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The Role of the Computer in the Foreign-Language Classroom: A German Webpage Class Activity

Even the staunchest technophobe today is aware of the debates over the role of technology in the classroom, and with good reason. The seemingly exponential growth of the computer industry and of personal access to the Internet and the World Wide Web in particular has compelled most educators to reassess the ways in which they can make use of this "exciting" new technology in their classrooms. Their willingness to adapt to new approaches, however, is not without its dangers. In the effort to be seem as progressive or up-to-date, many more serious (and practical) issues get lost amongst modern educational rhetoric, which, more often than not, claims that these new technologies must be brought into the classroom in order to maintain the educational system's relevance in our increasingly technophilic world. What happens, though, when educators, who for the most part have not been trained to deal with new technologies, bring computers into their classroom without the necessary tools for working with them? Disaster, or at the very least embarrassing failure, is unavoidable.

No one can dispute, of course, that the Internet can be a valuable educational resource. The great majority of educators have decreed that the rise of technology in the classroom is no less than a paradigm shift. They cite as proof of this sea change the fact that these new tools are "highly motivating, convenient to use, and task oriented," noting therefore that they appeal to "both foreign language teachers and learners." [1] Although I cannot but agree that the computer is, indeed, a very powerful tool -- it brings a new sense of "interactivity" to the learning experience, enabling students to take more responsibility for their own education and allowing them greater choice in the process -- I must question the overeager educators who hail computer technology as the greatest educational advancement since the invention of the printing press. Is the computer, in essence, anything more than a tool, and is its place in the classroom all that different from that of its predecessors? As one analyst has written:

 Educational technology, defined broadly, includes everything from blackboards and desks to books and computers ...Wax tablets, blackboards and pencils with erasers can be thought of as technologies to make the writing medium more conducive to trial and error, more 'interactive' than parchment, print or ink pen. [2]

The past four decades have seen a great progression in educational methodologies, and it seems clear that computer technology marks the advent of yet another teaching "method" to be researched and proven effective. But this new methodology is in many ways merely the natural outcome of growth, not a "shift" to some new direction and by no means the abandoning of traditional approaches. With the decline in popularity of "outdated" approaches such as the grammar-translation method, new ideas have sprung up rapidly. Perhaps most tenacious of these is the audio-visual approach, which calls for the learner to confront the subject matter using many different senses, primarily, of course, sound as well as sight. Learner-centered approaches are also tied to this framework: no longer is the teacher a mere repository of knowledge to be communicated to the student, but instead a "facilitator" in the learning process, which to a large extent may be determined by the student. As the learner becomes more responsible for his own advancement, the hierarchy in the classroom also changes: students become increasingly "interactive," participating not only in exchanges with the teacher but with fellow students as well.

The computer serves naturally to further this interactivity: students are not only able to communicate with each other during classroom time, but with other learners around the world, at any hour of the day or night; in addition, computer multimedia gives the student firsthand access to materials outside of traditional textbooks and classroom props. This "realia" -- real-life material in the target language which facilitates learning as well as enthusiasm and connection to the target culture -- can of course be found in traditional media such as magazines as newspapers, but computer technology combines these authentic materials with the interactive potential of multimedia. A mere mouse-click away lie online magazines with pictures, text, and music clips, web sites devoted to diverse aspects of foreign cultures, and discussion forums open to millions of users.

As exciting and captivating as this multimedia can be, it can also be distracting, and it is of no use to educators without some guiding principles, even modification. In the examination that follows, I shall attempt to set aside my own doubts as to the theory of using computer technology in the classroom, and focus on the advantages and practical applications of doing so.

"Multimedia" seems to be the catch phrase in all discussions of educational computer technology. But in its most basic sense, multimedia has been in classroom use for decades. Even apart from the long-standing tradition of complementing text-centered instruction with songs and aural exercises, the rise of cassette-based language laboratories in the 1960's brought students into greater and more varied contact with the target language, giving them exposure to and interactivity with language patterns far beyond the walls of the classroom. Video cassettes furthered the multimedia experience dramatically; students were confronted not only with a foreign language, but with foreign cultural artifacts as well, such as gestural mannerisms, lifestyles, and land- or cityscapes.

The 1980's saw the dawn of computer-assisted instruction, with programs designed to allow students to "interact" with the machine by responding to cues, exploring databases of information, and participating in educational "games." The first such experiments were necessarily primitive, but with the advent of CD-ROM and hypermedia technology, computer-aided instruction has reached new heights. There are dozens of foreign-language computer "games" available, although only a select few truly reflect educators' aims in instruction. Perhaps the most impressive of these is the French multimedia program À la rencontre de Philippe, developed at MIT's Laboratory for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. One journalist describes the game:

 The program features Philippe, a young French journalist who asks students to help him find a new apartment and to patch things up with his girlfriend. That simple story line becomes an interactive language workshop. The French used in the program is fast-paced, colloquial, and punctuated with gestures and shrugs ... To help Philippe, students click on various items in the video--a newspaper, for example, or a telephone--which link to information such as maps, messages, or newspaper advertisements ... Such conceptual aids let students immerse themselves in the language and at the same time cope with complex texts and conversations that are a challenge for them to understand. [3]

Sadly, I am not aware of any such advanced and competent program for German language instruction. In addition, any such CD-ROM program requires a substantial investment on the educator's part, not only of a financial nature, but of time commitment as well. Teachers at the university level, where foreign-language instruction is compressed into a short semester that barely leaves time for grammar essentials, to say nothing of culture studies, are loathe to devote precious class time to let students play a computer game, no matter how effective the outcome may be.

The 1990's have brought a new tool to the scene, though -- one to which most university learners already have easy access, and one that can be used outside of class time as well as during it. The Internet -- the global network of computers on which email messages, files and programs are transmitted -- brings new meaning to the term "interactivity." Using the Internet, students can truly communicate, not with machines or storybook characters, but with other students and native speakers around the world. Written communication is but one facet of the Internet, and it begins at the most basic level with email messages, already ubiquitous at universities around the world. Using email, students may write to other students in their class, perhaps discussing assignments or working together on group projects. Classes as a whole may also participate in email exchanges with other foreign-language classes, using a forum such as the Intercultural Email Classroom Connection (IECC) mailing lists. And students may even search out other individuals, both learners and native speakers, to engage in dialogue; one such listserv devoted to German language learners, RIBO-L, offers an impressive track record and a broad range of participants.

Other online forums for discussion do not necessarily involve email, and these have the advantage of not piling up possibly irrelevant messages in one's mailbox; instead, the user is encouraged to search out topics of interest to him. Usenet and Bitnet, the wide-ranging discussion forums more commonly known as Internet "newsgroups," offer several intriguing possibilities. At least three are devoted specifically to the German language: "alt.usage.german" is conducted in English but deals with German vocabulary and usage questions; "de.sprache.deutsch" is in German and covers a wider range of linguistic topics; and "k12.lang.deutsch-eng" is intended for secondary school teachers and students, but also attracts its fair share of university participants. Another newsgroup, "soc.culture.german" is conducted in English but covers a variety of cultural discussions ranging from travel planning to history and political issues.

Far and away the most "interactive" application of the Internet is the World Wide Web, a loosely defined network composed of thousands, even millions, of Web "pages" -- screens of text and graphics centered around any topic of interest to the owner. Most university students are already familiar with the Web, although they are inclined to use it more as an entertaining diversion than as a learning tool. Nonetheless, it is perhaps the entertainment value which makes the Web so adaptable for use in the classroom, as it is far more captivating for students than the dry textbook material normally given them.

Although Web pages take some effort to set up and maintain, many teachers are already making use of them in class. Course syllabi, announcements and homework assignments, perhaps even lecture notes can be posted on the teacher's Web page, allowing students to check in at their own convenience, even from their homes or dorm rooms. In addition, interactive bulletin boards can be created, on which students may post messages to one another or to individuals from around the world.

But realia already exists on the Web in many forms, and there is little need to spend hours setting up an individual Web page when more interesting material can be readily found. Instead, there are fascinating ways to make use of the reading materials, cultural exhibits, authentic realia, and multimedia presentations that the Web has to offer. In the section that follows, I shall describe some guiding principles in making use of these resources, as well as examine my own attempt at designing a Web-based activity.

When designing a class project based around Web pages, one should follow many of the same guidelines as for any classroom activity. First and foremost, the site to be chosen must have a certain appeal. This does not necessarily mean that the page may be cheap entertainment; on the contrary, the subject matter must be broad and deep enough to warrant a full-fledged exploration of the site in question. Specific ideas tend to be better than more general ones; for example, a museum exhibit on ancient cavedwellers will likely prove more fruitful than the museum's general home page. Surprises are also pleasant, and the unexpected or not-commonly-known can add to the enjoyment of the activity. Naturally, the project's objectives must be clearly stated: what should the students learn from their research? Also, how should the students learn? The focus of the project, be it vocabulary, culture, or grammar, must be clear, and activities should be tailored to highlight this focus as well as to enable students to approach the site without too much difficulty. A warm-up activity is ideal, but is often difficult to put into practice; failing this, at the very least, the activities should start off at the most basic level, allowing students to become progressively more immersed in the site and the target culture. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the project must have a proper "ending," and not merely break off after students have enjoyed their time "surfing." Classroom discussion of the project is vital, either in general group discussion or in presentation-style reports, so that students may share and compare their results.

Although I kept these guidelines in mind when designing a Web-based project for my second-semester German class, I did make several significant modifications. Firstly, since I prize the great variety of Web pages I have found on the Internet, I wanted my students to be able to take advantage of this variety, and not be confined to one prescribed site. As a result, I spent an evening researching different German-language Web pages and made a list of those I considered to have the most potential; I distributed this list to my students along with two additional "search" sites where they could find their own pages (in German) if they so desired. I then devised a worksheet for the students, with questions broad enough to apply to any web site they chose to visit. Students answered these questions in German, describing what they found at the site, what they thought was interesting about it, and offering comments or suggestions via a fake "email message" to the page's creator. I have reproduced this questionnaire and the list of sites on the pages to follow.

Deutsch 102: Internet-Projekt
Mögliche WWW-Adressen:

Suchhilfe: Dino WWW-Katalog
Suchhilfe: Yahoo! Deutschland
Zeitschriften: Der Spiegel
Zeitschriften: Stern
Zeitschriften: Focus
Zeitschriften: Geo
Museen: Deutsches Museum Online
Mussen: Museen der Stadt Nürnberg
Geschichte: Antikensammlung Erlangen
Geschichte: Ötzi - Ein Mann aus der Steinzeit
Geschichte: Konzentrationslager Auschwitz
Literatur: Projekt Gutenberg (Online Texte und Biographien)
Comics: Asterix
Comics: Otto und seine Ottifanten
Fersehen: Xena
Fernsehen: Akte X (X-Files)
Fernsehen: Star Trek
Film/Fernsehen: Highlander
Film: James Bond
Film: Star Wars
Musik: Die Prinzen
Musik: Die Beatles
Musik: Rammstein
Autos: Der VW-Käfer
Sonstiges: UFO- und Astronomie-Club

Arbeitsblatt: Internet-Projekt

Bitte schreiben Sie die Adresse von der Webseite, die Sie gewählt haben:


Bitte beantworten Sie die folgenden Fragen in ganzen Sätzen auf deutsch!

1. Was ist das Thema (=topic) dieser Seite?

2. Was findet man auf dieser Webseite?

3. Beschreiben Sie das Layout der Seite. Ist alles nur Text, oder gibt es auch schöne Bilder?

4. Was haben Sie besonders interessant gefunden? Was haben Sie von dieser Seite gelernt? Nennen Sie wenigstens drei Sachen.

5. Schreiben Sie unten 3-5 neue deutsche Wörter, die Sie auf dieser Seite gefunden haben. (Benutzen Sie ein Wörterbuch, um das englische Übersetzung zu finden. Wenn Sie kein Wörterbuch haben, gibt es eins online bei http://wais.leo.org/cgi-bin/dict-search).

a. ________________________________ = ________________________________
b. ________________________________ = ________________________________
c. ________________________________ = ________________________________

6. Würden Sie diese Webseite Ihren Freunden oder Klassenkameraden empfehlen? Warum?

7. Hätten Sie Vorschläge, wie man diese Seite vielleicht besser (interessanter, schöner, usw.) machen könnte? Schreiben Sie unten eine E-Mail an den Inhaber (=owner) dieser Seite, und sagen Sie ihm/ihr, was Sie denken.


8. Schreiben Sie bis Freitag einen Bericht über diese Seite, und halten Sie den Bericht als Rede vor der Klasse!

The results of this project were satisfactory, if not extraordinary. Most students chose sites from the list I had provided; without exception, those that found their own pages also had significantly greater difficulty reporting on their experiences, which leads me to believe that, were I to conduct this activity again, I would do so without allowing students to seek out their own sites. Although some responses to the questions showed minimal effort at description, all students responded positively to having found items of interest to them; in private conversations they also seemed, without exception, quite enthusiastic and pleased with the project. The responses to question number 7 (the email suggestions) varied in scope, but most expressed a desire for more pictures and more detailed information on the given subject; several gave very concrete and, to my mind, imaginative hints on further page development. Question number 5 elicited some excitement among the students, since in many cases the words they found on German Web pages were compound nouns -- not easily found in small dictionaries! Nonetheless, the students seemed determined to figure out what these words meant, and many came to me with questions outside of class time.

As the final stage in the project, I designed question number 8 as an oral presentation to the class. In general, I was very pleased with the results: the students wrote out relatively long essays (averaging 250-300 words), which they then delivered to the class. Most students went beyond discussing the mere content of their chosen Web pages, and even brought in supplemental materials. One student, for example, reported on the content of a German Web page about the Simpsons TV program; he then went on to tell how the program was very popular in Germany, and how occasional German references occur on the American show -- at which point he showed two short video clips in which the Simpsons characters spoke German. The class was highly amused, of course, and I took this opportunity to encourage students' comments on the German dialogue, noting the accents, choice of vocabulary, du/Sie usage, and other subtleties. Another student, whose page was devoted to the Beatles, delivered a full seven minutes of free speaking about the "Paul is dead" rumors, citing many humorous anecdotes and interspersing his commentary with album covers and other pictures. Some students, of course, were less inventive, and restricted their reports to the information they had found online, but even these presentations were engaging and well-prepared; in addition, each student wrote new vocabulary items of importance on the board and explained them to the class, thus ensuring the other students' comprehension of his report.

In general I was found this activity to be not only entertaining for all involved, but useful and instructive as well. In talking to students, I discovered them to be very enthusiastic about the integration of computer technology into the classroom experience; some even requested that we design more such projects in which they can participate. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that even the one student who professed to be computer-illiterate nevertheless employed the services of the friendly help staff at the computer lab (as I had suggested); her results were more than satisfactory, and she seemed happy to have learned more about Internet resources in such an open and engaging forum.

The results of my project show how involved students can become when the World Wide Web is used as a teaching aid. But what, in more general terms, are the advantages and disadvantages to using the Internet in the classroom? As stated in the opening paragraphs, there are many dangers involved when educators attempt to integrate computers without specific guidelines or proper adaptation. Perhaps, however, the positive side to computer technology can outweigh its potential drawbacks.

One of the most striking features of the Internet is that, barring power outages or server crashes, it is always accessible -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Many students can even connect from their homes, or from the now-ubiquitous computer labs scattered around campus. Thus the Internet is not bound by time or place in the way a traditional classroom or teacher is. And as evidenced by my Web project, authentic "realia" on the Internet improves student motivation dramatically, increasing the learner's enthusiasm, commitment, and therefore total advancement. Internet-based learning also becomes somewhat of a "holistic" experience -- it combines reading, writing, listening, and independent thinking / research, bringing together diverse subjects to produce a sort of "encyclopedic" and interdisciplinary learning. Additionally, as discussed above, the computer necessarily shifts the hierarchies of the classroom, leading to a learner-centered approach in which the student chooses (and is therefore responsible for) what as well as how he learns. The teacher in this hierarchy becomes a guide or mediator, not the primary source of information. As one analyst has explained, this does represent a significant change from early attitudes toward education:

 We long ago forgot that teaching, a medieval invention, provides a virtual learning experience. Since students did not have access to primary sources or resources, teachers created representations (lectures, texts) to acquaint students with materials they could not access or manipulate themselves. Computer networks, on the other hand, can provide access to primary sources and resources, making learning experiences direct and real. [4]

All of these improvements notwithstanding, the Internet has its critics, and rightly so. Financial costs are an oft-cited point of contention -- although at this point, nearly all universities are committed to providing Internet service at very little (or no) cost to the user. Developing Internet projects, though, does require large-scale cooperation. Certainly, individual teachers can design projects such as my own, but ideally, groups of educators should work together to design wider-ranging and more effective projects which would bring students into greater contact with one another. As it now stands, the overwhelming abundance and variety of Web sites often leads to a sense of confusion or overload on the part of both the teacher, who must decide which sites are suitable for instructive use, and the student, who may explore other pages on his own recognizance. My own fears that certain "screen-shy" students would be neglected when learning focuses on the computer turned out to be unfounded, but the danger remains if there is not a strong support network to which such students can turn. Finally, the above-mentioned restructuring of classroom hierarchies may prove problematic, at the very least during any transitional phase: teachers may hand responsibility over to students at too early a stage, when students are not yet prepared to take on the new role required of them.

It remains to be seen what role the computer will come to occupy in the foreign-language classroom, but one thing seems certain: the computer is here to stay. With further research, educators can undoubtedly learn to utilize the Internet to its full potential; I only hope that idealistic faith in the wonders of technology will not lead such research astray. But as I hope my own project has shown, careful planning and consideration when designing Internet activities can go a long way towards giving students the opportunity to interact with valuable and engaging authentic materials online.

Further Readings:

DiBella, Inge. "Teaching With the WWW: Guiding Principles for Creating Teaching Units." Online: Personal Web Document, n.d. Available: http://www.arches.uga.edu/~dibella/www.html
Lixl-Purcell, Andreas. "German Studies on the Internet: Enhancing Foreign Language Acquisition through Multimedia." Online: AATG Summer Workshop, 1995. Available: http://www.uncg.edu/~lixlpurc/publications/AATG_Presentation.html
Noblitt, James S. "Enhancing Instruction with Multimedia." Online: Institute for Academic Technology, 1996. Available: http://www.unc.edu/cit/iat-archive/publications/noblitt/noblitt1.html
Harrington-Lueker, Donna. "Speaking in Tongues: High-tech Help for Teaching Foreign Languages." Electronic School (Jan. 1997). Online. Available: http://www.electronic-school.com/0197f2.html
Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
Roberts, Lowell H. "The Network as Strategic Asset." Online: Institute for Academic Technology, 1996. Available: http://www.unc.edu/cit/iat-archive/publications/roberts/network.html
Warden, Rebecca. "The First Virtual Campus?" The Financial Times 03 October 1995. Online. Available: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/texts/catalan.html
Watson, Christine Howard. "www.who-kneads-it.com: Is the Internet the Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread?" Electronic School (Jan. 1997). Online. Available: http://www.electronic-school.com/0197f5.html


(1)  Lixl-Purcell, Andreas, "German Studies on the Internet: Enhancing Foreign Language Acquisition through Multimedia" (Online: AATG Summer Workshop, 1995; Available: http://www.uncg.edu/~lixlpurc/publications/AATG_Presentation.html). [return to text]
(2)  Noblitt, James, "Enhancing Instruction with Multimedia" (Online: Institute for Academic Technology, 1996; Available: http://www.unc.edu/cit/iat-archive/publications/noblitt/noblitt1.html). [return to text]
(3)  Harrington-Lueker, Donna, "Speaking in Tongues: High-tech Help for Teaching Foreign Languages," Electronic School (Jan. 1997) (Online. Available: http://www.electronic-school.com/0197f2.html). [return to text]
(4)  Roberts, Lowell, "The Network as Strategic Asset" (Online: Institute for Academic Technology, 1996; Available: http://www.unc.edu/cit/iat-archive/publications/roberts/network.html). [return to text]

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1997 for German 722 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "The Role of the Computer in the Foreign-Language Classroom." Website Article. 19 May 1997. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/722internet.html>.