Journals, Modern Languages, News

Critical Digital Pedagogies in Modern Languages – a Tutorial Collection

This month we launch a special collection of self-learning online tutorials exploring critical pedagogies in Modern Languages. Paul Spence, who co-edited the collection with Renata Brandao, explains how the collection came about and what it aims to achieve. The research was carried out as part of the Language Acts and Worldmaking project, funded by the AHRC under its Open World Research Initiative. This is the first publication in the new Digital Modern Languages section, edited by Paul Spence and Naomi Wells, which “will provide a space to reflect on the transformations wrought by new media and technologies across a range of fields of study, from cultural, linguistic and historical studies to more pedagogical perspectives”.

In 2019 Renata Brandao and I carried out a survey into attitudes towards digital mediation in the Modern Languages (ML) which demonstrated that there was already significant engagement with digital media in the field, but which also highlighted the doubts ML researchers and educators have when deciding which digital literacies are most useful and how to acquire them. Respondents reported a lack of support for efforts to engage with digital methods and pedagogies, manifested in a lack of credit/validation structures, training opportunities or formal infrastructure to enable the sharing of information about digitally mediated teaching resources. Inspired by the digital humanities resource Programming Historian, which aims to “help humanists learn a wide range of digital tools, techniques, and workflows”, we devised an experimental framework to ideate for and develop open access learning/teaching materials which can be used (and adapted) by ML practitioners, while also facilitating critical reflections on the value of critical digital pedagogies for Modern Languages Education.

Covid-19 has brought about sudden and dramatic transformations in the way that we learn and teach, some of which are likely to have long-term consequences, forcing us to engage critically with the affordances and limitations/dangers of digital media in Modern Languages pedagogy. For those working in language learning, many of these discussions have firm historical ground in sub-fields such as CALL (Computer-Assisted Language Learning), MALL (Mobile Assisted Language Learning) or TELL (Technology Enhanced Language Learning) and are supported by informal networks, loosely organised around Twitter hashtags such as #MFLTwitterati, #langchat, #gilt_fb, #fslchat or #authres, and occasionally presented through online community resources such as #MFLTwitterati Podcast or the TiLT webinars – Technology in Language Teaching. For the Modern Languages as a whole, however, the picture is uneven, and there is little evidence of broader strategic thinking within the Modern Languages sector to link together debates about the place and role of the ‘digital’ in its education and research practices.

The Event

The Digital Modern Languages tutorial writing sprint initiative started with a call for proposals for a two-day face-to-face and virtual ‘writing sprint’ which would address challenges in the digitally mediated study of modern languages and cultures. Tutorials would need to respond to identifiable needs within Modern Languages learning and research (at any educational level), and might involve either established or emerging areas within the field of Modern Languages and beyond, including (but not limited to): language pedagogy, digital arts, translation, linguistics, digital sociolinguistic and digital cultural studies, including ethnographic and discourse analysis approaches.

Successful applicants brought proposals for engaging tutorials covering a wide range of topics and languages. They drew on project-based learning, visual reasoning, collaborative and personal learning spaces and data-driven methods. Language coverage at the workshop included English, Slovene, Spanish, Chicano Spanish, Spanglish, Nahuatl, Korean, Chinese, Italian and Russian. The geography of participants included Argentina, Slovenia, Ireland, Wales, Belgium, England and the United States. The event was co-facilitated by five of us, including three external consultants all experienced in producing and assessing digital learning materials, and the structure included a combination of plenary, group and individual work, supported by digital tools for documentation, communication, code management and file-sharing.

The Publication

The initiative aimed to:

  • Create practical and open educational resources for use in the Modern Languages, and designed explicitly from an ML perspective
  • Foster wider discussion about how digital learning resources can be better integrated into Modern Languages education and research across languages, across educational levels and across digital platforms

This collection which resulted demonstrates how a combination of languages and digital methods can lead to productive encounters in pedagogy. It shares the aims of the Programming Historian to, in the words of Sichani et al., “actively rebalance global access to computational skills and methods” and it follows the self-directed learning model of online tutorials popular for learning to use digital tools which have a tradition of using accessible technical or practical writing, as evidenced in the (For) ‘Dummies’ series or ‘O’Reilly digital media’ books.

The collection is designed to work for both distance education and in-class learning (although clearly some tutorials will function better for one or the other), and the reader can pause and rewind at their convenience. All tutorials were peer reviewed (by a review panel appointed by the project) at two points – at proposal stage and prior to publication – and principally responded to two questions:

  • Does this make a useful contribution to Modern Languages education or research practice? (The Modern Languages perspective.)
  • Does this engage with digital tools for modern languages in new and interesting ways? Is it sustainable and globally focused? (The digital methods/pedagogy perspective.)

The Conclusion

The collection intends to explore digital methods across various areas and aspects of the curriculum, eschewing an instrumental view of technology (and indeed languages) for a critical, hybrid pedagogical interpretation which can draw together both digital and non-digital elements of the learning experience. By contrast, the tutorials presented here provide examples of generative forms of DML pedagogy and, in what is a time of crisis for many involved in Modern Languages, critical digital pedagogies may offer new alliances and opportunities for innovation or development in language learning. We would contend that this collection demonstrates the value of, and need for, greater collaboration between language-based fields such as Modern Languages, linguistics, digital cultural studies, CALL, Digital Humanities, language technology studies and minority/endangered languages in responding to such challenges.

Biography: Paul Spence

Paul Spence currently focuses on digital publishing, global perspectives on digital scholarship and interactions between modern languages and digital culture. Through his work on the Language Acts and World-making project in collaboration with Renata Brandao,  he has recently focused in particular on interactions between languages, multilingualism, linguistic diversity and digital practice. He researches digital transformations in how we engage with languages, while also analysing the power of language to disrupt digital monolingualism in knowledge infrastructures, methods and data.

Together with Naomi Wells, Paul co-convenes the ‘Digital Modern Languages’ section on Modern Languages Open and the ‘Digital Modern Languages’ seminar, a physical and virtual seminar and blog series launched in May 2019 to “to bring together and raise the visibility of Modern Languages research which engages with digital culture, media and technologies.”

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To view the collection of Digital Modern Lanuages tutorials click here

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