Sharon Scinicariello, Director, Global Studio, Modern Literatures and Cultures, University of Richmond, Virginia.
Adrienne Gonzales: Why don’t you start of by telling me a little bit about yourself and the Global Studio?
Sharon Scinicariello: Okay. I have been at the University of Richmond since July 2003, and before that, I was at Case Western Reserve for 16 years in Cleveland. I was there in various capacities as faculty, and at the end I was staff in information services, supporting academic computing across the curriculum. I enjoyed that opportunity, but I wanted to come back to languages and be more “hands on” and this position opened up. I’m also a faculty member in Modern Literatures and Cultures. I was originally hired as a member of Modern Languages and Literatures, but that department split into two several years ago. So I now support Latin American and Iberian Studies as well as Modern Literatures and Cultures. (And the latter department will probably have a different name by the end of the year!) I also teach, usually one class in the spring, as well as work with the students in our self-directed language acquisition program. So it looks like I teach a lot, but it’s really a very small group of students. My first job was at a place called Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio, and that’s where I really started working in language learning technology, because I became responsible for the lab as well as being the entire French section of the Modern Languages department. The language lab was very well used. People used it for class and people used it for practice; this was back in the days of the cassette tapes. But it was hard to maintain, and I was somebody who had an interest in this, and people were beginning to invent personal computing, and satellite dishes were becoming affordable. This was in rural Ohio so to get any TV at all, you had to have a satellite dish. And VCRs were becoming affordable, so that you could bring TV into the classroom. So I’ve been doing this since 1982.
Adrienne Gonzales: So you have had all different varieties of experience?
Sharon Scinicariello: And in some ways, what’s interesting about it, is that [in] the Global Studio, which is what most people would call a language center, (we can talk about the name at some point), we still do a lot of the same kind of things, but of course the technology has totally changed, and it really embodies those changes. So, personal computing has gone back to personal computing in that all the students seem to bring their tablets and their laptops in and position them in front of the computers that are sitting in the lab. We have lots of TV now, but it’s distributed over our computer network. But it still is satellite based. It [the Studio] embodies a lot of what was going on, but the technology has changed so radically that it’s hard to imagine not having access to all these resources. The Studio itself is part of our International Center. When I first got here we were in a different building–in the basement, of course–and we were called the Multimedia Language Laboratory. But we (the other members of the department) wanted to change the name for a long time, and the multimedia language laboratory didn’t have any meaning really. But we couldn’t be a multimedia resource center, we couldn’t be a language resource center, because there already is a multimedia resource center on campus, [and] we did not want to be confused [with it]. It turned out that we were going to have a new building, the International Center, and we were going to move here. So we started thinking about ways of renaming the center, so that it would reflect the interests of the International Center. And then I went to the IALLT conference at Tufts, and I think it was Occidental that had named their center a studio. and so we started thinking about that. I think we came up with “World Studio” and the dean at the time said “no, let’s just call it global.” There is a huge spinning globe in the fountain in our atrium.
Adrienne Gonzales: Oh wow, that sounds nice!
Sharon Scinicariello: It is, it’s gorgeous. So it makes very good sense for us to be the Global Studio, where we support not just the departments in languages, but also languages and cultures across the curriculum. The idea is to be a service for the entire university community, as we emphasize internationalization. That’s the ambition, the reality is harder, but the ambition is there to be a resource for the entire university community.
Adrienne Gonzales: So with that great ambition, why don’t you tell me a little about the past or current projects that you’ve been working on, to try and reach that goal?
Sharon Scinicariello: Probably the most successful project that we have had, started in the first semester that I was here when one of our faculty members, who works extensively with film, was teaching French 301, French conversation through cinema, and wanted to have a project for her students, in which they would use videoclips in presentations to do critiques. In order to encourage language production, she didn’t want them just to stand up in front of the class and play the clips and talk–because that would be pretty easy–she wanted them to create digital presentations that would incorporate the clips but also have text and audio that would stand alone. This was back in the days of VHS.
Adrienne Gonzales: Very advanced for that time.
Sharon Scinicariello: Well, by 2003 there would be a transition over to DVD, but most of the movies were in VHS, Powerpoint was pretty much what people had. So inserting video clips into Powerpoint. Digitizing video clips from VHS and inserting them into Powerpoint was our technological challenge. This project itself was so successful because it taught the students some skills and how to really create multimedia projects–so primitive–but also to produce a lot of language in a presentational mode, and to do the content criticism at the same time. So that [project] was so successful that not only did it spread through the 301 course in French–which most of us teach at one point or another, and each faculty member was able to adapt the content to what he or she wanted to emphasize in class–but also, of course as the technology changed, students learned skills they could use throughout other classes in their own curriculum. They were learning multimedia presentation skills, so we would get students coming back to create a presentation for their botany class. So one of the things that has happened is that that project has spread throughout the language curricula in various ways, but also throughout other parts of the curriculum, as students take those skills into other classes. And then, in the last few years, our first year seminar people have really emphasized digital storytelling, which is basically just another form of this same kind of thing. So we’re now combining the digital storytelling aspects that are emphasized throughout the campus with the kind of critical skills that students have been incorporating into these longer multimedia projects. Because digital stories tend to be quite short, but these tend to be 15-20 minute kinds of things with a lot of criticism in them. And so by doing that, we have really given students technology skills as well as a way of writing in another format and producing a great deal of language. It’s that transitional phase between intermediate, where the activities are all kind of planned for you, and the much less planned activities at the upper levels of language instruction. So in some ways, one of the things that’s happened is the transition that’s happening in the language centers all over the place [to support for upper levels of instruction]. [For] first and second year language, generally the publishers are providing so much…
Adrienne Gonzales: That’s right.
Sharon Scinicariello: …that we no longer really distribute materials any more for first and second year. When I first started, that’s all we did. Even when I first started here, a big part of my job was getting the audio for the textbooks and getting the permissions and making it available to everybody. I don’t do that at all anymore, it’s all done by the publishers.
Adrienne Gonzales: It’s all on the web, easily accessible.
Sharon Scinicariello: Well if it’s just not, the students purchase it or something. [For] some of our textbooks, the CDs just come with the textbooks themselves. [We distribute] very few [textbook-related materials], unless we have [materials created by] faculty members–and we have at least one creating his own textbook with his own audio materials. So, we do distribute those, but apart from that…. So what’s happening is that we’re shifting our emphasis into student production for language practice, particularly at the upper levels, where traditionally the publishers do not furnish any kind of multimedia materials.
Adrienne Gonzales: Right, well that’s good. Like you said, it sounds like you’re providing the students with a lot of really valuable skills that they can extend into other areas of their education as well.
Sharon Scinicariello: That’s part of it, and the other [goal] is to encourage language development in a more formal way at the upper levels, where the emphasis–particularly in literature courses–is often on reading and writing appropriately. But students get frustrated because their speaking skills often don’t seem to develop at the same rate anymore, because the emphasis is not on those. So by having them do these multimedia projects, their spoken skills also begin to improve–[to] go beyond what they had when they first came into the class.
Adrienne Gonzales: That’s very interesting, and it sounds like an exciting place to be. What kind of support do you provide those students? What kind of staff do you have to help out?
Sharon Scinicariello: Well, full-time staff is me. I have student employees. One of the things that’s been really important is to make sure that faculty understand that, just because these students are supposed digital natives, they don’t necessarily know how to do these things.
Adrienne Gonzales: Sure.
Sharon Scinicariello: So I do workshops. Sometimes I do them in class, sometimes I do them outside of class and students sign up and come to them to get the basic skills. During the workshops, we also talk about things like copyright and fair use and, if you want to have a soundtrack, where can you get rights-free music and things like that. We give them that kind of support as well. I also hire people called student technology fellows, who are assigned to classes or skills. So I may have a few technology fellows that are iMovie experts, and students can call on them basically 24/7 to schedule appointments and get support when things go pretty badly wrong.
Adrienne Gonzales: That’s a great resource and a good experience for students on both ends.
Sharon Scinicariello: We have a Technology Learning Center on campus, and they, of course, can provide that support as well. But for our projects we try to support–at least do first line support–in the Studio so that the technology center can devote its resources to people that don’t have a specific place for the support. But we do rely on them, and they are informed so that students who arrive at midnight the day before a project is due–and they are embarrassed to come to us–can get the help they need. So we have student technology fellows that do that; we also have student technology fellows that do a couple other things that we have been working with, basically if somebody–if a faculty member–wants to do a technology project. And we have had [many] over the years. We used to do extensive work with podcasting. Most people don’t do much podcasting anymore, it finally dawned on them that it’s a format and not a kind of production. But anytime we had that kind of project–we had a blogging project last semester–so we had somebody able to give support even with “how do you use Google sites?” Because there are things that are just kind of awkward about it. People come up with strange questions.
Adrienne Gonzales: Right, it’s so great to have that support there, for those students and for those instructors.
Sharon Scinicariello: Well, the important thing, I think, for the instructor is that they can rest assured that, if they’re doing a technology project, if they talk to me in advance (particularly if they talk to me in advance), we can work out the technology that is best suited for their project.
Adrienne Gonzales: Right.
Sharon Scinicariello: And we can assure them that they will not have to be the sole support. They don’t have to do any technology support if they don’t want to. But they certainly don’t have to be alone trying to support some project, when they are also trying to do their teaching and their research.
Adrienne Gonzales: And I think that is probably really encouraging for them, to try new things.
Sharon Scinicariello: It does help people experiment. We do support of the university’s mobile devices initiative as well. So although most people don’t need a lot of support about how to use an iPad, we do go out and look for specific resources to match classes. We had a Molière class last year that received iPads for everybody in class. So we went out and looked for resources about 17th-century French and 17th-century France that students could have on their iPads.
Adrienne Gonzales: Well that’s a great resource.
Sharon Scinicariello: So, that’s kind of the way we work with projects. The other thing that we do that is probably a little bit different is that we are the assessment center for the modern languages part of our language requirement. That’s really supporting faculty and educating them about assessment, about ACTFL standards, about the Common European Framework. It’s done in the Studio because we have the resources to do testing with all the skills in a proctored environment and the technology support to do that, but also because we can then respond to the questions, gather the data and talk to people about what it means when your classes are not getting to the targets that we’ve set. What kinds of things might be good things to work with? This has been going on for six years of doing this assessment and gathering data, and one of the things we discovered was that almost all of our language programs seemed to have difficulty in meeting the standard we set for reading, which we found pretty odd actually.
Adrienne Gonzales: That is pretty unusual.
Sharon Scinicariello: We thought it was pretty odd. So we started, we began to have discussions about what does it mean. Are we not emphasizing reading enough? In one class that was not assessed well in reading, they were reading novels. So what does it mean if the assessment instrument says that you’re not proficient at reading, but you’re supposedly reading a novel? Does it mean that students can get the overall picture of a literary piece, but they aren’t able to deal with more practical kinds of tasks? What kinds of things? So we can talk a lot about–we have a lot of discussion about where we are in terms of assessing student outcomes. And what does it mean? What might we do?
Adrienne Gonzales: That’s really great for informing what goes on in the classroom.
Sharon Scinicariello: Well, and the whole idea of assessment for accreditation in our general education program is that you set your targets, you look at the assessment and if you don’t meet the targets, then you change your curriculum. But it is also interesting, because we can see since we do it across languages, we can see “oh so this curriculum seems to be meeting this skill’s target really well, and these other ones not so much. So what are they doing in their classroom, that might help these other programs – how might that change their emphasis?” So our concentration this year is going to be on listening comprehension, which is new. The tests we have been using for the past few years have a listening component; they didn’t before. We are looking at how to raise the listening comprehension component of the skills of the students. And it’s interesting to see who understands and how listening comprehension is taught in the various programs.
Adrienne Gonzales: And you’re the only full-time employee in that Studio? There’s a lot going on there!
Sharon Scinicariello: These are conversations we have, of course, within the departments. This is a small university; we only have 3000 undergraduates. We don’t have twenty sections of French 1 that we’re all dealing with. It’s a different scale.
Adrienne Gonzales: That probably makes the discussion a little easier, too, since you’re not working with fifty TAs who are teaching these courses.
Sharon Scinicariello: We have no TAs at all. We have no graduate programs, this is a school that prides itself on having full-time faculty teach at all levels of instruction. Which is why we have to do a lot of faculty education about things like ACTFL standards and assessment, because these are generally faculty trained not as language teachers but as literature professors, film studies professors, visual studies professors. They are very good language teachers tor they wouldn’t be here, and they enjoy language teaching, but when you start talking about the difference between the ACTFL standards and the Common European Framework, then they need help understanding what we’re really talking about.
Adrienne Gonzales: Right, and it’s great that you’re taking the time and they’re taking the time to do that kind of professional development.
Sharon Scinicariello: Well, and we have help, we do have directors of our lower-level courses, and they of course understand these standards. So we all reinforce each other. It’s an interesting challenge; the assessment piece is relatively new. We are perhaps the only discipline for which the standards are extremely well established. Everybody knows them, they are extremely well established, everybody pretty much agrees. There are quibbles here and there, but everybody pretty much agrees on these standards. So when people come up and say “well we don’t really need a language requirement because after all, this, this and this, and our students don’t learn X, Y, and Z.” We can say “well yes they do, and this is the proof, and this is how we know this.”
Adrienne Gonzales: That’s wonderful.
Sharon Scinicariello: And they go “oh okay.”
Adrienne Gonzales: That’s really great, that’s really important.
Sharon Scinicariello: It is important to see. Data driven can be overdone, but having data is useful.
Adrienne Gonzales: Absolutely. So I know that there’s another program I would like to ask you about, and I do not know how you say your acronym, but I look at it, I read SDLAP.
Sharon Scinicariello: We just call it “the Self-Directed Program”. That acronym is not particularly useful.
Adrienne Gonzales: The Self-Directed Language Acquisition Program?
Sharon Scinicariello: Yes. That’s an interesting program; it’s still always evolving. For a long time, long before I got here, the department had had a program in Swahili that was much more traditional in terms of self-instruction. We have a French professor whose first language is Swahili. He mentors these students, they have a set curriculum, they have a set book, they have the practice sessions. He brings in an outside evaluator, even though he could do it–the very traditional NASILP kind of program. We got a grant [for] Middle Eastern studies several years ago, for one of those improving international studies and foreign languages instruction. It was focused on improving opportunities for study of the Middle East. We had just begun an Arabic program for credit. One of the first things we had ended up doing when I got here was using Foreign Language Teaching Assistants to teach non-credit Arabic, to prove that there was an interest. We’re a small school, so if we are adding faculty, we have to make sure there is something for them to do. So we proved that there was an interest in Arabic. Clearly the Middle East is an important issue. Perhaps the largest major on campus is international studies and there was a Middle Eastern component there, but it wasn’t very large, but it was growing. So the idea was, we were offering Arabic for credit, we needed to offer other Middle Eastern languages, we clearly were not going to have full-time faculty to do this. So we said that as a component of this grant, we would begin offering self-directed language, particularly Persian, Hebrew and Turkish. We call it “self-directed;” we decided not to go with the very traditional NASILP model, with the set curriculum and everybody proceeding through. We decided to make it much more student-centered, learner-centered. So it’s self-directed. What happens is that students take a half-unit course. (We have units not hours, so a half-unit course is the equivalent of say, 5-7 hours of work a week, including class time if there are classes.) So they have to have a half-unit class, where they learn about language, and about what you might want to know about language, and the interrelationships of culture and language as well as really practical techniques, “How do you study vocabulary? How does grammar fit into language learning?” Developing learning plans, and setting goals. So they do that in a half-unit class, simultaneously they take a full-unit course in a language. The first round was all Farsi, but now it’s kind of spread all over. This semester it’s Hindi and Korean, and we have someone doing Indonesian for the first time. So, what they do then is they create learning plans based on their own interests and set tasks for themselves, and work with resources and with language partners in a very mentored way to accomplish those tasks. And then they are evaluated on how well they accomplish [their tasks]. Can you really say this? You said you were going to learn to talk about soccer, can you really talk about soccer?
Adrienne Gonzales: So they are evaluated on the goals they set for themselves?
Sharon Scinicariello: Right. Although obviously you can’t set a [sole] goal of learning the alphabet this semester. One of the problems is getting them to set their goals high enough.
Adrienne Gonzales: But you are there to coach them.
Sharon Scinicariello: We coach. And by having this 105 class that meets simultaneously, this half-unit class, we have this kind of constant back and forth. It also incorporates a very heavy-duty cultural component. They have to do cultural projects, they have to reflect upon the culture of the target language. So if they’re learning greetings and farewells and interpersonal communication skills, they have to think about things like formality and informality in language.
Adrienne Gonzales: Right, absolutely.
Sharon Scinicariello: And what kind of cultural components. They don’t think about that, they may have learned it, all these students have to have already fulfilled the language requirement. So they have already learned a language, but this is totally different way to look at language learning.
Adrienne Gonzales: So this for them, is their third language? In many cases.
Sharon Scinicariello: Yes, at least their third.
Adrienne Gonzales: They can’t take this until they’ve completed their other language requirement?
Sharon Scinicariello: They have to be well on the way to completing their language requirement. Sometimes we have had students in this program, for example the students who study Hindi often are students that have been in India for study abroad. Study in English, but learning Hindi on the side. They’ll come back and say “Well I would like to do my Com 2, the language requirement, in Hindi.” And we say “Well, you can’t do it just by taking these classes, these classes do not fulfill that requirement. But if you study really really hard, we will arrange for you to have a phone-mediated oral proficiency exam, and an evaluation of your writing skills, and, if you meet the standard, then it’ll count for the language requirement.”
Adrienne Gonzales: Oh ok.
Sharon Scinicariello: But that’s only in very special circumstances. As a routine, we do not allow students to use this to fulfill their language requirement. And the students who are in that situation almost always have done French or Spanish or German, or something up to the point where they probably could fulfill their language requirement with it, but they haven’t done the course or taken the exam to do it.
Adrienne Gonzales: Okay, interesting. So how, if at all, does technology play a role in this program?
Sharon Scinicariello: It’s absolutely pervasive, that’s one of the reasons it’s done as a function of the Studio and is paid for by the Studio’s budget. It’s because we use a Ning as the learning platform. We picked that partly because of the ease of use and you have both blogs and discussion boards, and you can personalize. There are all sorts of nice things that you can do, and at the time it was free. We pay for it–it’s not that horribly expensive–because [it accomplishes] one of the things we wanted to do. Our instance of Blackboard on campus has to be refreshed every semester. So you can’t have students enrolling for four semesters in the same Blackboard course; that doesn’t work. So we wanted something where students could build on what they’ve done each semester. We also wanted alumni to have access, because within this platform they also build e-portfolios. So we wanted them to maintain access to their own, what we call artifacts, their own proof of their learning. We wanted them to be able to have access to that even after they’ve graduated. So we use a Ning as a learning platform, and it’s also the place where they collect their documents for their e-portfolios. It builds community. We also have them doing a lot of curating of online resources. We use Diigo groups for that. The students learn to use social bookmarking through Diigo so that, again, they can build on what other people have done, as well as learn to curate resources. “Oh and I know that there was a bookmark there somewhere, I know i found this site” and now they know how to put it somewhere where everybody can find it. And those Diigo groups feed in through an RSS feed into the Ning. So we have that interaction going on as well. Most of the resources students use are online. We try to help them evaluate online resources and use online resources. Now we have a whole collection of dictionaries and textbooks and all sorts of other things, but we encourage them to look at the resources that are out there, that they can have, and teach them then how to use those resources. So there is a whole lot of YouTube in Hindi, what do you do with this?
Adrienne Gonzales: Exactly, that’s great.
Sharon Scinicariello: How are you going to use it to learn? And so the resources are online, they create electronic documents to put in their e-portfolio, which is kept in the Ning. So technology is absolutely, completely pervasive. We’ve been moving lately into iPad, iPhone and Android apps for particularly the beginning learners.
Adrienne Gonzales: Right. The ones that can help you practice writing a new script.
Sharon Scinicariello: Not just that, but even the phrases. One of the biggest problems in this program is that students, because of the way [they’ve been taught]–even though we all do communicative language teaching now, nobody here does grammar translation–and the students, when they start doing their learning plans, always start out with “Well I’m going to learn about pronouns” and we say “Well, no. That’s not what you need to do, you need to be able to say ‘I’m going to learn how to greet people, and introduce myself and ask identity questions of them,’ and that will be how you use pronouns.”
Adrienne Gonzales: More of a task-based approach.
Sharon Scinicariello: It’s very much a task-based approach. The whole thing is task-based, so trying to get them to understand… So some of these apps, particularly for the beginning learners, are words and phrases, but particularly phrases. The kinds of dialogues that were back from audio-lingual tend to be accessible on these apps. That gets them started in this “Yes, I can really say something about this.” mode.
Adrienne Gonzales: Yeah. Those apps are certainly a good way to start from the very beginning.
Sharon Scinicariello: And finding things for them to work with that get them into the mindset of communication is really important. The language partners, who are generally first language speakers of the language that they’re practicing with the students, they often were taught their own language from a grammar point of view, so getting them to understand, “No you don’t explain the grammar, you just practice the language, and provide cultural information”, is the other side of this. So getting them to understand what the apps are doing as well, and “See there’s a little dialogue in this app, so why don’t you practice with that? And then maybe you can change it a little bit.” But we do things, too. Last year we took everybody out to a Korean restaurant. The university provide us with funds to take people on field trips, so we went on a field trip to a Korean restaurant, and the students who were learning Korean had to do the ordering.
Adrienne Gonzales: That’s great.
Sharon Scinicariello: We took pictures, so they could use that as part of the documentation of their learning.
Adrienne Gonzales: That’s so great, and also fun and delicious!
Sharon Scinicariello: It also builds a community for students who are working very independently.
Adrienne Gonzales: Right, yes. That is the challenge of doing these independent studies, is that you’re working on your own and with your language partner perhaps an hour or so a week and finding ways to continue to use the language on your own, and building your own network using the language.
Sharon Scinicariello: It’s really important, and the other thing we work really hard on is getting students to reflect on their own learning. They’re required to post, for the first semester, weekly reflections. “This is what I wanted to do; this is what I did, this is what worked for me, this is what didn’t work for me.” The funniest thing is the students who resist this the most are the ones that write back a year later and say “Hey, you know this really worked,” I got a note from a student last spring who really hated those things. He came in to talk about why he shouldn’t have to do them, and he did them anyway because we made him. And I got not only pictures of the trip he took–he took a trip to Bosnia and he was studying Bosnian–[he] sent me pictures and then said he was now living in Germany, and he was studying German on his own. He was diligently doing that reflective work, every week.
Adrienne Gonzales: That’s fantastic.
Sharon Scinicariello: It is. We have some really good success stories.
Adrienne Gonzales: Well I think that’s testament to the fact that you’re not just teaching them another language, you’re giving them the skills to do it on their own, and then continue doing that.
Sharon Scinicariello: Well and also meeting their own interests, and that’s really important. When we start talking about it–one of our more interesting stories–we had a Greek Cypriot student who wanted to learn Turkish. As you know, there is a great deal of conflict, and we had a number of Turkish students on campus, and what he wanted to be able to do was find some common ground with his Turkish peers. So he decided he was going to learn to talk about soccer in Turkish. When you think about it, all the things you have to learn in order to talk about soccer.
Adrienne Gonzales: A lot of stuff!
Sharon Scinicariello: Numbers, and colors, and places, and all the vocabulary associated with actually playing the game. Of course you can read the sports pages, you can listen to the news, it all ties this whole beginning language thing together. It’s probably the only way he would have ever learned Turkish, given all the political tensions. So meeting the needs of the students.
Adrienne Gonzales: Right, that’s fantastic.
Sharon Scinicariello: But it’s hard to administer, it’s like herding cats.
Adrienne Gonzales: I can imagine, if you’ve got several languages going at once, and students all doing their separate thing.
Sharon Scinicariello: And getting requests from students at the last minute, and not knowing where to find language partners for them. That’s a condition, that we have to be able to find a language partner that we can pay through student employment. Although we’ve experimented, and I think this year we will experiment a great deal more, we’ve experimented with virtual language partners via Skype.
Adrienne Gonzales: Great.
Sharon Scinicariello: One of the problems that we have and that we run into: we bought Rosetta Stone for Farsi, Hebrew, and Turkish with this grant. We bought it basically because there was not that much else out there. Not that we think it’s fantastic language learning software, but just to give people a start. And one of the problems we have run into is that, partly because of the marketing, students tend to think that all they have to do is work with Rosetta Stone, and they will know the language.
Adrienne Gonzales: Certainly not.
Sharon Scinicariello: So one of the things we have to do, is work really hard – and we don’t single out Rosetta Stone – with trying to help students evaluate when the software is helping them and when it’s not. When online resources in general are helping and when they’re not, but particularly the software that says “Hey use us, you’ll be able to speak this language.”
Adrienne Gonzales: Right.
Sharon Scinicariello: That you know there are some really good things about some of these things. There are some really not so good things about them as well. So you need to put them together as a package. We work hard with that, and that’s the same thing with textbooks, although textbooks, if they’re well written, tend to be more comprehensive.
Adrienne Gonzales: Well I don’t want to take up too much of your time, may I ask you one last big final question. What advice do you have for other language centers to help them provide faculty and students with the support they need to teach and learn languages? Whether that is pedagogical support or technological support.
Sharon Scinicariello: It is important to provide both; they obviously go together. One of the things that’s really important, and it’s relatively easy in a small school like mine, it’s harder the larger the school gets, is to be very familiar with the curricula that you’re supporting. So that you can say, “You know, this might really work well within this part of your curriculum.”
Adrienne Gonzales: Right.
Sharon Scinicariello: Particularly the upper levels where people don’t automatically think technology and language support or program support. So this is where it might really be helpful, so if you know what the curricula are trying to do and how they are sequenced, if there’s a sequence, and what the objectives of the various courses are, that will help. It also helps to know the teaching style of the faculty. There are faculty who are just not going to be particularly happy with a lot of student production, but they may very well be very happy with something like flipping the classroom kinds of things. Where you help them create lectures to post online or little learning activities to post online–we don’t do a lot of lecturing–but help them adapt the technology to their own styles, as well as the outcomes. That’s important. The other thing is to be prepared for the unexpected. One of the things we’re doing this year, that was totally unexpected, is that our former provost and [current] president signed an agreement that would bring remote students into our face-to-face language courses.
Adrienne Gonzales: Interesting.
Sharon Scinicariello: Without really thinking a lot of it through. So we’re bringing remote students into our Beginning Arabic classes.
Adrienne Gonzales: Through teleconferencing?
Sharon Scinicariello: Yes. Through video conferencing, and about halfway through these negotiations, the chair of my department at the time said, “You know, you probably ought to know about this.”
Adrienne Gonzales: I would say so!
Sharon Scinicariello: And the telecommunications people were all on board with supporting the technology part. But they of course have no concept of instructional design and particularly what a first-year language class is like. They were talking about, “Oh well, you will just script when you turn the mics on at the remote sites and when you don’t.” (Yeah, roll the eyes a little bit.) So two weeks before classes started, the faculty member and I started talking and I put out feelers to my friends who do distance ed and we started talking about problems that might arise, and what kinds of things we have to think about. And, since this is Arabic and the emphasis is on hand-writing things, so a video conferencing set-up that’s designed for people to type into [is not ideal]–not that you can’t type Arabic, but that’s not what everyone is doing in beginning Arabic, they’re all handwriting. So one of the things we had to do, was figure how to make this happen. So from an instructional design point of view, we had to talk about providing lessons online, because the video conferencing system wasn’t picking up the subtleties of some of the pronunciation difficulties that one emphasizes. How do you do small group work, when the video conferencing system is set up for room-sized classes? So it ended up (This is two weeks before classes start, so it was like “be prepared for the unexpected!”) that we wrangled 4 iPads–each class is 16 students here on campus, then remote students coming in–so, we got 4 iPads [and] we loaded Explain Everything on them. We loaded this because it actually supports Arabic. So you can not only type, but you can also do the handwriting kinds of things. The professor has an iPad, he does all of his demos on Explain Everything, which are then pushed out to the remote sites, and projected inside the classroom, rather than using the whiteboards. For small group work, they use Skype on the iPads, so that the remote students can participate in small groups with the on-campus students. So providing pedagogical and technological support at the same time. How is the technology going to help with the design differences you need to make in these things? And then the other thing we had to do was that the Studio had to hire students to come into these classes, because the technology itself is very easy to use, but the professor’s involved in teaching; he can’t be standing at a console worrying about camera angles and when to turn the mics on and off. And the students can’t either; they have to be participating in the class. So for most of these class sessions we have somebody that is designated, who has actually taken Arabic, designated to be the camera person for the classes.
Adrienne Gonzales: Almost like the director or the producer.
Sharon Scinicariello: She does the camera work and [turns] the mics on and off. When she can’t be available because she has class, we have several students in the class who trade off, so none of them have to focus, have to lose focus, on the actual class activities to do this work for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time. These are things that telecomm never thought about.
Adrienne Gonzales: Right, well they’re very important considerations.
Sharon Scinicariello: Having a network of people who have done distance learning has been absolutely invaluable as well, because Richmond has in Continuing Studies done some distance kind of learning, but the value of a small liberal arts college is precisely in-class, face-to-face instruction. So having that value permeate through a remote situation has been a challenge. That’s something that nobody in the departments had a discussion about, “Would this be a good idea?” So things about being aware of the curricula, being aware of faculty teaching styles, being ready for these projects, kind of keeping up with what’s going on, not just at your place but elsewhere, so you can draw on the expertise of other people when these unexpected things come up. So you can bring new ideas to the table. And the final thing, which is harder in big schools than it is here, is to always have partnerships with the librarians, who curate resources, that’s their job. I don’t have time, I’m a one-person shop; I don’t have time to go out and find all the possible resources for X language or for something else. Librarians do that.
Adrienne Gonzales: I think that is really wonderful advice.
Sharon Scinicariello: They really do that. And of course the IT people. Having good relations with all the IT people. So that you understand what their concerns are when you’re trying to do something new.
Adrienne Gonzales: Both of those populations are important in the mission, in the greater view of what’s going on. Everyone is involved in some way.
Sharon Scinicariello: Well, I’m very fortunate that at the University of Richmond all those people believe that their first job is to support instruction and faculty research, but primarily instruction, undergraduate instruction, and not to obstruct it. So they will absolutely do whatever they can within the constraints of their environment to help you. But you have to build those relationships, you can’t just ask all at once, you have to build the relationship, and that’s really important. And I think the other thing is, and we talked about it before, is to make sure the students have the support they need to accomplish the technology tasks that are being asked of them. So that the faculty aren’t burdened with that. They aren’t hesitant to try something because they have to worry about being the troubleshooter for it. And they are more is willing to try things.
Adrienne Gonzales: That’s true and that’s great advice.
Sharon Scinicariello: And just solve their problems.
Adrienne Gonzales: And then be the problem solver! No big deal!
Sharon Scinicariello: Well, the other thing is from the smallest problems to the biggest, there are no stupid questions, right? I learned this when I worked in information services, you get real tired answering the “my printer doesn’t work” question. But when you answer that without making people feel that it’s a stupid question, then they will come to you for the other kinds of questions, and they will have the pedagogical discussions with you.
Adrienne Gonzales: Right, that is very true. Very sound advice.
Sharon Scinicariello: What we’re trying to do here is now reach out to people who are not enrolled in language classes.
Adrienne Gonzales: Hook ‘em!
Sharon Scinicariello: Well, faculty and staff. One of the things the self-directed program has done is that we have begun to assemble skills and resources to help faculty members. Most faculty members have studied language, and they need to–they feel the need to–build it up, or they get some sort of grant to go live some place or they need to get some basic language, so we are really kind of working at really trying [to help] them. Revive the language skills they have had, and maintain the ones they have and to acquire some new ones. And staff, we have more and more need for staff to work with languages as well.
Adrienne Gonzales: Well, sounds like an awesome program and an awesome place. All the projects are all just so interesting. Thank you so much for your time, it’s so nice to talk to you.
Sharon Scinicariello: It’s nice to talk to you as well.