Thursday, January 13, 2011

Virtual learning

the following was published by Global Study Magazine (2005) and appears on the web here, but is backed up on this site for my convenience. -TL

A toe in the pool of the new media.
By Thomas Leverett

Weblogs have changed the media recently, bringing a vibrant and independent quality to personal expression and the delivery of news. In the same way they are changing language teaching, because a devoted group of teachers are using them to help students get started in the new technology, the new media, and the new forms of expression.

What distinguishes weblogs from other forms of expression, for example, a student newsletter done on paper and distributed to friends and relatives, is first, they have links: they can link the reader immediately to anywhere, any number of times. Writing no longer has its flat essence of words put together into sentences; it's three-dimensional, in that there are doors to other realities wherever you turn; your references can be at hand, and good writers can take advantage of this. Even the most fluent of writers rarely use links to their full potential, but the possibilities of the new media are limitless, and this brings a kind of excitement to trying, which is shared by language learners and virtually everyone who's participating in what is being called the "blogosphere".

Second, weblogs are works in progress; each entry can be edited or made better, or deleted entirely later. The owner controls a sidebar that can contain links to one's personal favorite sites, pictures, introductions, poetry, or whatever will fit; this sidebar is also updatable, so it is a running picture of who your friends are, where you're going, and what you like. A student's site can have a combination of visuals and language, pictures and links, and students can combine these to make a place on the internet that expresses their personality, where you can find out who they are, before you ever begin to read what they've written; international students can present their native culture and link to it, wearing their bilingualism proudly. If they use their site to present academic work, the more recent work is always first; we see the best, the most recent, what they are working on today. This makes weblogs very immediate.

Finally, when you enter the blogosphere, you're part of a young and lively community, the best of audiences. People don't see a student newsletter unless a student brings it to them, or it's left in the office or the lab, but people are reading student weblogs all the time. The free weblog services provide lists of people who are updating weblogs; some people just run through these, seeing what people are doing and saying. They often leave comments, telling our students that they're doing well learning English.

So how does this help someone who is trying to learn English or another language? One could argue that something as scary as personal publishing, in a new and amazingly complex medium, would scare them, and have the reverse effect: it would make students unable and/or unwilling to publish anything, much less anything meaningful.

On the contrary, however, many students are surprisingly fluent already in the technology necessary to make and improve weblogs, such as basic html, picture uploading, file sharing, etc. Students can often teach teachers the technological skills, while teachers are teaching the language skills; sometimes both are trying to figure out how to use a free server or a free picture-loading service, or get a file transferred from one computer to another. The technology is not generally a problem for the students, though it sometimes intimidates teachers, especially those who are worried that it may dilute the effective use of their class time for language instruction. But the process gives students confidence, a voice in the new language, as well as a corner of the new medium. They write about everything: movie reviews, links to favorite music, stories, formal academic work, or journals; and teachers proudly point out that their class wrote, worked on, and published a given collection of work. A real audience reads and responds to them, which makes this work more important, already, than the volumes of work that is never read by anyone but a teacher with a red pen.

A famous educator, Paulo Freire, wrote about education as empowering, as giving voice and power to those most in need of it. I think of empowerment as I teach students how to use and change weblogs. They are getting a voice in a new medium as well as a new language. But I realize that instead of introducing them to an established literary discourse, with unshakable conventions, I am in this case introducing them to a new medium, one with conventions even now still being established. At the same time they are publishing, they are also changing what they've written, uploading new pictures, joining a linked worldwide student community, and becoming part of a dynamic and evolving universe. All this can be scary for a conservative writing establishment, but it is working in the world of language teaching, and that's what is ensuring its survival. Come join us - a classroom is more interesting when its walls and windows are, in fact, web pages and links!

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