By Lara Lomicka, graduate assistant at the Center for Language Acquisition
On Friday mornings, students in French 111/112 meet in Sparks 9a University Park technology classroom where they scan the blackboard for the IP (Internet Protocol) addresses marked next to their names, find a free computer, and then dial-up France. Computer-based real-time chatting with French amis is just one of the activities which makes this accelerated French class such a unique language learning experience.
The "talking live" project (see "Talking Live from Penn State to France", Academic Computing, summer 1999) is sponsored jointly by the Center for Academic Computing (CAC), the College of the Liberal Arts and the Center for Language Acquisition (CLA).
The project took shape in 1997 when Hélène Gresso, a teaching assistant and Ph.D. candidate in the Penn State Department of French, contacted Jean-François Cerles, a professor at Lycée Paul Héroult, a school in St. Jean de Maurienne in the French Alps. The two instructors began their collaboration by organizing regular e-mail correspondence between their students. Two years later, after some fine-tuning and detailed planning, Gresso and Cerles have created a multi-faceted project, which makes culture come alive in the classroom. Gresso, in explaining why this project is important, underscored that it helps students to "recognize the importance of learning about new perspectives and about the world mediated by the language they are learning."
The Penn State students conference in real-time with their peers across the Atlantic weekly using Microsoft NetMeeting to augment their readings and in-class discussions with feedback from native speakers. The text-based NetMeeting conversations are enhanced by the use of Webcams and microphones, which add important visual and audio components to the experience. The students also exchange e-mail en français and en anglais weekly with their French keypals - penpals who write to each other with keyboards instead of ink. The e-mail exchanges encourage communication to strengthen the intercultural relationships between the French and Penn State students. And, approximately twice a semester, the classes publish Raison d'être, a Web magazine on the class home page http://beetle.la.psu.edu/fr111/raisonindex.htm .
Students clearly enjoy the vitality that classroom technology brings to their language learning experience "You gotta love the key pals," says Jon Snyder, a junior majoring in telecommunications. And live videoconferencing is "fun" in addition to adding "excitement to the class" Snyder confirms. Best of all, when students know that they are talking with real people, the focus of the class shifts from memorizing and grades, to communication. "We need to do stuff like that to help keep us focused on why we're learning a language," Snyder comments.
Teaching assistant Kate Douglass, another Ph.D. candidate in Penn State's Department of French, began managing two of six 111/112 weekly class meetings this past fall. The biggest difference between this and other classes can be observed in the students. As a direct result of their correspondence with French peers, "students are motivated to learn more about the French culture and are improving their linguistic skills at the same time by learning through intuitive questioning and self-teaching," elaborates Douglass.
Students, especially those who might not have ventured into the realm of technology otherwise, benefit also from the regular use of chat, e-mail and the Web. "Before I had taken the class" says Robin Chimile, a sophomore Finance major, "I had never been in a chat room or had information about myself on a Web page." The class changed that. In 111/112, " I was exposed to computer technology that I had never used before." Traci Littman, a sophomore majoring in Kinesiology, remarks "before class I had no idea what to do with the Web." After creating and maintaining a Web page as a part of class activities she looks at Web pages and tells herself, "I can do that."
What's Changed, and What's Ahead
With evolution in technology, updates in the class resources are frequent. Since last year, with CAC support, a new video camera has been installed in Sparks 9 and the version of Microsoft NetMeeting used for chatting has been upgraded. The improved quality of the video allows students to see a clearer image of their partner classmates. Video gives the students the chance to see the body language of their French peers which gives them the important experience of communication beyond words. Video also gives the students a chance to put names to faces, personalizing the learning process.
Gresso and Cerles plan to continue bridging the geographic and cultural gap between American and French students using technology, into the next academic year. They hope to do more in-class work with both live video and audio conferencing and to expand the scope of the class Web magazine, Raison d'être.
Chez Nous: Home sweet home on-line
Visit 111/112's home on-line. The Web site maintained by the Penn State students with links to the St. Jean de Maurienne pages is found at: http://beetle.la.psu.edu/fr111/.
Pictures for the article are available at: