Professor Barbara Nelson has tapped her experiences in Ecuador, where she teaches Jan Plan each year, to create authentic material for her popular Spanish language-instruction Web site. Above left, Nelson shows Ecuadoran children a video of themselves. At right, she poses for a snapshot with a friend.
The cultural points in Nelson’s study modules aren’t random. They share an underlying focus on humanitarian issues such as street children, the future of the Earth, rural agriculture, and oppression. By the time students have completed a module, they’ve improved their grammar skills, but they are also more knowledgeable about one issue or concern that affects the everyday lives of fellow Spanish-speakers.
Nelson’s exercises also offer students immediate feedback and unlimited attempts to get the correct answer. “They self-correct, and a lot of them are very creative,” said Nelson. “By the time you get to the end, you’re creating things yourself. It’s not just forms.”
Students aren’t the only ones who have praised Nelson’s site. In 2002 the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT) awarded Ojalá que llueva café the MERLOT Editors’ Choice Award for “best online teaching in all disciplines.”
Smiling, Nelson admitted that she’s pretty well known at technology-based language learning conventions. Aitken, Nelson’s counterpart at Trent, refers many students to her site. “In my mind, it is the absolute best one that I have seen for individual practice and development,” he said.
And, unlike many other online language programs, it’s abso- lutely free. With so much potential for profit, why hasn’t she sold the site?
Because it’s her passion.
“I honestly haven’t considered that yet, even though a lot of people think I should,” Nelson said. After reflecting for a moment, she added, “I may. But then I receive all of these letters. Those people are really grateful. They really appreciate having a quality program that they can access for free. That has to touch you somewhere.”
Seven years after the site went public, Nelson still logs about 10 hours per week updating and improving it, on top of teaching classes—and it used to take more time. “In the beginning I was practically living here in my office at Colby. I spent every spare second on my site,” Nelson said. She has poured countless hours into making the site dynamic and interactive, and that’s something she feels she can’t put a price tag on.
Nelson’s newest module, Ofrendas (Offerings), also includes a teacher’s guide, which informs teachers about how to use her material effectively in their classroom.
On a few occasions, others have tried to replicate Nelson’s site and pass it off as their own or to copy the site and charge for the program. Nelson’s students or colleagues report the interlopers, and these copy-cats have always taken their sites down at her re- quest, Nelson said. Her fan base remains loyal.
But the site is not only rewarding for its users.
“My own students have been my most enthusiastic fans and also my most valuable critics. Especially in the beginning we experimented together to find the most effective ways to get real interactivity on the site,” Nelson recalled. Inasmuch as Nelson listens to their feedback, her students around the world have had the opportunity to teach their teacher, but often, students—from 18-year-old first-years to retirees—get in touch simply to say, “thanks.”
“I am first year at St. Andrews in the UK and I just wanted to thank you for saving my life,” Chris, one Web site user, wrote to Nelson. “I am pretty sure I would have failed my exam if it weren’t for this site. … Sorry if this email seems to you a bit creepy, I wanted to express my gratitude.”