L’education en ligne

This week, I’m wrapping up my first MOOC - an excellent course on climate change taught by two professors from the University of British Columbia.

Completing this online course leaves me with the feeling that – while I’ve learned a great deal – I must actually do something.  AGW is a clear and present danger – and, while some of us won’t live to see the worst of it – it’s already changing our world.

But doing something serious about global warming involves political leadership, and I’m a bit past the time of life when you want to strap on armor for that kind of crusade.
While I ponder AGW, though, I’ve moved on to a completely different type of online learning.  I’m now two weeks into dusting off my high school and college French, thanks to a free website called duolingo.com.   

This isn’t a MOOC.  It’s much more like the sort of interactive language learning you can obtain by buying software from Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur.  

Except that duolingo.com is free.

Which is a little hard to believe.

There’s a story behind why duolingo can offer the equivalent of Rosetta Stone, online, at no charge.  If you’re interested, search online for the TED talk by duolingo creator Luis von Ahn.  It explains the whole concept.

For me, the great thing is that I’ve started getting my French back.  I’m taking it easy – spending ten or twenty minutes a day – but even at that gentle rate, my vocabulary is starting to come back, as are concepts of gender agreement and sentence structure.

And the program is so pleasant to use that I’ve not missed a single day so far.

If I can maintain this pace, I should have decent, useable French by Christmas.

As with the climate change MOOC, my duolingo experience has started me thinking about our society’s long-held assumptions about what education is – and how we determine who has it.

With language, determining a person’s competence would seem to be particularly easy.  Any reasonably well-educated native speaker of American English could “grade” the fluency of a non-native speaker by chatting with them for five or ten minutes.

You can bet the same thing happens to us when we, say, try out our school French on a Parisian waiter – except that le garçon has probably graded us in the first five seconds.

I have severe doubts about the efficacy of multiple choice tests on any subject – but for language, they’re just silly.  The whole point of learning a language is to be able to use it – to speak, hear, read and write it.  And in today’s world, the main thing is the spoken word.

Which should eliminate entirely the whole business of using high school or college transcripts to authenticate mastery of a second language.  I imagine a great many of my readers have a dusty old transcript somewhere certifying that they have taken X years of high school Spanish – or Y semesters of college French.

And I imagine most would admit that they’d be utterly lost if called upon, today, to ask for directions to the bathroom.

In other words, the transcript is essentially meaningless.  The true test is purely practical.  It makes no difference how much fanny-time you’ve put in.  What matters is your ability to use the language – right now.

And that is true, whether from the perspective of a potential employer or an institution of learning.  The transcript is nothing.  What matters is how well you can communicate in a language – how well you can read it, speak it, and understand it when it’s spoken to you.

I’m beginning to think we need to start developing similar, practical tests for all sorts of learning.  But that’s not today’s sermon.

Today, I want to urge you to consider learning – or re-learning – another language.  This website is a powerful tool.  It’s easy.  It’s free.  And it’s adaptable for use by groups – either cooperatively or in competition with each other.

Since I stumbled upon duolingo.com, I’ve heard from friends of my age – or older – who have signed on to regain a lost language.

I’ve spoken with a smart young lady – a manager at the Staunton Martin’s – who sees this as a way to move up in her career.

And a young mother – a college faculty member – who plans to start learning Spanish with her five-year-old daughter.

I’m planning to write to my friends at the Shepherd’s Center to suggest incorporating duolingo.com into their curriculum.  It would be so easy to find a fluent speaker to host a weekly chat group – what German language students call a Stammtisch – in each of several languages.

Students could study on their own, meeting every week to celebrate what they’ve learned.  

We’re living in a remarkble era.  It has its dark, dire aspects, but every now and then, it’s pretty incredible.


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