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April 10, 2006

Cultura: a glimpse at the future of the student generated textbook


Cultura is an methodology for foreign language learning created by Gilberte Furstenberg, Sabine Levet, Shoggy Waryn, and was first implemented at MIT.

The premise of Cultura is to provide an authentic learning experience by supporting student discussion and interaction between two foreign language classes, where each class is studying the other's native tongue in their respective countries. Thus, a french class in the US partners with an English class in France. Although immersion is the best method of learning a foreign language, spending extended time in a foreign country is generally not feasible for the vast majority of students. Offering student authentic experiences in their language of study is a clear second choice to immersion, but can still greatly assist the learning process.

Students first answer a series of questionnaires, which have formats such as word association, sentence completion, and fill in the blank. The students discuss the responses to the questionnaire in bulletin boards. Teachers use both the answered questionnaires and the discussion boards in their classroom. Interestingly, the students are directed to write in their native language. Although this may seems counter intuitive, the creators found through experimentation that the communication was much more meaningful in their own language. Student read in their language of study, and teacher lead in-class discussions in the foreign language. Therefore, Cultura provides ample opportunity for students to practice the other language. The founders allow anyone to use their methodology, however, they do request that teachers contact them so that they may track its usage. They have also made available past examples for teachers who do not have access to partnering schools.

Cultura not only creates motivation for learning, it actually creates an actual text for learning. Further, access to their contemporaries offer an experience of authenticity that is impossible to provide in traditional textbooks learning, partially due to the typical life cycle and generalization nature of textbooks. Further, students have an opportunity to ask questions and explore the culture of their partnering students in a way that was rarely available before now. In the most successful implementations of Cultura, students ask questions about not only language usage, but also on newly perceived understanding of cultural differences.

Cultura, in a way, creates an open source textbook. The students create their own cultural foreign language textbooks with a level of that authenticity that traditional authors cannot match. It transforms the entire idea of what a textbook can be and how it is written. Cultura does not rely on complicated technology. Although Cultura is only feasible with the advent of the web, it is not about the technology. The technology itself is quite simple, online surveys and discussion boards have been used since the early days of the internet. Often, digital textbooks are loaded with technical wizardry that obfuscates the learning, as seen in certain studies. Different technologies can be used from hand coded html pages to CGI scripts. In fact, one could use off the shelf and often free services, such as survey monkey and yahoo groups, or the course management systems, such as Sakai or Blackboard that many institutions now use. Cultura hints that the next generation of textbooks and learning environments that will challenge what the textbook will look like, who will author it, and how it will utilize the network.

Posted by ray cha at April 10, 2006 5:04 PM