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State of the (Language) Arts

Portrait: Beth KautzWith the aid of technological advances and expanding resources, language study at the University is advancing by leaps and megabytes. Continue Reading…

With the aid of technological advances and expanding resources, language study at the University is advancing by leaps and megabytes. The state-of-the-art language labs and classrooms in Jones Hall, completed in 2005, allow students and educators to chat informally with native speakers and gain access to a broad range of language and culture via the Internet. As a result, learning a language has become more interactive—and a lot more stimulating for both students and educators.

According to Beth Kautz, the most radical change in language instruction is the shift from using the computer as a tutor to using it as a tool that facilitates interactions with native speakers and access to “authentic” materials (e.g., books written for native speakers, Web interfaces these speakers would use to conduct real-life experiences such as booking a hotel, even chat rooms). Instead of learning a language strictly by the traditional kill-and-drill method, students may exchange e-mails with a “key pal,” or post notes on a message board.

As director of language instruction and associate education specialist, Kautz brings technological savvy and intellectual depth to the job of overseeing the GSD language program in general and German language instruction and curriculum development in particular. And she has her work cut out for her. “She mediates everything from running the language program to constructing an undergraduate German language curriculum that consists of up-to-date, intellectually challenging, affordable materials,” says Charlotte Melin, GSD chair.

Kautz credits two Web revolutions with making direct interactions accessible to students and educators: Wimba and voice over IP (internet telephone). Wimba allows groups of students to have a voice-threaded discussion and type a written message at the same time. It also enables them to post images from a Web site along with voice commentaries. In training sessions for educators, Kautz might have half of a class leave voice messages asking the other half to a party and describing the event. They in turn listen and respond to several invitations. Kautz says that Wimba has also been used for class-to-class exchanges with native speakers in French and Spanish classes.

Voice over IP services (for example, Skype or Vonage) allow users to speak over the Internet to people in other countries (like long-distance calls) and set up a webcam so that the speakers can see one another. Faculty members have used such programs to interview prospective graduate students from abroad, and students use it to talk to Internet pals, “just like on the old Jetsons television show.”

Polycam video recorders and teleconferencing capabilities have also facilitated international communication, such as German professor emeritus Gerhard Weiss’s recent conversation with a Canadian class about growing up in Berlin during World War II.

But Kautz cautions that sophisticated technology is of little value unless there is an infrastructure to support it. “We don’t just offer a roomful of computers. There is also ongoing training by an extensive staff and pedagogical support that sets the University apart from many schools,” she says.

With a Ph.D. in literature from the department, Kautz says her scholarly work has enriched her work as director and liaison—she knows the literature and culture, not just the language. That big picture context “shapes the character of what we’re doing, changes the way we teach language,” she notes.

Kautz has never stopped expanding her portfolio of skills. While she was working to develop an intermediate German textbook with an integrated Web site, she learned desktop publishing and Web development. She also has created video interviews with native speakers, edited them, and incorporated them into the Web site for listening comprehension exercises.

“The most satisfying aspect of my job is that I’m always learning something new,” says Kautz. “I’m a professional development junkie soaking it all up.”

About the CLA Language Center:

The CLA Language Center offers a range of courses and workshops including forums for on-campus language departments; weekend workshops for K-12 teachers in conjunction with the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA); week-long summer initiatives for training in technology; and a course titled Language Teaching and Technology, which is required for ESL and world language teachers who are getting their teaching licenses and is open to all University instructional staff.