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Kathryn Murphy-Judy has been teaching foreign language college courses for more than four decades. About two years ago, she started to recognize why many students stopped taking language classes after the introductory courses: Printed materials often fall behind rapid advancements in language and culture.

The problem began to reveal itself when students in Murphy-Judy’s intermediate class bristled at a textbook that repeatedly referenced the singer Madonna’s lyrics.

“What does Madonna have to do with French?” said Murphy-Judy, an associate professor of French and coordinator of languages at Virginia Commonwealth University. “She was great in her day. But that’s not what the kids are really interested in learning about.”

In October 2015, Murphy-Judy and her colleagues began brainstorming solutions. Since then, VCU's foreign language department has led efforts with students to curate and assemble openly licensed learning resources, brimming with up-to-date primary documents in seven languages.

Murphy-Judy said the department hopes these free (and current) materials will supplant costly textbooks as the primary course material – and, as important, entice more students to proceed past introductory languages classes.

An Intensive Effort

In spring 2016, students in intermediate-level Spanish, French, Chinese and Russian courses stuffed VCU online blogs with timely pop culture and news articles, travel guides and professional development resources in various languages they found on the Internet. Then a smaller team of student researchers last summer helped whittle those findings into scaffolded online modules.

Those initial efforts trickled into intermediate language courses this past academic year. Once similar projects in Arabic, German and Italian are completed this summer, the department plans to more fully incorporate online tools into its overall curriculum.

The project serves several educational goals simultaneously. Participating student researchers gain digital skills valuable far beyond the classroom. They’re also exposed to vital facets of their chosen language.

“You may not have to go into a restaurant and order some food, but you are going to be faced with worldwide communications,” Murphy-Judy said. “We don’t want you just belly-flopping when you have to deal with another country, another culture, another language group.”

The first step in creating the modules was a technical plan developed by Tom Woodward, VCU’s associate director of learning innovation and the project’s “guru,” according to Murphy-Judy. Rather than spending months planning, Woodward and the university’s Academic Learning Transformation Lab quickly crafted templates that the team could revise as they worked. Woodward helped develop shortcuts for tasks like bookmarking links and generating blog pages.

“One of the things that tends to turn faculty members off is when you say, ‘Yeah, come back in six months,’ ” Woodward said. “We’re trying to get something functional within 24 hours and we can have live feedback and make stuff better.”

Murphy-Judy oversees and guides the efforts of her faculty colleagues, who work directly with students day to day. The process has empowered student researchers like Hannah Foster to guide creation of the modules -- even steering professors toward more relevant ideas.

“There were certain articles that they just loved and they got really excited about and I said, ‘No, I don’t think students would like that,’ ” said Foster, who worked on the project 20 hours per week last summer and graduated from VCU in May. She said she now feels more capable of planning lessons and navigating curriculum requirements.

Foster’s faculty mentor, Lionel Mathieu, who arrived at VCU in 2015 with far less digital academic experience than Murphy-Judy, said the project has helped him shift his classroom approach.

“My general teaching philosophy is trying to put myself in the students’ shoes and think like they do. If I were my own student, how would I respond to a certain document, or how an activity is presented, or the relevancy of what we’re doing in class?” Mathieu said. “I’m trying to move away from artificially created exercises and make it more relevant and more current.”

For Murphy-Judy, that dialogue is essential. She said she’s learned that students often dismiss dry grammar lessons, favoring instead a more holistic view of political attitudes and social justice awareness in their nation of study.

“We learn from each other and we critique each other,” Murphy-Judy said.

Support From Administrators

The project drew early support from Montserrat Fuentes, dean of VCU’s college of humanities and sciences, who identified immediately with a desire to help students connect to the realities of their chosen second language. Fuentes, a native Spaniard, said she has struggled in the past to reconcile conversational English with the more clinical version conveyed in the classroom.

Fuentes added she supports Murphy-Judy’s “aggressive” efforts to push the foreign language department into the digital age.

“She’s so energetic, so passionate,” Fuentes said. “Her drive is all about these students.”

An anonymous survey of students who helped with curation suggests the modules might entice more students to pursue foreign languages beyond their major requirements, Murphy-Judy said. Other students felt they needed more training to grasp the modules’ value, though their cost effectiveness has proved an easier sell. More comprehensive feedback will be collected this fall.

Next Steps

The team will soon begin the next phase — connecting these modules to teletandem, a gestating VCU initiative in which language students communicate with foreign pupils learning English in other countries. Student pairs will complete modules together, sharing personal details and cultural references for a more authentic learning experience.

Murphy-Judy said has been thinking about open-source education since her career began. Long before Creative Commons existed, she wrote at the bottom of her published work, “You’re welcome to use it and don’t you dare sell it.”

But even now that digital tools are more widely understood, Murphy-Judy said she’s searched “hither and yon” for funding to continue the module project. Still, she and her colleagues see their endeavor as a model for departments in other disciplines at VCU and other colleges.

“If I’m teaching people to communicate and I’m using 19th- to 20th-century communication modes, and I’m not using 21st-century modes, I’m not teaching people to communicate in the world they live in,” Murphy-Judy said. “I have to stay abreast of all this.”

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