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The Remo software platform offers Language School students a virtual dining hall to re-create some of the informal community-building that is so essential to language acquisition.

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Language Schools Look to Innovative Technologies to Help Build Community during Remote Learning

August 3, 2020

Per Urlaub, associate dean of the Middlebury Language Schools, contributed this update on the Schools' first-ever remote-learning summer.

By Per Urlaub

This summer is different at Middlebury. We cannot hear any of our language students filling the streets of our town with Spanish words, and we do not see them in Davis Library immersed in their textbooks refining Hebrew grammar. Nobody is playing volleyball in Chinese on Battell Beach or relaxing in an Adirondack chair in front of Mead Chapel and dreaming in French. For the first time in more than a century, neither the campus community nor the townspeople welcomed language students and faculty from around the world to Middlebury’s immersion language programs.

Without the vibrant multilingual presence of our students, many at Middlebury may not realize that this summer 1,150 students are studying in the 11 existing language schools and even helped launch a pilot for a 12th language program, the School of Abenaki. However, thanks to technology, students and teachers are working as hard as they do during any regular summer since 1915, teaching, learning, and refining language skills and cultural expertise.  

Faculty and students agree with experts on second language acquisition that “community” is a critical factor to understanding the extraordinary outcomes students achieve every summer at Middlebury. That sense of community is amplified through the Language Pledge, and every school becomes a tightly knit group of learners and teachers. They exclusively use the target language all day every day in classrooms, over meals, and during cocurricular activities and cultural events. This summer, each of our 12 schools has found creative ways to engage students outside the classroom, building a sense of belonging in the virtual language schools. Following are just a few of the highlights from three programs that illustrate the innovative spirit across the Middlebury Language Schools in the summer of 2020.

The School of Japanese, like all of our programs, has understood that socializing in the target language over dining-hall meals is not just a source of pleasure for students and faculty; these hours also provide students with significant opportunities to build and refine linguistic skills. Forced to speak entirely in the target language, beginning and intermediate learners very quickly acquire effective strategies to paraphrase. These strategies usually take years to build in formal classrooms, but they start to develop within a few weeks at Middlebury, enabling students to master a broad range of communicative functions with a relatively limited linguistic repertoire.

For advanced learners, communication during lunch hours provides opportunities to build fluency. For example, students can apply new words that they have just encountered in the classroom and use them in a new context to authentically communicate with their new friends over a meal.

Whereas much of this could happen via a standard videoconference application like Zoom, the School of Japanese identified a more engaging and interactive software called Remo that simulates the target language dining-hall experience for their students in Japanese.

Originally developed as a tool to host industry networking events in virtual spaces, the platform presents students with a bird’s-eye view of a dining hall with tables and chairs. As they enter, they can see who is sitting where and join a specific table labeled to indicate a theme or proficiency level. Or they can simply look for friends or a particular member of the learning community whom they would like to befriend.

The video chat capabilities of Remo are so engaging that restaurants in Tokyo used this software to provide a social experience for their patrons during the country’s lockdown in spring. Motoko Tabuse, director of the School of Japanese, was astonished that, in addition to the enrolled students, about 20 alumni of her program used Remo to reconnect to their school and to communicate with the students in the target language.

“Almost 20 alumni of previous School of Japanese programs have joined this year’s students interacting with Remo,” said Tabuse. “It has been a pleasure to learn what students from last year, and even previous years, have done with their studies and how they have leveraged their studies in their careers. It is an inspiration to both current students and me.”

While the School of Japanese successfully adopted a business tool, the Kathryn Wasserman Davis School of Russian’s use of technologically to create and enhance its students’ sense of belonging took its inspiration from the gaming community. Oliver Carling, assistant director of the Kathryn Wasserman Davis School of Russian, was introduced to the social-interactive platform Discord by his son and immediately recognized its potential for the Language Schools. Discord was originally developed to facilitate communication between users while playing online multiplayer video games.

“Our idea was to provide a virtual space for informal, spontaneous interaction among students and faculty at any hour of the day,” said Carling. “On Discord, students and faculty can bump into each other by chance, as they might in a dorm or dining hall, or while walking on campus. Interaction of this sort can continue after the summer ends, and alumni can get involved, creating a year-round community of practice for the Davis School of Russian.”

The Davis School of Russian harnessed its great flexibility to create virtual conversation spaces organized around specific interests and affinities. These conversations can — based on the user’s preference — occur as text exchanges, audio chats, or videoconferences. Students can meet to listen to Russian music, watch Russian TV, play chess, or just chat. They can also open a Discord window alongside another app, which allows them to watch a film on Panopto together and share their reactions and observations via chat on Discord.

According to Carling, Discord facilitates spontaneous interactions similar to those emerging every summer from students and faculty bumping into each other by chance in a dining hall or on their way to class. In addition, the platform can be set up completely in the target language, and the fact that it was designed for young people makes it an appealing platform for many Russian students to connect with each other, not only this summer but throughout the year.

Thanks to the visionary leadership and tireless efforts of Director Bettina Matthias, a new program within the German School simultaneously serves current K–12 students and future teachers. This initiative also demonstrates that technology can not only help build and solidify communities within schools but also connect Middlebury’s remote learning environments to the community around us.

Through a collaboration with the Goethe Institut and the American Association of Teachers of German, Middlebury supports for the first time this summer eight future German teachers who have pledged to serve in their local communities as after-school German teachers in the upcoming academic year. The students are enrolled in a course taught by Professor Christina Frei, who integrated a practical dimension to the program. Thanks to Kristin Mullins from Middlebury’s Center of Community Engagement, Professor Frei’s students will gain valuable experiences as future language teachers by offering the free online program “Jump into German!” to Addison County students in grades 4–12 this summer.

“When the opportunity arose for the German School to become one of the nation’s first ‘SPARK Labs,’ I was thrilled to submit a proposal for an initiative that I had long wanted to implement,” said Matthias. “By offering the grant-based exploratory course Foreign Language Pedagogy to students in the German School, we now contribute to national efforts to interest more people in the field of teaching German, thereby addressing the chronic teacher shortage. But more importantly, students experience the joy of learning both as students and as teachers, sharing with younger students beyond our school the passion that they themselves feel for mastering the German language.”