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To learn about the world, you have to exit the classroom

To learn about the world, you have to exit the classroom



Perhaps even before the current push of digital humanities, technology has been an important part of teaching foreign languages. That is to say, that one of the important buzzwords for teachers of a foreign language has been to declare an allegiance to technology, but that didn’t always translate to an actual knowledge of how to use electronic tools.

On of the key elements of groups like HASTAC, it seems to me, is that it pushes for a use of technology that moves beyond simply utilizing of computers for computers sake. I fear that far too often new digital tools are used in a way that does little more than displace traditional forms of scholarship. One example is how blogs are used. Students are encouraged to post their response papers to a class blog, but despite the public format, individual works generate little, if any, collaboration or interaction beyond the classroom.

These are some of the thoughts that some of us have had at Vanderbilt as we’ve been developing a wiki-building activity for intermediate French students. The goal of the activity was to find a way to move the study of different cultures outside of the classroom. We wanted to allow students the freedom to move beyond the simplistic presentations of culture found in most textbooks and take full advantage of the internet resources to explore the topics that are most interesting and relevant to them. Originally, students were put in groups and assigned countries. This has shifted to be theme-based, so that students can explore a variety of different culture.

To prepare students, one class session is held in the computer lab at out Center for Second Language Studies. They are taught the basic uses of building a wiki through PB Works. Students have proven to be quick learners, probably because the software is rather intuitive. I have served as the technical support for the project for over a year and have yet to deal with any issue beyond accessing the closed wikis outside of the training sessions.

Reactions from teachers and students have been positive. Students have found more information than would normally be presented in traditional textbook. They have incorporated maps, images, videos, news articles, etc. into their wikis.

A page based on the Royal Family of Monnoco

A page about French President Nicola Sarkozy


A page about the problems of French immigration

One problem we have had up until now is that there has been little or no interaction between students on the wiki. They have mostly worked on their own projects. Part of this, we have determined, has had to do with the fact that the project has been culminating in an oral presentation where students present their pages to the class. In short, there has been little need for much interaction.

Inthe future, we hope to change this by 1) requiring a certain amount of interaction on the wikis, 2) combining what have been separate wikis for each course section into one page for all sections, and 3) changing the format of the final presentation. By creating a single page, we hope that students will have no other choice than to have virtual interaction with people they do not know. Likewise, instead of having separate class presentations, we have discussed the possibility of having a larger roundtable discussion. This, we feel, will also be an improvement for the activity by opening up communication among the groups for the final presentation.

I feel the benefits of this project are oustanding. Students learn far more about the cutlures they study and more likely to associate what they have learned with their own interests and other courses. They are also simultaneously becoming versed in new forms of digital communication and collaboration. While they are learning the intricacies of a new lanuguage, they are (almost passively) gaining the ability to communicate with people through building their wikis.

So far, we have been pleased with the results, but we are still looking to continually improve the process. We’d be happy to hear about any suggestions from others undertaking similar activites.


1 comment

What a great use of the wiki, Cory. Thinking back on my own foreign language education, we didn't do much writing, and the only interaction was with an audio tape (which I did not like, for some reason) and the teacher.

For inspiration and ideas, you might take a look at the Keywords Collaboratory, a wiki-based writing space for humanities (American studies, cultural studies, ethnic studies, and many other fields) students and researchers working collaboratively on keyword essays. If you look at Glenn Hendler's collaboratories, you'll see some of the strongest examples of students collaborating on a single essay (be sure to look at the history pages, too).

Over at our website, there's a page called Resources for Instructors. That page has some pdfs for teachers and students regarding using a wiki and collaborating. Maybe you'll find one or two good ideas to take away from either or both of the sites.

Good luck!