Online Classes Give German Students ‘21st Century’ Options

Students signed up to take two sections of German this semester will get a different experience than any other foreign language student has ever received: their professor, and even some of their classmates, will be almost 1,500 miles away.

For the first time, SHSU is offering the “Elementary German” (GER 141, section 2) and the “German Reading and Composition” (GER 263, section 1) as online classes on a trial basis, according to foreign languages department chair Debra Andrist.

The teacher, Noelle Isenberg, developed the method as part of her dissertation and will simultaneously teach the introductory German course at Penn State, where she is finishing her doctorate and also serves as director of German online.

“It's (her dissertation is) a developmental comparison of web-based and campus-based learners of German at Penn State,” Isenberg said. “So far, all the results suggest that the web-based students do just as well as campus-based learners.

“Web-based language courses aren't necessarily better than campus-based courses. They're just another option for the 21st century language learner,” she said. “It's like taking notes in class with a laptop or with a pen and paper. Some people really prefer one or the other. Most people just use whichever is available.”

Her “Internet-realia-based program,” which she teaches at Penn State as a part-time lecturer, is completed via Blackboard and “involves a lot of task-based learning and discovery learning,” she said.

This includes the use of movie clips, music that can be downloaded from iTunes and grammar games.

“This new program doesn't use a textbook, so that students can engage in anytime, anywhere learning and so that the content never becomes dated,” she said. “When we read the news, we're reading up-to-the-minute articles.”

The “mix of classic and contemporary” will benefit students if they travel in Germany, because they will be familiar with things their German counterparts are also experiencing, according to Isenberg.

“We read poems by Goethe and Brecht—and write our own poems in the same styles—and students watch German childrens' cartoons from the 70s and 80s, cartoons that are familiar to adults living in Germany today,” she said. “Some people refer to it as cultural currency. It's about a lot more than just knowing verb conjugations.”

In addition, some of the German 263 students will correspond with a class in Germany, either taught by a colleague or a class she will locate via a web posting, for a whole class e-pal exchange.

“A key factor is the text-based chats, which help students practice speaking without actually doing so, in much the same way that a flight simulator helps a pilot learn to fly without actually doing so,” Isenberg said. “Another factor is that web-based students can work at their own pace and on their own schedule.

“Some of the most active times in a web-based course are between 11p.m. and 2 a.m.,” she said. “Students are uploading assignments, chatting with one another, and e-mailing me with questions.”

Students will even have the opportunity to submit recordings of their voices via camera options available on Blackboard, according to Andrist.

“All of our foreign languages professors actually have mini-cams on their computers,” Andrist said. “We have them in our labs, and I know they have them in the library.”

While most foreign language students have to sign up for separate lab times, Isenberg’s class will not, as lab time will be covered as part of the class activities.

Isenberg, who lives about an hour outside of Pittsburgh, said her inspiration to be a web-based language instructor came from a distance learning French course she took in high school.

“I was also living in Pennsylvania at that time, but the instructor, who was teaching for Penn State, was located somewhere in the Midwest,” she said.

Her course has not only caught SHSU’s eye but the eyes of three other universities in Virginia, Texas and California, all of whom are considering having Isenberg offer similar web-based courses in the near future.

Andrist said SHSU will offer the same web-based courses for the German 142 and 264 classes in the spring and will test the outcomes by comparing a sample of each level “to evaluate and to compare with our same-level in-person courses.

“The dean (of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, John de Castro) has enthusiastically endorsed and authorized the offerings, as he has encouraged CHSS departments to explore and develop such courses,” Andrist said.


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SHSU Media Contacts: Jennifer Gauntt
Aug. 25, 2008
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