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October 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 2

In Mexico / Learning English on the Internet

When Mexican students studying English linked up with their peers in English-speaking countries, their language skills grew, and so, too, did their insights into their own culture.

With the growth of computer networks, foreign language teachers have unprecedented opportunities to connect their students to people whose native language the students are studying. In fact, instant connections provided by networks like Internet have radically transformed the foreign language classroom.
In Mexico City, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) is installing microwave or fiber optic connections to Internet in all 14 high schools in its system. Three institutions that are part of the university—the National Preparatory School, the Foreign Language Center, and the Academic Computing Center—designed a model for teaching foreign languages based on international cultural and scientific exchanges via computer networks.
The university's research in these schools has shown that unlike other approaches to teaching foreign languages, communication with people actually living in countries where the language is spoken improves the quality of students' work. A notable example was a group of students who learned English by participating in international cultural exchanges via Internet. These students made significantly more progress than did students in a control group who studied English traditionally with a textbook.

Making Cultural Connections

Mexican students studying English at UNAM's high schools have been interacting with English-speaking people, solving real problems, and carrying out group research and discussions. In so doing, they have been inspired to try to explain their culture to others around the world. Here are two examples (they have not been corrected for publication). The missionaries that came to Mexico took from our religions customs like dances, rituals and indigenous ceremonies which little by little were transformed into religious acts of evangelism, worship and religious festivities. The Posadas were born in a little town named Alcoma....There was an Indian tradition in which all the people danced for nine days and after this, it was transformed into the Novenario de las Posadas.... Unfortunately, this tradition in Mexico is disappearing very fast and each time there are less people that celebrate these festivities for Christmas. Maybe the main cause is the violent intrusion of foreign consumer goods that are introduced in our life styles in a world where everything is for sale especially customs which have always produced solidarity and happiness in our family.
In the following excerpt, a student attempts to explain the volatile situation in Chiapas. Racism in Chiapas is not just a matter than concerns civil rights, it is a phenomenon that has caused death and human degradation for a long, long time. There have been more than 120 armed movements in Chiapas since 1528 leading to countless lives being lost. Today, 84 percent of the population of Chiapas lives in —al municipalities, thirty percent is illiterate and more than 80 percent earns less than minimum wages. Given this situation, it should not come as a surprise to anyone that Chiapas, once again, exploded in violence in early 1994.
The quality of content and value judgments expressed in these examples are not typical of work produced in foreign language classrooms in our system. When students are writing to inform real people, they care about what they say and they work until they have learned the grammatical structures and vocabulary necessary to communicate their message. Further, in order to explain their own reality to others, the students examine it themselves, attempting to understand what is happening around them. Students analyze the cultural confrontations inherent in international dialogues. Their need to discover what has really happened in their country fosters research, both of which develop higher order thinking skills.
Telecommunications also empowers students, permitting them to affect not only their own community but also communities in other countries. The more relevant to the real world the projects are, the more motivated are the students to research, collaborate, and learn. Recently, for example, Mexican students participated in an international conference on the environment, “Youth CaN '95,” held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It was cosponsored by I*EARN—The International Education and Research Network (see “Connecting Classrooms Through Telecommunications,” p. 2). Via Internet, the students sent English summaries of their environmental research projects to an international database. They also participated in an unprecedented live video conference with students in Spain and Uruguay. Topics ranged from the university's efforts to combat pollution in Mexico City to reforestation, water purification, and garbage recycling.

Collaborating on Tasks

Certain features of cooperative learning are particularly useful when working with telecommunications technologies in the classroom. First, cooperative learning strategies lend themselves well to task-based curriculums. Because classroom activities are centered on real-life problems, teachers must be skilled at selecting appropriate tasks to cover the curriculum.They also must begin with a basic knowledge of computing and word processing.
In cooperative learning, students learn to collaborate and to assume responsibility not only for their own learning, but that of others as well. They contribute their own special abilities, teaching others what they know or can do well. We have found that often, high school students are more proficient than are teachers at using computers and telecommunication networks. Students can train other students, and even help their teachers when necessary. Further, a teacher new to technology often finds that it is much easier to think of him or herself as just one member of a large team who is sending and receiving information via Internet than as the sole expert responsible for the exchange.

Helping Teachers Rethink Teaching

Teaching foreign languages through international cultural and scientific exchanges via Internet requires of teachers a new mind-set: they need to view their role in the classroom as that of a facilitator. In order to prepare teachers for this new role, and to enable them to carry out international cultural and scientific exchanges via Internet, the three university departments that developed this model have designed a 40-hour teacher training program.
The aim of the inservice program is threefold: to make high school teachers aware of the implications of learning foreign languages through exchange programs via Internet, to help them improve their higher-order thinking skills, and to help them acquire technological skills. Ultimately, the goal is not only to help teachers incorporate this approach into their day-to-day practice, but also to promote new ways of using technology in innovative teaching.
To promote team teaching and interdisciplinary ventures, each class includes teachers from a variety of fields. Classes are held in double two-hour sessions, dedicated alternately to theory and hands-on practice. Teachers get to actually communicate with colleagues in other countries. They work together on task-based activities in cooperative groups as they learn to access the Internet and remote computer hosts, to handle file transfer procedures, and also to access databases via gopher and those including images and multimedia like World Wide Web.
Stimulated by readings, debates, conferences, and roundtable discussions, teachers reexamine their own practice. There are sessions on topics such as the construction of knowledge; the relationship among language, knowledge, and discourse; language learning strategies; cooperative learning; task-based curriculums; and techniques for internalizing learning. Sessions also include examinations of relevant research results and local experiences with this approach. In the last two sessions, teachers devise a plan for incorporating into their teaching practice international cultural and scientific exchanges via Internet. Theory is linked to practice throughout. Developers of the prototype see such courses as essential to improving the quantity and quality of learning in high schools.

Transforming the Profession

Most educators today reject methodologies based on rote memorization in favor of approaches that permit students to construct their own knowledge by confronting alternate theories, solving real problems, and participating in group research and discussions. The problem is that when teachers try to put these alternate approaches into practice, they are faced with the physical limitations of the classroom.
One of the most exciting aspects of telecommunications technologies is that it breaks down these four walls and opens up the learning environment. The technology unites students with their own communities as well as with peers in other nations, and gives them acccess to international libraries, databases, and museums. The opportunities are virtually unlimited. This is one of the most important reasons that the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México has given its high schools access to the Internet. The foreign language teachers see this approach as a true opportunity to transform teaching practice.
End Notes

1 Financial support for the development of this prototype came from the Dirección General de Asuntos del Personal Académico of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Mary Elaine Meagher has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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