own budget and central responsibility of the co-ordinator, to Socrates Institutional Contracts, without provision to meet annually, broke down effective organisation of student mobility in our area. Administrative hurdles on reciprocity and bilateral contracts precipitated the process. The Socrates Thematic Networks were pleased to be able to replace the former ICPs in some areas because of their own budget.

ICT in education

A main theme for international co-operation in education is to achieve best practice for all. This is especially true for small disciplines where a few staff members cannot hope to be experts in all areas of the discipline. Exchanges of experiences and making use of products and tools made by others can help raising the overall quality of higher education in the field. We see excellent opportunities for using ICT for distance learning, virtual class rooms, interactive learning, web tutorials and so on. However, on the other hand one should also raise a few crucial questions such as: (1) is the current infrastructure adequate? (2) are lecturers trained to use ICT? (3) what are the appropriate levels for using ICT and (4) is ICT worth the investment in all cases?

In many countries the availability of PCs or workstations for students is not self-evident. This may create a large difference between faculties who can give each student a laptop computer on entering the university and countries where only a few PCs are available for hundreds of students. In the same way we previously described the availability of e-mail, it is essential to be aware of these differences and to work on narrowing the gap.

ICT requires continuous education of lecturers. The creation of awareness of opportunities was one of the aims of the Socrates Thematic Network. This has been realised through the old-fashioned way of writing and publishing books. Books are able to reach the widest possible audience and are still a valid alternative for the fluid information on the Internet. Nevertheless in a special dissemination action, the Thematic Network is also creating a Joint European Web site for Education in Language and Speech (JEWELS). The idea being that this web portal will open up all services to the community, by having links to all departments in Europe, by having powerful search functions on courses and sites, by presenting a database of acclaimed educational materials and tools, and by providing recommendations on curriculum development both for lecturers and for decision makers. A major issue is to keep such a web site up-to-date. This requires continuous support which cannot be expected from a single department taking responsibility. International responsibility and investment, taken on by the Socrates Thematic Network or other long-term projects, is needed. The joint responsibility in the JEWELS project also includes learned societies. Such a shared interest probably best secures the continuation and usefulness of the site.

Developing the web

As for using the web in education, the advice is to develop the use of ICT step by step at appropriate levels. These could progressively become more complex. For instance, one could start by developing course home pages, followed by presenting course notes. Then course related mailing lists and newsgroups could be started. More laborious would be the conversion of suitable parts of the course into mini-tutorials. Finally, training and tests for self-assignment could be implemented. The latter steps often require heavy investment, easily exceeding one mEuro, which cannot be paid by a single department. International projects are the only answer to this.

If we review the current situation in Speech Communication Sciences, our dreams are not yet reality. Structured course notes are to be found, but often only geared towards one’s own students and curriculum. Multilingual notes are still seldom found (but would be needed to reach a really European audience). A series of demonstrations in Language and Speech technologies and sciences can be found on the Internet. However, these are rarely presented in a proper didactic approach and can only serve as an illustration. Finally, there are very few (mini) tutorials. Obviously the heavy investment is a firm barrier here. A lot of work still remains to be done.

In the end, Internet-based tutorials or courses can seldom fully replace the teacher. In efforts to develop a European Masters degree in Language and Speech in the framework of a Socrates CDA project, a long-term gradual incorporation is foreseen, but still in combination with an annual EMasters school where students and teachers can physically meet. Further developments with virtual classrooms, however, may make the latter superfluous and thus open the way to offer all European students the same chance of high quality education even if expertise is not available at the own university.


Ten years of experience has showed that ICT is indispensable in the organisation of international co-operation in education in Speech Communication Sciences. In the earlier years this was mainly through using e-mail for fast network development and actions throughout Europe but this was later supported by the web as a common medium for information storage and development. The whole process is a way of continuous learning for everyone, in which we should be aware of the importance of the human factor in successful co-operation, and be inventive to help colleagues that are less favoured in respect to ICT infrastructure.