While most AU students enjoy the flexibility of distance education and the freedom it gives them from the confines of scheduled classes, there are also inherent difficulties in the process. For example, when learning French by distance education, how are students to cope with distance education’s lack of face-to-face interaction?
?An essential aspect of language training consists of in-class oral interaction between students and instructors in the target language,? says Dr. Vina Tirven-Gadum, Assistant Professor of French Language and Literature at AU. ?As we are a distance institution, it is not always easy to replicate this face-to-face interaction with our students; we must therefore find alternatives to replace this important aspect of language learning.?
One such alternative method is the use of interactive technology, such as Horizon Wimba. Wimba is ?an online communications tool and an oral assessment builder which allows students and tutors to interact one-to-one,? using such tools as voice email and discussion boards.
?Wimba also allows students to practice their oral exercises and listen to their own voices,? explains Dr. Tirven-Gadum. ?They can correct their answers and then send them to their tutor for feedback. They can re-record the answers and resend them as often as they like.?
AU French student Christine Purfield has unfortunately found that while ?the head of the department posts verbal questions and students are invited to reply . . . few students use it,? perhaps because the lack of conversational spontaneity means that ?you spend more time preparing what You’re going to say rather than actually saying it!?
Some courses also make use of ?live video streaming for the oral component of the course,? says Dr. Tirven-Gadum. This video component ?can be accessed anywhere in Canada,? and ?uses active participation to increase fluency in French, while introducing French culture. French in Action is excellent for self-directed French language learning.? Students residing outside of Canada, meanwhile, receive audio and video cassettes, which they can then view at their own convenience.
Purfield has found, however, that the strong support she receives from tutors is a great strength of the program. ?I enjoy the one-on-one work I’ve been able to do with my tutor,? she says. ?Traditional classroom tutors just don’t have the time to concentrate on one student’s issues in a class of 30 or 35 students at varying levels of comprehension.?
?I enjoy working at my own pace,? says Purfield. ?What happened for me in traditional classrooms was I found that either I was rehashing the same old grammar and vocabulary because someone else in the class didn’t ?get it,? or I was left behind because there was an element that I didn’t ?get.? Studying through Athabasca means I get to skip the stuff I know and spend longer on my weak areas.?
Dr. Tirven-Gadum agrees that ?if anything, students at AU can get more individual attention in this sort of set-up. Tutoring is done on a one-on-one basis,? she explains. ?Students do not have to compete with 30 other students for the professor’s attention. They can contact their tutor by email or by phone and will normally receive a response within the next 48 hours. This is more than students can expect in a traditional classroom setting.?
While Purfield would like to see more opportunities for spontaneous French discussion, her least favourite part of her French courses ?has always been the oral sessions . . . While all my tutors have been terrific in taking this difficulty into consideration, I just hated doing them,? she says. Purfield ?found they took up way too much time in preparation for the mark allocated. Instead of chatting about everyday events, You’re stuck with questions primarily about the texts which, while it meant you got familiar with the text, didn’t lead to the spontaneous chatting you would expect in a traditional classroom.?
Overall, though, ?there are many pragmatic reasons for learning French at AU,? says Dr. Tirven-Gadum. Knowledge of a second language is often a requirement for many university degrees at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Since French is an official language of Canada it makes sense to take French in order to fulfill that requirement.
?Knowledge of French in Canada can open up employment opportunities in several areas such as education, business, foreign correspondence, the airline and travel industry, diplomacy, museums and art galleries, law, radio broadcasting, and (of course) the Federal Government, since many positions in public service at various levels require knowledge of both official languages.?
?Studying French means more than just learning a language,? though, and there are many other reasons to undertake this task besides those practical ones noted above. According to Dr. Tirven-Gadum, learning French ?opens the door to a deeper understanding of another culture and another worldview.
?By learning to speak, understand, read and write in French, students will gain access to the rich cultural heritage of the Francophone world, including great works of literature, theatre, cinema, art and music. They will gain an appreciation for the writers, artists, and intellectuals whose work has had a profound impact on Western thought and has helped shape Western culture.?