More wired than a Roman Internet café
I spent a lot of time at the recent CAMWS conference speaking with anyone who would listen about potential applications of technology for learning ancient languages. While I did expect the older crowd to recoil in horror at the mention of computers and the younger crowd to fully embrace all things technical, I was pleasantly surprised that my stereotypes were wrong, even if they were somewhat right during the period of their genesis.
Instead, I found that the line was drawn between people who see technology as a panacea, as one person put it, and others who see it as anathema. Rarely is there middle ground. One of technology's greatest problems is, well, technology. As I spoke to Classics professors, they all agreed, ultimately, that technology does have something to offer the field, but that the technology must be transparent. People must be able to reach in and grasp the content without becoming befuddled by bad design, clumsy interfaces, or unclear goals and functionality. The content must also not be hidden by hardware problems, either (called a "distraction" in eLearning circles). Seems to be chock-full of common sense, but one would be surprised at how much clumsy eLearning software there is out there, including those for learning languages. The authors, while they might understand the language, do not understand the audience, who they are, and what they are used to working with when on-line for other pursuits.
One of the hardest things to do when pitching "eLearning" to either publishers or to schools is to illustrate new paradigms or new environments to those folks who are still new to the full potential of computing. I describe it as people who see things in two dimensions while the innovators are working in three or four (or more). Imagine pitching the idea of social networking and total-immersion conversational Latin in a virtual environment completely encapsulated in Cyberspace to someone who still teaches out of Wheelock (without using the many on-line ancillaries that are out there) and you get the idea. Yes, rote drill probably has its place, but it does not reach the majority of modern students. True, Latin and other languages take discipline to learn, but there are other ways to approach teaching declensions and conjugations than drilling which can be a lonely pursuit.
Language learning outside the classroom must remain a social pursuit. We help each other. I can't tell you how many times I have been helped with computer troubleshooting questions on-line, and this by complete strangers. Building community builds communication which builds confidence. Make this interaction freely available, even as part of one's homework. Granted, the tests are still individual activities which should probe the depth of a student's comprehension of a language, but social networking is important to make those learning connections to prepare for those exams (and, finally, to reading primary texts). This tool should not just be reserved for techhies and authors of Battlestar Galactica fan fiction.
In the coming weeks, I'll be introducing concrete examples of 3-D language learning, hopefully bringing a new way of learning (and teaching) to this group for your consideration.