Digital French: Language and Literature Beyond the Classroom (Mellon Project Report)

Our course objectives this academic year were to give our language and literature classes a digital platform for efficient language learning, practice, production, and collaboration. Bringing technology to our classrooms involved several key components, most importantly the selection of textbooks with online workbooks and the implementation of annotation software as a part of class discussion of authentic materials in the target language.

French 102 – Voyages – “A French 102 student answers questions about vacations and trips they have taken, with instructor feedback.”

A digital, online workbook has to be a second classroom, a space for the individual student to learn at their own pace and to make language work a daily habit. Students complete exercises that develop their oral and written communication, ranging from watching videos and answering related questions to writing in response to short prompts. Open-ended exercises reviewed by the instructor are crucial for moving beyond a pedagogical model based on tests and filling in the blanks and towards a model where students can converse and communicate more naturally and confidently. Furthermore, some exercises are reviewed automatically and thus students receive immediate feedback on their progress without waiting for the instructor to return workbook pages.

We have selected a new textbook, Espaces that Stacey Battis will be piloting in Fall 2017; the new textbook and its online workbook have an even greater variety of ways for students to produce in the target language, including explicit pronunciation practice and communication activities where they record themselves having a conversation with a classmate. This process provides students with a complete language acquisition experience both in and out of the classroom that students find meaningful and communicative, not just busy work meant to force them to memorize.

French 235 – Lanval – “French 235 students annotate ‘Lanval,’ a short story by 12th-century author Marie de France.”

While we are lucky enough in foreign languages to have access to online textbook activities, we also supplement with other technology. This goes especially for the courses beyond the language sequence, where we use two different web-based document annotation technologies for students and the professors to collaborate on digitized French texts (Annotation Studio and Annotate as well as the use of Google Docs for exchanging materials). As students read, they provide definitions and ask questions to help each other interact with the text – again, we are aiming for the creation of a digital classroom that accompanies the physical space in which we meet with our students. These types of interactions in some instances have allowed us to move away from a professor-student model where only the professor sees individual student work and progress, thus replacing the traditional use of single-authored reading responses. In this regard, collaboration platforms offer improvements: not only are individual students’ reactions visible, but we can also see how the group responds to each other’s insights.

French 354 – Balzac 1 – “French 354 students discuss Honoré de Balzac’s 1835 novel Le Père Goriot. You can see the students’ annotations in the background, on the right-hand side.”

One of the more revelatory aspects of this kind of collaboration is the difference between how we ourselves learned to be students of a foreign language and its literature and the collaborative possibilities, and even needs, of our students’ generation. We were trained in a world of pen, paper, and heavy dictionaries, where if we didn’t understand the text it was our own individual failing. However, when the burden of understanding and of deciphering the text is on everyone, and students and instructor alike help each other move beyond comprehending the foreign words on the page, they can together move towards the more difficult work of understanding what the text is trying to do and what interest and value it holds.

The process works especially well for short passages selected by the instructor or by a student chosen to lead discussion. Part of everyone’s preparation includes reading the passage attentively and figuring out what it is doing and why it is important. In the classroom, discussion can then become more productive and more like the kind of work we want students at that level to be able to do. In real time, as we read through a passage together, students can consult annotations, define more words, leave and compare notes, and use all that information to contribute to lively discussion.

The collaborative nature of our project is therefore the most salient and the most applicable to the campus community at large. It is not limited to the foreign language classroom or even the literature classroom, for there are plenty of academic articles and books whose style and content may be dense and difficult for students to grasp. If students are asked to annotate texts by leaving definitions, asking follow-up questions, providing brief summaries, or pointing out particularly important quotes or ideas, they may find academic writing and research more approachable and engaging.

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