Home » Language education, Media & technology

Berkeley to Yale: A week at a distance

Written By: daveski on November 6, 2009 2 Comments

With last Monday’s BLC lecture by University of Oregon’s Carl Falsgraf, “Distance Teaching and Distance Learning”, and a few days at end of the week at the joint NEALLT/NERALLT conference at Yale on language learning and technology, I’ve had a lot of stimulation for thinking about distance and online language learning. And like any good engagement with a stimulating topic, these events have left me with more questions than answers about where we’re going with language education…at a distance.

There’s no doubt that it’s high time to think about this, at Berkeley and at other schools. A big piece of news that seems to have lots of language learners and teachers shaking their heads these days is the decision by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that their first-year Spanish class will be taught entirely online. “Adios to Spanish 101“, said the article from Inside Higher Ed, and everyone seems to have an opinion about whether one can or should effectively learn beginning level language via computer, as well as the administrative question of whether beginning language classes should be seen as the kind of “service class” that can be ‘delivered’ effectively online. For their part, administrators in the UC system appear to be leaning in this direction; in the face of an $800+ million shortfall for the coming year, the Commission on the Future of the UC is reportedly looking more and more to distance and online education to save on costs. But what does moving classes online, and language classes especially, save? And what stands to be lost?

In his keynote address at the NEALLT/NERALLT conference, BLC Director Rick Kern offered thoughts on both sides of this equation. Presenting data from a desktop videoconferencing partnership between UC Berkeley French 3 students and Masters’ students in Teaching French as a Foreign Language located in Lyon, France, Kern posed a somewhat paradoxical question: instead of using distance education technology to eliminate spatial, temporal, and cultural differences between distally located partners, is it no possible that online learning initiatives might best cultivate intersubjective understanding and critical awareness by foregrounding the distance between participants? And, despite the allure of learning language in ‘real time’ via videochat or audiochat with partners located around the globe (on Skype, iChat, Elluminate or even in virtual worlds like Second Life), he argued that, in the end, asynchronous interactions might have more potential to lead learners to a third place where both their L1 and L2 selves are cast into opposition and dialog with each other (and thus creating optimal conditions for learning).

Other stimulations and provocations at the conference were many: Mirjam Hauck, Associate Head of Department and Senior Lecturer in German at the UK’s Open University, gave a live distance presentation from across the Atlantic entitled “Task design for multi-literacy training in distance language learning and teaching”. Drawing on media mogul Henry Jenkins’ notion of participatory culture and Gunther Kress’ Hallidayan-inspired social semiotics, she argued that greater attention needs to be paid to enhancing students’ semiotic competences in order to boost their language awareness. Lance Askildson of the University of Notre Dame presented two approaches to what he called “student-driven interaction via videoconferencing”: an “Internet Window” approach outside of the language classroom, where high quality video and audio linkages between two campuses allows for free-form interaction among students speaking different languages, and a “Skype Exchange” paradigm premised on individual exchanges outside of class that is more coordinated with instructional outcomes of the classroom. Following this, Luba Iskold of Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania raised more questions implicitly and explicitly about the (perhaps diminishing? transforming?) role of the teacher vis-a-vis students in online language learning settings: she presented on a new project for teaching Russian language and literature via Facebook, where students assumed new identities, animating fictional characters and assuming responsibility for re-constructing cultural contexts for the language they were learning.

What has become clearer through these and other presentations of distance language learning projects is that no two instantiations of distance learning are the same: the level and type and goals of language instruction vary as do the locations, sizes, and composition of the students learning the languages, as do the roles played by instructors, as do the technological means utilized to realize learning by distance, and so on. At the same time, though, it’s also clear that the institutional walls of colleges and universities around the world are being bent in ways they perhaps never have been before:  faculty are being asked to team up, travel, step back, and fundamentally redefine their approach to curricula, teaching, and evaluation. Differences in school schedules, academic credit schemes, enrollment and a host of other questions are under constant negotiation. And, most alarming to me (and maybe the reason for a lot of the hubbub about UNC’s decision about Spanish), a certain kind of business discourse seems to be grabbing tighter hold of an area of educational activity that, to my mind, has more to do with artistic practice and becoming than it does with the acquisition of intangible yet quantifiable goods (where knowledge and skill are seen as the ultimate “goods”).

As more and more administrative committees faced with declining budgets are asking how they can use distance learning technology to deliver the best educational solutions, I wonder: how can we, as learners and teachers of language committed to process as much as we are to results, deliver ourselves from this way of thinking?

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Digg this!Add to del.icio.us!Stumble this!Add to Techorati!Share on Facebook!Seed Newsvine!Reddit!

2 Responses to “Berkeley to Yale: A week at a distance”

  1. Barbara on: 21 December 2009 at 10:13 pm

    Thank you for this fine synopsis of the events at NERALLT/NEALLT meeting, and some of the current trends in the world of language teaching and technology.

    Indeed, I think the recent economic downturn should cause language technologists to be more creative. Much more. This is good.

    And yet, nowadays, with the teaching of languages and the desire from our students to be proficient enough to travel, work, study the language in country immediately after the classroom… faculty would be hard pressed to find a reason not to use these tools to promote learning.

    The piece that no one is talking about, however, is the part we all fear… and that is the way in which these conversations with “natives” can sometimes turn the voice on the other side of the skype call into something “exotic” or “different” or worse.

    Once when I gave a presentation on blogging or Skyping in my Spanish class with Spanish speakers, I was called “irresponsible” and told that I was “fetishizing the other” through this practice. An interesting perspective.

    With this new influx of technology that makes these connections so easy and effortless, how do we make sure our students – aren’t – doing that?? The role of the teacher, I would argue, has become even more important now that we can make these connections so fluidly. How do we adapt our teaching so that our students use these important conversations wisely and don’t become trivialize or succumb to sweeping stereotypical generalizations?

    Thank you for your blog… I hope we can continue to share thoughts.

  2. daveski on: 24 December 2009 at 3:59 pm

    Thanks very much for these comments, Barbara. I totally agree with you, that there can be a kind of exoticizing of the other. At the same time, Skyping is so comfortable for many of the students, and gives direct and decontextualized contact with speakers who we all understand to be ‘native’ and ‘authentic’, that it seems like there are other dangers here too. What happens when students who have a Skype conversation with native speakers of the other languages feel like they’ve had a ‘real’ conversation? Or, rather, what kind of ‘real’ is that? And what happens to the classroom teacher’s ability to interpret what’s just happened online?

    I don’t know if this is much of a comment…all I’ve been able to do is to ask more questions! Hope we can keep talking about it.

Leave a Reply:

You must be logged in to post a comment.

  Copyright ©2009 Found in Translation, All rights reserved.| Powered by WordPress| WPElegance2Col theme by Techblissonline.com