Integrative Language and Culture Learning: Connecting Formal and Non-Formal Learning in Virtual Language Studies

Integrative Language and Culture Learning: Connecting Formal and Non-Formal Learning in Virtual Language Studies

Pete Smith (University of Texas Arlington, USA) and Jan Marston (Drake University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-1930-2.ch010

Abstract

VLS provided a model that supports study in less commonly taught languages at smaller and medium size colleges and universities, and that can also inform distance education or self-directed on-line study of languages in a broad range of institutions, organizations, and agencies.
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Background

Pedagogically, the VLS program unfolded at an exciting, dynamic time in second language and culture education. As evidenced by the focuses of the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages’ Standards of the late 1990’s, language educators are moving beyond a linguistic-only view of the language learning process:

The Standards (1999) grew out of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act ... and represent an effort to go beyond a limited four-skills view of language education, proposing in the process to change radically current teaching paradigms.[...] Rather than seeing language study as a fundamentally skill-oriented, self-contained enterprise that only tangentially includes culture in terms of practical competencies, the Standards encourage language instruction that focuses on its interdisciplinary implications and ability to influence learners in terms of developing an increased awareness of self and others and in terms of encouraging deep cognitive processing skills (Schultz, 2001, p. 13).

Post-secondary institutions throughout the U.S. and abroad were and are challenged by this complex view of language and culture education, with Drake University emerging over the past decade as an early proponent of language instruction, transformed from classroom-style language training into a more complex vision of language and cultural development on the part of learners.

DULAP’s (Drake University Language Acquisition Program) early experience with innovative pedagogy in a technology-rich teaching environment stretched back to 2002, and was highlighted in 2007 by a major foundation grant to disseminate program experience via the NELL consortium. NELL (The Network for Effective Language Learning), under the auspices of the CIC (Council of Independent Colleges) and the direction of Dr. Jan Marston, aimed to provide participating institutions with an opportunity to explore twenty-first century pedagogies strongly enriched by the use of technology. A further goal was to help participating institutions—all small to medium post-secondary institutions—to establish a network of like-minded schools that could leverage complementary strengths through collaborative efforts.

During the three-year funding period, NELL leadership collaborated with almost forty CIC institutions in total, bringing three cohorts of 10-15 schools together for a week-long summer meeting to enrich their instructional and administrative practice. As the NELL experience transformed into Virtual Language Studies (VLS), a two-year effort in 2009-2011 with generous federal support, Drake University welcomed into the network NELL participants Russell Sage College and Southern Vermont College, as well as Davis & Elkins College (not formally a NELL school, but a member of the Appalachian College Association, which had participated in NELL as a consortium) and Abilene Christian University. It is important to note that, at a time when most private colleges were engaging in significant budget cutting, VLS was able to attract partners in part due to the NELL experience, and in part due to the financial benefit of offering the two VLS critical languages—Russian and Chinese language and culture—to these schools without the institution having to lose tuition dollars.

Institutions in the NELL consortium were seeking newer, richer pedagogies to define language and culture learning, enabled by technology. And notably, the primary learning designs that defined VLS—mentoring, portfolios, and journaling/reflection—were each and all highlighted by the National Staff Development Council’s Journal of Staff Development (Summer, 1999) as “powerful designs for learning.” Although each of these tools sees widespread use in higher education, combined together in the VLS program, they provided a unique vision for and application of curricular design innovation to language teaching and learning.

Virtual Language Studies was conceived and funded as a fixed-term, two-year research project, proof of concept for a distributed, consortial language program, bringing together the decade’s vision and experience at Drake University, the technology components, and the goal of a more complex vision of language and culture teaching and learning.

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