Twentieth Century French
of a case study by Nicole Vaget
of French at Mount Holyoke College
In August 1999, I received a call from Washington, DC, asking
me to create a beginners French course on line using the Capretz
method "French in Action". The project, sponsored by
the World Bank, was a part of the African Virtual University curriculum.
I was not familiar with "distance education", but, out
of sheer curiosity, I accepted the challenge.
The students were from Anglophone African universities in Ghana,
Kenya, Mauritania, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. The task was
new to me and at first quite daunting. However, confident in my
expertise in information technology, I created a very successful
course, personally teaching the first third of the course (nine
lessons) and passing the baton to a colleague who teaches French
at Georgetown University, for the rest of the year.
She can use the Washington studios of AVU, which simplifies the
procedure and reduces the coast.
What was the infrastucture of the course?
- In the US:
A broadcasting studio in Washington,
with a coordinator, Sidiki Traore, member of the AVU administration,
who supervised the project and monitored feedback after each
A broadcasting studio in Amherst
at the UMass School of Engineering, with a team of cameramen
and sound technicians, a project supervisor, a studio director,
a content specialist, and me as "talking head."
- Live sessions were first broadcast from the studio in Umass
and uploaded to the AVU's studio in Washington via satellite
or telephone lines (which was cheaper but
caused problems). The studio in Washington, in turn, broadcast
the live session to the different AVU sites in East Africa.
- In Africa:
At the different sites of AVU, there
were regular classes with students and teachers meeting five
times a week. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday
and Thursday classes were conducted by local instructors called
"moderators," while the Friday sessions were live and
taught by me from the US.
Depending on the time zone of each country,
there was a 5- to 7- hour difference, therefore I had to teach
first thing in the morning so that they could catch me as their
last class in the afternoon.
- What are the pitfalls of working in a studio?
In traditional teaching, instructors work individually and are
entirely involved in their performance. "distance education"
is team work. Solid contact must be established and a good understanding
of everybody's task is required. The cameraman must follow the
"talking head" to make sure that images and words always
coincide. None of the Umass technicians
I worked with understood French, therefore, I often had to interrupt
my French to give verbal directions in English. I also kept an
eye on the TV monitor to see if cameramen were following. My
attention was divided between the accuracy of my delivery, my
physical style, and the camera work, insuring that images and
words coincided. Such a multitask performance requires
concentration, self confidence and a certain dose of nonchalance.
- Friday sessions:
Every Friday morning, I would get up at 6, dress
up, put on make up, and drive to the School of Engineering
at Umass to meet the other members of the broadcasting team who
had also arisen at the crack of dawn. The live sessions went
from 8 AM to 10 AM. Class content was similar to any traditional
language class. The first 30 minutes were spent presenting lesson
material of the week. The remaining 90 minutes were spent calling
one site after another, talking to individual students one-to-one.
It was an ongoing oral quiz given in the form of a conversation.
- Indispensability of the Net :
Communication with individual teachers was done via e-mail;
management and coordination of the course was done via the web.
Syllabus, course material, and grammar instruction were posted
on the web. Culture and phonetics were reserved for the live
sessions. However, to my surprise and delight, after a while
students told me they preferred grammar to "cultural stuff".
They were interested in "learning French", and could
care less about "France". How refreshing! There goes
our sacrosanct "language in context" theory.
- The Net made this course possible.
- The WEB was used as a course
manager: all nonverbal communication was done via the web. The
moderators needed direction for their daily lessons and found
them on the web pages that were created weekly to guide them
in using the "French in Action" material. This instruction
on line was necessary to prepare the four planned contact hours
between moderators and students. Students did not have access
to the web, but the moderators did.
- Mondays moderators and students worked with a video of the
- Tuesdays they did interactive exercises in the workbook designed
to be used with individual audio-tapes.
- Wednesdays they worked on the text of the lesson using oral
- Thursday they did creative oral and written work to practice
and re-enact material covered by the lesson.
- Friday students were then ready to take a live quiz and to
ask me questions via telephone about the lesson of the week.
The new lesson for the following week was also introduced.
- E-mail was used for personal
communication with the instructors.
- Live sessions via Satellite
provided a forum for direct interaction with the students.
"Distance Education," a powerful tool
of the future.
This method is cutting edge technology and requires that the
professor be a talented webmaster. Web pages must be created
in a coherent, attractive, and easily accessible format, which
implies fluency in Information Technology. Computer literacy,
which requires the mastery of word processor, e-mail, and web
browsers, is not enough. Fluency in Information
Technology is a must. It involves expertise in the use of desktop
publishing tools such as Photoshop, PageMaker, DreamWeaver, or
GoLive, to create documents and web pages. It takes time -- lots
of time -- and I recommend it only to those who are already addicted
to the hypnotic power of their computer screen.
In conclusion, information technologies allow
us to renew ourselves and our means of teaching:
- To be part of the Virtual Renaissance
brought about by technology is to acquire the means to transcend
borders, time, and space. Teaching is no longer limited
to the confines of the traditional classroom. This AVU course
in elementary French has brought together three continents through:
The teacher in America, the students in Africa, and the course
content from Europe.
- To use global information is to intensify
our own productivity. The advent of technology gives us
unlimited power of contact and an ever-increasing ability to
reach and deliver our courseware to a seemingly unlimited number
- To use information technology is to
renew sociability and create new connectivity. When you
are weary of your colleagues and their predictable reactions
to your ideas, just escape to cyberspace and choose a new set
of co-workers who are likely to admire you unconditionally! Technology,
like teaching, is sexy. Both are powerful, intoxicating, and
safe tools of seduction.
- To join the cyber revolution is
to take part in a global movement of democratization and expansion
of boundaries. The experience of African Virtual University is
a formidable and touching example of how the educational institutions
of the Western world can reach out to help less privileged countries.
The Net should not be an elitist tool. Global information should
be available to all.
- Information technologies are a welcome
alternative to the routine of traditional teaching. Instead of walking to class two or
three times a week with pens, books and an occasional video tape,
get set to share your intellectual wealth and pedagogical talents
with the world.