Fear 2.0, Web 2.0, Life 2.0 & Language Learning: Why "stranger danger" isn't.

In a few weeks, I will have the pleasure and the privilege of presenting at the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI), with 4 other women teachers/technologists. I am honored to be a part of this extraordinary group of women, thinkers, and troublemakers (heh heh). The conference title and theme is “Connecting and Reflecting: Preparing Learners for Life 2.0” Our topic is Fear 2.0. Here is a link to our presentation.

Fear 2.0 …you have heard of Web 2.0 (til yer ears bleed, I’m sure)… well, Fear 2.0 is a term one of us came up with (let’s blame BG) to describe the backlash that has erupted in Academia as Web 2.0 tools require teachers, administrators, sys admins and others to move further and further out of their traditional, definable, discrete, neat and tidy comfort zones and into the unknown of the collaborative, intersecting, intertwingled learning spaces that these tools provide.

Neat and tidy stress-free comfort zones and exceptional language learning environments are not always mutually inclusive. Learning a language involves, at some point in the process, a willingness to take a risk and move out of the familiar and delve into the darkness (or the lightness) of the unknown.

Alas, with the economy as it is today, not all of our students can afford to travel abroad. So, as language teachers, one of our obligations to our students is to bring as much of the real world to them…including (GASP!) putting them in touch with complete and total (native speaking) strangers with whom they need to converse or from whom they might need to information, assistance, direction.

It is one thing to sit and listen (passively) to audio CDs that correspond with the lab manual from your language textbook. It is quite another to engage (actively) in a conversation with a human being with the goal of information and knowledge sharing.

Why not just turn to the person to your left and him or her for that information? Well, of course it can be done, but here is some interesting data from my students: Time and time again they have told me that they would prefer to take those linguistic risks with people they do not know, outside of the classroom, rather than making a mistake (or worse) making a fool of themselves with a classmate, roommate, hall-mate, ex boyfriend…i.e. someone you are going to see again and with whom your language faux pas might end up taking on a whole other life.

And as was in the case of one of my students last semester, some of these chance meetings with strangers that they met in our class via Skype or via their class blogs have ended up being long term, ongoing, almost life changing conversations with people they will probably never, ever meet.

Of course some of the students are anxious about whom they might “meet” during our skypechats. Even though we found reputable, responsible folks interested in language exchanges (via sites such as Todd Bryant’s ever-wonderful Mixxer), there is of course still tension. And that tension is an exquisite example of a “teachable moment.” Please note: I don’t throw my students to the wolves, rather, before entering into these conversations with strangers I have hopefully created enough of a trusting environment w/i the classroom that they can express concerns, confusion, hopes, questions as these conversations develop and grow.

And we have seen that willingness to take chances with a stranger in another language reciprocated as well. My students have had language exchanges with native Spanish speakers about issues that the Spanish speakers would not talk about in their own language (as it was taboo) and they felt they could talk about in English. Imagine the delight and surprise of one of our Arabic classes talking with a group of university women (dressed in black abayas, only their eyes visible to the world) from a very rigid Middle Eastern country when the women suddenly started to talk excitedly, in English, about Beyoncé and pop music and other very western things as part of their language exchange.

My point is this: We need to allow our students the opportunity to struggle to understand a heavy accent, or to wrestle with all of the slang that no textbook ever taught them. They need to learn first hand that saying some words in one country without incident can cause a fracas in another. We need for them to be shocked at least once by their own ignorance of a different culture. These are all important pieces of the language acquisition puzzle. And the beautiful thing is, thanks to Web 2.0 tools, one need never leave his or her chair to engage in these meaningful activities. While it is no substitute of living in another land, it has become a productive first-step towards that Life 2.0 goal.

And so, as we prepare our students for Life 2.0, I would contend that it is unjust and unfair to insist (because we are consumed by our own fear of the unknown) that our language students use Web 2.0 technology only to communicate with people within their closed CMS communities or inside of their heavily firewalled networks.

To close our students off from the myriad of possibilities that these collaborations and connections portend, simply because we are consumed by strangerdanger, is a justification that is as irrational as the fear itself.

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!


  1. Laura · January 8, 2008 Reply

    You should just read this at ELI–it’s awesome!

  2. Barbara · January 8, 2008 Reply

    Ah shucks thanks, Laura (blush)

    Between now and ELI, let’s see what others might add or comment or suggest or add to the mix.

    And of course I need to work on my visuals for the “digi-drama,” which at this point look to be a mash up of that wacky/scary Turbo-Charged Grandma website, public service announcements that include pedophile fearing puppets, and the shower scene from “Psycho.”

  3. Barbara G · January 8, 2008 Reply

    I agree with Laura that it’s a great post (and sketch of your content for the presentation).

    I’d love to see you underscore the value of “being shocked at least once by their ignorance of a different culture.” And how if we confront this fear of strangerdanger, its source and irrationality, we can help our students BE safe–safer, in fact, than if they recoil in fear–while they learn in the world about the world.


  4. Colleen · January 8, 2008 Reply

    We have received extensive feedback from our learners about their experiences sharing life and language with someone halfway around the globe. Our observations and their comments have mirrored your blog entry today. We need to be open to profound life and acquisition experiences happening for us and our learners in all environments and dimensions. Thanks to Web 2, we can all diversify our pieces to the acquisition puzzle contact by contact, meaning negotiation by meaning negotiation and conversation by conversation.

    So many inconsistencies in the stranger danger virus paranoia, firewall obsession. I ask myself do those who impose these limits fully understand why? Our global partners have missed out on other wonderful e-tandem opportunities with eager learners because folks don’t understand the educational impact of a global language exchange. UGGG

  5. Barbara · January 9, 2008 Reply

    Colleen: Thank you for your thoughtful response. I am glad to hear (and maybe a bit saddened too) that you are seeing this with your students as well.

    And thank you for mentioning the “diversifying” aspect of these tools as well…”many pieces loosely joined” is indeed music to the ears of many language teachers, given that for us to teach a language is also to teach to students with a variety of strengths in a variety proficiencies… some students are stronger writers than speakers, or better readers than writers, and these tools allow us to teach all of the necessary skills at their level.

    The answer to the “why” question will differ based upon whom you are asking. Open networks = open to security breaks to some, open web pages mean exposing our flaws to others. For others still it as about controlling content and nothing more. Ah and then we have FERPA and the copyright gods too. But yes, all of these things limit what our students could do, with our guidance and support, using these tools.

    UGG indeed!

  6. Barbara · January 9, 2008 Reply


    Great ideas… Thank you!

  7. Rob · January 10, 2008 Reply

    I agree with several of the positive opinions/reactions/etc. expressed in previous comments. I have attended presentations by Barbara and her enthusiasm and drive are contagious. Now let me concentrate on one particular issue that I feel uncomfortable with (as do other professionals with whom we have discussed this issue). That issue is the way (and the extent to which) each side of the exchange (e.g., each conversation partner) is affected by the experience. In that effort to “communicate across cultures” there are a number of boundaries (social, cultural, etc.) that need to be observed. The freedom to communicate with someone in a completely different country and culture may go together with a desire to “shake things up” and show people a different reality. Thus, some middle-eastern women may “talk excitedly, in English, about Beyoncé and pop music and other very western things as part of their language exchange”. The question that some of us involved in cultural studies immediately think of is: Did the counterparts (i.e., the English students) get to talk excitedely about well-known musicians in the Arab world? Did they get their names, search for the lyrics to their songs, buy their CD’s, understand their philosophy, etc.? A second (related) question is: did the English students get to talk about taboo topics in their Anglo-Saxon culture in a way that they would not talk about them in English?
    If the local (US) students did not engage in those activities to the same degree their Arab counterparts did, that is one of the characteristics of what some social researchers call “one-way globalization”: the cultural values of one mainstream group influence (and change) the values of most other countries, with little or no changes in the opposite direction.
    I have personally seen that happen plenty of times: most of the conversation topics pertain to one of the cultures, because those movies, actors, singers, food chains, etc., are something both interlocutors are familiar with. Unfortunately, in general, I have not seen the same kind of development (in terms of new knowledge about the foreign conversation partners’ cultures). To address that, we have had to abandon the “free exchange” format somewhat and provide more guidance as to what to talk about with the partner, for insance: “talk about pop music in your partner’s country, and do an internet search on those singers and their hit songs”. Similar assignments are provided with respect to movies, food, political parties, etc.
    Be it with more controlled, structured exchanges, or with other strategies, I think we have to be attentive to this issue and work hard so that this type of social exchange is a balanced one where both cultures learn the value of their own cultural artifacts (artistic production, literary production, etc.), instead of one set of artifacts receiving more attention (and praised more) than the other.

  8. Barbara · January 12, 2008 Reply


    Thank you for your comment.

    I think I should probably clarify that while it may appear that student-centric activities such as Skype exchanges with a language partner are merely free for all free-exchanges, they are actually anything but. But they are also not heavily monitored either.

    On the other side of the exchange is a fellow language teacher. That teacher also has a curriculum to follow and also wants to make the exchange as beneficial as possible to his or her students. There is a great deal of planning that has to happen to set things up. That being said, we do not and will not control what happens once the conversations begin. We start the ball rolling with some structured questions like “Describe your school day,” “Describe higher education in your country,” “Describe an event that is in your newspaper today and why it is significant in your town/city/country.” We all start in the same place. Where we end up depends upon them.

    Lest you think otherwise, we never entered into these exchanges with the hopes of uncovering something titillating or scandalous about the other person. That was never the point. We talk about being respectful and how to show that respect with your words.

    Please rest assured both sides of the conversation walked away with new knowledge about the other group, knowledge that they (like us) would not have been able to achieve through more traditional means.

    With regard to the Arabic-speaking women, while we did not find out about any of their pop stars, their teacher told me that it was extraordinary for the women to meet a group with such diverse reasons for learning Arabic. Some of our students were learning Arabic of academic reasons, others had deeply personal reasons. For example, some of our students had converted to Islam. The women were amazed that our students could recite the Holy Quran but did not understand what the words meant. The women were fascinated by the diversity of our students (African Americans, Asians and one woman who announced that she was a Jew) as well as the different reasons they were in the class. Oh and let’s not forget this fact: the women had to get signed permission from their fathers to speak with our class because we have male students. They would not have been able to participate unless we had those signatures. So, something we take for granted daily was a major moment for our language partners.

    Rob, I agree, we should be careful about not promoting one culture over another. I also agree that much care should be taken in shaping and implementing these exchanges. But I also believe we shouldn’t monitor every word nor create a series of checks and balances. When students (on both sides) are given the freedom to discover and explore within a respectful and collaborative environment that they have created with their partner, over time, the amount of cultural artifacts and knowledge shared, I believe, do balance out.

    My goal is not to have all of that learning accomplished only in the class. My goal is to have my students leave my class with a desire to learn more about the other country, culture, language (vs the ill-founded belief that they know it all). As one of my students once said “the purpose of education is not to have all of the answers, rather, It is to be able to [go out into the world and] ask really good questions”

    Here here.

  9. Michelle Gallen · January 27, 2008 Reply

    I enjoyed your post (and have just bookmarked your blog). I’m wondering have you checked out some of the language learning communities based on social networking software that are springing up now? I’m not an academic or a language teacher, I’m an e-learning professional with a big interest in language learning. And the use of technology in language-learning has always intrigued me. Now easy-to-customise social networking is making it possible to mash up traditional language learning courses with live interaction with strangers from all over the globe. I’ve been reviewing sites like livemocha.com, italki.com and palabea.net on my blog http://www.liquidelearning.com – check it out and let me know what you think. I also reviewed an interesting web 2.0 language start-up called lingro.com, where the dictionaries are compiled by the users…I think it’s well worth a look. These are not academic sites. They don’t even seem to be moderated by language experts. But I wonder who many people who have no access to formal learning or who have failed to learn in formal settings will follow this route to language acquisition?

  10. Colleen · February 25, 2008 Reply

    For those who question a need for intercultural competency… This link was sent to me by some of our global language exchange partners living in Spain and Latin America. They were wondering if I thought it was true. If this doesn’t make you want to bust out of a Fear based curriculum…

  11. Barbara · March 1, 2008 Reply


    Thank you so much for your comments and for the YouTube link… which is about to figure prominently on the front of this blog!! Ugh indeed!

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