Teaching German Americana with Assistance from the Web

Robert J. Shea
St. Louis, MO

Giles R. Hoyt
University of Indiana - Purdue University, Indianapolis


"What's most important in school? Working with good teachers who can convey method as well as content. Except to the extent that students are involved with a caring teacher, schooling is limited to teaching facts and techniques. In this sense, network access is irrelevant to schooling-it can only prevent this type of interaction."1

This cautionary remark from computer guru Clifford Stoll should ever be in the minds of teachers and administrators. The discussion that follows is based, thus, on the following premises: first, there is no substitute for an engaged, caring teacher desirous of teaching, in our case, German language and culture. Second, the reader belongs to that esteemed group. A third premise that must be in fact addressed is that German Americana is a useful way to both engage students' interest in German and serve as a vehicle for linguistic development and cultural knowledge. This issue of UP in itself is evidence that a significant number of teachers agree to or are at least curious about premise three.

One study of the future of German Studies in the U.S. recommends that graduate departments teach German Americana to their students who will be themselves soon teaching in all variety of schools throughout the country.2

The World Wide Web can be used in two ways to facilitate teaching about German Americana, and, more importantly,to use German Americana as a vehicle to teach the broader subjects of German language and culture. One can use the Web not only to research information, but also to organize knowledge for local utilization. The latter involves both work done by the teacher for the class and community and by the students under the teacher's guidance. We discuss one way, which may not be the sole or always the best way, but the way that is increasingly available to us, and one that can be very powerful in the exchange of cultural knowledge and linguistic skill.3

The generally positive results of the use of the computer for language learning have been sufficiently documented.4 Even given Stoll's appropriate caveat cited above, the technophobe must reflect on his or her stance and accept that computer aided instruction, under the term CALL (Computer Aided Language Learning), is a considerable help, if it is used as an aid, not a means in itself, and especially if the computer is networked, i.e., linked to other computers locally and globally.5

Microsoft's Bill Gates is correct, especially from an education viewpoint, that the computer comes into its full capabilities and usefulness when and only when it is networked.6 The effect of using the Internet, and, one might add, live television via satellite, can make a distant world more immediate and reasonably meaningful. While working with texts, pictures and sounds from distant places, our students can develop communication skills in the target language and intercultural competencies.

Although it is easy to be dazzled by intricate web page design and multimedia effects, simplicity and brevity nevertheless retain their place in the virtual world. We would likewise do well here to avoid both lengthy introductions as well as technical discussions unnecessary to a general overview of a very learnable medium. Our time can be better spent first of all by discussing some of the basic uses of web pages and highlighting a few of the most useful German-American resources currently available on-line and finally by discussing internet applications, formatting, and the creation of web units and sites for teaching and studying German Americana.

German-American Internet Resources

Over the past two years we have witnessed a significant increase in the number of resources directly related to the study and teaching of German Americana. The unique capability of the hyperlink enables one to begin at any of a number of German-American pages and proceed in an endless array of web links to find literary texts, syllabi and course outlines, images and realia, as well as information about people, organizations, events and places.

E-mail has proven its effectiveness in making information available to a target audience, but there are obvious advantages in giving such information a more permanent on-line home in the form of a web page or downloadable file using FTP (File Transfer Protocol). Whereas the German-American culture capsules written by Eberhard and Ruth Reichmann used to pass through various e-mail listservs and discussion groups to be viewed and saved or simply deleted, it is now common to find their essays housed on various websites such as Robert Shea’s comprehensive German Americana page.

Many of these essays, along with links to libraries and archives, historic sites and museums, societies and research centers, teaching units, on-line publications, and Internet resources for related topics, can be found on the Max Kade German-American Center website, which offers an excellent starting point for any excursions into on-line German Americana. Details about a program of study can even be published in web page format, as has been done by the University of Cincinnati with its undergraduate certificate in German-American Studies.

One of the most widespread uses of the web is to announce upcoming events. By conducting a simple Internet search using the term "German-American", one will inevitably come across the various clubs and organizations involved in German-American cultural events, local festivals, and performances. Students and teachers can now easily find on-line resources for teaching and celebrating annual events such as German-American Day and various Germanfests around North America.

Conferences and special events can also be announced via e-mail or on the web, as has been done for the 1998 Society for German-American Studies7 symposium on "The German 1848 Revolution--150 Years: The German-American Dimension" . This site gives web users the chance to gather up-to-date news of related celebrations and conferences, view on-line exhibits from museums and municipalities, keep abreast of pertinent events on both sides of the Atlantic, and visit an astounding number of new websites which continue to appear daily and which offer a rich variety of information and perspectives on this topic. The world-wide reach of the web comes into play when colleagues from around the world access these websites through search engines or links, thereby opening new doors for participation and coordination.

Once some form of contact has been established, the Internet offers applications which can be used for on-line conferencing and discussion in the form of synchronous "chat" forums and asynchronous listservs and newsgroups, all of which can be created and controlled by a moderator. Conferencing over the Internet is likely to become more widespread with further advances in availability and ease of use.

The Internet can help find sources. One example is the on-line bibliography of the Society for German-American Studies. While it does not yet contain the full printed bibliographies of over 25 years published in the Yearbook of German-American Studies, it allows you to search recent years' bibliographies of hundreds of books and articles, tapes and papers on the topic of German-American, either by title, author, place, or key-word searching. The site also gives access via links to the collections of other German-American research centers, e.g., the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It is essential to be able to obtain information about sources and teaching materials as quickly and easily as possible. As these sites expand, so does our ability to obtain quality material and information with computer search engines.

While the number of on-line libraries, archives and collections, publishers, and booksellers continues to increase, one rarely has on-line access to the actual materials. This is understandably the case for most journals and many specialized collections, where a subscription or membership fee is required to access certain on-line materials beyond basic offerings to the general public. Copyright law is, of course, another limiting factor in publishing on the web, but we are nevertheless finding more authors and organizations choosing to offer attractive web versions of entire works.

The explosive nature of individual web page authoring becomes apparent when wading through the myriad pages of military history and genealogy. Individual on-line family histories can serve as a rich treasure trove of detail, often including family trees, pictures and portraits, original documents and certificates, diaries, passenger lists and military registers. To facilitate the work of individuals researching their genealogy, entire websites, including formatted text and images, are occasionally offered in an alternate format as a downloadable compressed file for off-line use.

Such materials are useful not only for their historical value, but they can also be used in German language instruction. Should older handwriting styles prove to be problematic, one can find downloadable Fraktur and Sütterlin fonts and even tutorials to train students in deciphering the scripts. It is also common to come across family histories and diaries where side-by-side translation is offered.

Creating Web Pages and Web Units

There are currently few examples of German-American web units beyond those offered on the Max Kade German American Center website. These units, along with the various German language and history web units online offer workable models for instructors wishing to create their own exercises.

Although creating a web page can be a perplexing and mysterious undertaking at the outset, even novices will find their way after a brief tutorial and a few hours spent experimenting with any of the various HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) editors and tools.

It becomes obvious after a short time on the web that there are widely varying degrees of artistry in terms of page layout and multimedia effects. For the average web page author, however, a functional and informative web page need not consist of anything more elaborate than a text, relevant links, and a few aesthetic and organizational touches relating to the choice of images, colors and layout.

A simple web exercise might be as basic as a series of questions or checklists to complete by visiting prescribed history and language websites. Assignment questions and directions could also be displayed in one frame with the various websites to be visited in another frame. For example, a list of famous German-Americans could be combined with search tools to create such an exercise.

In the event that answers and assignments are to be submitted on-line, an instructor can create forms using CGI and Java scripts (further interactive quizzes and forms), where student responses are submitted, discussed, and even corrected on-line, if desired. Until such applications become easier to create, the low-tech route remains just as effective and probably more attractive, meaning results can be e-mailed to the instructor or simply printed out and submitted by hand.

Student work can be published in web format. With proper guidance, it can be a rewarding experience for students to create a web page. Instructors might even benefit from their students’ familiarity with the Internet and computer technology. One of the best examples of such work, which also serves as an example of partner school collaboration, is offered by Graf-Zeppelin-Gymnasium (Friedrichshafen am Bondensee). This extensive site features a project on "Auswanderung aus Europa, Einwanderung in die USA" in addition to a beautifully organized teaching unit on the 1848 Revolution.


Certainly the most widely acclaimed aspect of the web is its multimedia capability. The greatest advantage in using web-based multimedia lies in the immediacy and authenticity of the resources. In terms of German Americana, one has the chance to view portraits of famous historical persons, visit historic towns and sites, take tours of museums and view related realia. One can experience the Oktoberfest with LiveCams, Real Audio and video clips, observe ongoing events at the Christkindlmarkt via Real Video and interactive, panoramic Quicktime movies, listen to Christmas carols and folksongs, compare regional dialects, watch the evening news (Tagesschau) using VDO Live, listen to live and archived radio such as Deutsche Welle using RealAudio, and create interactive exercises using Shockwave animation. Many web-based distance learning courses combine a great number of these applications with on-line quizzes and submission of assignments to create uniquely rich learning experiences. One example combines a video clip with online submission of answers. The online version of this discussion features numerous multimedia examples, and directions to aid in accessing these resources (see also http://www.multimedia.de/).Although films, videos, CD-ROMs, and cable and satellite hookups will continue to be more feasible than web-based multimedia for the immediate future, one can only expect multimedia resources to increase in quantity and quality over the next few years, accompanied by advances in speed, reliability, and ease of use.


It is hoped that the reader will consider the benefits of using the Internet as an aid in German-American teaching and will access the online version of this page to view the many resources currently available for all interests and levels of expertise. To use what has become an otherwise tiresome metaphor, I would like to suggest that we are truly travelers on the information superhighway in the sense that we never arrive at our destination; rather, we are all "on our way" in learning more about our craft and the tools that are becoming available to us. The pace can be frightening, particularly when our students seem to be outstripping us. For those willing to take the time and endure the frustration, however, there will undoubtedly be many exciting, rewarding experiences along what looks to be an ever changing road.


1Clifford Stoll. Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway (New York: Anchor Books, 1995) p. 118. Abstract.

2John Van Cleve, A Leslie Wilson. Remarks on the Needed Reform of German Studies in the United States. (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1993) p. 59-63.

3For a review of the difficulties in establishing a theoretical base for computer assisted learning in second language acquisition see Carol Chapelle "Call In The Year 2000: Still In Search Of Research Paradigms?" Language Learning & Technology. 1. 1 (July 1997): 19-43.

4See Martha C. Pennington, ed. The Power of CALL (Houston: Athelstan Publications, 1996) for a good review of the issues.

5Mark Peterson. "Language Teaching and Networking." System 25.1 (March 1997): 29-37.

6Bill Gates. The Road Ahead (New York: Viking, 1995) p. 194ff.]

7The Society for German-American Studies exists to support research and teaching of German Americana, publishes a substantial journal (Yearbook of German-American Studies), and maintains a yearly bibliography on German-American studies. A considerable body of knowledge about the millions of German-speaking immigrants to America, including Canada and the rest of the Americas, reposes in various local and national libraries and archives.

Created January 31, 1998. You are visitor since May 12, 1998.

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