Alterity and Technology: Interview with Profs. Furstenberg and Levet of MIT’s Cultura Project

An ongoing theme in this blog is the question of how communication technologies can enhance or distort our understanding of the world. The mediation that technology introduces into the process of communication, I argue, can yield worldviews that increase the degree of integration between individuals and their environments, or conversely, that increase the degree of alienation between the two. Given that modern communication technologies have made it possible for us to reach practically every corner of the world, the environments I am talking about are not only the ones in which we are physically embedded; communication technologies can increase our degree of integration or alienation with environments that are physically far but virtually near to us.Examples of technologies that sever or distort our ontological connection with the world are abundant in this age of mass manipulation for political purposes. But once in a while one encounters an example of a system that succeeds in applying technology in a simple yet powerful way to increase understanding between people from different environments, different cultures, and even different languages. This is the case of the Cultura project at MIT.

I recently learned about the Cultura project from Gilberte Furstenberg and Sabine Levet at the Conference on Technology in the Humanities, Ithaca College (May 24, 2004). Cultura is a program for simultaneously teaching French to US students and English to students in France (the paper Giving a Virtual Voice to the Silent Language of Culture: The Cultura Project describes the program in detail). But as its very name implies, the Cultura program is not just a language program. At its core, in my opinion, is the question of alterity and technology: How do we apply the tools of electronic communication to facilitate understanding between different cultures? How do we engender open dialogue, helping participants move beyond initial misconceptions and biases? And how do we motivate people to participate in this difficult process?

The pedagogy behind Cultura is Profs. Furstenberg and Levet’s belief that “comparing and contrasting separate entities makes it possible to see differences and similarities that would not otherwise be visible. What CULTURA offers is a cross-cultural approach which has learners observe, compare and analyze similar materials from the two cultures studied” (this quote, along with a summary and illustration of the process, can be found here).

Here’s how Cultura works: Online artifacts are created by students in their native tongue that then become not only source materials for learning a new language, but also objects of cultural expression that allow both groups to compare their cultures and engage in a dialogue about the differences and similarities. For example, one  exercise asks students to generate an online list of concepts they associate with a specific word in their native tongue. This page, for instance, shows the reactions that a US class had to the English word “individualism,” as well as the reactions a French class had to the word “individualisme.” Each group is asked to react using their own language.

The interesting differences in how the two cultures see the same concept set the stage for an ensuing dialogue about what these students think individualism means in their respective cultural contexts. As you can see, this dialogue is carried out in the student’s own native language (French students speak in French, and US students speak in English). The goal at this point is not to practice the target language, but to express oneself in one’s own language as naturally as possible. The results of these online interactions then become the materials used in the classroom to learn the target language. In the classroom, students analyze and discuss their counterparts’ responses, this time using the target language, and with the aid of the instructor they learn things like vocabulary, grammar, idioms, etc., in the process. This classroom learning, however, happens in the context of a cultural exchange, not simply as lessons that must be memorized.

From word associations students move to a more complex analysis of texts (such as a comparison of the Bill of Rights and the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme), images (of digital pictures taken by the students and uploaded to the Cultura site) and other forms of cultural products (for example, comparing corresponding scenes of the French and American versions of the movie Three Men and a Baby). Students also engage each other in dialogue about complex subjects, such as this discussion on 9/11. The dialogue occurs not only across cultures, but within cultures as well; students are placed in a situation where not only are they asked to try to interpret and explain the differences between the two cultures, but also the differences between what they believed was a unified perception of an aspect of their own culture. In other words, in trying to understand the Other’s cultural environment, students are forced to reflect on their own–which is, I believe, the essence of education based on diversity. This seems to corroborate my arguments about distant proximity: communication with the far can change not only our understanding of the far, but our understanding and relationship with the near.

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Profs. Furstenberg and Levet kindly accepted an invitation to elaborate on some of the aspects of the Cultura program in this exclusive interview for ideant.

What made you decide to use technology to approach the issue of cultural exchange?

For many years, we have been developing multimedia materials and our focus has always been on the ways in which technology can serve as a tool for generating new pedagogical practices. The Internet, and its accompanying communications tools, seemed ideally suited to bring together students of different cultures for the very purpose of bridging cultural differences, and the language class also seemed the ideal place to do that, since one teaches language and culture. Here, however, unlike what happens in most language courses, culture becomes the central focus of the course.

What beliefs about technology influenced your design of Cultura?

That technology is just a tool and that – like every tool – it needs to be used in a way that makes sense, both in terms of the specificity of that particular technology and specific pedagogical goals. We are always looking to work at those “points of synergy” between technology and pedagogy.It is also very important to us that technology be viewed not just as a new medium for preserving age-old practices. One must push things further and explore the ways in which technology can not only enhance teaching and learning but also transform it.

At the conference you mentioned that the forums (discussion boards) are NOT moderated by an instructor, and that sometimes this creates tensions. What were you referring to? How do your classes manage such tensions?

We made a deliberate attempt not to interfere in the forums. We did not want students to feel that they were censored or needed to censor themselves in any way (in terms of topics and tone). We did not want students to feel that certain subjects were taboo or that they had to project any particular image of themselves or their culture. Our top priority was to ensure authentic exchanges.This meant that we had to accept postings that sometimes seemed overly critical and aggressive in tone (specially in terms of the postings from the French). Our students would occasionally be taken aback, but what often happened is that our students would (1) realize that the postings were not directly aimed at them (they soon noticed that French tended to be very critical of what some of their own classmates had said and often directed their harsh criticism at them), making them realize that such discourse is almost considered “normal” in France. And (2) what often happened was that these outbursts were often spontaneously calmed down by other French classmates.

So these “tensions” were looked at squarely, explored, and even became objects of cultural analysis and discussion themselves (about the “politically correct” movement in France and in the US, for example).

What about motivation? Your students are obviously required to complete the course. If this requirement was not in place, do you think people would be motivated enough to engage in virtual cross-cultural dialogue?

Once enrolled in the class, students have to complete the course. However, they do not have to take this specific course. It is made clear to them that the class will work on cross-cultural understanding for the duration of the semester; we tell them how we will proceed, and what the steps will be.The tasks we give students are very detailed, and provide both a clear view of the process, and a specific time frame for participating in the forums. For instance, a typical assignment at the beginning of the semester will ask students to go to the forums corresponding to the questionnaires they have analyzed, post comments for each corresponding word, phrase or situation, follow their comments with questions, check their counterparts’ postings, react to their comments, answer their questions, print the comments they find most relevant, and be ready to comment on them in class. Throughout the semester, students’ motivation is kept alive because they are directly engaged with their counterparts, and the discussion forums remain very focused. The scope of their inquiries broadens progressively as they involve themselves in a variety of discussions. To attest to the engagement of our students, it is interesting to note that, over the course of a semester, the Cultura forums generate the largest number of exchanges of all classes using discussion forums at MIT.

Cultura is an example of “blended” learning: it involves both virtual and face-to-face communication. Do you think something like this could be done entirely online?

What happens in class–with face-to-face communication–is essential: as students discuss their findings in small groups, and put their group’s observations on the blackboard, each interpretation appearing side-by-side on the board tends to bring out unexpected relationships between words or concepts. Each contribution by any member of the group has the potential to give the discussion a different orientation in a collaborative construction from individual to group and is, therefore, unique and essential.To do something like this entirely online, one would have to create a common meeting place on line where synchronous conversations could take place between students of the same group (between sessions of individual work with asynchronous forums), and where the blackboards could be replaced by a flexible on-line tool.

Cultura as it is used today (in foreign language classes) is much better served by a blend of virtual and face-to-face communication. On-line, students use their native language; in class, they use the target language.

What are your opinions about the potential of electronic communication technologies to facilitate dialogue across differences? What are its advantages and disadvantages over using other forms of communication?

In the Cultura forums, expression is spontaneous, but at the same time it is the result of conscious reading. It is both immediate and thoughtful.The asynchronous forums enable students to be specific when responding to a partner, to get back to what was said a while ago, or just to refer to the most recent postings. The forums become in turn raw material that can be analyzed beyond what students say in response to a comment: the way participants express themselves, their specific choice of words, their directness or indirectness, the way they formulate questions or express disagreement, for instance, provide entries into their culture. The archived discussion forums, because they are written, also capture entire thought processes, and reflect how the collaborative construction unfolds progressively.

NOTE: While this blog post is published under a Creative Commons license, all Cultura materials referenced are copyright protected.

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