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Language learning moves into the digital age

Friday, November 16, 2007

Say the word “hybrid” and what may come to mind first is an environmentally friendly, fuel-efficient car.

But for students at Michigan State University, it means an innovative blend of traditional classroom instruction and online learning that is changing the way they acquire proficiency in reading, writing and speaking a foreign language.

Students in an upper-level German course co-taught by doctoral student Angelika Kraemer, for example, are using blogs, wikis, podcasts, chats and interactive comprehension activities to improve their understanding of the language.

The course, GRM 455, focuses on German fairy tales and explores how the stories – like those made famous by the Brothers Grimm and popularized worldwide by Walt Disney – have been used to communicate social and psychological experiences and to institutionalize culture, values and taste.

“One of the major benefits of implementing technology in language learning is that the students have more diverse opportunities to use the language,” said Kraemer, whose dissertation examines how students in upper-level German literature and culture courses, which are typically taught in German, can benefit from supplementary online practice in language skills.

Students write blogs in German to respond to assigned readings and class discussions and participate in a group wiki that focuses on related topics, including the elements of fairy tales and famous writers and collectors of fairy tales. Kraemer records course readings and makes them available as podcasts on Angel, an online course management system on campus. Students are also required to chat with their classmates on Angel at least three times during the semester.

“I believe that a hybrid course that combines extensive internet applications and in-class discussion promotes the movement in higher education toward the future in technology and globalization,” said Precious Paul, a junior majoring in political science and international studies major who is taking the course. “I absolutely love the structure of German 455 because it does just that and I believe I’m learning a lot more because of it.”

Students in the course worked together on a midterm multimedia team project on German cultural identity. Based on readings and the viewing of German video clips, the students produced their own short videos representing their own cultural backgrounds. These videos are now being shared with students in Germany who are studying English with Kraemer’s brother, Oliver Kraemer, who teaches at Robert-Bosch-Gymnasium in Wendlingen.

Many of the electronic tools used in MSU language courses, including GRM 455, have been developed by experts in second-language studies in the Center for Language Education and Research (CLEAR).

A CLEAR program called “Conversations” allows teachers to record questions that can be accessed by students anywhere and anytime they’re online. SMILE (Server-Managed Interactive Language Exercises) is a program that enables instructors to create a set of online questions that tests students’ comprehension of any language and content area, including vocabulary and grammar, and then to provide instant feedback. A new program allows students to create their own “mashup,” a Web application that combines data from more than one source – including video, audio, text and SMILE exercises – into a single integrated language learning tool.

As demand for language courses increases, MSU is discovering the many benefits of hybrid learning, including flexible scheduling and increased computer literacy. Hybrid courses can be accessed more easily by working students, graduate students, high school students and high school language teachers.

Kraemer’s course provides a model of technology integration that can easily be transferred to other course content and other languages.

Several trends are coming together to create demand for language courses at MSU and elsewhere, a demand that hybrid courses can help satisfy, said Karin Wurst, dean of the College of Arts and Letters.

“First, of course, is MSU’s effort to create a truly internationalized experience for students in all programs, which is generating a strong interest in and demand for language and culture courses,” she said.

“At the state level, the need to improve the global competitiveness of business and industry means that many workers will be required to learn another language. Nationally, the federal government has made language learning a priority, especially in languages that are considered strategic for economic and security reasons, such as Arabic and Chinese. Global developments over the next several decades will only increase the current high demand for foreign language proficiency.”

Language faculty in the College of Arts and Letters are studying the benefits of hybrid courses with an eye to expanding offerings over the next two years.

“In my experience,” said Kraemer, “hybrid courses enable students to make meaningful connections with other students and encourage self-directed learning, critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, time management and computer skills. It’s a new and exciting direction for language learning and teaching.”

Contact information:

  • Kristan Tetens, College of Arts and Letters
  • E-mail:
  • Phone: 517-355-5633