"Creating an Administrative/Educational Nexus for Language Learners Online: A Learning Community Born from Interactivity"
We are deeply engaged in a revolutionary overhaul of the traditional architecture of higher education (OBanion, 2000). Systems and structures that used to deliver educational materials and codify student learning in a kind of "vertical", "top-down" manner are being supplanted by a dimensionless new paradigm in which every change in policy, practice, program, and personnel is questioned for its capacity to improve and expand student learning. This paradigm shift has been hastened by institutions realization that tradition is a barrier and that barriers prevent the interactive, inter-disciplinary collaboration underlying the necessary sharing of data that must define the "Knowledge Age" of the twenty-first century.
Education has become timeless and "distanceless." A seemingly unfettered boom in electronically delivered data has made it apparent that it is no longer "the three Rs", but rather, "the four As" that define modern schooling. Anyone may become a student at any time in his life and may participate in courses anywhere to learn about anything, as Burdeau (1997) has stated. But while the Internet has burgeoned, allowing increased access to instruction and leading to increasingly high quality educational outcomes, we are running the risk of institutional implosion. That is, unless educational institutions come to realize that the revolution that is overhauling them must involve them, must incite them to participate, they will be left with a traditional two-dimensional hierarchy in a dimensionless world of cyberspace where hierarchical shift is the only constant.
Educational institutions must redefine themselves as procedural technicians facilitating the genesis of new learning communities. At Coastline Community College, in Fountain Valley, California, a group of some two dozen students improving their French language fluency skills online have found that learning with the assistance of Coastlines connection to the multi-faceted Web can be both a bane and a boon. When these students first attempt to enroll in the Net course, they are asked for paper documents, handwritten ink signatures, and "physical" addresses and telephone numbers. They are also required to pay a "health fee", even if they are fully insured adults wishing only to surf the Net in French. Students may not enroll or pay fees electronically, and their e-mail addresses are not requested, although their future communication with their instructor, their fellow students, and with the institution may be conducted only electronically. Their instructor receives a "standard" roster of those enrolled, also without e-mail addresses. The traditional architecture of admissions alerts these non-traditional learners that something might be amiss. Furthermore, because Coastline is a California community college, course fees are calculated according to residency; out-of-state residents must pay a hefty 700% more than locals for a single-credit-unit course, even though geographical diversity should be part of the improved foreign language and culture awareness the students are supposed to be acquiring in their "French Topics Online" class and even though the Net is an international phenomenon. Despite these difficulties, learners have joined the class from Germany, Switzerland, France, Australia, Maine, Colorado, Hawaii, and New Jersey, among other places, though the lion's share of them live near Coastline in southern California.
Since the Net is neither "place-bound" nor "time-bound" in the way the traditional institutional architecture might have traditional courses be, the French students diverse lifestyles and connection locations make it difficult to find times for synchronous communication that might be convenient for all. Although they have developed their own "learning sub-communities", in which small groups of twos or threes have chatted together online and begun to share e-mail and produce joint projects, their efforts to do this have not been facilitated by the institutional infrastructure. For instance, synchronous "live-chat" has yet to be available to these students from Coastline in a clear, advertisement-free, non-English context. The colleges financial constraints have not permitted it to offer a French atmosphere untrammeled by busy English messages. Fortunately, the nearby University of California, Irvine, has allowed Coastline French students time in its Easy Web Group Interaction Enabler (Ewgie) chat rooms provided by the School of Engineering. Although this synchronous communication area is not always available to Coastline students, it has served fairly dependably, even on New Years eve, 31 December, 1999.
Asynchronous communication has been difficult for Coastline French students, too. With Web course access codes made available only to the Colleges single Webmaster, just getting the asynchronous communication area up and running took some months, and each suggested change in the site or its layout requires more time to consummate. The Colleges worries about breaches of security and about the questionable eptitude of non-technical instructors have made access to course materials a labyrinth of check-valves. Coastlines dependence upon traditional institutional architecture has made it a "role-bound" place, where certain individuals are experts in technology, certain ones are experts in admissions and records requirements, and learners are meant to keep their distance from the data. The College is where education is sourced, according to the guardians of its traditional architecture; they seem unaware that these French students learning is developing through the assistance of non-traditional and multifarious rootstocks that they are finding and interacting with in unusual ways.
Indeed, the kinds of writings that these students are producing give evidence that they are learning some of the sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, and pragmatics of their new tongue as they learn its vocabulary and grammar. They are finding, for instance, that electronic communication among francophones has not become the almost telegraphic talk that it has in English; e-mail messages in French generally begin with "bonjour" or "salut" or some other salutation and make reference to preceding messages in French, though they are frequently curt and of very few words in English. Indeed, the style that is being generated in Coastline French students' e-mail is something between what linguists call the "casual" or "vernacular" and the "careful." They attend to sentence structure and word formation, they strive to use the appropriate word in the appropriate context, and they exploit the interactional and personal functions of language as well as the purely representational. That is, besides merely transmitting information, each student's e-mail messages develop a kind of idiosyncratic style of information transmission enveloping the communication of data. The "why" and the "how" of this hermaphroditic dialect demand deeper examination. Unlike traditional classroom students' homework efforts, in which a careful style is marked by native-language-influenced errors in syntax and semantic context, the electronically transmitted assignments submitted by these onliners show far less influence of L1, their native tongues. In fact, a significant number of the onliners have come to produce more performance-level mistakes than competence-level errors; they are producing "goofs" of the kind a speaker with native or near-native competence might produce. Syntax and word choice are generally good among the onliners; mistakes are frequently homophones of the correct forms. Interestingly, young French speakers and older ones who are not practiced in writing their language tend to produce errors of a similar homophonic kind; their e-mail messages look much like those of the Coastline French students. And like the native speakers, the Coastline language learners tend to demonstrate a high level of textual competence, using intersentential links correctly, such as the French equivalents of "for example", "however", "while", and the like.
The linguistic, sociolinguistic, and psycholinguistic features of Coastlines onliners dialect may be resulting from the electronic medium, from student assiduity, or even from increased cerebral activity. It seems that direct links to the francophone world and time-unconstrained Internet connections into foreign language course content, along with access to, and exploitation of, multi-user domains (MUDs) may be part of what is producing these peoples speedy progress through the "interlanguage" limbo where many "face-to-face" (F2F) students often find themselves hopelessly stuck. Indeed, it has been suggested (Burdeau,1997, Doheny-Farina, 1996) that the MUD encourages an interlanguage development unique to the electronic medium. That is, unlike the traditional F2F student, the onliner is passing through the common, predictable stages of "learner dialect" complete with illocutionary competence and sociolinguistic awareness, features of learner language that are rarely mastered in the F2F arena. For instance, the onliners seem to be able to discern an interlocutors intended meaning from a variety of possible ones that might seem to devolve from the syntax. Likewise, they can construct utterances to convey a particular intent in ways their classroom counterparts cannot. Coastlines onliners seem to be developing a learner dialect more like that of the unlettered native speaker than like that of the adult non-native.
Online students may be achieving these kinds of results simply by virtue of the assiduous work they perform during long periods of time spent in the francophone electronic universe provided them in their course materials. They may also be "self-selected", independently motivated, sophisticated adults who have learned how to learn. The most successful of the group are those who take charge of their learning, who organize their information well, who are creative and willing to experiment, and who have learned to live with the uncertainty that epitomizes not only the masses of new language data they are receiving but also the medium through which they are receiving it. These learners may also be using literally "more brainpower" than F2Fers generally do. As adults, they have well-developed left cerebral hemispheres; they have learned to analyze and to intellectualize their learning applying logic to tasks that may bear some resemblance to other experiences they have mastered in the past. Autonomous and motivated types, the online students are also able to take advantage of "field independence"; they are able to consider portions of their course subject matter in isolation. But the online environment forces these learners to place content in context; they are required to see things from a "field dependent" point of view as well noting that the Internet really is an inter-connected environment and that the language expressed therein is equally dynamic. The online students therefore profit both from "left-brain" skills of specificity and deduction and from "right-brain talents of intuition and interpretation. The fluidity and ambiguity of Net-delivered material, coupled with the need for specificity of expression and even clear typing/writing skills, may facilitate language learning online.
It has become clear that the timelessness and distancelessness of the electronic universe can release learners from the constraints of traditional classroom learning. It is also interesting that these qualities of Internet-delivered coursework can provoke fascinating new patterns of language development. And it now remains for the two-dimensional architecture of tradition that defines the typical institution of higher education to release itself from the bonds of time and space, from the linear limits of the bureaucracy-bound, so that new kinds of learning may be generated in a dimensionless new world.
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