Giorgio Massei, director of Edulingua, explains the challenges for language tourism and what it means to teach Italian during a pandemic.
Language tourism, which combines traveling in our beautiful country and learning Italian, has obviously been deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
I have therefore interviewed Giorgio Massei, contract professor at the University of Macerata for the Master’s degree in ‘Teaching Italian to foreigners in an intercultural perspective’, author of various publications and director of Edulingua, a school of Italian in the central town of San Severino Marche.
Together we talked about the way his language school coped with the forced closure of international borders and discussed the opportunities and drawbacks of online teaching.
Every year your school attracts hundreds of students from all over the world. Can you explain to our readers what kind of experience do these students live while they are in Italy?
‘Experience’ is the key concept that explains what drives so many students to attend our courses. In fact, they don’t simply look for a school which will help them improve their Italian or explore cultural themes. They don’t want to live like tourists: they want to change their lifestyle for the duration of the course and live like Italians. The beauties, the history, charm, and the hospitality both of our region and our town and the fact that our school is like a big family, all contribute to the transmission of the genuine values they are searching for. This is one of the reasons why many of our students come back to our school. Also, the teachers and staff work tirelessly to prepare activities both inside and outside the classroom so that students can benefit from formal and informal learning.
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Of course, the emergency caused by the pandemic has temporarily put language tourism on hold. So, how are language schools facing the current situation?
Online teaching has been the most natural solution for all language schools.
Fortunately, for years we had been working on innovative projects on distance learning, so we had built up significant expertise without, nonetheless, ever having the time and energies to take full advantage of it because of the demanding workflow in the school. Indeed, the emergency caused by COVID-19 has transformed what was just a research area into the school’s main activity, it being understood that our vocation remains that of welcoming students from all over the world.
What kinds of requests have come from the students who were supposed to study with Edulingua these months? Have they switched to online lessons or do they prefer to wait and fly to Italy whenever possible?
Some of them decided to cancel, others asked to postpone the course, which is something we made possible within one year after the intended arrival date. Overall, we haven’t been asked to replace the trip to Italy with an online course because the nature of the experience is so different that it can’t be repeated online, even with the best tools and technologies.
Requests for online courses, instead, have arrived from people who already know the school for its excellent reputation and from former students who kept in touch with us.
You have been studying the impact and use of technology in the language class for years now. But, obviously, using technology in the classroom and working entirely online are two different things. What possibilities does online teaching offer? If you work with a class, how does the interaction between the students and the teacher change? And what are the biggest challenges?
Actually, even though for many disciplines online teaching manages to effectively convey content, foreign languages do need physical interaction in the classroom. Keeping students motivated and concentrated online is complex. In class, the teacher immediately perceives how the lesson is going, and they can use the spaces of the room and motor activities as educational resources.
Interacting with pupils is possible online, especially if we have advanced technological tools, and the experience to use them properly. However, the emergency hasn’t given us enough time to adapt to online teaching and see significant results. Perhaps the main challenge for a teacher is to understand that the Internet can’t replace face-to-face teaching, but it can provide other effective learning ways. We should, therefore, rethink how we teach rather than replicate online everything we do in the classroom.
What characterizes a school like yours is that students are immersed in Italian culture, language, architecture, and landscapes. Is it possible to somehow compensate for this important aspect online?
These aspects can’t be replaced because of the holistic, sensory, relational, and emotional essence of study trips. Still, it’s possible to make some of the elements of the experience students have in Italy interesting online. For example, we are organizing digital courses on art history, and soon there will be others on opera and architecture. They are engaging and interesting for the students, who usually participate with enthusiasm — but it’s obvious that they are all waiting to see those same artworks or listen to those operas soon, in person, in Italy.
The way in which you transformed hardship into an opportunity to experiment and share content with a community of teachers and language enthusiasts is rather commendable. Would you like to tell us something about this project of yours, Didattica Live, and the work you are doing with Alma Edizioni?
As you rightly say, the difficulties linked to the coronavirus crisis have also given us the possibility to experiment with new ideas that we wouldn’t otherwise have developed.
Together with a good friend who works for the publishing house Alma Edizioni we immediately thought we should create an online space where housebound teachers could find interesting content. So we got in touch with Italian and international experts of linguistics and teaching who, just like us, were stuck at home and therefore available to make video calls. That’s how Didattica Live was born: it’s a light and informal talk show which wants to deliver stimulating content for teachers of the Italian language. The idea seems to be successful, and the project will keep growing even beyond the emergency period. We hope it will become a point of reference in our field.
Would you say that, overall, this forced use of online resources is helping educators and students understand how they can benefit from technology when it comes to languages?
I’m witnessing two apparently contradictory trends: on the one hand, as you said, it seems like everyone finally noticed the impact that technology can have on language education. Despite all the difficulties dictated by the crisis, we saw that, with the right premises, online teaching is possible. On the other hand, I think that for the first time, many of the enthusiasts of technologies in teaching have personally seen the limits of a purely virtual learning experience. In a way, when you reach full awareness of the extraordinary tools at your disposal, you also reveal their shortcomings: such a dialectic certainly lays the foundations for growth.
Do you think you will keep offering online lessons as an option when we’ll go back to normal? And what do you reckon the ‘new normal’ will look like in language schools? Will language tourism recover soon?
With regard to language tourism, I believe we’ll have to wait at least until spring 2021 for a significant upturn — even though any forecast is still hasty. Inarguably, in the near future, online and face-to-face lessons will be blended in an increasingly sophisticated way.
As I have mentioned earlier, the travel and learning experience that our students have in Italy can’t be fully replaced by online courses. But such digital classes, which are propaedeutic to the experience in our school or following it, could be implemented during ‘new normal’ times.
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