Best Practices for an Online Spanish Course
By Robert J. Blake, Professor of Spanish, the University of California Davis.
By Gabriel A. Guillén, Associate Instructor of Spanish, the University of California Davis.
The first online Spanish course offered through the auspices of the University of California (Spanish 2V, V is for Virtual) follows a steady stream of growth in online course offerings. Indeed, total U.S. virtual enrollment has increased from 9.6% in 2002 to 32% in 2011 (Sloan Foundation, 2013). In other words, nearly a third of American college courses are now taught online. Therefore, Spanish 2V, far from being an experimental alternative to the classroom, represents the efforts of the language teaching community to adapt to and take advantage of new digital spaces. In this article, we explain how online language learning was implemented at the University of California Davis, focusing on the following topics:
The pedagogical affordances and benefits of the online format
Type of students and instructors attracted to the online learning environment
Weekly components of the online language curriculum
Evaluation and suggestions for improvement
AFFORDANCES AND BENEFITS
The growth in online course offerings can be traced to the upper administration’s idea of enrolling unlimited numbers of traditional and non-traditional students with little or no investment in brick and mortar spaces. This is not a pedagogical argument either for or against virtual classrooms. Our role as language professionals is to focus on designing a superior learning experience for the students, quite apart from any real or supposed economic benefits. Language instructors need to be convinced that online education presents a responsible learning environment for students, which is their principal charge.
Arguments in favor of online language teaching:
1. Flexibility. Students can complete their work at their own pace, within the overall framework of a cohort-based syllabus (the present curriculum is not a MOOC, as will be explained later). For instance, they can arrange the best schedule to complete the asynchronous assignments, saving time and energy normally lost traveling to and from the classroom. Nevertheless, students are still required to videoconference in small groups in real time.
2. Personalization. Instructors can effectively track individual students’ progress through a learning management system (LMS). Similarly, content can be adapted to the level and progress of each student. Finally, introspective or shy students may experience less stress online than in the face-to-face language classroom because peer-pressure isn’t as strong in the virtual classroom.
3. Autonomy. In the virtual environment, students must assume greater responsibility and organization for their learning journey than in the face-to-face classroom. As a result, online courses tend to increase the time students spend on individual study, practice, and exposure to the target language.
4. Automation. Most online activities not only provide students with immediate feedback but also help the instructor reduce the amount of time spent on grading. In the long term, an ideal online course could be completely based on the student interaction with the instructor. Feedback for both written and oral assignments could be delivered synchronously through conversations and writing workshops.
Type of students and instructors who enjoy online offerings:
Students at the University of California may have different motivations for enrolling in distance learning courses. Online courses often attract the following students:
- Students who have busy schedules and may not be on campus five days a week have two options: hybrid classes or completely virtual classes.
Students who want more freedom from the commitment of face-to-face courses.
Students who are encouraged by a positive prior online learning experience.
Students who register for the class with no specific bias or previous experience with online formats. They are not necessarily autonomous learners and they take the course online because it is simply one of the options.
These categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, students can take the virtual course because as athletes, their schedule does not accommodate a 5-day Spanish class. Typically, students come to Spanish 2V with no previous online experience, so training to succeed in e-learning becomes crucial for their overall academic success, especially since students are not necessarily autonomous.
So far, we have discussed the affordances of the online format, but what about the instructor’s perspective? Does the online format radically change the teaching paradigm for languages? In the online format, the instructor is able to increase study time, language autonomy, and collaborative learning. Accordingly, Spanish 2V provides a more student-centered learning environment. However, online teaching requires ongoing guidance and supervision from instructors, with regards to logistical and pedagogical issues. We could extrapolate from what Beltz (2003) says about intercultural collaboration on the internet: “the importance (but not necessarily the prominence) of the teacher and, ultimately, teacher education programs (e.g., Cain & Zarate, 1996) increases rather than diminishes in Internet-mediated intercultural foreign education precisely because of the electronic nature of the discourse (p. 92).”
The role of the instructor is critical in the online format, but a clear distinction should be made between these UC online courses –taught in cohort fashion with credits and recognized fulfillment of the language requirement– and a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) with no or little synchronous interaction. Student-teacher interaction remains the most important feature of any course, face-to-face or online. In the future, it will be become crucial to find new ways to increase student collaboration, especially with regards to content and course projects.
Spanish 2V was specifically based on a series of modules hosted in the Canvas Learning Management System (http://canvas.instructure.com), each one of them having similar weekly activities; synchronous content and metalinguistic presentations; multimedia materials for independent study; videos with listening activities; asynchronous speaking activities; synchronous oral interaction activities (through Adobe Connect); writing exercises; and weekly tests. Here is a sample of a typical week:
Monday: Input. A 50-minute video conference with the whole class and the instructor, focused on vocabulary and grammar in context, plus grammar explanations. It is as a teacher-centered day, with less participation from students, but it also serves as a forum to answer questions about the course content and logistics.
Monday-Wednesday: Online grammar and vocabulary activities. Students work on their own with input, explanations, and activities from an online textbook. Monday lectures serve as preparation for these activities, which prepare students for additional production and interaction activities.
Wednesday-Thursday: Listening activities. We created interactive “video lessons” using Adobe Captivate: 5 minutes interviews, accompanied by comprehension questions, vocabulary, grammar exercises, and short writing assignments. For these activities, we interviewed various professionals around Davis (native Spanish speakers).
Thursday: Speaking asynchronous activities. In Canvas, students record a video message related to a specific communicative task. For example, they compare Davis to a city in the Hispanic world. Also, they have to comment on at least one video from a classmate. Students very much enjoyed this particular assignment, as well as the synchronous activities.
Thursday-Friday: Synchronous speaking activities. They consist of a video chat with the instructor and 2-3 students, working on communicative activities related to the lesson. It is student-centered day and learners tend to receive more feedback than in the traditional face-to-face classroom where average enrollment is around 24 students.
Friday: Writing activities. Every two weeks, students write a short text (personal reflection, critical response, story, etc.). They upload a text document to Canvas and the instructor gives feedback directly on the platform, without downloading the document. It is one of the advantages of this platform, together with the possibility of creating rubrics (previously designed by the instructor) that facilitate grading and specific feedback.
Friday: Quiz. Students take a test covering the weekly materials.
EVALUATIONS & SUGGESTIONS
Although this was the first time this course was taught, students’ evaluations were very positive. Students were appreciative of the instructors’ dedication, the quality of course materials, and the interactive feedback. One student commented that “The level of interaction between students, the teacher, TA, and other students is great.” Interaction was critically important, as one other student noted, “both instructors were great! Very approachable, very enthusiastic. They were both open and receptive to feedback from students, and helped me with the many, many questions I asked. They were encouraging and supportive so that I felt comfortable speaking in my non-native language. I can’t think of anything they could have done differently.”
Students also enjoyed the clear and structured learning agenda. One student reported that “the modules serve as a planner and help you stay organized throughout the week”.
However, Spanish 2V was a pilot course and a number of elements could be improved in the future:
1. Student preparation: Students need more preparation for the online learning experience. The creation of a mandatory workshop, emphasizing the pedagogical particularities of online learning, could help with student attrition, which is usually higher in online courses than in traditional courses.
2. Workload adjustment: Tracking instructors’ working hours and aiming at increasing the number of hours interacting with students, and reducing the number of hours grading and preparing classes.
3. Transition from a focus on activities to a focus on projects: dynamic assessment, portfolios, self-evaluations, tandems, etc.
4. Engagement: Engage students in curriculum design, adapting the syllabus to students’ needs.
5. Feedback: Use rubrics that are more descriptive than prescriptive.
Taken as a whole, the online format does not represent a major paradigm shift for the instructor but rather a gradual increase in student agency. This trend does not suggest that students become self-taught; little by little, they learn to take control of the direction of their learning (Little, 1991). Despite its challenges and the training needs, online language courses do not constitute a threat but rather an opportunity for both students and instructors to collaborate in a more autonomous and responsive learning environment than is commonly found in the face-to-face classroom.
Allen, Elaine and Jeff Seamn. Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group, Sloan Foundation, Pearson, 2013. http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/changingcourse.pdf
Blake, Robert, Nicole Wilson, María Cetto, and Cristina Pardo-Ballester. Measuring Oral Proficiency in Distance Face-to-Face, and Blended Classrooms. (Language Learning & Technology, 2008), 114-127.
Belz, Julie. Linguistic perspectives on the development of intercultural competence in telecollaboration. (Language Learning & Technology, 2003), 68-99.
Little, David. Learner Autonomy 1: Definitions, Issues and Problems. Dublin: Authentik, 1991.