Mellon grant helps profs design high-tech aids for teaching foreign languages

By Mary Boone

Teaching college students the art of creating Mandarin Chinese characters was never easy. There were chalkboard demonstrations, handouts and repeated explanations of the differences between traditional and simplified characters.

“If you’re learning 30 new words during a class, it’s difficult for students to go back to their rooms and remember the stroke order and pronunciation of all those characters,” says Puget Sound Instructor Lotus Perry.

Mandarin Chinese hasn’t become any less complicated, but the use of technology has made it easier and more interesting for students to practice both writing and speaking.

A grant from the Mellon Foundation has helped Puget Sound integrate technology into all its foreign language courses. The $250,000 grant was awarded to a consortium of Northwest colleges—Puget Sound, Lewis and Clark, Whitman and Willamette—and has been used differently by each of the schools.

At Puget Sound some of the money went to faculty release time, travel and software, but most was invested in student assistance. Foreign language faculty members first learned how they could best integrate technology into their teaching. The school then partnered with students by hiring them to download slides, build Web sites and create animation programs like the one Perry uses to teach stroke technique.

“Technology isn’t a panacea, but it has allowed us to ask: How can technology help us do a better job of what we’re already doing?” says Michel Rocchi, chair of the foreign languages and literature department.

Rocchi and other faculty members underwent training at Middlebury College in Vermont, which the Mellon Foundation designated as its technology training center. Those Puget Sound professors, among them Harry Velez and David Tinsley, later offered hands-on workshops for the faculty back home.

“Some of my colleagues were real techno-geeks, so their training was at a higher level,” says Rocchi. “I, on the other hand, went from fountain pen to PowerPoint all in one year. We all started at different places along that continuum, but we’ve united in understanding that there are many ways technology can help us become more effective teachers.”

Grant funds also were used make technological upgrades in classrooms. Wyatt Hall’s new “turnaround” classrooms, for example, are equipped with U-shaped tables at which students sit for lecture portions of class and then, quite literally, they can turn around to access individual computers and apply what they’ve learned.

“Previously we would tell students, before the next class you should check out the online newspaper accounts of something like the Lisbon earthquake,” says Rocchi. “Now, at the click of a button we can show them what we’re talking about, discuss it as a class and go on.

“We can also have students work on in-class assignments and the professor can monitor what each of them is doing,” he says. “We can find a student who’s on-target with the concept we’re discussing and project that onto the screen so everyone can see it.”

Self-testing and audio programs allow students to practice outside class and make assignments more interactive.

“We’re using cutting-edge technology to create cutting-edge teaching,” says Rocchi. “This is a world filled with technology. We’re excited to be able to involve students in this work so that they’re better prepared for the world beyond college.”