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Bringing the World’s Languages to Oberlin

On a Sunday morning in November, six students studying Arabicare crowded around a television set in the Paul and Edith Cooper International Learning Center (ILC), waiting for a video conference with students in Saudi Arabia to begin. The conference, which was organized by Barbara Sawhill, director of the ILC, and Wafa Hameedi, director of technology at Effat College, is just one example of the way faculty members are using technology to revolutionize the teaching of foreign languages at Oberlin.

“This is just one example of how technology can create bridges between schools, cultures, countries,and languages,” Sawhill says. “It is extremely difficult for an American to travel Saudi Arabia, but technology can take us there – and once we are connected, we are able to experience an entirely different world.”

Sawhill has also started using Skype, a free, voice-over IP tool that makes computer-to-computer long-distance “telephone calls,” as a way to bring additional native speakers to the students. She recently organized a conference call between Buthaina Al-Othman, a native speaker of Arabic and a professor of English as a Second Language (ESL) at Kuwait University, and the Oberlin students who are studying Arabic with Assistant Professor of French Ali Yedes, also a native speaker of Arabic.

“If you want to learn to speak a foreign language properly, it is necessary to go abroad and live within that language,” Yedes says. “But with technology, our students don’t have to travel. The language is coming to them, and they are able to put what they have learned in the classroom into practice right away.”

After their initial contact, students from Oberlin, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia have decided to continue conversing with each other. As a result, Sawhill will make Skype accessible to the students through the ILC. She also plans to make this program available to all students studying a second language, so that they can make connections with native speakers around the world. 

“Connecting with the students overseas has really increased my students’ confidence in their ability to speak and read Arabic,” Yedes says. “In a way, this has made them feel as if they’ve already traveled to these places.”

But the collaborations do not stop there. Al-Othman has made herself available for “Skype office hours” to help the Oberlin students prepare for their final exams, and a professor of information science at Effat College has offered to prepare audio and video clips of Arabic being used in everyday situations for Yedes’ class.

 “I think the philosophy behind Oberlin’s language lab is very different from that of other institutions,” says Sawhill, who is also president-elect of the International Association for Language Learning Technology (IALLT), an organization that promotes language learning and technology. “I’m lucky to work with a remarkable bunch of teachers who strive to use tech tools conscientiously, and only when it solves a pedagogical need that could not otherwise be addressed in the classroom.”

In addition to the conference calls, Sawhill, Al-Othman, and Erin Brazell ’05, the lab’s educational technical specialist, have participated in several podcasts for Ed Tech Talk.com, where teachers and technologists discuss new applications for technology and think about ways to create collaborations. This is where Sawhill initially “met” Al-Othman, and how their work with and for the Arabic class began.

Sawhill has also been invited to create a spin-off of the Ed Tech Talk series, tentatively titled “The Language Lab Unleashed.” The focus of these conversations will be the use of technology as it applies specifically to language learning, and will begin airing January 5th via Ed Tech Talk.com’s web site.

According to Sawhill, the mission of the ILChas not changed over the years, but the way that mission is accomplished certainly has evolved.

“There are so many free tools that can be repurposed to help language students and teachers accomplish their goals in the classroom,” Sawhill says. “The good news is that we are not experimenting with these things by ourselves – there is a large community of national and international educators that want to collaborate with us. Forging connections with the students in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait has been an incredible first step, but for us – it’s just the beginning.”

Related Links

A conference call between Ali Yede’s students and Buthaina Al-Othman.

A students uses the Language Lab’s Tablet PC for writing.
Watch this video (.wmv)

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