ITP student Ashley Williard (French) reflects on her independent study project
Introduction and Pedagogy
Visit Mapping French
This project responds to the need to engage students in communicative and culturally relevant language use from their first semester in French. Beginning students are able to interact with one another in a meaningful and personalized context as they prepare several scaffolded steps (involving research, writing, and speaking) over the course of the semester to produce a final video project in small groups. Mapping technology creates an immersion experience though which students can plan, record, and share a virtual visit to France. Although the project relies heavily on digital media, students are guided step-by-step in the technologies and carry out each collaborative, digital assignment in the lab during class time. In the pilot run during spring 2013, the project helped students improve their language abilities and cultural insights, engaged student interest, and fostered metacognitive skills.
The project was originally inspired by a conversation with Valeria Belmonti, the lab director in the Department of World Languages and Literatures, College of Staten Island, CUNY (CSI), during which we discussed ways to make the final project for beginning French, a virtual trip to Paris, more truly virtual by using new media technologies. The original project, designed by Kathryn Talarico, involves research into sites of Paris for the purpose of planning an imagined five-day visit. Students are able to put their basic language skills to use in the real context of discussing their plans and research in final presentations, which consist of conversations accompanied by a slide show of images of the sites and monuments mentioned. The capstone project walks students through a progression of assignments. This structure is integral to the mapping project, which is indebted to Talarico’s model. Put simply, the idea of this project is to create a Web 2.0, interactive version of the virtual visit.
Language instructors have established a precedent for using Google Maps to carry out digital projects. Fujii, Elwood, and Orr describe an exchange project between a Japanese class in the United States and an English class in Japan, which share content in My Maps, a collaborative feature of Google Maps. Their students exchange cultural knowledge by posting images and captions in their target language on the shared maps of their respective universities and, in so doing, extend mapping beyond the classroom walls for cross-cultural interactions and informal learning. In Paravazian and Marandino’s Review of French Grammar course, students enact virtual tours of Paris using Street View in Google Maps in addition to completing traditional textbook exercises. The project’s learning objectives are threefold: “Simulate the study abroad experience by using technology to interact with course materials; Build linguistic skills and fluency by applying grammar and vocabulary to scenarios in Paris; Apply critical thinking skills to engage in dialogues and cultural experiences” (1). Rather than building toward a single, final video as do the students at CSI, Paravazian and Marandino’s more advanced students create a series of screencast videos, which require increasingly complex language structures, post these videos on YouTube, and collaborate on a Wiki. Their article provides detailed explanations of the tools used and structure implemented, and their project exemplifies the potential for mapping technology to create virtual study abroad experiences for interactive and authentic study of French language and culture.
In addition to these models, CSI’s lab director, Belmonti, was crucial to the project’s development and execution. She is not only informed about current technologies, but also cognizant of Second Language Acquisition research and aware of students’ practical needs and experience. Knowing I am invested in integrating new media in my classes, she first suggested incorporating mapping technology into the French I project. After a brainstorming session, she sent me references and ideas, which provided a jumping off point for our next meeting, where we personalized the project to our environment, a required elementary language class in the CUNY system. Reflecting on Belmonti’s past experiences, we decided it was best to prepare careful scaffolding and schedule all the technology requirements in the language lab during class. She anticipated students’ questions and planned for sufficient time to walk them through the technology. During lab sessions, she presented each step and circulated to assist students. Her support enabled me to focus on preparing materials, communicating with students, evaluating student work, and assessing the project. Collaboration allowed us to benefit from our different experiences as teacher and technologist, in the classroom and in the lab, to successfully integrate technology and pedagogy.
Just as I have learned from previous projects and other educators, I hope to share my project for future collaborations and am invested in the process of reuse and openness made possible by digital platforms. Beyond its application in a first-semester French course, this project has two other motivating factors. First, the general process by which I organize the assignments could be easily repeated not only for other languages, but for other disciplines, such as history, literature, and sociology. Second, the technology used is widely available, free, and simple to use. I hope this will expand the applicability of the project and encourage its adaptation to a range of contexts. The assignments and samples can be accessed at this course template, which I plan to adapt as a resource site, linked to my personal teaching and research web site, in the future.
In its current form, the project proposes an example of how new media technologies can bring together the related goals of culture and communication. Students make cultural observations about the city they research based on authentic images of everyday life in Google My Maps, Street View, and other web resources. As Claire Kramsch argues, language is embedded with and expresses cultural meaning, and language instruction should reflect this reality (3–14). On both sides of the Atlantic, language learning standards call for not only cultural knowledge acquisition, but also critical thinking through analysis (“Cultures” and “Comparisons” for the National Standards, “interculturality” for the Common European Framework). For this project, students place cultural content in a comparative context through their responses to classmates’ projects and through reflective writing. Responding to the need for students to communicate in authentic ways (Lee and VanPatten 21–35), the final video features an informal dialogue that interacts with the visuals assembled. Although they are limited by their first-semester language abilities, students are grounded in research and guided by a detailed prompt, and even the most basic language structures come to life in the imagined scenario.
This project allows students a hands-on experience of France in the form of a virtual visit. Materials available online provide access to authentic language use and cultural artifacts (Guth and Helm 2011 217-219), which students can investigate as primary sources like they do in disciplines such as history and cultural studies (Bass 7-12). By contextualizing analytic and experiential language learning, “[t]he use of satellite television, Internet resources, and other technological aids to instruction can increase opportunities for meaningful comprehension and production activities” (Omaggio Hadley 143). Klemm and Tuthill stress accessibility as a significant benefit of virtual field trips; new media resources allow students to overcome barriers of distance and economic opportunity (191). Many CSI students may not have the occasion to study abroad, but this project provides them a perspective into life in France from their first semester of French. These assignments could also serve as preparation for a semester overseas. New technologies can play a key role in creating such virtual environments, where students actively engage in experiential learning through collaboration and exploration (187). As recent studies in virtual worlds and language learning have shown, simulated environments can enhance communication skills and cultural awareness (Molka-Danielson et al.; Hislope 51–58; Chen and Su). As they navigate their cities with Street View, students are able to direct their own learning experiences. They not only research French monuments, but also interact with the cultural context: students can choose to go down an unmarked passage, explore a market, or zoom in on a cafe. The wandering that occurs allows them to stumble upon new information and make unexpected observations.
By simultaneously speaking and doing in a virtual space, students connect their language use to their immediate reality, and their movement contributes to fluency (Paravazian and Marandino 2). In the final step of the mapping project, students give directions in French and navigate their city in Street View, making their spoken language meaningful through the live movement of the virtual tour. As one student says “continue tout droit” or “tourne à gauche,” another group member presses the appropriate keyboard arrow to move their perspective through the three-dimensional city view. Students avoid translation as they embody target language meaning in their actions. In the classroom, physical movement and gestures often accompany communicative exercises, and students’ active responses to imperative statements help them gain vocabulary and improve listening competency (Asher; Asher, Kusudo, and de la Torre). Instead of responding to an instructor’s commands, in this project, students create their own directions, which they actualize in their navigation through a virtual space. The result is a communicative and learner-centered interpretation of Asher’s Total Physical Response method.
We implemented a pilot run of the project with the 20 students in Basic French I, a first-semester language course, during the spring 2013 semester. By pacing the assignments over the second half of the semester, students practiced language skills, gained cultural insights, and improved digital literacy without being overwhelmed or distracted by the new technologies. The project took place over the course of two months:
- Materials distributed to students (week one)
- Students’ scaffolded work:
- Preliminary research (due week three)
- Map of locations (week four, one class in lab)
- First draft of conversation (due week five)
- Peer workshop (week five, in class)
- Final draft of conversation (due week six)
- Assemble videos (week seven, two classes in lab)
- Present videos in class (week eight, final week of semester)
- Submit reflective writing assignment (week eight)
The project involved the following tools:
- Google Sites: Students registered for Google accounts and were invited to join the site, where they were able to comment, view content, and add documents. We chose Google Sites for its simple interface, which resembles a word processor in edit mode, but WordPress could also be an effective tool. We limited students’ work on the class site to a minimum so that they could focus their attention on the assignments. Students’ maps, writing, and videos were uploaded to the appropriate pages of the site so that they were able to share their projects with classmates. Instructions for each step, tutorials for digital tools, and models were also available on the site.
- Google Maps: Students used two features of Google Maps. First, they collaborated to create maps of their cities in My Maps by adding markers, labels, and images of their featured locations and by making observations about the city layout. Second, they used Street View to explore the city and “walk” from one location to the next. Students examined details such as architecture, signs, storefronts, vehicles, and pedestrians in this mode. They practiced giving directions in French while navigating the streets with keyboard and mouse commands. They were able to toggle between the two-dimensional map and the three-dimensional view of their cities.
- Screencast-O-Matic: Students recorded their maps, images, Street View, and conversations with this simple, free screen-recording software. The advantages of this particular application are its ability to run within a browser without download and its free fifteen minutes of recording. This was an important feature since students’ videos ended up being over ten minutes.
- YouTube: Once students exported their videos and saved them to CD, we uploaded the videos to YouTube and published them on the class site. The videos were saved as “unlisted” (so that they were available for viewing with the URL but could not be found in a search engine) and projected in class on the final day.
For the first step, students researched their sites of interest and wrote a two-page response paper on their findings in English, as they do in Talarico’s project. They broke into groups and chose a city in France including but not limited to Paris; this variety extended their experiences with French culture and language beyond the capital and allowed students to examine the diversity within France’s borders. Once Street View has expanded to more locations, I would encourage expanding the project to the French-speaking world beyond metropolitan France.Even the simple process of selecting cities revealed an encouraging level of engagement among students. The day I introduced the project, I provided a list of cities that I had reviewed on Google Maps and students quickly sought out cities not on the list I provided. For instance, one group approached me immediately to ask to study Cannes because of their interest in cinema. Students’ eagerness to imagine possibilities beyond those I anticipated revealed a level of motivation that is important, if at times difficult to attain, in a required language course. I took this originality as the first sign of success, which fortunately recurred throughout the project’s realization.
The preliminary research process did not vary greatly from the original project, but supplemental requirements guided students to websites in French about their different cities. For example, students searched specific terms, such as “mairie” and “office de tourisme” and their city name. We had an in-class discussion on the use of wikipedia.fr as a starting point, where students could locate original references rather than cite Wikipedia directly. One of the objectives of this step, as Talarico notes, is for students to gain research skills in the process of sorting through online information. In the individual papers resulting from this research, students showed impressive engagement with academic integrity and creative writing. Rather than quoting long factual passages, they wrote in the first person on the websites’ content and accessibility and commented on issues that interested them personally. One student created a detailed journal containing the narrative of an imagined visit with information on monuments and French phrases throughout. Another student planned a literary tour of Paris based on The Sun Also Rises and included historic context for the sites mentioned. Both students’ writing reveals the personal investment students made in the project, even before we had begun the mapping element.
Once students had individually researched their cities, they came together in their groups of two or three to narrow down and map their sites of interest. Creating a collaborative map in My Maps was the first step to prepare the virtual visit video. Mapping locations was also purposeful in itself since students were able to visualize the layout and transportation options for the city being studied, a theme on which they would comment in their final papers. Future projects might involve a range of mapping resources, such as historical maps, demographic visualizations, or voting breakdowns, to encourage additional analysis. We spent one full period in the language lab to assemble this step. Students came prepared with the list of sites upon which their groups had agreed as well as links to the images they wanted to embed in their maps. These images provided details their maps did not always provide (e.g., the interior of a store, a painting, a table setting, a night view). Some students changed their plans once they realized how distant locations were one from the other, adjustments that point to the tension between structure and improvisation in assignment design. As much as detailed scaffolding guides students through each step of the project, some of the most meaningful learning occurs in the unexpected discoveries. The exploratory nature of mapping and Street View allows students to stumble upon the unexpected. For example, they commented on the narrowness of streets, the distance between locations, and the names of restaurants and stores. These details were memorable and provoked genuine interest and authentic cultural analysis, which was obvious as I observed students carrying on casual comparative discussions in the lab. More than anything, the maps helped students transition from research to a more hands-on interaction with their cities.
Figure 1: Sample Student Map
To prepare for the video, students wrote and revised conversation scripts based on the structures we had been using in class. I asked them to imagine that they had just arrived in France for a study abroad and had three days to plan a visit of the city before their classes started. The prompt listed particular communicative structures students needed to include in their conversations (giving directions, making plans, expressing likes/dislikes, etc.) with examples, textbook page references, and a model to guide them. These specifications are important for beginning language-learners because they remind students what they know how to say in French rather than leaving them to translate what they want to say from their higher-level English. Beyond the written prompt, students based their scripts on audio examples we reviewed for comprehension and improvised skits we practiced in class.
Students participated in a guided workshop of their scripts to help their peers in the revision process. Once they exchanged comments with their classmates, I gave them my own feedback, which identified repeated errors and structural issues. Responding to these suggestions, several groups went through three or even four drafts of revisions. In their final drafts, students incorporated annotations that would guide their video recordings. They learned from writing mistakes by actively revising their work and took ownership of the revision process as they improved their texts collaboratively. By working through language errors in their groups, in discussion, and in writing, students externalized the revision process, became more sensitive to common mistakes (e.g., verb agreement, prepositions, question formation), and had the opportunity to notice these issues in their own writing.
In future implementations of the project, I would like to incorporate as much formal scaffolding in the speaking as currently exists for the writing process. First, I would highlight the importance of the pronunciation of the texts students prepare. Several students rehearsed their lines with me and made pronunciation notes on their copies, but it would be useful to require students to do a practice recording and submit it as homework. Students could also be required to work with the instructor, a tutor, or even pronunciation software to improve their speaking skills. Second, I would place more emphasis on the production of communicative language rather than the production of one “perfect” written script by spending even more class time on sketches based on isolated communication tasks (e.g., deciding on a meeting place and time). By repeatedly practicing the relevant structures in an interactive, low-stakes setting, students become more comfortable improvising with each other.
Following the preparation of scripts, the project culminated in videos of students’ conversations accompanying images of their cities. Once students had created their maps with pegs on their locations of interest, we took a twenty-minute exploration period in the lab to introduce Street View and a screencasting program. They then had two weeks to practice outside the lab and prepare their annotated scripts before our scheduled recording time. Students recorded a combination of visuals to accompany their conversations. They showed panoramic views of streets, architecture, and monuments through Street View. They also used their maps to show the city as a whole and their embedded images to show additional details. Lastly, each student was required to give directions between two locations while navigating through Street View.
Figure 2: Sample Student Video Screenshot
The lab director walked students through every step and allowed them to record the screencast in the lab over two sessions. One period served as a rehearsal and the other was our recording period. It would have been useful to plan for one longer period during which students would work on the project because some students reported feeling rushed by the time constraints (see the student response section below). The only technical difficulty that arose was students’ confusion about pausing and restarting their recordings, but I was easily able to edit the unintended audio out of the final videos. The project seems to inspire accountability and even perfectionism because students knew that they would have a final product published on the class site and projected during class. One group returned to the lab during their own time to re-record their video and to add graphics and music because they were dissatisfied with the outcome in the lab. Similarly, several students mentioned that they would have liked to be able to use more video editing software with their projects. I am hesitant, however, to place too much emphasis on the final product in this way because I see the value of the project in the process of speaking and virtually visiting the city simultaneously.
Results and Reflection
For the final step in the project, students wrote a reflective paper, as they do in Talarico’s project. They incorporated the research that they had completed earlier in the semester to reflect on what they had learned about their cities and their experience learning French language and culture through the project. Students also responded to an anonymous survey that measured their feedback. Selected comments and survey results (from the 15 students who completed it) are grouped into categories below. During the fall 2013 semester, another French instructor at CSI carried out the project with her Basic French I class; her survey and questionnaire results are referenced in the analysis below.
Figure 3: The technology component was difficult to handle
According to the survey, most students (64.3%) did not think that the technology was difficult to handle, but 35.7% did find the technology challenging. In their final papers, a few students commented that the digital tools were at times overwhelming, especially due to time constraints in the lab:
Various technologies were used to make the experience more realistic, but it was a little confusing on how to use it at first. […] There were times that the technology faltered it made it difficult to achieve the result desired, but there was help to assist in the technical part of the project and also to assist in pronunciations. The one Thing I would suggest is longer lab time. With more lab time, it makes it possible to fix any errors of the project.
The difficult part of the project structure to me was the various technologies (street view) and the time we had in the lab. The street view was difficult for me because of course I’m not use to this city and the streets all started looking the same as I was looking for shopping stores. But the solution to that problem was the mapping which came in handy.
Students found solutions with the help of the lab director, instructor, and staff. Additional lab time would help reduce this stress. Although some students felt rushed in the lab, others (one-third) felt that there was too much of a focus on the final project, according to the survey. I hope to strike the appropriate balance as the project becomes streamlined over time.
Like some students, the other instructor expressed some frustration with time limitations at the end of the semester and the desire to schedule additional classes in the lab, especially because she had not scheduled as many sessions as I recommended. Although the other instructor claimed that the technology component was easy to handle and that my instructions were “excellent, clear, concise and precise,” she had some concerns with her preparation to introduce the digital tools to students. In particular, she wished she had spent more time acclimating herself with the technology, for example, by creating a sample project “to anticipate the challenges of the students.” Besides ongoing email correspondence, we had one in-person meeting to review the website and steps together; however, if I were to train instructors in the future, I would create a practice video with them and strongly recommend that they go through each step again before the students.
Beyond these challenges, some students found the technology to be straightforward and even requested more tools to improve their videos: “The technology was self-explanatory, although there could have been more editing tools because with the pausing and navigating throughout the city causes the video to look a bit choppy at times.” Most students found that the technology enhanced their experience of the project, especially the virtual visit through Street View, as two student comments attest:
The most valuable part was Google maps because we visually saw where we were. Navigating at first was a little confusing but it was never too hard. It was cool that we were able to visit Paris without actually being there.
I also love that technology played a big part of this project and I in particular was amazed of how we could view the city of Paris while at the computer lab […] That I feel was the best part of this research.
While some students appreciated the realistic experience that mapping created, one student commented that the project helped her developing digital literacy: “The new technology was definitely useful for this project and also for future references,” a statement that illustrates the project’s capacity to benefit students outside the language classroom.
Figure 4: I have a better understanding of the French language because of the project
Most students (86.7%) responded that they have a better understanding of French language because of the project. A few students commented on language difficulties in the research process. As they confronted these challenges, students were able to see their developing French skills in a real-life context, as two of their comments reveal:
The most difficult part of the research was going through so many sites to find them in French, but using my new vocabulary and with the help of the textbook I was able to loosely translate and navigate the sites.
Some of them were translated into English, but others were the genuine French websites (like the Grevin Wax Museum). I enjoyed this challenge because, although I could not understand everything on the site, I could make sense of most of it through context and what I’ve learned in this course. I could not acquire as many details through these sites, but it was a valuable learning experience.
Students thus were able to appreciate the process of deciphering an unfamiliar and difficult text in the context of the project. Besides reading in the research stage, many students remarked that the dialogue enhanced their speaking skills. For example, students reported improved pronunciation as a result of the process of repeating and recording their script:
It definitely helped my pronunciation a lot because I was always practicing the pronunciation for the recording of our dialogue.
This project helped me with pronouncing words better because I was able to use Google to listen to these words and pronounce them better when I had to record the video.
This second remark references the use of the audio reading feature on Google translate, a resources with which I recommended students experiment as they prepared their dialogues, although I warned them that the intonation is not very realistic. This tool is particularly useful for beginning learners practicing isolated words. Other than pronunciation, the virtual visit contextualized their language use and made their communication meaningful, a key pedagogical goal that they were able to articulate in their comments:.
It also helped with my French language because of the conversation that we had to come up with our partner. The conversation part of the project was a little bit difficult, but then I found it easy along the way because it’s all the basic things we learn in class but just a little more in depth.
This project helped in my learning French experience because we had to communicate with each other in only French while we were traveling around Paris. This helped me remember what certain words were and it gave me a better understanding because it’s like we were in Paris.
The process of preparing a dialogue for a realistic situation bolstered by new media ultimately helped students understand and recall the structures and vocabulary studied in class.
Figure 5: I have a better understanding of French culture because of the project
All students who chose to respond to the question indicated that the project helped their understanding of French culture. Several commented on the knowledge they gained through research and mapping:
This project helped my knowledge about certain French cultures and how the city of Nice is structured.
Through the process of research I began to uncover all the other festivals that are held and I became even more fascinated by the city.
This virtual trip project to Nice, France really helped me learned a lot about Nice and the famous landmarks the city has to offer.
In their final papers, students reflected a wide range of cultural knowledge and insights about the cities they studied. To advance their cultural analysis, I would encourage students to compare and contrast cultural elements with the support of models and class discussion in future projects.
Although I see some improvements to be made, the other instructor found the project enriching for students’ learning of French language and culture, and she was especially pleased with its integration of course content: “I thought the whole thing was fantastic, especially as it made close use of the language, grammar, and culture students were learning in the French I curriculum.”
Figure 6: I enjoyed the project
Figure 7: I found the project enriching
100% of students who responded reported that they enjoyed the project and found it enriching. They generally had positive comments on the project and their motivation to participate in it. For example, one student remarked, “The research was fun because I wanted to know more about Paris so it wasn’t really work.” The interaction with French cities expanded at least one student’s desire to go abroad: “I enjoyed doing this project because it actually heightened my dream of going to France. It’s always been a dream of mine to go to Paris, but now that I’ve done my research on Nice, I have another dream!” Based on her own positive experience, another student thought the project could benefit other language classes: “Overall I thought the project was an excellent experience and I would recommend that all language teachers implement a project like this one into their planning.” Students described the process of taking ownership of their projects and reported pride in the final product they completed, as numerous comments attest:
This method of working gave students a sense of being on their own. It makes it possible for them to get the work done in their own way.
We really wanted to make it something we would enjoy watching and I felt we managed to do that to some point.
I felt a sense of pride after completing the project and watching the video, it was nothing like I imagined while planning the virtual trip. Watching the video however helped me realize how much I’ve learned over the course of this semester.
Working on this project was fun and when it was done it gave me a feeling of accomplishment. I was like “wow we actually did it and it came out great.”
Although student feedback may not be the best way to evaluate improvements in students’ cultural knowledge or communication skills, these comments do reveal the motivating feelings of curiosity, ownership, and accomplishment that the project inspired.
In responding to these questions, students articulated the purpose of the assignments for themselves and engaged in active learning. As they specified what they saw as the benefits (technical, cultural, or linguistic), students personalized the project and were able to find purpose for themselves rather than have it assigned to them. In the reflective paper, based on Talarico’s project, students also gave themselves and their partners grades and commented on their performance. As students evaluated themselves, they developed their metacognitive skills. Bransford et al. explain the need for educators to incorporate such activities into their assignments: “The teaching of metacognitive skills should be integrated into the curriculum in a variety of subject areas. Because metacognition often takes the form of an internal dialogue, many students may be unaware of its importance unless the processes are explicitly emphasized by teachers” (21). As a result of assignments such as reflective writing, students develop increased awareness of their learning process, which contributes to students’ ability to adapt their skills to unfamiliar circumstances: “Metacognitive approaches to instruction have been shown to increase the degree to which students will transfer to new situations without the need for explicit prompting” (67). When students become aware of their strengths and weaknesses, they are more able to extend their linguistic skills, cultural knowledge, and critical thinking beyond the French language classroom.
As my observations as well as student and instructor feedback suggest, these assignments provide a means to teach language and culture that could be adapted to a variety of environments and curricula. In particular, student responses reveal the potential for virtual visits to add an enriching, experiential element to language learning. New media can thus not only expose students to foreign artifacts, images, and documents, but also allow them to interact with a culturally-relevant environment in real time and on a personal level. Dialogue and directions in the target-language add a communicative element that enhances this immersion experience. The process of creating and sharing a final digital video – of “building something” – ties the basic language curriculum together in a rewarding manner that moves students’ language-use beyond decontextualized grammar drills, homework, and exams. Perhaps most valuable, the pilot run of the project motivated students to take ownership of their learning process, which is a promising foundation on which to build in future digital projects.
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