FABIO GIRELLI-CARASI

Best Practices for Online Learning in the Second Languages Classroom

The basic premise of my work with the new media is that technology allow us to transform our classes into the communities that have never been but that we always wanted them to be.

Moreover, I contend that building learning communities is probably the easiest goal to achieve with technology and that even instructors with only the most basic knowledge can be successful in this endeavor.

Let's quickly review some axioms:

AXIOMS

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1) The entire experience of education is based on communication. We can even say that education is the obvious outcome of communication and, conversely, that communication is the purpose of education.

2) Language is learned through communication and vice versa.

3) Communication creates communities and conversely there is no communication without communities. The shared etymology itself shows the symbiotic relationship between the two terms.

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Yet, in our classrooms very little communication takes place involving the community. This is not an indictment, rather an observation.

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In our classrooms often the only "community," and a temporary one at best, is that of teacher and an individual student. Incidentally, more than "communication," this often resembles an interrogation with the student in the role of suspect.

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We would hope that technology would help us change the situation. Yet, if you open any of the numerous books or manuals on how to introduce technology in education, not just FL teaching, the chapter on "learning communities" invariably comes at the end, almost like an afterthought, or something so theoretical that it's really not worth pursuing.

The standard format follows the incremental approach, in a step-by-step fashion.

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Not coincidentally, the incremental approach is predicated on the model devised by John Dewey and Maria Montessori who posited as the ultimate goal of education that of creating the "life-long learner" and society as a "learning community."

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Implicit in this organization of the material is the assumption that it is hard to teach with technology; that you need extensive training; that you can engage in creating learning communities only after you have earned a black belt 10th dan; and that the real benefits of learning communities are still uncertain and unproven.

Thus technology in the classroom for the most part so far has been used as an additional study aid, in the form of quizzes, exercises and entertaining games; and to expose the students to genuine materials on the web.

Although this is a very significant contribution, it misses the point of what the infotech revolution is really about. If we look at the Internet, we recognize immediatele that the fundamental aspects of this revolution are the creation of new forms of communications and, consequently, communities: listserves, instant messaging, discussion boards, chat lines, conference calls on skype, open forums, blogs, and sites like YouTube, MySpace and Facebook redefine the meaning of communication.

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It could not be otherwise: since the beginning of culture and civilization, each successive medium of communication, has succeeded only insofar as it has created its own community, organized around the properties of ownership and participation.

As per Marshall McLuhan we know that each medium is organic to its message. We also learned that it must also be organic to a community. The oral teachings of Socrates created their own community. Plato's philosophy, in written form, and thus unacceptable and inaccessible to many, created a different kind of community centered around the written text. The cycles of frescos of the MiddleAges and the Renaissance created yet different forms of communities. With the invention of the printing press, new formats and new contents were created the book and community of readers.

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The newspaper was not a daily publication of fictional accounts, and had to create its own community of readers to be successful. When the radio was introduced, it formed its own community not through readings of novels on the airwaves, but by the broadcastings of concerts, the invention of the radio-drama and the live news.

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And television had to invent entire new forms for information, entertainment and music.

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In each of these cases, communities were formed that were different from those that congealed around the previous media.

With the Internet we see the same phenomenon repeat itself. The essence of this medium is the concept and the practice of "ownership and participation" along with the "horizontal," non-hierarchical communication that other media so far could not accomplish.

"Ownership and participation" are the properties of infotech that apply to education and in particular to foreign language teaching.

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Technology, as said before, allows us to transform our classes into the communities they have never been. The how can be best shown not in theory but in concrete, factual terms. It is the event that creates the community, and, simultaneously the community that creates the event.

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Let's talk about concrete examples.

Example 1:
a) Assign common projects to small groups of students.
b) The groups execute the projects and present them to all.
c) Each group ranks the projects (or just select the best.) Alternatively, the evaluation can be done by students on an individual basis.

Practicum:
On different days, each group monitors major news website.
Each member of the group surveys a different, a general-news website.
The students correspond online (email, instant msg, skype etc) and identify the major national and/or international news items of the day. [Today Sept. 24, Italian news sites all report on the front page the victory of Italian motorcycle drivers in a world championship race in Japan.]
They prepare a report made of news clips to show their findings and send it by email to the other groups (and the instructor.)
At the end of the cycle, one of the groups summarizes the finding and focuses on the long-lasting news items of greatest interest.

This kind of exercise can be assigned by default at the beginning of the semester and carried out routinely without worrying about the mechanics.

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The number of activities that can be created based on technology is countless, limited only by time and imagination.

If imagination is a problem, the instructor can request the groups to invent activities that would interest them (they know better than we do what the web has to offer.)

Example 2:
Each group submits a proposal.
The proposals are evaluated and ranked by the various groups and the winning project receives credit.

Examples of proposals: comparisons between countries:
a) Track certain types of announcements in craigslist.com.
b) Compare auction prices for common items on ebay.
c) Create a class wiki using webmaterials

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Ideally all online learning should happen in group situations. However, this may not be always possible. In this case, the instructor will give regular assignments.

For instance, write sentences, read and record voice with a computer, send them by email or post on a website.

The instructor selects the most representative works, distributes them via email (or the links) to the class and asks the students to evaluate them by assigning a rank.

In this type of activity, the community apparently is formed only for the evaluation. However, something more important takes place: The students become aware of the standards of proficiency and performance of others in the class.

This aspect, the knowledge of what the standards are, is sorely missing in today's instruction. Students study and take quizzes, which still amounts to the majority of the final grade, yet they are hardly aware of what kind of performance is expected of them. Having their work published (albeit in anonymous form) exposes them to standards, ie, the "best practices" employed by their own peers that are organic both to the material and the class learning dynamics.

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If we go back and look at the big picture one more time, we will see that the new forms of community created by infotech put the responsibility for their own existence on user contribution.

The same process takes place in foreign language education. The responsibility for learning falls on the students, individually and collectively. Even the production of materials and opportunities for learning can be the responsibility of the students themselves.

Stretching this scenario to its logical albeit extreme conclusions, we can envision that if the opportunities intrinsic in the medium are exploited to the maximum, we could arrive at the paradox whereby an instructor with almost no knowledge of the technical aspects of technology, could actually teach a course with a very heavy technological component.

This would go to great lengths to allay the fears of our technophobic colleagues that barely know how to use email. We could actually suggest to them that email is all they need to integrate online elements into their classes.

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One last consideration:

If we move from integrating technology into classroom instruction to teaching fully online courses, we will see that the issue of creating communities becomes even more pressing.

With online courses, we remove the physical community of the classroom from the teaching/learning equation. Technology, which is responsible for this loss, is also the method by which a different community can be created in its place, a community that could be even more active and effective than the one that we abandoned.