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NEWSLETTER: Vol. 5, No. 6, March 15, 2000

Collaborative Distance Learning for Oral Proficiency in Professional Contexts:
French 524: Expression écrite et orale en situations professionnelles

by Jodi Samuels, Assistant Director
Professional French Masters Program (PFMP)

As part of the Professional French Masters Program (PFMP) based in the Department of French & Italian at UW-Madison, we have begun to develop and redesign existing courses to be offered via distance learning technology. French 524: Expression écrite et orale en situations professionnelles targets graduate students, highly advanced undergraduate French majors, and working professionals or teachers. The course has previously been offered in a traditional on-campus setting at UW-Madison, but prior to January 2000, French 524 had not been available to a wider audience, including students at other UW campuses or other qualified students outside of Wisconsin.

The new French 524 has been redesigned as an advanced French oral proficiency course concentrating on material developed specifically for students whose future careers require a mastery of French in professional settings. The objective of the course is to develop and perfect the ability of students to successfully engage in various French "actes de paroles" in contexts that they may encounter upon entering professional international career fields such as business, foreign relations, government, development, education, non-profit organization work, or journalism. In this way, the redesigned French 524 now prepares students with new skills and knowledge essential to future careers with an international focus.

In partnership with a colleague from Trent University in Toronto, we redesigned the curriculum for this class by integrating various distance learning technologies which allow qualified students at UW-Madison and UW-Stevens Point to enroll in the course, and also make the class accessible to individuals studying from their homes. The curricular modifications have been accomplished through the integration of WebCT, a new oral language proficiency software called WinPitch LTL, and videoconferencing. Four UW-System faculty members are involved in the pedagogical aspects of this project: Professor Gilles Bousquet, lecturers Nelly Halzen and Ewa Miernowska from UW-Madison, and Professor Marcia Parker from UW-Stevens Point.

In order to meet the great challenge of offering an advanced French oral proficiency course in a distance-education format, the pedagogical team asked an international expert and colleague in the area of French oral proficiency training and testing, Professor Aline Germain-Rutherford of Trent University in Toronto, to serve as lead instructor for the course. Professor Germain-Rutherford, along with her engineering colleague, Philippe Martin of the University of Toronto, developed and tested a unique software named WinPitch LTL. WinPitch is a speech and prosodic patterns visualizer and synthesizer which enables students to work on their oral and pronunciation skills in a distance-learning setting. Specifically, the program allows students to hear examples of proper speech patterns, record their own voices, see their actual voice patterns compared against that of a native French speaker, send their recordings to an instructor via e-mail, and receive detailed comments and critiques via e-mail. The instructor can isolate certain points of this visual voice graph and comment on any error by highlighting that part of the graph to record relevant critiques, as well as to correct speech rhythm and intonation using the synthesis component of the program. In this way, WinPitch enables students to work closely on their oral homework, and allows instructors to closely correct homework assignments and monitor student progress from a distance. Professor Germain-Rutherford also utilized WebCT to create the web site for the course. Thus students have easy access to the course schedule and syllabus, as well as the opportunity to post messages and communicate amongst themselves using the bulletin board component of WebCT or e-mail.

French 524 was offered for the first time in its new format in January 2000. The course began with a 12-hour orientation weekend at UW-Madison during which students were introduced to course objectives, experienced a videoconference session, learned how to use the WinPitch software, and participated in a simulated press conference. Subsequently, students attend weekly or bi-weekly videoconferences, and the course concludes with another 12-hour weekend session on the Madison campus. Three students from UW-Stevens Point, eight students from UW-Madison, and one student from Texas enrolled in the course; all came to Madison for the initial orientation weekend, and will return for the final weekend session. The students from Madison and Stevens Point attend the videoconferences on their respective campuses, and the student from Texas (a native French woman interested in learning more about professional interactions in the language) connects to the video conference sessions by audio only via her phone line from home. Each videoconference session is taped so that students can review an activity or discussion, and so that our Texan student can receive a visual representation of the session in which she participated orally. We also plan to digitize parts of the videos for placement on the French 524 web site so that students can more easily access certain important exercises or examples.

Administrative and logistical support for the newly redesigned course has been provided by Jodi Samuels, Assistant Director of the PFMP at UW-Madison, in collaboration with the following personnel at the Pyle Center: Jamie Poindexter from Teleconference Operations, and Ginny Divine, Bruce Dewey, Sue Faust, and Rosemary Lehman from Instructional Communications Systems. Additional technical support during the semester will be provided by a French engineering intern from Marseille, Olivier Richard. Funding for the curricular redesign and implementation of French 524 was provided in part by a generous grant from the UW-System Curricular Redesign competition. As part of the curriculum for the Professional French Masters Program, French 524 also benefits from funding granted to the PFMP through the Chancellorís Capstone Initiative.

This project is a cutting-edge endeavor designed to confirm the belief that oral language proficiency can be mastered via the integration of distance learning technology methods into an existing course. French 524 is one of the first context-based oral proficiency courses delivered via instructional technologies at a Midwestern university. Such a project has far-reaching implications for the teaching of advanced French in particular and for other foreign languages in general as findings can be made available to other language programs. Careful analysis of the effectiveness of the course will be assembled from student and instructor evaluations, the results of which will be disseminated System-wide and throughout the Midwest. We also plan to expand the use of technology in French 524 during the next academic year by experimenting with other distance communication techonology, such as WebCam, to allow more students at greater distances to benefit from this course. Integration of additional learning technology would make the course accessible to other UW campuses as well as to other professional individuals or teachers who do not have access to a videoconferencing facility.

For more course information, visit the French 524 web site at http://frit.lss.wisc.edu/pfmp/indexfrench524.html . Also see the Professional French Masters Program web site at http://polyglot.lss.wisc.edu/frit/french/graduate/profma.htm. For information specifically about the WinPitch software, e-mail Aline Germain-Rutherford or Philippe Martin.

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