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Digital Age reboots foreign language instruction in Western Pa. schools

| Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, 9:03 p.m.
Michele Lowers uses Duolingo with students Taylor Priore and Tyler Lykens in her Keystone Oaks High School class Wednesday, January 21, 2015. The new technology is an online language learning app developed by a CMU professor.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Michele Lowers uses Duolingo with students Taylor Priore and Tyler Lykens in her Keystone Oaks High School class Wednesday, January 21, 2015. The new technology is an online language learning app developed by a CMU professor.
Michele Lowers uses Duolingo to instruct students in her Keystone Oaks High School class Wednesday, January 21, 2015. The new technology is an online language learning app developed by a CMU professor.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Michele Lowers uses Duolingo to instruct students in her Keystone Oaks High School class Wednesday, January 21, 2015. The new technology is an online language learning app developed by a CMU professor.
Drew Richards works with his German II class at Dorseyville Middle School on Tuesday, January 26, 2015. In the Fox Chapel Area school, students use their iPads to access DuoLingo, a Web-based, language-learning platform that was designed at Carnegie Mellon University.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Drew Richards works with his German II class at Dorseyville Middle School on Tuesday, January 26, 2015. In the Fox Chapel Area school, students use their iPads to access DuoLingo, a Web-based, language-learning platform that was designed at Carnegie Mellon University.
Drew Richards works with his German II class at Dorseyville Middle School Tuesday, January 26, 2015. The Fox Chapel school has students use their iPads to access DuoLingo, a web-based language-learning platform that was designed at Carnegie Mellon University.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Drew Richards works with his German II class at Dorseyville Middle School Tuesday, January 26, 2015. The Fox Chapel school has students use their iPads to access DuoLingo, a web-based language-learning platform that was designed at Carnegie Mellon University.
Serena Seeger in her German II class at Dorseyville Middle School Tuesday, January 26, 2015. The Fox Chapel school has students use their iPads to access DuoLingo, a web-based language-learning platform that was designed at Carnegie Mellon University.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Serena Seeger in her German II class at Dorseyville Middle School Tuesday, January 26, 2015. The Fox Chapel school has students use their iPads to access DuoLingo, a web-based language-learning platform that was designed at Carnegie Mellon University.
Courtney Kennedy (left) and Isabella Boleng work in German II class at Dorseyville Middle School Tuesday, January 26, 2015. The Fox Chapel school has students use their iPads to access DuoLingo, a web-based language-learning platform that was designed at Carnegie Mellon University.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Courtney Kennedy (left) and Isabella Boleng work in German II class at Dorseyville Middle School Tuesday, January 26, 2015. The Fox Chapel school has students use their iPads to access DuoLingo, a web-based language-learning platform that was designed at Carnegie Mellon University.

Keystone Oaks Spanish teacher Michele Lowers remembers when technology in her high school classroom meant an overhead projector and film strips.

Twenty-three years later, it now means computer-based books, tutoring and games that aid instruction. Her students even take exams online.

“It's really changed how teachers interact with students in and out of the classroom,” Lowers said.

Technology has pervaded classrooms over the past decade, and foreign language teachers arguably use “ed-tech” more often than those in any other subject, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Lowers, who uses websites and an interactive white board to complement textbooks, said she often gives homework that involves at least some tech component, such as having her students play a computer game that makes learning fun or having them produce a video to demonstrate what they've learned.

The technology doesn't necessarily make students learn any easier or faster, but it better engages a generation that grew up with being gratified instantly, she said.

“It's no longer, ‘Repeat after me,' ” Lowers said. “(Students) expect me to entertain them the whole 42 minutes that I have them.”

While school districts develop the curriculum, teachers generally incorporate technology on their own. Some shy away from technology while others embrace it.

Students in Deanna Baird's high school Spanish classes in the Upper St. Clair School District, for example, use an application on their smartphones and computers to brush up on vocabulary words. They can download and upload assignments on an online portfolio developed by the district's foreign language teachers.

Students in Fox Chapel Area German teacher Drew Richards' classes use Duolingo, a Web-based language-learning platform designed at Carnegie Mellon University. Among Duolingo's features is the ability for teachers to track individual student progress, said Richards, who teaches middle and high school students.

Duolingo spokeswoman Gina Gotthilf said the application has become popular, in part, because teachers don't have to ask administrators for funding.

A new dashboard that allows teachers to track student progress, Gotthilf said, “really enables us to do a lot more inside of schools.”

The application also adapts to the way students learn. For example, if a student can translate a written phrase from Spanish to English, but has difficulty translating the same phrase vocally, the program will give that student more written phrases to translate, Gotthilf said.

“The kids who use it love it,” said Richards, co-chairman of the district's foreign language program.

One major benefit of Duo­lingo is that it allows students to learn at their own pace, said Greg Smolinski, German teacher at Seneca Valley Middle School. He worked with the company to suggest features and work out kinks in the application's early stages.

“When I first started, I gave the students so much time in class to work on it, but some of them took it home and were 10 lessons ahead the next day,” Smolinski said.

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, based in Alexandria, Va., recognizes the importance of language-learning technology, spokesman Marty Abbott said, but it places more value on the role that qualified language teachers play in using it.

Smolinski still has to teach his students the alphabet and numbers. Baird brings in native Spanish speakers to talk to her students one-on-one.

Both said students couldn't rely on software alone to learn a language.

Richards agreed: “Anything you do with a language has to do with communicating with other people. That face-to-face interaction is what I think is missing when people try to do too much online learning. Language is about people when you get down to it.”

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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