You are right, Matt, that the web is the place/space for much learning to take place. In modern languages, for example, there is nothing in our classrooms and hardcover books that can replace some of what the web can do. Conversely, some of what is done in hardcover, physical books and in our classrooms cannot be found elsewhere. The task is to be clear on what’s what – on what the web allows us and our students to do/explore/learn/think about that we could not in any other way in the past and what the “older” tools and materials and spaces allow us to do as well.
The web has fulfilled the thirst and yearning of some language teaching professionals for access – access to languages and their cultures and subcultures and regional and national and extra-national cultures, to the sounds and sites of those cultures, to the public and private spaces in those cultures to which we have access through the web, to ancient parchments and old architectural sites, to manuscripts and books and pictures of the authors and their families and friends and spaces and penmanship and so forth and so on, to the ways in which current generations of human beings are accessing those ancient to current communications and verbal interactions and responding to and speaking with them – through print, online print, visuals, video, sound, and talk, translation and interpretation. The web provides all human beings access to worlds of cultures, if they only know 1) how to access them and 2) how to interpret them in effective and productive ways.
The web provides context. It provides food for our ears, eyes. Two of the senses are stimulated, as is the cognitive sphere, and perhaps the emotional as well. Maybe even the physical, as body changes occur depending on our emotional states. It does not provide taste, touch, or smell – yet (:-)?). It is not exactly like “being there.” On the other hand, it is breadth – lots of possibilities for accessing things and people that “are there.”
For modern language students it can – and it is coming – be the portal for getting to know people from the places where the language is spoken, for speaking face-to-face with those people, for developing networks with those people – for personal satisfaction and also for positive change – groups working together across the world on sustainability, for example.
If used well, the web can help us do simple, yet profound, things. Take, for example the images sites on search engines. If you plug into a search engine in other cultures and languages, type in a word or phrase in that language, you will see what visual concepts the native speakers in those cultures have in their heads. You will see what comes to mind. Take, for example, sitzen (‘to sit’). If you go to google.de and click on Bilder (‘Images’), you will see how German speakers visualize sitzen, and in what contexts they publicize those ways of seeing the concept. You can see nuances that are culture-specific in the German word for ‘youth,’ Jugend. You can type in a word or phrase in the regular web search portal and find out how that word or phrase is used in written, maybe even spoken discourse, at least some of the time. You can hear how real native speakers use the language in various regions and various contexts.
And that is only a small bit of what students can do. What we need to teach them is how to navigate, and to be sensitive to possible intention and how to interpret that on the web – just as we do when we teach them to analyze older or newer language, literature, texts of other sorts, etc.