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 BeyoncÃ© 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.