Gilberte Furstenberg, Senior Lecturer Emerita, taught French for 30 years at MIT. During her career, Furstenberg was involved in the development of cutting-edge multi-media teaching and learning tools. In this interview she shares some thoughts about her experiences.

How did you first get involved with using computer technology to assist language learning?

When I started teaching full-time at MIT in 1980, I had absolutely no interest in using technology. At the time, the emphasis in the foreign language field was on developing students’ communicative competence—on giving them the tools to interact, speak, and use the language in real ways and for a real purpose. Technology had no part in that picture. The only thing it did offer to foreign language learners at the time were computer-based “fill-in- the-gap” types of exercises, which could not have been further removed from the communicative approach to foreign language learning. So I did not look any further.

But then two or three years later, I made an extraordinary discovery. Being interested in the use of video as a teaching tool, I decided to go around to different departments at MIT (including outside of the Humanities) to see how it was being used. One day, somebody suggested I go and see an “interactive video” project (a new concept to me), which the Architecture Machine group was developing [MIT’s Architecture Machine Group was active from 1967 to 1985]. I went to see it.

The project, called the Aspen Movie Map, was a revolutionary hypermedia system funded by the Department of Defense. An MIT team had taken thousands of images of Aspen, Colorado, at different times, in different seasons, from different angles, and put them on what was then called a videodisk. This allowed a user to go on a virtual drive through the city of Aspen. You could turn right or left. You could enter a building, look around, listen to what people were saying. You could truly familiarize yourself with that city without ever going there.

This project had absolutely nothing to do with foreign languages. But I could immediately see the connections, as this new technology clearly provided two major ingredients for the field of language learning: immersion and interaction. I imagined immersing our students in a city like Paris, Buenos Aires, or Tokyo, and giving them the tools to interact with people and their surroundings. That’s how the idea for a language-learning interactive videodisk (or laserdisc) was born.

This was the right time, and the right place, for developing such a project. In 1983, MIT had partnered with Digital Equipment Corporation and IBM to create a campus-wide computing environment — Project Athena, as it was called — to allow students to have access to computers in classes and in their dorms for the first time. The hardware was there, but content was needed. So Project Athena sent out a plea to departments saying: “we have the hardware and resources. Send us your projects.” Janet Murray [Senior Research scientist in the MIT Literature section, who created the Laboratory for Advanced Technology in the Humanities] came to our section to explain this opportunity for developing creative projects. Having seen the Aspen disk, I jumped on this opportunity (as did Doug Morgenstern, my colleague in Spanish).

It was a wonderful era — a very creative period. At the beginning I knew absolutely nothing about technology. But being at MIT, surrounded by people who knew (from within the Visual Computing Group among others) and with the help of a savvy team (including Stuart Malone, as the software designer), I saw this as a chance to bring the field of foreign language learning into the 20th century.

But I was foremost a teacher. And what has guided my work from the very beginning has been the notion that pedagogy and technology have to work hand in hand. To me, the key has never been technology per se, but how it can usher in new ways to learn and new ways to teach. If one uses new technologies to do the same old things (such as fill-in-the-blank exercises or have the teacher simply ask questions in class), there’s no point. The immersive and interactional traits of the medium immediately appealed to me, as they had the potential of effecting new modes of learning and teaching.

Tell me about your first two interactive projects.

Both projects were launched in the mid-1980s and were published in the early-90s. A la rencontre de Philippe is an interactive fiction, filmed in Paris, that puts language learners in the middle of a story, of which they become a central character as they determine its outcome. The story branches out in different ways, depending on what students do, which in turns depends on what they understand. It is accompanied by an instructor’s manual outlining activities to be done by students individually then interactively in class. This pioneering project has won many national and international awards. Dans un quartier de Paris is a multimedia interactive documentary (filmed and produced by Michael Roper, from the Visual Studies Department at MIT) which allows students to explore the micro-world of one neighborhood in Paris (a part of Le Marais) in its multiple dimensions: through its space, its history, and the different perspectives of the people who live there (both inhabitants and store keepers), thus providing students with a multi-layered insider’s view of the neighborhood. It is accompanied by a teacher’s guide detailing individual and in-class activities (co-written with Sabine Levet). This project also has won several awards in the US and in France.

Although MIT invested heavily in these projects, we also had the help of other partners. There was major extra funding from the Annenberg/CPB Foundation, the Florence Gould Foundation, the Consortium for Language Learning and Teaching and the French Ministry of Culture, as well as by John and Cynthia Reed who installed the new À la rencontre de Philippe Fund.

The idea of an “interactive fiction” is ahead of its time! How did that work?

Yes, indeed, and it turned out to be quite an adventure! This is the first (and only!) time when such a concept has seen the light of day in the field of language learning. A la rencontre de Philippe was shot in Paris by a professional filmmaker and professional actors. As the film starts, Antoine invites the students to go and meet his friend Philippe at a café. There they witness a conversation between the two in which Philippe reveals that he has just broken up with his girlfriend. She has kicked him out, and he needs immediate help finding another place to stay. Antoine gives Philippe advice, and then leaves. At that point, Philippe turns to the viewers — the students — asking if they can help. He shows them an envelope with his address and asks if they can go to his place. He is expecting some phone calls.

The students are then provided with two sets of tools: tools that will help them function within the story and take an active role: a map of Paris, a newspaper with apartment ads, a telephone line with an answering machine; and an array of tools (which they can choose from depending on their level) that will help them understand what the characters are saying.

Students then can (hopefully!) find their way into Philippe’s apartment, listen to messages on the answering machine, go and visit apartments on their own, meet other characters (among them a friend who tries to patch things up between Philippe and his girlfriend). About one hour later, it’s time to meet Philippe again. Depending on what students have done and understood and what information they have relayed to him, there are different scenarios. All in all, we created seven different endings. In five of them, students manage to find a new place for Philippe. In another ending, the student is able to help patch things up between Philippe and his girlfriend! Yes, indeed! In yet another ending they don’t find a solution, which is an invitation to start over and explore new paths.

How did you use this technology in the classroom?

That is an extremely important question, as the classroom will indeed change (and needs to change) as a result. It now becomes the place where students (not teachers) take center stage as they share with their classmates the information they have gathered. As students have gone through different paths individually at home (or in earlier times, in the language lab), the classroom then becomes the active place where students will orally share their information with each other. All classroom activities have been designed to be collaborative and interactive in nature, thereby building on the interactive nature of the medium. One of them, for instance, consists in having students try and recreate the whole storyboard. In order to accomplish that goal, they are naturally led to exchange the information they have gathered individually.

The fundamental change here is that, again, it’s not the teacher asking questions to students such as: “What did you do? Where did you go? What did you find? What did you learn?” etc. It’s the students who, having seen a different part of the story – thus each owning a piece of the puzzle – will spontaneously talk to each other in the process of putting together its different parts and recreating the storyboard. They are thus playing a lead, active role in the classroom while exercising their speaking skills – something they could not do while using the videodisc on their own, as they were just selecting options.

Again, being particularly interested in how interactive technologies could change students’ learning and make it experiential, I felt it was also important to provide classroom activities where students could take an active, central role.

I understand you worked with professional filmmaker in Paris.

Yes, and this was a stroke of great luck. I was talking about this project with a colleague in France, telling her that, since I wanted to ensure complete authenticity of both context and language, I was looking to hire a professional filmmaker and scriptwriter in Paris. She said, “How about my upstairs neighbor?” Her neighbor happened to be Sophie Tatischeff, daughter of the legendary French filmmaker Jacques Tati. Sophie got very interested in the project. She chose a scriptwriter, directed the film, and hired professional actors.

But things did not always go smoothly! The story behind the actor who played the role of Philippe is a case in point. When I met the actor – on the first day of the shooting – I was appalled. He was talking very fast and was quite hard to understand. My inexperience had led me to assume that, as an actor, he would know how to articulate. But no! I was suddenly worried students would not understand him. I tried to tell him at the very beginning, “Could you slow down a little bit?” I had never told him it was a language-learning project (I actually didn’t even want him to know that, as I did not want him to purposefully slow down his speech). But I certainly did not expect him to speak so fast. I mentioned my fears to Sophie, but nothing could be done. Later, she told me that she had chosen him for the following reason: knowing this was an interactive story through which students would presumably go several times, she felt that by being not so easily understood, he would continue drawing students in and they would pay even more attention. That was her cinematographic point of view, and I later realized that she was right. This simply led us to develop a wider array of comprehension tools than initially planned.

The same was true in terms of the script itself. I had worked on a scenario with a student at the Media Lab (Ayshe Farman-Farmaian, a student who was instrumental in the design of this project). I sent the lines of the scenario to Sophie and asked her to give it to a professional French scriptwriter who would then write the dialogues. Again, we didn’t let the script writer know it was a language-learning project because I wanted the language to be completely authentic and I did not want him to water it down either. When I received the script, there were quite a few slang words. I cringed and thought, “Do I want my students to learn this?” I tried to change a few words here and there. But then I realized that if you take a piece out of something, the whole thing falls apart. It worked really well in the end because authenticity was preserved.

A la rencontre de Philippe was initially published in videodisc format by Yale University Press, and then turned into a CD-ROM by Kurt Fendt and his team at Hyperstudio. That version was picked up by the French publisher, CLE International. Unfortunately, this pioneering project is no longer available but it had real historical significance, because it was absolutely unique. It still is.

After these two earlier projects, you created Cultura with fellow lecturers Sabine Levet and Shoggy Waryn. Tell me about its origins.

I had been teaching a culture class based on the comparison of French films and their American remakes (there are many of them). I would ask students to view the two versions (I had chosen to work on the very successful French film of Trois Hommes et un Couffin and its American remake Three Men and a Baby), and then identify the changes made and try to figure out why these changes were made, and what they might reflect about the underlying cultures.

Then I thought how much more interesting and potent it would be if our students could exchange perspectives with French students on those very same films, instead of just sharing them with each other in class or through their online postings. So the idea then came to me to partner with a class of students taking an English class at a French University or a Grande Ecole (one of our longest partnership has been with students at Ecole Polytechnique led by professor, Kathryn English), whereby both sets of students – looking at the same materials – could exchange their viewpoints across the Atlantic.

It was a very simple idea but one that also came up at the right time and was made possible by both a shift in the language classes and the advent of a new technology. Indeed, this was a time when language classes increasingly included the study of culture. As the world was becoming more global, and as more and more students were going abroad, it seemed important to help them also develop an in-depth understanding of another culture within the language class. Personally, I was particularly interested in helping students access the “hidden” part of culture: namely, the ways that people think and behave and why. I wanted to make that part of culture accessible and “visible.”

The time also happened to be right for such an enterprise, as there was a perfect correlation between the field of inter-cultural communication (which implies encounters between people) and the Internet and its new online communication tools (which facilitates such encounters). Thanks to an initial two-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Shoggy, Sabine and I started developing the project in 1997 and we later received additional funds from the French Initiatives Funds.

Like the other projects, Cultura is situated in a language class, but unlike those described above, it is web-based, and also allows students from two different countries to connect and interact throughout a semester, with the goal of exploring each other’s cultures. It can be used at different levels of language proficiency, but we purposefully chose to implement it within a French III class (low intermediate) at MIT, as the goal was to make culture the core of the language class as early as possible, thereby reversing the traditional equation between language and culture. This was the added challenge we had posed ourselves and one which we succeeded in delivering, I believe.

Briefly, Cultura is based upon a comparative approach whereby students in France and in the US first respond to a series of questions designed to elicit cultural attitudes – making word associations to words such as freedom (liberté), work (travail), family (famille), individualism (individualism). Students are asked to state what to them might a “good” (un bon…) parent, boss, neighbor. And how they would react to such situations as when you see, for example, a mother slapping her child in a supermarket, or a student next to you cheating at an exam, as well as other situations.

The students then compare and analyze the responses, both at home and in class, and enter into open online forums (and occasional video chats) sharing their observations and constantly questioning their partners in order to try and get a deeper and broader understanding of each other’s points of view. The students’ field of inquiry then widens and includes a comparison of national opinion polls on a variety of subjects, of French and American press articles on a same topic, of television ads on a particular product etc. the goal being to have students constantly look at a multiplicity of perspectives and be ready to refine their observations and knowledge in the light of new materials, with the goal of better understanding the “other,” in their many different variations.

Now, while an important part of the work takes place on line (where students interact directly with French students through asynchronous forums), the classroom is still crucial, as this is where students will orally share (in the target language) their discoveries. This poses a new challenge for teachers as they are no longer the sole source of information or the sole authority, but their role is to turn the classroom into a place where students (under their skillful guidance) will share what they have learnt and discovered, expand their individual knowledge and understanding, and in the process develop new insights, reach new interpretations and constantly refine together their understanding of the other culture.

Cultura was one of the very first online and classroom-based projects aimed at developing intercultural comprehension within a language class, and it has served as a model throughout the world. Many institutions and teachers in different countries have adopted it because of its solid methodology and its very flexible format, adapting the materials to their own cultures and creating their own Cultura -based exchanges.

What is the role of technology in the classroom today—now that students can access so many materials on their own on the web?

New technologies and new pedagogical innovations need to go hand in hand. I feel I have done my part, but I’m sure that, as technology changes and evolves, there will always be new ways to bring the increasingly multidimensional world to students. Digital media is everywhere and virtual reality tools, for instance, are increasingly being used. However we have to look not just at what new technology is available but also at what makes sense pedagogically. We also need to be aware that the learning (whether it is in class or online) will always need to be constructed and scaffolded through tasks and activities designed by the teacher. Anything that immerses students in an authentic, linguistically – and culturally- rich environment – is crucial. But it is not enough. Even though the learner is increasingly active, the greatest responsibility is for the teacher to find suitable materials and design learner-centered activities in the classroom that will allow the learners to then become the major players – a role that I myself gradually grew into.

Thinking back on the days I taught with Cultura, I will always remember the thrill I felt – and I still do now – when I read some of their papers (where they were asked, for instance, to choose and explore one specific concept/notion of French culture that seemed to them particularly prevalent). I would always ask them to surprise me, and they constantly did! How exciting it was for me also to see and hear my students in class actively share (all in French) their new knowledge with each other and engage in discussions about cross-cultural notions such as freedom, individualism, authority, rudeness, friendship etc. They always provided many different examples from a variety of contexts, made cogent arguments, wrote their collective findings on the board, and refined their points of view and perspectives throughout the semester, as they read or saw new materials. What a thrill it was also to see them discover aspects of their own culture and of themselves, as they explored the many different facets of French culture.

It was also very exciting for me to see them gradually become better and more informed language learners along the way, as they used and incorporated – in their class discussions and their writings – the words and expressions of the French (since students on the online forums use their native language). Grammar was also learnt in the process, and always studied within context, as we would regularly focus on the use of the subjunctive, how relative pronouns were used, etc.

Finally, what a source of joy and pride it still is for me, after all these years, to see our goal of bringing culture to the forefront of a language class become a reality. I believe that Cultura – our own MIT-grown project – has led the way in that regard, and I am very happy to see similar projects flourish in language classrooms throughout the world!