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Teaching through Technology: Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger’s Means to an End

bridges, vol. 33, May 2012 / News from the Network: Austrian Researchers Abroad
By Chiara Rudel

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In German classrooms at Lafayette College in Easton, PA, students Skype with their peers next door, hold video conferences with theater experts in Berlin, or improve their language skills through the writings of literature Nobel-prize laureate Elfriede Jelinek. What might seem unconventional at first glance, is Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger’s proven strategy to support her students’ learning. Originally from Austria, Lamb-Faffelberger has been eagerly exploring new means of language teaching at Lafayette for 20 years. She has created instructional uses for the technology her students use everyday, such as Skype, wikis, or movie- and voice-recording devices.

Margarete Lamb-FaffelbergerMargarete Lamb-Faffelberger first began incorporating digital learning aids into her teaching in 1994, when she was invited to join a Mellon Consortium. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which awards grants for innovative projects in humanities, education, technology, environment, and the arts, enabled her to develop a small computer program that assisted students with practicing the passive voice. At a time when, according to the US Census Bureau, fewer than a quarter of American households even had a computer, students enjoyed this new form of doing exercises and felt motivated to spend more time in the computer lab. A larger project called  “Self-paced German” ensued, enabling students to enroll in German language classes despite scheduling conflicts. For this, Lamb-Faffelberger devised “hypercard templates” – multimedia virtual index cards that contained information, exercises, or images and covered the four-semester language and culture curriculum. Although these hypercards may seem antiquated from a contemporary perspective, they represented distinct progress at a time when, in the minds of many students, language teaching technology evoked memories of drills in the language lab.  Students were enabled to interact with the computer, rather than just listen and repeat, and could work at their own pace, while Lamb-Faffelberger would hold monitoring and feedback sessions with them. “Self-paced German” was offered at Lafayette from 1998 to 2007, and the hypercards are still available to students today, as an additional learning resource.


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Technology in the classroom and beyond

Technology has been evolving quickly in recent years, and Lamb-Faffelberger has been eager to introduce new programs and applications into her language classroom. Beginners’ courses now Skype from one room to the next in order to practice phone conversations and record short video clips. The so-called “digital narratives” are 1- to 7-minute clips, in which learners talk about themselves, elaborate on a topic, and also reflect their progress in language learning. As the term “digital narrative” suggests, this form of assessment goes beyond a concept of language learning that focuses solely on formal correctness and accuracy. Instead, the foreign language becomes a means of communication rather than a scary construct of declensions, conjugations, and syntactic idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, these exercises familiarize learners with the application of technology in the language learning process and also prepare them for larger-scale videoconference projects.

Lamb Faffelberger Phone Call 150x200In 2005, Lafayette students participated in a project that brought together four American colleges, the University of Freiburg, and theatre experts from Berlin in order to discuss a new staging of Schiller’s The Robbers. When the production premiered in Berlin, it was recorded and made available online to the American participants 24-hours later, with two days to view it.  Thus, on the subsequent Monday, all the parties involved were able to discuss the Berlin staging in a live conference and exchange ideas on stage design, costumes, and characters. In 2007, Lamb-Faffelberger initiated another international university project called “In the Present Tense: Language, Power and the Body in Contemporary Germany and Austria”, which involved three American colleges and the University of Paderborn. This culminated in a videoconference with Austrian media and performance artist Valie Export, giving Lafayette students one more opportunity to discuss ideas with an acclaimed creative artist.

Projects such as these clearly take learners beyond the realm of ordering dinner or reserving a hotel room in the foreign language – it engages them in intellectual conversations and rich cultural exchange. Having the students interact in the foreign language in such a sophisticated manner also justifies the high level of organizational efforts such a project demands. Although a transcontinental conference requires meticulous preparation and concerted effort by the faculty members, students, artists, and technicians involved, Lamb-Faffelberger perceives this as added value, rather than a disadvantage. “The organizational matters have to be taken care of. However, they are not tiresome in the sense that nothing comes out of them. You know what you are working towards and it is rewarding.” She adds that the faculty members involved benefit from the preliminary Skype sessions, making them comfortable and confident in operating the technology.

Whereas students nowadays are fluent in technology, the same might not apply to their teachers, who did not grow up surrounded by digital devices. This potential lack of know-how can cause a shift in authority and therefore discourage teachers from introducing technology into their language classroom. This, however, is a concern that Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger confidently dispels, stating that she does not need to know all the technology as well as her students do. She just needs to know what the technology can do to help the learners improve their language skills, “I really enjoy exploring new software with my students because at that moment we are having a different relationship. They are the teacher and I am the student. Still, I am their foreign language professor. So I might not be able to drive the nail into the wall as well as they can, but I surely know where the picture needs to hang.”

Lamb-Faffelberger Classroom 150x200Likewise, teachers cannot simply be replaced by the language learning technology. Computers are not the straightforward solution to miraculously making education better, faster, and cheaper, prompting knowledge to materialize like a literal deus ex machina. As every language classroom is different and every group of learners has different needs, interests, and capabilities, the teacher as an informed educator is still needed to orchestrate the learning processes. Rather than trying to fulfill extravagant promises, the computer should be regarded as one method among others in the language classroom. “Technology enhances teaching and, most importantly, it enhances and enriches learning. If technology does not help learning, then it is of no value to the teacher. For me, technology is not an end, but a means to an end.” Lamb-Faffelberger also points out that, in collaboration with other faculty members, she embraces promising trends in technology-assisted teaching and adapts them to the language classroom. The most recent development in this area was the introduction of e-portfolios at Lafayette College.

An e-portfolio is a student-owned and personal collection of work, which documents achievements in a class or even a four-year course. Whereas e-portfolios are an overall trend in education, and various universities throughout the world have implemented them in their curriculum, Lafayette was one of the first colleges to employ e-portfolios for language instruction. Students use their individualized WordPress pages to showcase video clips, texts, or test results representative of their development as language learners. Thus, an e-portfolio becomes a Gesamtkunstwerk [a comprehensive artwork] that displays competencies and can be used in job interviews or graduate school applications. In selecting the individual artifacts for their e-portfolio, students are encouraged to become critical assessors of their own language competency and reflect on their learning, their attitudes, and behavior. “We have compiled data at Lafayette that shows that deep learning definitely occurs when using technology effectively. Students who create an e-portfolio develop a deeper understanding of themselves as learners. Moreover, they begin to make connections between language learning and their other subjects because the e-portfolio allows the students to demonstrate the balance between the process and the product.”

Teaching in the United States

Why German?

According to a 2009 Modern Language Association survey, enrollments in foreign languages at higher education institutions in the US have risen, with German having experienced a slight (2.2%) increase in students. However, as high schools have been cutting the budgets for their foreign language programs, the feeder street is no longer a given. Historically, German has been an important language in the US through immigration and settlers, especially in the northeastern states and Texas. Family heritage, therefore, is still an important reason for students to select German, as are Germany's high economic standing within the European Union and its technological innovations.

For Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger, the United States was always somehow connected to German language instruction, right from the time in 1968 when she attended a high school in Columbus, Ohio, for a year. Her host father was a German professor who was writing a book, Deutsch für alle, which became the primary German textbook for American high school students in the 1970s. Thus, Lamb-Faffelberger was privy to the conversations surrounding German language instruction and the publication process. After returning to Austria, Lamb-Faffelberger studied to be a teacher in primary and secondary education. She taught at a lower secondary high school for a year and then embraced the opportunity to be a Fulbright Teaching Assistant at the University of Illinois in 1979. After having met her husband and deciding to stay in the US long-term, Lamb-Faffelberger earned a master’s degree in Germanic languages and literatures and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Rice University. She joined Lafayette College as a German teacher in 1992. The history of Lafayette, a very small and highly selective undergraduate institution in Easton, Pennsylvania, with 2,360 students, is also closely intertwined with the German language: Its founding fathers stated in the 1826 statutes of the college that German is to be taught at Lafayette at all times. The college library also holds a first edition of Maria von Trapp’s biography. In the introduction, she thanks Lafayette College for providing the stage for the family’s first concert in the United States.

Contemporary art and literature as bridges between Austria and the United States

Max Kade Center

Lafayette College is one of 30 universities in the United States that have a Max Kade Center for German Studies. Opened in 2002, this resource facility offers students a forum in which to study and read, present and perform, and therefore encourages a deeper engagement with the German language.
The Max Kade Foundation
also enables Lamb-Faffelberger to invite German-speaking writers-in-residence and guest professors in alternating years, perpetuating the multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach to language teaching.

The Sound of Music, however, is a topic that rarely comes up in Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger’s teaching and work. Her own research focuses on contemporary Austrian writers and artists, in particular Valie Export and Elfriede Jelinek. Having been one of the first scholars to publish on Jelinek in 1992, Lamb-Faffelberger has done extensive research, written articles, and translated some of the author’s shorter texts. Although students show strong interest in the writings of the Nobel laureate, whom their professor knows personally, teaching Jelinek in the language classroom is not an easy undertaking. Both the linguistic peculiarities and the issues addressed in her writings can be challenging for learners. Still, Lamb-Faffelberger incorporates shorter texts and hopes to make the world of Jelinek accessible to her students by pointing out the connections between Austria and the United States. “The issues that Jelinek writes about are not Austrian alone. For Jelinek, Austria becomes the example par excellence for problems that exist throughout our world.” Lamb-Faffelberger explains that Jelinek’s recurring motif of das Untote [the Undead] refers to the troubled relationship between the living and the dead. Jelinek elaborates on the suppressed memories of a society and uses die Untoten to illustrate Austria’s shortcomings in coping with World War II and the Holocaust. Lamb-Faffelberger guides her students to draw connections and consider similarities with the United States, for instance with the treatment of America’s indigenous people. “I consider it very important that my students draw on own personal experiences, reflect on them and through thoughtful analysis can arrive at a meaningful understanding and appreciation of the subject matter.

Jelinek’s frequent reaction to Austrian politics has also reinforced the ties Lamb-Faffelberger maintains with her native country. “I like to joke that mentally I have never really left Austria because of my research area. I am sitting at the pulse of the happening.

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The above article is based on an interview conducted by the author, Chiara Rudel, with Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger, German professor at Lafayette College, PA.

 

References:

Computer statistics: <http://www.census.gov/prod/2001pubs/p23-207.pdf>

Modern Language Association study on language enrollments: <http://www.mla.org/2009_enrollmentsurvey>

Modern Language Association Language Map of the United States: <http://www.mla.org/map_main>

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Langauges, Study on Language Enrollments K-12: <http://www.actfl.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=5231>

College students and the internet: <http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/College-students-and-technology/Report.aspx>

Pictures: <http://www.lafayette.edu/>

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