Innovation and Language Education in the Academy: A Contradiction in Terms?

[NOTE: On October 17th, I was supposed to gve the opening keynote at the MWALLT conference at Case Western Reserve University, but alas, I ended up having to spend the night before my talk in a local emergency room with abdominal pains. The good news was that the emergency room had the really good sense to have flat panel TVs and cable in each of the examination rooms so I could watch my (beloved) Boston Red Sox in Game 5 of the ALCS against the Tampa Bay Rays. That certainly kept my mind occupied. The bad news was that the all-nighter in the emergency room prevented me from getting to MWALLT. And I really wanted to get to MWALLT. So here is my talk, as it would have been read, albeit several months after the fact.]

The title of this talk was listed as “Innovation and Language Education in the Academy: A Contradiction in Terms?” Those of you who know me know that I believe in subterfuge, in upsetting the equilibrium, in calculated subversion as a means to find ways to upset the static, pedestrian status quo that plagues our teaching of languages in the Academy. I figured with a title like this I would addle and ennervate a few people. If it did…good. I have you right were I want you. (heh)

As a means of introduction, let me frame my comments by first telling you where I stand on a few things: I believe that some of the new, creative, learned-centered, social technologies that are popping up here and there should not be feared. I believe we should learn more about them, and consider using them as part of our teaching repertoire. Shutting them down, blocking them, ignoring their persistent presence in our students lives will create an even greater digital divide between us and our students than already exists. These tools have the promise and the potential to help us to teach our students in ways that common practices do not currently allow us to do. They ask us to stand beside our students (vs in front of them) and ask us to learn together… and create knowledge side by side.

I, like many others, have given all sorts of talks about the benefits of these tools for second language education. And I, like many others, have tried to make compelling arguments for how these tools could save us time as we share the process of learning with our students, vs trying to control it all. So, if learner-centric social software provides such benefit, why isn’t everyone adopting it? What is holding everyone back? Or to put it another way, why isn’t everyone who teaches in the Academy embracing innovation?

Unlike any technologies we have seen to date, in order to incorporate user-centered technologies into our pedagogical practice, we must not only find the time to learn about them, but we must first also open our minds to the philosophical underpinnings that creates and develops these tools.

If these philosophies do not mesh with your teaching, or who you are as an educator, or who you are as a person, then you need not bother yourself with them. Please, don’t force yourself to do something that you don’t believe in. These tools will force you to think, ponder, wonder. If that seems like too much work for you, please, step aside. Really, it’s okay.

Teaching and learning are deeply personal experiences. It is not the technology that is subversive: it’s the way we choose to teach with it that is. These tools dare us as teachers to teach differently. Technology is not, and never will be, a cure all, a panacea. The technology you choose to incorporate into your classroom must mesh with your goals for that class, as well as your personal philosophy on teaching and learning. If you do not believe in a collaborative learning experience, where many singular voices can create a rich and harmonious chorus, then this may not be for you. If you are not prepared to let go and, alongside your students, create and dig and explore and fail and learn from failure… then these tools are definitely not for you.

To put it even more bluntly: Social software, or any technology we choose to help us teach, I believe, can only be effective in our teaching practice if it dovetails with our beliefs as educators and as people…otherwise the tools clash and conflict with our practice and we end up seeming disingenuous to our students.

For those of you who -are- interested, I need to challenge you to lead the charge in your schools to create and maintain spaces, places, opportunities for innovation. In these times of great economic trouble and worry, it could be really easy to just retreat, do as we always have… and get soggy and limp in our teaching practices. We must remind ourselves that it does not cost -anything- to dream, and sometimes it costs very little to reach out and collaborate and explore, on your own or with someone else, all with the purpose of trying to inspire, invent, explore, discover. And the funny thing is? This is exactly the behavior we want to model for our students; it’s “just the ticket” as my grandmother would say, just what is needed to inspire our classes to move stretch, grow…and truly learn.

We must resist the temptation to become technological and pedagogical zombies, a description given by my colleague Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington, that is, converted into emotionless, lifeless automatons whose inspiration and innovation has all but evaporated thanks to trying to “teach” through a cookie-cutter, bloated, overwhelming Course Management Systems. Sure it is easy to teach straight from the text… but ask yourself: When you do that are your students –really– learning? How hard would it be to connect them –even just once— with a native speaker via a blog, a Skypechat, in Second Life…heck its even possible to converse in the target language while smacking rabid wolves in World of Warcraft.

Language textbooks are just the beginning, just an appetizer… We need to take what is in that text and then create the first second and third courses… it is our job to make language real and vital for our students by extending our classroom to the very places where the language is spoken. We need to use tools that let us converse not just within our classroom, but with the outside world.

Language learning, to extend the metaphor, should be a feast. A feast of possibilities, situations, opportunities, points of contact, places to wrestle with knowledge. It should not be a microwave-able, prepackaged frozen, heh, zombified dinner…

We (and your students) are counting on those of you who want to explore, those of you who refuse to be overcooked, limp and soggy, those of you who don’t want to be zombies. And we can’t wait to hear how your ideas, your collaborations, your schemes pan out. I would be remiss in my duties as President of IALLT to remind you that we –an international community of language teachers and technologists– would like to hear about your adventures this summer at IALLT09

Innovation: Please let it begin, continue, and grow with the language educators. More specifically, with you, the people, who have come here this weekend and represent that spirit, that zeal, that excitement… I hope you will leave here on Saturday energized ready to create your own banquets, feasts, smøgasbords at your own schools.

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!

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