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“Where is the language classroom today?” – Looking back, looking forward

Written By: daveski on September 24, 2012 No Comment

At a presentation I was fortunate enough to give a little over a week ago at the BLC (“Where is the language classroom today?: Reconsidering the place/s of language learning with technology”), I opened with a comment about the stage fright I was feeling at the outset of an hour-long presentation, one which was to be given in front of friends, peers, and colleagues I’ve known for years, at home here at Berkeley. A close mentor and friend had told me, I said, that there are basically two ways to deal with fear of speaking in public. The first is to look at the faces of people in the audience who want you to succeed, who understand the pressure you must be facing. Derive strength from their support, she said. The second, and the path she takes, is to be wholly convinced of the overwhelming importance of what you have to say, and to believe that you are the best person to deliver at message right then, right there, and to that audience.

While I know there are many others on our campus alone who are more suited to address many aspects of the topics I discussed, looking back at the talk as a whole I’m pretty convinced of the efficacy of both techniques. After seeing many smiles during the talk and entertaining several provocative questions afterwards, I have received a handful of emails from friends reiterating their support. My thanks to any of you who happen to be reading this post! And, more to the point of this reflection, I myself have emerged from the experience more convinced than before of not just the importance, but also the necessity for language educators to engage with the politics of online instruction and the increasing presence of digital technologies in the classroom.

In just the last week, I’ve noticed a steady stream of news articles and academic publications reporting on a steady increase of distance and blended classrooms at colleges and universities across the country, the growth of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), and more–all seeming to illustrate the inevitability of the movement of the “traditional” lecture-driven, physical classroom online. These include UC Irvine’s joining other “top universities” by partnering with the for-profit provider of “the world’s best courses, online, for free”, Coursera—part of its recent doubling of the number of college partners, and Stanford’s announcement of the release of the open-source online education platform, called Class2Go (Incidentally, Google has recently joined the rush to influence the future direction of the MOOC with its own experimental platform, Course Builder. Less noticed, perhaps, was the recent article on the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s technology blog, The Wired Campus, reporting that “the rise of massive open online courses, or MOOC’s, could improve the financial prospects of leading universities while posing financial challenges to lesser-known institutions and for-profit colleges”.

As a friend mentioned to me yesterday, ambiguities in the notion of “movement” as it appears in these contexts (and as I used it above) may be precisely the conceptual gap that keeps the advocates of online education and those who resist it from feeling as if they’re even talking about the same thing. She pointed out something about my talk that I myself had not been conscious of: in my guiding questions, I had used the metaphor of movement to frame the issues of concern:

  • What happens to the foreign and second language classroom when significant portions of instruction move online?
  • What becomes of the relationships between teachers, students, and the language they’re learning, when learning moves online?

Yet, one central point (or, perhaps, one effect) of my talk had been to show that, in fact, the language classroom does not, and cannot, move online. The symbolic practices of the classroom cannot simply go online: they are reliant on its material processes, and on the relation not just between learners, teachers and digitizable texts, but among bodies and artifacts in relation to one another, and animated through disciplinary fields of knowledge and power.

Of course, tasks and activities and tutoring and evaluation can be carried out online in a variety of mediums. And, indeed, whole courses may be given online or, as is more accurately the case, in some hybrid online/offline context. But, even in a large-scale lecture-centered course (the favorite target of MOOC developers and advocates of the “flipped classroom”), education was never only about the “delivery of content”. This is the point of Mark Nunes when he argues that the more than “efficiency”, the paradigm of online education is premised on an inversion in the power structure between student and educational institution: “online classes conflate access and control; transmission, in other words, is figured as a performative event in the hands of the student, thereby repositioning the student in relation to institutional networks” (Nunes 2006, p. 130). And this is the reason why I felt that Michel Foucault’s concept of “quadrillage” (gridding) seemed so apt to explain how it is that students may become even more isolated and fixed in place online than they are (or are argued to be) within the “oppressive” space of the classroom or lecture hall.

Thoughts like these, and the lecture experience that occasioned them a little more than a week ago, have turned me back to my readings. As I reflect on the experience, I find myself hoping that the next time I find myself standing in front of a group of people asserting that this is an important area for language instructors and researchers to care about both within and beyond the walls of their own classrooms, I will have more substantive things to say. For now, I list a few references that were influential for me in preparing the BLC talk, with hopes of receiving some new suggestions.

  • Allen, I. Elaine, and Jeff Seaman. 2010. “Class Difference$: Online Education in the United States, 2010”. Sloan-C. http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/survey/class_differences.
  • Belz, Julie A. 2003. “Linguistic Perspectives on the Development of Intercultural Competence in Telecollaboration.” Language Learning & Technology 7 (2): 68–117.
  • Develotte, Christine. 2008. “Approche De L’autonomie Dans Un Dispositif En Ligne: Le Cas Du Dispositif ‘Le Français En (première) Ligne’.” Revue Japonaise De Didactique Du Français 3 (1): 37–56.
  • Develotte, Christine, Nicolas Guichon, and Richard Kern. 2008. “‘Allo Berkeley ? Ici Lyon… Vous nous voyez bien ?’ Étude d’un dispositif de formation en ligne synchrone franco-américain à travers les discours de ses usagers.” Alsic (Vol. 11, n° 2). Vol. 11, n° 2 (December 9): 129–156.
  • Guth, Sarah, and Francesca Helm, eds. 2010. Telecollaboration 2.0: Language, Literacies and Intercultural Learning in the 21st Century. Bern: Peter Lang.
  • Jones, Rodney. 2005. “Sites of Engagement and Sites of Attention: Time, Space and Culture in Electronic Discourse.” In Discourse in Action: Introducing Mediated Discourse Analysis, ed. Sigrid Norris and Rodney Jones, 144–154. London: Routledge.
  • Kramsch, Claire J. 1985. “Classroom Interaction and Discourse Options.” Studies in Second Language Acquisition 7 (02): 169–183.
  • Luke, Allan. 1992. “The Body Literate: Discourse and Inscription in Early Literacy Training.” Linguistics and Education 4 (1): 107–129.
  • MLA (Modern Language Association; Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages). 2007. Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World. New York: Modern Language Association. http://www.mla.org/flreport.
  • New London Group. 1996. “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures.” Harvard Educational Review 66 (1): 60–92.
  • Nunes, Mark. 2006. Cyberspaces of Everyday Life. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • O’Dowd, Robert, ed. 2007. Online Intercultural Exchange: An Introduction for Foreign Language Teachers. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  • Pratt, Mary Louise. 1991. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Profession (January 1): 33–40.
  • Sharples, Mike, Patrick McAndrew, Martin Weller, Rebecca Ferguson, Elizabeth FitzGerald, Tony Hirst, Yishay Mor, Mark Gaved, and Denise Whitelock. 2012. Innovating Pedagogy 2012: Open University Innovation Report 1. Milton Keynes: The Open University.
  • Stein, Pippa. 2000. “Rethinking Resources in the ESL Classroom: Rethinking Resources: Multimodal Pedagogies in the ESL Classroom.” TESOL Quarterly 34 (2): 333–336.

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