Open learning initiative - American English Speech

Baker Shirer developed This interactive online course for the Open Learning Initiative, (OLI,) at Carnegie Mellon University. The course was supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Hewlett-Packard and Lumina. To date, Natalie’s American English Speech OLI course has been used by nearly 30,000 students around the world, as well as Carnegie Mellon University and by Stanford University. Other teaching credits include American English Speech Dialect for PHD candidates in Carnegie Mellon Graduate Theater Program at Harvard University and MXAT, the University of Pittsburgh and West Virginia University Drama Departments.


Communication skills are increasingly important in today’s interconnected world, and acquiring and improving these skills can be a significant challenge for learners at all levels. This is an area of particular focus at Carnegie Mellon University, where it has been explicitly identified as a goal in the University’s most recent strategic plan. 1 Clear pronunciation is an essential element in effective oral communication, but it is a skill that can be very challenging to learn. In part, this challenge stems from geography, which plays a major role in the way people speak, in that everyone comes from “somewhere”. Every person speaks with regionalisms, an accent or a dialect; these often compromise effective communication. In an attempt to address these challenges, Natalie Baker Shirer developed the OLI American English Speech course. The course supplies the necessary reinforcement of dialectal structure, audio, production technique and phonetic representation for each sound, with an emphasis on International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) forming the basis for an instructional approach founded on phonetic principles to provide the most accurate description of sounds. This phonemic awareness is more complex than auditory discrimination and is considered one of the fastest way to learn the sounds of a particular dialect (Hempenstall 2003). Within the OLI courseware, learners focus on the neutral American English dialect; the learning environment provides the student with the flexibility of time to experience, at his/her own pace, aural and visual aspects of a sound. Within the environment, participants are assessed on their ability to recognize each sound in a variety of contexts and given feedback on their particular answers. Results from the current iteration of the course have been positive, in terms of use (the course has been used by hundreds of students in academic classrooms, including CFA, Tepper and middle schools in Pittsburgh’s under served communities, and has seen over 20,000 enrollments from independent learners), reception (feedback from educators and learners who have used the course has been quite positive) and effectiveness (preliminary analysis across multiple leaner groups in 2011 demonstrated learning gains from the use of the learning activities).