This week in my meandering series, let me talk variously about other distance education environments I’ve experienced.
I did the mainstay of my Latin studies as an external student at the University of New England (in Australia, not those other New Englands in other former colonies). A four year sequence of 10 subjects, ab initio, right through to Horace and Prose Composition (Not that Horace is the pinnacle of Latin, I am just pretty sure it was one of my final year classes and Horace wasn’t my favourite either). This was the 00s and UNE was well entrenched in DE delivery. Courses consisted of (a) mailed out booklets, (b) mailing assignments back in for marking, (c) an optional residential week in Armidale. So it was more like a self-directed course of study with some external support and feedback. The residential schools made a huge difference though. You’d trip off to Armidale for a week, do a bunch of intensive latin classes, covering the same material but in person, and stand around in the cold while Tesoriero smoked a lot. I went to most of them. I think in the later years, email discussion became a feature!
Anyway, technology has moved on, and so has my Latin. But this worked for what it was worth, primarily because I was a highly motivated and disciplined self-learner.
I took 3 years of online classes in Gaelic with an institution, which was valuable though also frustrating (hence I won’t name them!). The teacher was high-quality, the classes were a group Skype, and 3 hours long, so they involved a great deal of Gaelic input, but the quality of materials was non-optimal. That is, we worked through some deadly boring explicit grammar instruction, were expected to learn contextless series of model sentences, do partner exercises that were “say one line, your partner will correspond with the translation”, which is more like a code-word exchange than language practice. I confess, it did do good things for my Gaelic, but I think with more effective language pedagogy, it could have been much more effective.
Right now I adjunct for another college that is doing theology via DE probably as well as I’ve seen enacted. Courses are high quality, with a structured weekly sequence of video materials by faculty or scholars, set readings, discussion forums, exercises assessed and non-assessed. I’m still not 100% convinced this is optimal for theological-formation of students, but it’s the best I’ve seen in a DE mode. I also haven’t seen their introductory language offerings, but my understanding is that it’s all explicit-grammar driven. Which you know my feelings on.
One-to-one online language tutoring is obviously a thing I’m into. Firstly, just the technological marvel of being in an age where one can connect to a speaker of Latin, Greek, Gaelic, even Mongolian, around the globe, and have a audio-visual conversation in almost real-time, mirabile! I’ve seen both sides of this equation, as student and teacher. I do feel there are drawbacks, notably the loss of physical embodied presence and shared realia. There are a host of things one could do in person that one cannot do when stuck behind a screen and one’s visual field is limited to the scope of the webcam. But the benefits seem to outstrip that. A lot depends on quality of teacher, no doubt. I recall one tutor that I had several years back who was really not good at all. I think I’m still developing in this area, and the dual challenge of developing as a teacher, and developing myself as a Latin and Greek speaker. (current students, no need to comment!)
I’ve also done some shorter group-courses online, on both sides. With mixed feelings. Conversational turn-taking is much harder to manage in a conference call, which means effective group size needs to stay relatively low. But all the groups I’ve been have been relatively small anyway (Greek and Latin being pretty niche markets). It certainly helps to spread the cost, which I think is great (for both sides of the equation). And it creates some communicative possibilities (3rd persons, plural forms) in a conversation that are less easily constructed in a one-to-one. I wouldn’t mind teaching more like this, but the start-up effort of (a) getting a quorum, (b) finding a timeslot suitable to keeping a quorum, (c) looking professional enough and not just a random Australian language hack, all hold me back.