Virtual Language and Virtual Culture: The Next Best Thing to Being There

Michael T. Dabrowski <> <>
Coordinator of Instructional Technology, Faculty of Humanities 2500 University Drive NW
Calgary, Alberta, Canada, T2N 1N4


Technology is advancing at a phenomenal pace and affecting every aspect of our lives. Of the many changes that have had an impact on education in the last few years, none has been the source of so much hype and promise as the World Wide Web and the Internet. The distribution methods for instructional material are being reevaluated and changed as a result of the arrival of these new technologies. For educators, there is a need to investigate the uses and limitations of the WWW in traditional classroom settings as well as the future of these innovations in the fields of distance education. There is also a need to evaluate the impact of these wide-sweeping changes on the students who have to learn and adapt to these new technologies and on the ways that learning has to change to keep up with these new delivery methods. While the integration of these technologies into courses challenges teachers and students alike, it also provides the opportunity for educators to explore new media for the distribution of educational material and tap into information that has until now remained beyond the access of a traditional classroom.

This paper attempts to deal with the different factors that affect the ability of a language teacher to use the Web, and to discuss the problems that have been encountered in the process of incorporating these technologies into language learning environments. The principal sources of information are the experiences and comments obtained as a result of the development of WWW-based Spanish instructional materials at the University of Calgary. While many references will be made to Spanish, the comments should apply equally well to the teaching of any language and culture. There may be additional obstacles involved in the use of the WWW for languages that do not use standard fonts. Nonetheless, it is felt that the difficulties and comments articulated should be applicable to any language teaching environment.

One of the principal paradigms of education is the textbook. It is being challenged by the advent of the WWW, which allows for the publication of and access to text, graphics, audio, and video from anywhere in the world. This is leading to a major reevaluation of what comprises a textbook and how it is to be used in a classroom.

While trying to teach Spanish language and culture using the WWW as a source for materials, the following issues in language learning were identified as areas that had to be addressed by a teaching medium for it to be considered viable: grammatical content, cultural content, reading comprehension, vocabulary building, listening skills, and conversational skills. Materials that fell into these categories were either accessed or created to assist students in experiencing Hispanic culture and mastering the Spanish language.

Grammatical content is nearly nonexistent on the WWW. The WWW is used primarily to convey information in a language, but not about a language. This results in very little development to specifically teach a foreign language. There is a large quantity of Hypertext Markup Language courses on the WWW, but little to teach how to write in English or any other language. This makes it very difficult to access instructional information that can be incorporated into the curriculum of a typical course. Additionally, very few language and culture professors are interested in the development of instructional materials for the WWW. The end result is that in order to have a consistent format and flow to educational materials, it is necessary to develop these materials specifically for the course.

Grammar exercise and answer pages were developed to fill this void. Unfortunately, the budget available for this undertaking did not allow for quick, full-scale development. The final objective is to make all of the grammar for first year language classes available in easy to digest, thematic notes. Corresponding exercises and responses to these are available from the pages that teach a particular element to facilitate learning and retention. Students can choose to do practice exercises online or to print out the materials as worksheets and then check them. This flexibility allows the students to also use the WWW resources in a more traditional manner. These pages are specifically designed for first- and second-year students. However, the flexibility of the materials allows for their implementation in higher level grammar courses and in continuing education courses that would use only selected materials from the available pages.

Since good marks are as important-if not more important-to students as learning, old exams are made available as study materials. Answer sheets are included with the exams to assist students in evaluating their progress and understanding of the material. As in the exercises above, the students once again have the option of working online or creating traditional printed materials for their use. Students have commented that their ability to try past exams and get relatively quick and good feedback allows them to better prepare for exams and to feel more confident going into the final exam.

Delivering cultural content is the strength of the WWW. Since a typical textbook is limited by size and can only include a small selection of cultural materials, the WWW offers a nearly unlimited source of cultural content. While the quantity of materials on the WWW is not an issue, quality and accessibility is. In the case of Spanish, most of the materials are available from Latin America or Spain; thus, for all Canadian students, the material is not delivered in a very timely manner. Additionally, since some of the servers are located in Third World countries, server reliability and availability can become a major obstacle. It is difficult to build a curriculum around resources that disappear from time to time, or may disappear forever, without warning. In order to take advantage of the resources available on the WWW, cultural content has been broken down into four distinct categories, each with separate access from the main page. This allows for the effective organization of the materials.

Content links

Links to sites in and about Spain and Latin America have been searched out to help students explore the vast Hispanic world. Many of these pages are in English, so they are effective for content only. Other pages are in Spanish and allow the students to learn about culture while developing their reading comprehension skills. While the English materials are well suited for all students, the complexity and richness of the language used in some of the Spanish pages make them better suited for second- and third-year students, who already have a basic vocabulary and are familiar with Spanish.

Local content

In an attempt to supplement cultural content available on the WWW, students were asked to research topics of historical, literary, or artistic nature and write short essays. The best of these are posted for the purpose of serving as resources for students in future years. It is hoped that during the next few years it will be possible to build a large collection of these. Professors are also encouraged to place materials developed by them on the WWW as a resource for students. While this area is still relatively small, it is hoped that during the next few years it will become a major cultural resource for students.

Off-ramp links

Links to Hispanic universities around the world provide starting points for students in their exploration of the diversity of the Hispanic world. This material is very laden with sophisticated vocabulary, usually in scientific disciplines. Since the use of the WWW is in its infancy in much of the Hispanic world, the content developers in these areas are usually scientists. Due to this, most of the university links provide a wealth of technical information in Spanish that allows interested students to find and work with specialized vocabulary related to the field in which they are studying. These locations usually also provide links to historical, literary, and artistic sites in the country.

Magazines and journals

Links to online Spanish magazines and journals provide the best quality reading materials for the students. Additionally, due to the fact that they are published and maintained by journalists in Hispanic countries, students are given an opportunity to read about world events from a Hispanic perspective. This allows students to understand their cultural bias and to begin seeing the world from the perspective of another, which is one of the most important steps to understanding another human being and his or her culture. Unfortunately, these materials are written for the Spanish-speaking population and require a good mastery of Spanish. Due to this, these materials are better suited for second- and third-year students.

Reading comprehension

Reading comprehension is a skill that is easily developed using the WWW. Because the majority of information available is written, reading comprehension is a mandatory skill for successful use of the WWW. In order to take advantage of many WWW resources, foreign language reading comprehension is not required. The unofficial language of the WWW is English, and the majority of the sites even in foreign countries are in part or in whole written in English. The individuals creating these sites are catering to the language that is known by the majority of the surfers. This is a drawback for students using the WWW as a learning medium, as the temptation to switch to an English page may be too much for many students to resist, particularly if they are having problems with the comprehension of a page. Adding links to a curriculum requires the instructor to carefully consider the cultural significance of a site and the level of the target language. To select a reasonable quantity of material requires a considerable investment of time.

Vocabulary building

While vocabulary building is quite feasible on the WWW, it does have some inherent problems. In a controlled classroom environment, students are required to master a vocabulary needed to work through the exercises in a given textbook. Of the 200,000+ words in Spanish that can be used, students know a very small portion. Due to this, they can easily become lost in the unusual or colloquial vocabulary that some sites use. Additionally, vocabulary building assumes a controlled environment for testing purposes. When using the Internet as a vocabulary source, it is feasible for two students to each learn 1,000 new words without having a single one in common. This then makes the testing and evaluation process extremely difficult for teachers. Due to the diversity of vocabulary, it is necessary to provide pages of vocabulary, which have to be developed in-house. Additional links may be used to access sites that are thematically related to provide additional vocabulary.

Listening skills

Most Web sites do not offer any sound; and if they do, it is usually of very little use in instruction. In order for students to develop their listening skills, it is paramount to create useful exercises and resources from which they can get exposure to spoken language. This kind of materials does not currently exist on the WWW due to a lack of demonstrated need for these resources. Additionally, the relatively long download times for audio and video clips make developers reluctant to use these in their instructional materials.

Conversational skills

Internet-based conversation is extremely useful for conveying information. Using e-mail and Internet Relay Chat (IRC), people can communicate with each other without any difficulties. The quality of the communication, unfortunately, leaves a lot to be desired. Slang is very common, profanities on IRC are common, and there are no requirements for individuals to write using correct grammar. The result is often more detrimental to language learning than not interacting in any way. Students learn colloquial expressions and slang but do not learn how to construct a sentence. Moderated systems like Listserv provide a better venue but require additional time from the instructor.

Material development

With sufficient time to develop materials and establish the infrastructure needed, it will be possible to transfer all of the material contained in traditional textbooks onto the Internet. These "new texts" will be able to provide material that is impossible to present in a traditional textbook. Using extensions available in most current Web browsers, it is easy to distribute full multimedia textbooks using the WWW. Although some obstacles are still to be overcome, the Internet has evolved to become an effective way to bridge learning barriers and provide distance education. The WWW is an excellent resource for materials; but the limitations have to be recognized, and supplemental materials must be created to augment the available materials. This, of course, requires a commitment of manpower and financial resources to this endeavor.

There are various factors that affect the usefulness of the WWW resources as materials for teaching.

Publication issues

The cost of publishing material on the Web is considerably lower than paper publications. The medium is for the most part free and easily accessible. The cost to students is also considerably lower, as the reduced production costs can be passed on to the student. However, it takes money to pay for course development. If all materials are provided free, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to support development and maintenance of the materials. Additionally, since copyright is difficult to maintain on the Internet and copying Web-based materials is essentially free, it is difficult to assure the developers that the course materials will only be used by the individuals that have paid for them.

It is very easy and quick to change Web-based instructional materials. In fact, it often seems that the entire WWW is in a state of constant flux. This apparent chaos provides for immediate correction of errors and omissions, as well as for quick edit time of the "virtual textbook." While it is easy to change and update Web pages, it is also necessary to do so. All external links have to be monitored on a regular basis to ensure that they have not changed drastically or disappeared for good. Additionally, a constantly changing textbook can provide problems for students in navigation and reviewing, while creating a nightmare for its maintenance and upkeep.

Unlike a textbook, lessons can be broken down and presented as modules, allowing students to take and pay for the materials that they use. It is fairly frequent that not all of the material in a textbook is utilized, yet the student is expected to pay for the whole book. This is more in keeping with modern economic reality. However, lessons in modular format require more administration and development time, while requiring more effort from the student to proceed through the materials.

Network issues

The major advantage of a network-based teaching medium is that instructional materials can be delivered to students anywhere in the world. The only requirement is that they have access to the WWW and a sufficiently powerful computer to handle the graphic, audio, and video components. The biggest obstacle to the use of Web-based textbooks with links to other sources of information is the unknown reliability of the information. Since Web pages can disappear at any time or become inaccessible, it is necessary to compensate for this by attempting to maintain locally as much material as possible. Additionally, local servers can also fail to operate at crucial times, as can individual workstations. This unreliability is the biggest stumbling block for the WWW overcoming the traditional printed medium, which is a tangible, reliable format.

As mentioned above, access to instructional materials is available from anywhere in the world with the proper hookup and equipment. This invariably means that some students will have trouble getting at the information. While time and space are no longer problems, money is. Most educational institutions do not have the financial resources to provide the kind of access that students require. Most students do not have sufficient money to purchase computers and necessary peripheral equipment. In order to take advantage of this technology, both these roadblocks will have to be eliminated.


Cheating is not a problem during instruction; however, during the evaluation process, it can become a very serious problem. Students using the Web are exposed to an enormous wealth of information that is relatively impossible for a professor to track. Creative students can copy information directly from the Web and claim it as their own work. Cheating on exams is almost impossible to prevent when the students are sitting at home. There is no assurance that the students are not using the textbook or getting someone else to write the exam for them. The various proposed methods of getting around this problem are fairly costly; and in the long run, someone will always find a clever way of getting around these security measures.

Time investment

While the design of Web pages takes considerably longer than a paper-based version, the many potential benefits outweigh this drawback. Unfortunately, in faculties that are traditionally rooted in teacher-student interaction, this factor is seen as a major deterrent in the development process. Additionally, it is only in the last year that there has been a noticeable shift in attitudes toward the WWW as a teaching medium and the legitimacy of such work in a research-oriented institution like the university.

Technology anxiety

Students have expressed concerns about the new technology and problems associated with learning how to use a new educational medium. In much the same way that students have to be taught how to read and write, they also need to learn how to read text from a monitor, print, type, and use the mouse. These skills, if not learned early in life, can take a relatively lengthy period of time to acquire. This results in students having to adapt to the new technology, acquire new strategies for learning, and at the same time master the course content. In our humanities classes, nearly 50 percent of the students felt uncomfortable as they initially sat down in front of a computer. Hopefully, in the near future, as computers become more of an information appliance, this obstacle will be eliminated.

Reading from a computer screen is also a skill that has to be learned. Students have stated that they cannot read text easily from the screen, they prefer printed text. As they become more used to reading information from the screen, this problem should also become less significant. Many felt that they made additional mistakes on electronic versions of exams and assignments. While the marks do not reflect this, it is obvious that there is anticipation of additional difficulties due to using this delivery medium.

Human contact

No matter how well computer-based instruction is designed, it is an impersonal medium of instruction. Science students typically have fewer objections to using the computer because it is a tool that they frequently use in the classroom and at home. In addition to the lack of this attitude and awareness in the humanities, there is a high value placed on "human skills." These intangible skills are considered to be the foundation and goal of a humanities education. Due to this, the instructional medium is diametrically opposed to one of the fundamental tenets of the discipline, which makes the adoption of the technology that much harder in these fields. Since language and culture studies are a fundamental core of humanities disciplines, it is hard to justify the use of these dehumanizing technologies in these fields.

Conclusion: Virtually yours

The one undeniable benefit and justification for using the WWW as an instructional medium is that it offers a way for students to explore varied cultures and literary expressions that otherwise would require an unrealistic investment in time and money to experience. While there are limitations to the amount and quality of materials available for the students on the WWW, they are nonetheless capable of exploring areas of the world that they would normally not have the opportunity to visit, reading views that are not usually presented to them, and exploring beyond the confines of the traditional course materials. This expansion of cultural and linguistic experience, even if virtual, can only be considered a very important asset to a well-rounded student's portfolio.