The Power of Multimedia for Teaching and Learning Chinese

By Rushton Hurley

I would like to open by saying that it is an honor to share several ideas with the teachers and administrators working with, and the supporters of, the Mandarin Institute. I regularly present about the power of technology for learning, and to have the chance to do so specific to teaching and learning an Asian language is a treat for me as a teacher of Japanese language. I believe technology can be used in powerful ways for teaching and learning Chinese, as well.

There are a seemingly endless number of tools and resources which can enhance the experiences of teachers and students, and I will identify several - later. First, I think it appropriate to speak to why we would want to use technology at all. I hope doing so will allow a common philosophical ground for understanding the potential of a small part of what is now available to us.

We all wish that students would arrive in our classrooms knowing the importance of working hard, interested in honing their talents, and keeping in perspective the value of what we teach for their future possibilities. That said, many students are somewhat too thoroughly distracted by all manner of personal concerns, from relationships with peers to problems in the family to having enough food to eat. Additionally, many do not have the academic maturity to devote the necessary time to a subject that requires sustained, focused effort.

Given all this, our ability to effectively capture their attention in the classroom is not simply helpful for their learning, but also has immediate and positive consequences for how much time and effort we have to devote to keeping students up to speed.

I am in no way suggesting that it is our job to entertain students as we teach, as if we in some fashion needed to compete with popular entertainment. I believe that what happens in formal learning is fundamentally different from entertainment, and that to be successful, students need to understand this clearly. However, if how we teach conveys to them the excitement for learning something very different, as well as the joy the language and culture bring to us on a personal level, they are much more likely to enjoy the classes themselves, and will consequently be paying attention at a level that allows them to be notably more successful.

So what is available to you to explore? There are mountains of free tools and resources which can enhance language teaching, and I have done workshops of up to two weeks designed to help teachers develop their talents and techniques with many different kinds of technology. Mercifully for you, I will keep this article to several points about multimedia.

Consider the following picture:

This scene from a Shanghai street could be used by beginning students to say that there are many bicycles, or it is cold, or the man is sleeping. Advanced students might guess as to why the man is sleeping, or what the two people on the left are discussing, or compare the scene to that on a street in the students' town. Using the image, probably by projecting it to the front of the classroom, means transporting the students from their campus to a different part of the world. In essence, it engages them by using a tool that provides that which is for them unpredictable. Letting them know you will show them a picture means that anything could appear, and for them, that is far more interesting than knowing what will happen next.

The use of multimedia also raises the question of copyright, and a helpful tool I use often is the search tool of Creative Commons. In this case I have chosen the Flickr tab, as that provides access to hundreds of millions of images people have posted. This site provides a way of finding copyright-friendly images one can use in educational materials not just for the classroom, but for items you post to the web for anyone to see, and have it all be perfectly legal.

What I have described so far speaks to how a teacher would present content, but the real power of technology rests in getting students to actively create interesting pieces to show what they have learned. For those who use Windows computers (XP, Vista, or 7 as the operating system), a marvelous and free tool for allowing one to use pictures to create videos is Photo Story 3, which is a free download from

Using Photo Story, one can gather a group of pictures, create motion to highlight parts of the picture, and narrate each slide. An example on my nonprofit's site of a similar technique is one I did about visiting a community in Mexico where they are finding interesting ways to help poor children.

Imagine your students taking a set of pictures, or downloading copyright-friendly ones using the Creative Commons search tool, and recording their voices telling about their club, school, or community. They could make a version in Chinese as a project for you, and a version in English for a partner school in China where the students are studying English. There are a number of community-focused videos in our Global Views collection at, and Chinese teachers are welcome to peruse them for ideas.

Those interested in watching a tutorial on how to use Photo Story are welcome to watch the simple one I created a while back while learning to use Jing, a tool for recording what is happening on the screen. That's my way of warning you that the quality of the piece isn't great, but it does show how the tool works. The video is for Windows.

If you use a Mac, you have a similar tool in iMovie. There are fine tutorials on Apple's website, and I found them very helpful as I was learning the newer versions of their software.

There are many, many more tools that are available, and I hope you will explore them as your time allows. The organization I run, Next Vista for Learning, has a monthly newsletter that includes new free tools I've run across, and you are welcome to sign up for it and use these tools with your students. You can download a document with several pages of descriptions of various free tools and resources here.

As hopefully you know, the work you do to help students learn Chinese is very important. Students who otherwise might never seriously consider leaving their own communities have a world opened to them via your efforts. The friendships that serious study of language and culture can enable enrich lives and create paths for peace and understanding. What we do matters a great deal, and it is my hope that what I have shared with you might make your efforts more engaging, both for your students and for you.

Rushton Hurley has been a Japanese language teacher, principal of an online high school, teacher trainer, educational technology researcher, and school reform consultant. He is the executive director of (a free educational video library) and runs the MERIT program at the Krause Center for Innovation. Rushton trains teachers at schools and conferences around the country on affordable technology, the power of multimedia, and the professional perspectives and experiences of teachers at all levels.