Literature: Transition From Multimedia Materials To Interactive Videotape In Teaching Russian Culture And Language

Posted: December 21, 2010 in CALL related literature

Casimir J. Norkeliunas, Ph.D.

This article describes some of the benefits that can be found by using high technology materials in difficult teaching situations. Marist College is developing several CALI programs. The author describes a slightly different use of technology where multimedia and CAI are used to teach Russian culture. Increased student motivation is a major benefit. The author also discusses how this approach allows for meeting individual needs.

KEYWORDS: Marist College, Russian, culture, multimedia, student motivation, interactive video and audio, videotape

At Marist College we have a CORE Program from which all students are required to take 26 credits. One of the required categories in the CORE is a grouping of disciplines under the heading of World Literature—Foreign Language—Foreign Culture. The student has the option of electing one of the three areas towards the fulfillment of the CORE requirements. I teach a CORE course entitled Soviet Union Today: Land, People, and Culture. In the presentation of the content we have relied heavily on multimedia materials. Forty percent of the content is delivered by way of audio-visuals; sixty percent via the lecture method, guest speakers and group discussions.

The use of multimedia has been extremely successful. The course is consistently over-enrolled and very popular on campus—so much so that the one section that was scheduled for the spring semester had an over subscription of 97 students. The maximum for the course is 30. My hope was that this course could be taught through independent study by way of interactive videotape. The major topics of Russian culture could be viewed and mastered outside the classroom in the college’s learning center, thereby releasing my time to work with students in tutorials, consultation and the writing of serious research papers.

I have recently turned to the new computer technology to develop my own software materials since there is very little commercial software appropriate for the teaching of Russian culture.


Whether we succeed or fail as teachers is entirely an attitudinal matter. It is not a question of intelligence or stupidity on the part of our students, but first, and most importantly, the attitude we hold toward them and how we regard our subject matter and our delivery systems. As I see it, there are, in smaller colleges, two all too common attitudes toward the teaching profession: (1) There is the teacher who has three or four classes of 40 to 50 students each whose perception of such large student number may be: There are too many in this class; they cannot possibly all pass my course. And with my heavy load, I certainly will not have much extra time to give outside-the-class assistance to them. Besides, my commitments to committee and departmental work are heavy, and I cannot worry whether or not every individual in my class learns or has the opportunity to master the subject matter. (2) The other attitude is very similar to the one above: In the past few years, the incoming students have been rather inferior to what I had in the past. They can hardly read or write, and their motivation level is so low that they fall asleep during my lectures. Why, then, should I go out of my way to ensure their passing the course or comprehending the covered material.

From my personal experience, I know that these two attitudes do exist on campus. Fortunately, there is a third attitude: the teacher thinks, Yes (1) the student


numbers in my course are excessive; and (2) their abilities in English skills are not what they generally were in the past. But my job is to teach. Given this situation, how do I impart my subject matter to these students and, most importantly, how do I deal with the problem of student motivation; i.e., how do I go about increasing his interest in learning? This paper suggests some things we have done at Marist College to generate motivation, and how we are now implementing these with the aid of the computer and videotape.


The Multimedia approach, as I have found over the past six years in teaching Russian culture, is an obvious solution to the problem of teaching large classes of students with varied abilities and degrees of interest. My course in Russian culture is dual listed: students take it in fulfillment of the CORE requirement in the foreign language/culture component or as an elective. As a result, I have students in my class that range from seniors to freshmen, from completely literate to the semi-illiterate student.

While it is difficult to find one medium that will be best for everyone, use of a variety of media helps the teacher to reach most individuals eventually. Some students will be able to grasp the concepts from just the lectures and reading their text (Hedrick Smith’s The Russians and Suzanne Massie’s Land of the Firebird), others only after the ideas are presented and discussed in class, and still others only after the concepts have been illustrated in a multimedia program. Within the bounds of time and practicality, the teacher should try several methodological approaches before leaving the topic. His goal is to reach the whole class. This is one important justification for the use of AV materials. Many of the multimedia materials used in class are available at the Beirne Media Center, our resource center; thus the resource center becomes a laboratory experience for review and reinforcement of what was covered in class. Students who find that they need extra help can go over the AV materials as many times as they need to. If suitable AV materials are found, both the student’s need for lengthy individual sessions and the teacher’s need to utilize time to the best advantage for meeting needs of entire classes can b e at least partially satisfied. Also, students who have missed the class (for legitimate reasons) can go over the material they missed on their own.


I have been using a tremendous variety of multimedia materials.

A. 16MM Films:

1. owned by the college;

2. bought by me through a grant award;

3. those borrowed from the Mid-Hudson Library System.

B. Super 8 Films—taken and produced by me while on my two trips to the Soviet Union.

C. Filmstrips (numerous ones):

1. Soviet Union Today;

2. Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana;

3. Russian Fairy Tales;

4. And many more

D. Slides—on every major topic covered by the course, most of them prepared by me with grant funds;

E. Video Cassettes—BBC Production of Leo Tolstoy;

F. Audio Cassettes—Russian music: excerpts from most famous works of Russian composers.

G. Realia—objects of Russian folk art, icons, Easter eggs, amber, etc. (a collection of about 30 objects).

H. Maps, Posters, Tourist Guide Books, Postcards, etc.

I. Guest Speakers—invited guests, experts in their field, address the class on various topics of Russian culture.

J. Russian Cuisine—Russian dinner for the entire class (each student prepares a Russian dish from Time-Life Cookbook Series).


Student travel to the country being studied would be most ideal. However, the majority of our Marist students do not have the funds to go abroad. Both travel costs and living expenses in a foreign country are prohibitive for most students.

Travel to the Soviet Union has other obstacles in addition to financial considerations. The Soviet Union is a police-controlled state and, as a result, a closed society where interaction between foreign tourists and the general native population is very limited. Official Soviet guides, representing In Tourist, the state tourist agency and a state monopoly, shepherd, monitor and accompany all the foreign groups traveling in the Soviet Union. In addition, the itinerary and the actual t ravel inside Russia are heavily restricted. For example, the average tourist can visit only a handful of major cities, primarily Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, and will only be allowed to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivastole.

The only inexpensive way to learn about Russia, the rest of the Soviet Union, its people, and their way of life is through a vicarious experience of multimedia. The various audio-visual materials become the main vehicle of transmitting information on the study of Russian culture. The Russian instructor’s job is perhaps the most difficult for he has to focus on the main concepts of culture, the ideas and salient traits found in the psyche and spirit of a particular nation. The problem before the teacher is to decide the strategy, the methodology of how best to concretize the theoretical aspects of the course. It has been our contention all along that the vicarious experience can be best achieved by using multimedia. Now we are expanding into a new dimension made possible by technology: the interactive videodisc and the videotape which we are currently setting in place.



The following underscores only some of the basic concepts and issues found in Russian culture and the difficulty for American students to understand them and the methods of teaching them in my classes.

A. A Russian’s Closeness to Nature and the Soil (Pochva)

—The mystique of organic earth and the Russian man’s spiritual and mystical (mythical as well) ties to it; i.e. to the virgin soil, rich black earth, the pochva, of the Western Russian plain. (The fertility of the Russian earth and all its life-generating forces);

—The Russian psyche is mystically attuned to the universe through man’s closeness to nature; How do you get this idea across to urbanized Americans?

B. Man and the Concept of Limitless Space

—As this is found in the vastness of the Russian plain call the steppe;

—Man feels lost in a sea of flat terrain and the looming vault of the skies;

—The reality of Russia’s physical geography, the horizon meeting with the level endless plain, producing the feeling of boundlessness and immensity and man’s insignificance, smallness, and vulnerability before nature.

C. Subjugation and Oppression as a Historical-Cultural Heritage of the People. This is the most difficult concept: lack of freedom. The notion of FREEDOM as we understand it in the context of American history, both past and present, is incomprehensible to a Russian. The yoke of semi- or total slavery has been borne by Russians since 1242, from the traumatic invasion by the Tartars to the present. The centuries-long curtailment of freedom has been brutally imposed on the Russian masses by the state, whether the state expressed itself in the form of Mongol absolutism, the centralism of the Moscow Princes of the medieval Russia, the autocratic despotism of the Romanoff Dynasty, or today’s totalitarianism of Soviet rulers. The docile acceptance of this historical condition has become one of the inner traits, and paradoxically an inner strength, of the Russian psyche. A Russian views life not in terms of freedom, but in the degree of servility and brutality imposed on him by his despotic governments. As a result of this, you have produced one of the salient and key features, both psychological and ethical, of a Russian’s nature. And this is that man quietly resigns himself to suffering and passively accepts the imposed controls from above. This one cultural feature, the people’s acceptance of slavish conditions, produces two perplexing questions in the minds of freedom-oriented Americans. One is: If a Russian’s existence has been and still is so harsh and repressive, why does the Russian not leave his land for countries that are free and democratic (supposing the Soviet State did allow its citizens to emigrate)? The second question is: Why do the dissenters or critics of Soviet Communist Regime, such as Boris Pasternak, Andrew Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsny dread and always have dreaded the physical separation from their homeland (i.e., for example, through permission to emigrate or forced to exile to the West)? The answer to these two questions can be found only if one understands my first two earlier-mentioned traits of Russian culture, namely: (a) man’s closeness to nature and to the soil (pochva) and (b) man and the concept of limitless Russia. The answer does exist, and is dualistic. The common people, the masses, do feel a mystical bond to their homeland, the spiritual attachment to the land and the love for Mother Russia, victimized and brutalized (the image of the historical rape of a land and a people) by foreign invaders such as Tartars, Poles, Swedes, Lithuanians, Frenchmen, Germans and native Russian despots. But the moral strength and spirit of Russia and its people survives. And it is this moral spirit that sooner or later will change the political conditions in Russia and create freedom for all.

As a teacher, how does one communicate these and other hard-to-understand concepts to an American student whose way of life is grounded in (a) almost excessive freedom and early rebellion against authority, and (b) the idea of uniqueness and significance of individuality and the individual as opposed to the concept of the individual functioning only as a part of a group, collective or mass. Or still, another point, how does one explain the attitude of submission and docility as it is found in Soviet Russian society today? Other themes in the Russian culture course that are particularly difficult to explain are these:

1. Tolerance for the Soviet Regime by the present generation of Russians;

2. Duality and contradiction in the Russian character (violent, authoritarian nature versus sensitive, spiritual man);

3. Religious culture: Christian meekness and altruism;

4. Church art: the icon;

5. The Russian soul: what is it and what does it mean?

6. The Russian fine arts: originality and uniqueness; (ballet, theater, music literature);

7. Plight of women in Russian culture;

8. Role of women in Russian culture;

9. Censorship and propaganda;

10. Police state: use of terror on and surveillance of the populace;

11. Russian cuisine: foods;

12. Education;

13. And others.

Such sharp differences in Russian culture, so alien to an American mind and his view of the world, can best be illustrated and brought home to students using various multimedia approaches in the classroom and for viewing in the AV Center (and especially the interactive videodisc and videotape).

In bringing across the idea of a Russian’s closeness to nature and his mystical attraction to the soil, I introduce the topic by showing the class a twenty minute 16mm film


entitled Pysanka—the Ukranian Easter Egg and a video-cassette produced by the British Broadcasting Company entitled Leo Tolstoy. These two visual aids graphically bring out some of the major ideas that are so difficult to communicate to students simply in the traditional lecture approach. Another example would be the concept of a Russian’s acceptance of oppression and dumb docility. I make use of my own set of slides (my own production) to illustrate the long history of terror imposed on the people by the State; the slides are entitled Exile to Siberia. Also for that same topic, I use my own set of slides entitled Russian Serfdom and the Peasant Way of Life and a video-cassette entitled The World Turned Upside Down. For every topic that I cover in the course, there is an accompanying set of slide or films or some other appropriate multimedia aid.


AV materials in the teaching of foreign culture are of inestimable value. I have discovered that these aids are extremely effective; especially at a time when the visual media seems to dominate all our lives and, as such, that this visual conditioning communicates to us with greater sharpness and impression. It must be kept in mind that multimedia materials serve the teacher only as supports to his lectures and the assigned required readings; nevertheless, they are essential graphic portrayals of the Russian life which could not be otherwise experienced by students other than through travel to the Soviet Union. Student evaluations, both essay and objective, of the multimedia used in the course attest to the effectiveness of their use in the classroom.

Students report their perceptions of the various forms of teaching using high technology as follows:

1. It is a source of increased motivation.

2. It supplements and enhances course content.

3. In general, it is a valuable component of course instruction.

4. It allows independent study.

5. It allows self-paced instruction.

6. Interactive videotape may accelerate learning.

The rewards are considerable. Once a technique is mastered, its use can free a teacher for many instructional activities in which human interaction is always vital. It can free a teacher to:

1. Monitor a student’s research project via tutorials.

2. Utilize what would have been lecture time for academic research and other curriculum development projects.


Student course evaluations have indicated positive aspects of technological support on instruction…students perceive the use of technology in various forms as a source of interest, enhancement of content and a positive component of course instruction. Most teacher advocates of audiovisual aids have made similar observations on the primary and secondary level as well. An effective teacher knows the secret of AV instruction is to utilize the unique capability of each medium. This can only be accomplished if the teacher is willing to put in the necessary planning and effort. The rewards can be considerable. Once a technique is mastered, its use can free the teacher for the many classroom activities in which human interaction is still, and always will be, vital.


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