Bringing the Arab World to U.S. Classrooms: Amidst Few Resources and Emerging Demand, One Student's Creative Learning Technology Is Now Being Marketed as a Helpful Teaching Tool for Arabic Professors Nationwide

By Lum, Lydia | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, March 6, 2008 | Go to article overview

Bringing the Arab World to U.S. Classrooms: Amidst Few Resources and Emerging Demand, One Student's Creative Learning Technology Is Now Being Marketed as a Helpful Teaching Tool for Arabic Professors Nationwide


Lum, Lydia, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


When Loren Siebert struggled to learn vocabulary for his introductory Arabic class three years ago, he figured he would buy tapes or a software package. Those kinds of aids had helped him learn French in high school and, more recently, conversational Indonesian.

What he was disappointed to discover was a scarcity in offerings for Arabic, despite explosive growth nationally in class enrollment since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

And the lack of study aids has frustrated college faculty around the country, says Claire Bartlett, former president of the International Association for Language Learning Technology. "It's a supply-demand problem," she says. "Historically, there's been low interest in Arabic, and the demand for it is relatively new."

Written Arabic runs right to left, the opposite of English. That has daunted some U.S. software programmers so far, Bartlett and others say. Complicating things is the fact that many of the course management systems in Web-based instruction like Blackboard historically haven't been able to support right-to-left languages, Bartlett says.

For his part, Siebert, a former Marshall Scholar, decided to take advantage of his skills as a software engineer. He devised a program that became a personal study aid to learn Arabic at a University of California, Berkeley class that was only supposed to occupy him while recovering from a sports injury. His program helped him strengthen his vocabulary so much that his teacher not only read aloud one of his essays in class but also kept the essay to serve as an example for future classes. His classmates took notice and asked if he would share his software, which he continued using his second semester there. When UC Berkeley hired him as a part-time lecturer of beginning Arabic for the 2006 fall semester, he realized his software could help college students everywhere. So last year, he modified and commercialized it.

Called LinguaStep, the program offers students vocabulary lessons that vary dally from a few minutes to an hour. When students show proficiency in a topic, those words are automatically dropped from the flash-card program. Siebert likens this aspect to the TiVO recorder, which can suggest TV shows for someone based on his or her viewing habits.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"Based on the user's behavior, LinguaStep adapts the content," says Siebert, who holds a master's in computer science from the University of Manchester and has done postgraduate study at the London School of Economics. He's considering developing programs for Mandarin, Korean and Japanese. …

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