Interview: Shannon Spasova, Assistant Professor and Technology Specialist at MSU

Naomi – Hi, my name is Naomi, and I’m with the FLTMAG, and I’m here interviewing Shannon. Shannon, can you tell us what your current position is and how it relates to languages and technology?

Shannon – Sure! My name is Shannon Spasova, I work at Michigan State University, and I have kind of a cool position where, and it’s a little bit unusual, two-thirds of my position is in the department of linguistics and languages—where I teach Russian—, and then one-third of my position is in the Center For Language Teaching Advancement. And I do a couple of different things for them: the majority of what I’ve done so far has been developing blended courses for Russian, but I also do some things like provide professional development and support for other foreign language teachers. So, technically I sort of have two titles: one is assistant professor of Russian and the other is technology specialist. So I do kind of a bit of each thing, and I really love that. It’s great because I like teaching but I also really love investigating new technologies and developing curriculum, and I’ve kind of done a little bit of all of those in my previous life, in my grad school and in my previous position, and so it’s just so great to be able to integrate all three or more of those kinds of roles in my job.  So, I’m really, really excited about what we’re doing there.

Naomi – OK. And what university were you with again?

Shannon– Michigan State.

Naomi – Michigan State. I just want to make sure. OK. Where do you see technology going for language educators of foreign languages?

Shannon – That’s such a hard question, there are so many places that I think it’s going and or will go, and it’s also really hard to predict the future, but one thing we’re doing at Michigan State that I’m really excited about is we’re doing a lot of blended courses. So what we do, at least in our language—in Russian—is that we have reduced the number of in-class hours, and then bumped up the amount of work students do online. This isn’t something magic, I mean I don’t think that our students are any better than students were in the past, but they’re not worse and they have some more flexibility, and I think that’s part of the goal because language courses tend to take a lot of time.

Naomi – Yes…

Shannon – When I was taking my second year Russian course it was six hours a week, and that’s a lot of time for students to schedule, especially students now who have maybe more responsibilities than we did in the past—you know, with having to have jobs because education has gotten so expensive, or, you know, we have students who are non-traditional students, maybe they also have less flexibility in their schedule—so part of the goal is to give a little bit more flexibility.  I’m also hoping, and it’s kind of maybe too early to know this, but, I’m sort of hoping this blended course also gives students a couple of things: the ability to bump up their work time in Russian if they want to.  They’re required to do a certain amount of work online in the Russian course, but I’m sort of hoping that some of those who are really gung-ho, and really, really, really want to learn the language well will take advantage and do more now, because there’s more available to them.  Over time we’ll be able to develop a repository of materials that we can help students know how to use on their own.

I’ve started a few little things in this direction, I think it’s something that’s going to keep improving where, oh I don’t know the idea of adaptive learning for example, I think we’re still a little far from that.  But I can do some things like, for example, I’ve been teaching second-year Russian. Of course a lot of students forget a lot over the summer, and so what I did at the beginning of the year was I gave them this assignment called  “Video Choice” assignment, and I had a bunch of different topics and I said “these are topics that people maybe tend to forget over the summer,” and they had to choose a certain number according to what they thought they needed most help with or what they had forgotten the most and then the really nice thing about that was that then throughout the year as I identified problems in homework, or something like that, I could direct them back to those.  So those are things I have sort of as a repository where we can at least start a little bit of personalization in that, you know, they have to self-assess and say “this is what I need more help with,” but at least it gives them some choice in what they’re doing. So I think some of those things, in giving students more flexibility, giving them a little bit more of a choice according to either their needs or their personal interests, that’s something that I think will improve over time with technology and language learning.

And there are so many other ways or places that it’s going, I mean, I’m oldenough that I remember it being really exciting, that I could—when I was in Russia in grad school, I had this tape player that could tape with a microphone, but it could also tape off the radio so I could play songs in my class and that was really exciting whereas now there’s so much available online, there’s TV shows, I mean I would’ve killed for that when I was an undergraduate learning Russian.

Naomi – Yeah, that sounds pretty exciting.

Shannon – Yeah, I mean it’s crazy how much there is. It’s almost that there’s too much out there for students to be able to filter it, and so that’s another thing that, I guess, we have to do. I’m kind of excited about continuing to do is to help them identify and or give them the places they can go, and things they can use that will be sort of more real-life as they’re learning Russian.  There are so many opportunities now it’s pretty exciting. I think it’s just giving students the ability to pick those for themselves.

Naomi – Well that kind of brings on another question: with all these other options out there, how do they connect now with local native speakers in the community? How are they doing that with Russian, because I know Russian isn’t exactly a primary or secondary language here in the U.S. although we still have quite a few, probably, Russian speakers depending on the area where you’re at?  But how do you get them to connect with the language more in the local area, and have you done anything much with, like, telecollaboration if you lack that local resource?

Shannon – That’s a hard one. There aren’t many Russian native speakers in our area, and that’s obviously a much bigger deal for some certain places—like Boston, for example has a pretty big community.  But we do have a Russian club that students are welcome to join where they try and make some of those connections with the people who do exist in the community, and whatever events are happening in the community, because there are sometimes, even though maybe there aren’t that many native speakers, there are sometimes events that are related to Russian culture, like the ballet, or a concert of Russian music or something like that.

I’ve done a little bit of telecollaboration.  I’ve only done where I’ve had students in groups use Skype or similar, and we did it to practice telephone conventions. And I know there have been some people who have done some more extensive telecollaboration projects; I haven’t done too much with it. I gave the students a, and this is kind of related to that other choice assignment I told you about before, I have another assignment that I call the Choice Assignment where they have a bunch of choices of how to fill it and each choice is worth a certain number of points, and they have to get a certain number of points by certain dates in the course. And so, getting a language partner is one of the choices they can do, and some of them do it, a few of them do it. But I haven’t done a ton of telecollaboration in my actual classroom.

Naomi – OK. Just kind of curious on that.  And then my last question for you is: If you could dream up and create any technology to support a language educator, what would you create?  Assuming you had all the talent and all the resources available to you, what would you dream up and create?

Shannon – [Chuckles] Probably a teleportation device, because study abroad is so important to really be able to learn a language, and really get in with a culture.  I think the travel is part of the barrier to that.  I’m also kind of interested in the idea of something like virtual reality too, I mean that could be another way–from what I’ve read teleportation doesn’t seem to be very likely to be possible.

Naomi – Yeah. Did you hear though, there’s supposed to be a new invention where it’s kind of like the Jetsons where you step into a tube and it shoots you off and there’s supposed to be one between LA and New York that they’re talking about possibly doing. I don’t know if they’ll actually do it, but it’s supposed to be a travel time of only, like, thirty minutes. That would cut down a lot.

Shannon – Yeah. So in the past I was doing a little bit of stuff with second life and the idea of virtual reality, and I think that second life itself has gone past its popularity.  I think there’s a place to consider that kind of thing.  For example I’ve been creating these lessons that I’m calling “Real Life in Russia,” and they’re very focused on very practical things that students are going to have to do when they get to Russia study abroad. Like buying stuff from the grocery, using a Russian telephone (cellphone) interface, what the host family might eat and stuff like that, and learning how to use public transport. I’ve tried, and you couldn’t call it virtual reality, but I’ve tried as much as possible to recreate what it looks like. So for example with the cellphone, in Russia when you have a cellphone account you have to keep money on it, and the way you put money on it is that there are these kiosks around town that have a touchscreens for putting how much money you want on your account.  They’re not that hard to use, but the first time you look at it and it’s a whole bunch of Russian you might feel a little… So what I did when I was in Russia was I took a picture of every screen of what you had to do and kind of recreated that on a webpage to approximate as much as possible what it looks like. So it’s not exactly virtual reality, but trying to replicate it as much as possible what that real-world thing that they have to do looks like.

Naomi – Have you thought about creating a game through Captivate?

Shannon – Yeah, that’s what I’m using. I use Captivate for most of the lessons.  It’s really pretty flexible software, so it allows you to do that kind of thing. And I didn’t think of it as a game, but somebody else who looked at my lesson said there are a lot of elements of gamification.

Naomi– Right.

Shannon – It’s not so much a game, but it’s a game in a sense that, when you do it right you’re rewarding not with a score or a grade, but you’re rewarded with, like, finding out your cellphone balance—what a real-world reward would have been instead of a grade or score. So yeah, it’s adobe captivate that I’m using. It’s been really fun doing those, and so I’m keeping working on those and I have some more ideas. I think that kind of thing is also really exciting in that it’s not virtual reality, but it’s getting as close as possible to replicating a real-world thing as we can.

Naomi – Let me ask you on that: I built some little games and then I actually was—for Spanish—and then my textbook that we were using released a game at the same time I was first teaching, and I had, you know, spent this whole yea building everything and come to find out they built something, of course, even better. And I was so excited because it looked really cool, and it was pretty close to a Second Life: they were moving their characters and their characters were talking and I was like “mine doesn’t do anything like that.”  I was almost embarrassed and I though about not showing mine, and then when I released it my students, what I found out in the next month, none of my students could get past the first level in the textbook because it was so advanced.  Most of them reported they couldn’t figure out how to move a character, and it was too frustrating learning a language and this over-complicated game.  And they all liked my really simple game that I had built in Captivate.

Shannon – That’s great! And, yeah, that was one of the things with Second Life was that their learning curve was too high. You had to figure out how to move around and… When you’re focused on learning the language, that’s maybe what we can hope is that the interfaces and things like that will get easier, so that we won’t be distracted by that, and be able to do just what we’re focused on. But you’re right that if it’s too complex for people to focus on what they’re really wanting to do there, which is learn language, then it’s not worth it. You’re right that some simplicity can be really helpful too.

Naomi – Yeah, yeah. Well that was actually all the questions I had by the way. So I want to thank you for your time!

Shannon – It was nice talking to you!

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