By Georges Detiveaux, Adjunct Instructor of French, Lone Star College-CyFair & Assistant Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence, University of Houston-Downtown.
I teach French at Lone Star College-CyFair, a community college with just over 20,000 students on the outskirts of Houston, Texas. Community colleges in Texas are authorized to offer the first four semesters of college language courses. At my institution, as you can imagine, Spanish is the big draw, but we have also offered French, German, Japanese, Chinese, ASL, and Arabic with varied degrees of success. There are typically 1-3 sections of first semester French per semester, 1-2 sections of second semester French per year, and there are often enough students to offer third and fourth semester French once a year as well. This article is about my comfort zones in teaching, how circumstances forced me out of those comfort zones, and what that’s meant to my professional growth. As my career path has changed, so have my French courses.
Sometimes, we are forced, kicking and screaming, into changing the way we teach. In my own experience, often despite my initial reluctance, these upheavals have made me a better teacher and have compelled me to learn new ways to think about what it means to teach language. In these moments of disruption, I keep finding a better version of myself. What follows is my account of how I moved from teaching purely face-to-face French, to teaching hybrid French, to teaching fully online French. I hope you’ll excuse the biographical content: I include it because, for better or worse, it’s often been the reason for the changes made in my courses. If you’ve read articles in FLTMAG before, you’ll know that such a personal touch is not only welcome but what makes this resource unique! I share tools, techniques, and resources as well.
There was a time when I thought it impossible to offer effective online language courses. Honestly, with some exceptions, those that I had seen appeared to be not much more than examples of ways institutions were cheating students out of their money. Until about 6 years ago, I had only been teaching 100% face-to-face beginning and intermediate college French courses. Face-to-face time with students is so very valuable: it’s not just the chance to interact with them in the target language, but it’s also the chance to get to know them better. Although, for quite some time, I had been a technophile, a vocal advocate for, and a user of technology in language teaching and learning, I must admit that part of me was reluctant to “let all that valuable face time go” in my French courses. It was what I was accustomed to. I also felt worried about using technology to address too many of the learning objectives of my courses. In my own experience, attending conferences, training and supporting faculty, and experimenting with technology, I had come to the conclusion that there weren’t enough viable options out there for me to transform my face-to-face class meetings into something done virtually and with a combination of synchronous and asynchronous tasks and activities. Frankly, it also looked like a lot of work!
Like countless other beginning and intermediate college language instructors, I was, and still am, an adjunct. Adjuncts teach classes when and where they can fit them in! In my case, for many of the last ten years, this has been in combination with a full-time staff position at the same institution where I teach. Changes in policies with regards to when full-time staff members could teach courses (that weren’t an official part of my full-time appointment) would soon propel me into directions I should have gone much sooner! I was soon informed that if I still wanted to teach French and work at my full-time position (then, as manager of the college’s language labs), I was going to have to either teach in the evenings (or on weekends) or end my course sooner so that I could begin my work in the labs in accordance with the newly enforced full-time work hours. Over the years, I have found my comfort zone in teaching mostly first semester French, but what that course looks like from year to year hasn’t been something I have been able to settle into!
THINGS BEGIN TO CHANGE: THE FIRST PLUNGE
Fortunately, just before this, I had also redesigned the French courses for the college, switching to a new textbook as part of that redesign. This was a result of having seen that over the semesters, fewer and fewer students were actually purchasing the publisher-sponsored materials for the courses. This, to me, was perhaps the first major step in my growth as a French instructor since graduate school! I had, for quite some time, used many web resources to supplement my instruction. But I had grown to love and be dependent on how well I knew the publisher-sponsored materials, the many excellent ancillaries, and the wonderful service from the publisher’s campus representatives. Sadly, however, these luxuries came at a cost: when I last used this text, it and its workbook sold for about $350. What’s more, too few students were actually purchasing them. I
had to change with the times. I had to meet community college students where they are instead of dragging them along to conform to expectations that had been set on me, and, that I was, therefore, setting on them based on my own experiences as a student in 4-year institutions and in graduate school. “We teach how we were taught.” And how!
So, I found and selected an open educational resource (OER), this one, a “free book” available on the Internet. In my case, it’s Français interactif, from the Center for Open Educational Resources for Language Learning at the University of Texas at Austin (See Interview of the Français Interactif team–Ed.). Students could print the chapters themselves, order a custom-printed version of them from the textbook website, or purchase a slightly more expensive version of it in the campus bookstore. The text has an excellent website with audio components, videos, listening activities, grammar presentations and drills (these are particularly well written), culture activities, web quests, and more. In fact, there is so much to choose from, that I am able to customize my course using activities and materials that my students and I enjoy and find effective: personally, I like using the “vocabulaire en contexte” videos as an online workbook where other instructors might enjoy spending more time on the student interviews, the songs, the culture presentations, or the additional materials available upon requesting an instructor account at the textbook website. The students appreciate the affordability of this text (of course), and they enjoy the characters, tone of the grammar presentations, and the fact that the students in many of the videos are Texas college students just like them, not too far away from them in their own studies of French.
LEARNING TO LET GO: GOING HYBRID
As mentioned above, the stars had aligned so that I was going to have to teach in a hybrid format. Fortunately, this text lends itself very well to that. The grammar presentations and their corresponding drill exercises (in keeping with a Texas theme, they’re actually called “Texercises”) are meant to be things that students do outside of class and in preparation for more communicative work in class. Years before, having taught (with varied degrees of success) with language textbooks that use the model of having students tackle grammar outside of class in preparation for contextualization in class, the hybrid model presented itself perfectly. Now, the time it takes to actually read and understand all of that grammar was built into the contact hours of the course. No longer were students expected to handle this in addition to bulky contact hours of a fully face-to-face course. They had been given the scheduling freedom to succeed.
In the past, another publisher-sponsored textbook I had used that were structured this way had “blue pages” wherein the grammar was presented, and it was expected that students would read these pages, understand the grammar presented, and attempt the grammar exercises that followed so that the vocabulary and conversation were the stars of the show in the face-to-face class meetings. This had worked like a charm at other institutions, for example, at a private university where I once taught. However, with many of my community college students, I was often finding myself having to “pull the car over” so we could work on grammar in class instead of living the dream of just “driving the car” during class time. So now, with our OER and our hybrid format, time and money were on our side.
I structured the course so that each week, we would meet in person for 60% of the time the purely face-to-face sections met. During that face-to-face time, we tackled vocabulary and conversation and did as many of the activities in the text that required an instructor’s presence as possible (for example, listening discrimination exercises in the text for which an instructor’s script is required, similarly structured dictations in the text, etc.). Most of the exercises in the text are laid out in such a way that it’s meant to be written on: I’m sure you can understand that with a $350 text, students would be reluctant to write in their textbooks in order to benefit from a high resale value; however, here, with a no-cost (or low-cost) text, putting pen to textbook paper was a natural and regular practice. There’s something to be said about making the text your own in this manner: my students took ownership of the content and (literally) left their mark on it! Fortunately, at my institution, there are language labs with tracking software that documents the amount of time users spend there. With this, I was able to assign specific tasks and activities that students could do weekly on their own time (any time the labs were open). These tasks included the aforementioned Texercises, making audio recordings for me to provide feedback on, watching videos needed to complete the “vocabulaire en contexte” activities for each lesson, and using third-party software with specific activities selected that happened to align with chapter and lesson objectives. I had found a happy medium that worked very well for my learners and for me as well!
I taught the hybrid version of the course for a few years. Frankly, it takes a certain kind of student to be in class at 7am three times a week for an hour and also have the personal responsibility to manage two hours a week of independent work in the language labs (yes, a 7am course filled up every semester). I reveled in finding wonderful technologically enhanced ways to provide meaningful 1:1 feedback to my students, for example, by inserting comments in the audio recordings they’d submit to me (as opposed to worrying about whether or not it was ok to correct their French in class in front of their peers… something I had always been hesitant to do in spite of – or perhaps because of – what had been done to me!) or by recording an audio walkthrough of suggestions and corrections to the first drafts of their compositions (instead of handing back a blood-red “fixed” version of a composition in class). I used the printed scoresheets from the grammar exercises they had done in the labs or at home in advance of the class as an entrance ticket to the face-to-face meetings. Our class meetings had become more of a conversation café than a typical classroom.
DON’T GET TOO COMFORTABLE: TIME FOR ALL OF THAT TO CHANGE AGAIN!
Because of the successes my excellent world language colleagues and I had arrived at in getting together to learn about technology in language teaching mostly in the format of workshops I gave, I was eventually asked to move to the college’s faculty development office and adjust my duties so that the benefits the language faculty enjoyed in workshops and trainings I often facilitated could be scaled to all disciplines on campus. One of my new duties, in addition to instructional technology management (labs, tablets, clickers, etc.) and training and support of all sorts (Microsoft Office, hybrid boot camps, Jeopardy-style games, adjunct orientation, interactive whiteboards, etc.), was supporting faculty in their day-to-day use of the college’s learning management system. I had been using it either as a supplement (in the case of my face-to-face courses) or with greater dependency (in the hybrid courses) as a gradebook, a place to share files, announcements, assignments, etc. Any language teacher worth his salt knows that we often learn best by doing. In my case, in wrapping my head around all of the intricacies of the learning management system and translating that to faculty in training sessions, open labs, and 1:1 consultations, it all became far less scary and foreign. Why not use all of these great features in my own French courses? That would happen sooner than I expected.
A few years into my duties in the college’s Teaching and Learning Center, the opportunity arose for a position in a new faculty development office at a neighboring four-year institution. The University of Houston-Downtown had recently created its Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence, and they were looking for someone to support their faculty’s needs for best practices in teaching and learning, especially someone with expertise in technology-enhanced teaching and learning and hybrid and online modalities. Accepting this position would mean either leaving my French courses at Lone Star College-CyFair behind altogether or converting the course to one that was offered completely online. This ever-changing course was my child! I couldn’t abandon it before it had “grown up” completely! I got right to work redesigning my course. To inform myself, I took workshops and the certification program from the Online Learning Consortium (which I recommend very highly, by the way!). I became a member of the POD Network and have committed myself to attending their conference regularly. I read as many books and articles as I could find. I looked at rubrics used to evaluate and assess online courses, such as the Chico rubric and our own UHD Rubric for Online Instruction. And, before I knew it, I was ready to offer my first fully online beginning college French course.
CURRENT STATE OF AFFAIRS: WHAT DOES MY “CHILD” LOOK LIKE NOW?
A couple of weeks before the semester begins, I get the first few modules of my online course together (I release future ones measuredly), prepare my syllabus and course calendar, and check my roster regularly. I reach out via email to my new students to welcome them to the course before the semester has even begun so they can get started with preparing for succeeding in the course. As the semester start date draws nearer, I gradually add more information to the welcome email I send out so as to both include new students who have added since the last message and keep students who added early in the loop as well. Pre-course preparation tasks include asking students to review the syllabus and course calendar, purchase or print out the chapters of the textbook we’ll be working through, download, install, and test Audacity so they’ll have a tool to make *.mp3’s, download, install, and test PrimoPDF so they’ll have a tool to turn the scoresheets from the web-driven Texercises into PDFs for submission in the course, complete a Doodle poll to communicate their availability for real-time web meetings, activate and test their accounts in VoiceThread that I have set up for them, activate their accounts in YouSeeU and affiliate to the course using the class code I provide them, test their microphone and webcam that they’ll need for the web meetings, audio recordings, VoiceThread contributions, and YouSeeU assessments, complete the mandatory student orientation to the learning management system, and complete the student online learning readiness assessment. Students who aren’t responding to my emails and carrying out these initial tasks can expect a phone call. I set the deadline for getting all of this done by the second day of the semester so that any last minute “adds” won’t miss out.
As opposed to a more focused grade distribution with fewer categories that I had used in face-to-face and hybrid versions of the course, I have a much more diversified grade distribution in the online course, allowing students many opportunities to do well at something.
- 10 % of the final grade comes from VoiceThread activities that open each chapter.
- 10 % comes from VoiceThread activities within the chapters.
- 10% comes from the Texercises they do at the textbook website, whose scoresheets they submit as PDFs in the learning management system.
- 10 % comes from quizzes I have created using images and videos from the textbook website’s “Vocabulaire en contexte” content (they have up to 4 attempts on these).
- 10 % comes from discussions where they make an original post and follow up with subsequent comments to other students’ posts (these are usually activities they end up crafting themselves, such as posting math problem prompts and solving other students’ math problems as we practice numbers).
- 15 % comes from questions they answer using YouSeeU’s Q & A video activities feature (wherein the webcam automatically records and collects their spontaneous responses to questions I have set up in the system ahead of time).
- 10 % comes from compositions (there are three in the course, each of which has a 20 percent first draft and an 80 percent final version with feedback in between).
- 10 % comes from audio recordings they make and submit as *.mp3s in the learning management system (these are grammar exercises, vocabulary exercises, culture notes, or free-response questions from the textbook).
- 5 % comes from attending real-time web meetings (there are eight 90-minute web meetings they attend from start to finish (recordings of which are subsequently made available), or, for those who cannot attend, this grade can be achieved by viewing French films from a list I provide them and ask them to write a two-page review in English that also includes at least three quotes in French from the film).
- Finally, 10 % comes from three double-chapter milestone exams taken in the learning management system (they require Respondus Lockdown browser and Monitor, and only one attempt is allowed).
Feedback is provided in several ways. I always include specific comments to each student on each assignment, either as typed text in the “comment box” next to the grade item in the online gradebook or as video feedback. Once the deadline for a VoiceThread activity has passed, I’ll often go back in and add my own summary video comment with general corrections and suggestions. For example, with audio recordings, once they are all submitted, I download them and play them on my computer. As they play, I have a recordable whiteboard app (ShowMe) open on my iPad with an image version of the script for the recording. I write on this with a stylus and pause the recording periodically to offer suggestions for improvement. I embed this feedback video in the grade item comment field in the gradebook. In the case of compositions, I use a screen recording tool (Camtasia) to talk my way through corrections and suggestions. I upload this video to GoogleDrive, set it to share with the link, and paste the link in the comment box next to the grade item for each student.
I have learned that it’s very important to see that students can stay connected to an online course in as many ways as possible. For those on Facebook, I have a Facebook group for the class. There, I share fun tips and silly pics and memes about French language and culture, add YouTube videos on something we’re tackling in the class at the moment, post Facebook poll questions, provide links to current events items I come across that just so happen to match the career and hobby interests of my students (I do a getting-to-know-you activity at the beginning of the semester), and remind them of important due dates coming up in the course. I also encourage students to sign up for text message alerts in the learning management system: Desire2Learn has a feature by which students can receive a text message every time a new news item is posted, a new grade item is available, etc. I encourage my students to contact me through whatever method works for them (posting a question on the Facebook page, commenting on a Facebook post, messaging me through Facebook Messenger, emailing me from within Desire2Learn, or emailing me at my college email address).
MOVING FORWARD: STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS
There’s no such thing as being “done” with designing a course. In fact, if you are done, you’re most likely doing it wrong! Now
that I have begun to use YouSee and see that it is, indeed, reliable enough to become a stronger part of the course, I will most likely adapt other parts of the course to put it to better use. For example, I prefer its web conferencing feature to WebEx. Also, instead of requiring students to download and install audio recording software like Audacity, I will move the submission of these audio recordings into YouSeeU. Given that I have taught the course in this modality for three semesters now, I have enough student evaluation data to make some improvements. I have been asking students to take an anonymous feedback survey at mid-term as well (so that the students enrolled in the actual course might benefit from whatever changes can be made): this is how I decided to drop the lowest grade – or two lowest grades – in many of the grade categories and also how I changed the quizzes to allow up to four attempts). I am also collecting feedback, testimonials, and “plans of attack” from students who have made A’s in the course so that I can share these at the beginning of the semester: students tend to take the advice of their peers when it comes to learning about how to succeed in a course (some of these former students have even given me video versions of their testimonials).
Additionally, after a few more semesters, I’d like to have the course reviewed by a Quality Matters reviewer so that it can enjoy this special stamp of approval and, at the very least, benefit from whatever feedback I get as a result of the review. I also plan to continue taking workshops offered through the Online Learning Consortium and Quality Matters, as well as completing Advanced Certification through OLC. I would encourage all instructors to check with their campus faculty development office to inquire about these options and whatever other support may be available to those seeking to improve online instruction. At many institutions, there are instructional designers, consultations, face-to-face workshops, online resources and trainings, and sometimes even stipends and course releases to go along with these!
I have been thinking about reaching out to the Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning to ask if they can somehow connect me with other instructors who are using Français interactif in an online setting so that we may web conference and share tips and success stories on a regular basis. In fact, if readers are interested in this, feel free to contact me. Finally, if just by reading this article you have questions or suggestions (whether or not you teach online and whether or not you use Français interactif!), I would love to hear from you!