Video conference students to learn all the way from France

Katie Huntley

Four students wait anxiously in a conference room in Moulton Hall. They are all 15 minutes early for class.

“I’m nervous,” one student said.

French professor Richard Berrong assures them it will all be OK, trying to calm his restless crowd.

The phone rings and breaks the silence. Their guest is late.

“Who was it?” one student asked. “Was it someone in France or America?”

“It was the tech guy from upstairs,” Berrong said.

There is a low mumble and some disappointment in the room. Suddenly the screen flickers and a woman appears, staring back at the class.

“Bonjour!” she said excitedly.

A video conferencing device has broadcast her all the way to the classroom from Paimpol, France.

The students introduce themselves one-by-one, as a fifth student sneaks in quietly.

“You’re late,” Berrong whispered so the woman on the other end can’t hear.

The students are in their French conversation course. Every Wednesday they connect to a small, government-funded cyber commune in the French city to interview and speak with residents and government officials.

“This is a wonderful tool for teaching a language,” Berrong said of the PVX Polycom video conferencing software. “With it they can speak to people in France, and for 50 minutes they can, sort of, be in France.”

By listening and speaking with the French, the students are able to become accustomed to the genuine language of the country. This also keeps students from learning each others’ bad habits and mistakes.

Tiffany Stacy, a second year student, enjoys the unconventional class.

“The purpose of learning a language is to actually speak to people,” Stacy said. “It’s no good learning it if you aren’t going to go out and use it.”

And these students will have to be able to use it.

“My students are getting a real experience compared to a canned experience,” Berrong said.

This is especially important in times when studying abroad has become so expensive.

Jim Raber, video conferencing support analyst, said the software and hardware are relatively inexpensive.

“All you need is a camera, microphone, speaker and an Internet connection to link them together,” Raber said. “And the way it is set up makes the technology seem invisible and a little bit more natural for the students.”

“This is definitely a unique experience for them,” David Cunningham, manager of educational technology and distance learning, said. “Even if the students went to France, they wouldn’t be able to talk to these distinguished people.”

And Berrong thinks that it is worth every bit of effort.

“I have been teaching for 30 years, and this class has been the most exciting thing in my life,” he said. “It makes me want to come to work. I wake up in the morning and I’m like ‘Yay! I get to talk to my friends!’ And now I’m going to be high for the rest of the afternoon!”

Contact Information Services reporter Katie Huntley at [email protected].