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Using computers in Building 16, upper-level German Studies students are investigating two Berlin neighborhoods and keeping tabs on their inhabitants by listening to their conversations and shadowing them through their everyday lives via prerecorded film clips. At the same time, they’re learning about the Berliners’ past lives by locating and comparing press and government documents and images.

The investigation is part of an innovative, multimedia foreign-language program called “Berliner sehen,” or “See Berliners,” which turns the students into detectives of sorts, as they come to understand Berlin through the eyes of eight city residents whose daily routines were recorded by a documentary filmmaker in 1995. The students jump into the residents’ lives mid-conversation. They look for themes, such as frequent references to a specific institution or event, then piece together film clips, images, and documents related to the themes and use them to convey their ideas to their classmates. In the process, the students work together to gain an appreciation of German culture.

Developed in the late 1990s for the Foreign Languages and Literature Department, Berliner sehen is now part of a larger project for the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences called the MetaMedia Project. The aim of the project is to create a central collection of databases similar to Berliner sehen that foster collaborative, interpretive work with media in courses throughout the school. Users can compare different texts, images, and films and share their interpretations with others. Principal investigators Kurt Fendt, research associate in the Comparative Media Studies Department, and Peter Donaldson, a literature professor and head of the literature faculty, founded the project on archives they had developed separately-Berliner sehen for Fendt and Shakespeare manuscripts, photos, and film clips for Donaldson. They secured three years’ funding from the Alex and Brit d’Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in Education and since 2001 have been leading a team that is developing MetaMedia’s overarching structure. The team members are creating software tools that will allow users to navigate the databases and share materials, and they are also helping other faculty in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences create new archives.

Ten MetaMedia programs are now in the works, and the software tools that will make increased collaboration possible are nearing completion. Soon students and faculty in different disciplines will be able to view and compare materials side by side, create personal collections on the project’s server, share their collections with other MIT users, comment on the materials using an annotation feature, and even upload related materials. The resulting ongoing dialogue, whether it’s about German culture, Hamlet, Moby-Dick, or a George Balanchine pas de deux, will foster deeper understanding by making connections between materials and providing a forum for different viewpoints.

Cultural Connections

Fendt and Ellen Crocker, a senior lecturer in German, began using Berliner sehen in German courses in 1998. When other humanities faculty members saw it, they were enthusiastic and wanted to use its framework for their own projects, preserving the navigation system but plugging in new content.

Now one of four language programs within MetaMedia, Berliner sehen takes center stage in German courses at MIT and seven other universities, including Harvard University and Cornell University. Working alone or in teams, advanced students can access 680 conversational segments, three hours of additional documentary film footage, and at least 750 photographs and document images that promote learning about culture more than about linguistics.

Berliner sehen’s intent is to interest students in German culture in a personal way, says Fendt. “Teaching a foreign culture is a very difficult thing,” he says, adding that just choosing which parts of culture to focus on is challenging. For example, at the outset, students have no reason to be interested in a topic such as unemployment. But as Fendt explains, “When they go to Germany and meet someone, and learn that this person is unemployed, they become interested.” Berliner sehen captures that kind of interest.

In Berliner sehen, Fendt and Crocker decided to focus on everyday aspects of German culture using two Berlin neighborhoods that have gone through significant changes since the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall. By following the eight principal characters, students learn about daily happenings and how the inhabitants deal with change and interpret past events.

Fendt says using the program is similar to putting together a puzzle. “Students are jumping into the middle of a conversation. All the references people are making don’t make a lot of sense,” he says. Slowly, the students begin to pursue themes that arise in the conversations. They form hypotheses about the characters, then collect video clips and documents to prove their hypotheses during multimedia class presentations.

“Everything comes together in the classroom,” Fendt says. Students give their presentations by calling up materials from the Berliner sehen software and discussing their varied experiences with and knowledge of the characters. They also approach assignments differently, no longer writing simply for the professor, but for their fellow students. And sometimes they find connections or generate insights that are new to their teachers as well.

In the future Fendt and Crocker hope to add virtual walk-throughs and panoramic views of the neighborhoods to the program. In addition, they are building tools that will allow students to call up all materials related to a specific location or date.

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