Interview with Kinji Ito, Assistant Professor of Japanese, Appalachian State University
In this issue, we talk with Kinji Ito, Assistant Professor of Japanese, about how he motivates his students in the online environment using Zoom and VoiceThread, and what he has learned as a teacher while teaching online during the pandemic.
FLTMAG: What have been your biggest challenges in adapting to teaching online during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Kinji Ito: For many years, I was a believer that language learning would take place more effectively when students met in the classroom. In other words, I didn’t know how online instruction could possibly measure up to face-to face learning, and probably felt in a way that the latter is superior to the former mode without even considering it. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, no sooner had I started online courses, I found out how suitable it was to utilize online instruction not only for students but for teachers. At the same time, I needed to ponder how to make my students look forward to attending the online courses that I offered for them, to stay motivated to learn. Consequently, it was just like playing catch with a ball. When I was motivated, they were too.
FLTMAG: Can you point to specific challenges of online learning that you addressed successfully?
Kinji Ito: Finding the benefits of online instruction helped me to overcome the two main challenges I faced, which are: how to keep my students motivated and how to accurately assess students’ progress. Online learning requires a significant amount of self-discipline and self-motivation, and this is something teachers can help optimize.
Indeed, as I have witnessed through my students, interacting with their peers is very effective due to the fact that some feel less pressure in the online environment. After using breakout rooms via Zoom, I observed that students were participating in two-way or multi-directional interactions much more smoothly than one-way progressions as seen in the traditional classroom environment in which teachers throw questions at their students and wait for them to respond. And what I learned from this experience is that everyone speaks and writes in the way that accords with their own idiosyncrasies. Some are good at making a persuasive speech using tools like Zoom and VoiceThread, and some are quite skillful at expressing their thoughts and opinions much better in discussion forums. Therefore, as a facilitator, all I do is enhance their idiosyncrasies to increase motivation. As far as I’m concerned, online platforms successfully work to achieve this as they allow students to play their role responsibly. In other words, I am playing my role as a concert conductor and each student is playing an instrument. With all those instruments playing in harmony, the orchestra yields an amazing outcome. In addition, because this happens online, it is easy to play back at our convenience.
FLTMAG: Many teachers find it challenging to assess online work. Do you relate to this challenge?
Kinji Ito: Teachers cannot ensure that students are making good progress without the proper assessment. From a teacher’s perspective, I know the importance of helping students make good progress in learning a language. Oral feedback is one of the best ways to provide the appropriate aid to students. Teachers need to know when and how to provide the correct feedback in order to make learners notice the given feedback and consequently the errors they made. Especially when it comes to choosing what types of feedback (explicit or implicit) to use, teachers should give consideration to potential pitfalls. If learners constantly receive explicit feedback while carrying on a conversation, they may feel interrupted and embarrassed. As a result, they may lose their motivation or concentration to continue participating in the conversation. On the other hand, students who receive implicit feedback don’t even notice what is given unless they pay close attention to the incoming information. That is, even though feedback can be useful for correcting errors, it must only be used in a meaningful and positive way.
Learning by trial and error, I have become able to create a meaningful environment in which the students enjoy learning the target language through online communication tools like Zoom and VoiceThread.
FLTMAG: How have you used these tools in your class?
Kinji Ito: One of the assignments I give to my students is reading practice (i.e., reading articles longer than those found in the textbook used in class) that needs to be done using VoiceThread.
This practice requires the use of all the grammar, expressions, vocabulary they have learned thus far in the target language. They must record themselves in a video while reading aloud, then submit it online for me to give them oral feedback via the same learning tool. In doing so, they must review their recorded material prior to submission to meet another requirement: leaving some comments like writing a reflection paper in the target language in the video on what part of speech they had difficulty pronouncing, stressing, and so forth. This is a fantastic feature! All they need to do is drag the scrubber to the point in the video where they want to insert their comment. Furthermore, while grading, this signals me to pay close attention to where they consciously know their weaknesses and thus want to repair.
Similarly, VoiceThread lets teachers leave comments in many ways such as typing a text, recording an audio, and recording a video, depending on the need. For instance, some students appreciate receiving the latter form of comments as they not only hear the way I pronounce certain words, but also see how I say them. Unlike getting oral feedback in the classroom to which sometimes many are not consciously attending, they are able to play back and review as many times as they wish. After that, the students make corrections accordingly to recite the same reading practice twice in order to give another shot because the grade for this assignment is an average of both the first and second attempts. What is important here is whether the students are intrinsically motivated. If they are not, nothing is efficiently internalized. However, by allowing them to take another attempt, they are usually motivated to show a better performance. When it comes to language learning, teachers must be ever vigilant to check if the students repair their own mistakes after receiving oral feedback and learn from it. This cycle will become input for them to process to later produce output. When this is properly carried out, the students gain confidence which helps to drive and increase their motivation to learn further.
So now, it is time for the next step: participating in a class discussion via Zoom based on the reading practice that the students did individually through VoiceThread. This is to let them utilize the knowledge they previously acquired for the subsequent tasks. You will be surprised how engaging it will become! Providing an interactive learning space through such communication tools where they can exchange their ideas and thoughts based on the same material is significant. This is where they can also enjoy communicating with their teacher and peers face-to-face using chat features and many types of reactions like clapping hands, thumbs up, and the like.
FLTMAG: What would you say is the most important element of a successful online class?
Kinji Ito: In my opinion, what matters for effective language learning is whether the students actively participate in and take pleasure with what they are doing. I believe this is how they become better at the task. Breakout rooms for example, I was shocked at first to learn that in every session the students had a smile on their face. Of course, I, as a host, enjoyed moving between rooms to monitor activity and answer questions as needed. Here are some examples of what they thought about the use of technology: “I enjoyed using the breakout rooms because I got to chat with everyone.” “I found enjoyment in facilitating team discussions.” As you can clearly tell, the key word here is “enjoy” and this is what students are looking for in the classroom. Thankfully, Zoom allows us to shuffle the participants in any order for future breakouts. This certainly enables the students to work with many classmates much more than being physically in the classroom. As a result, this also helps them become a well-rounded individual as they can speak their mind more freely and to listen more acutely.
FLTMAG: Is there anything particularly challenging about using these tools with an less commonly taught language with a non-Roman alphabet?
Kinji Ito: It has been said that Japanese is one of the most difficult languages to learn for English speakers since they do not share the same letters/characters. More specifically, the Japanese writing system is complicated because it consists of two types of characters called hiragana and katakana, plus an immeasurable amount of kanji which originated from China. Although learners of the Japanese language are typically getting better at using these tools with a non-Roman alphabet as they take courses in succession going from elementary to advanced levels, there are many students still struggling with it. For this reason, I assign my students to write essays using a computer in order for them to get more comfortable with a different writing system. I know that it is not as simple as one can say like the way I do here but what I would like my students to remember is “learn from your mistakes.” In other words, one of the biggest challenges that they may have is allowing themselves to make those mistakes. In Zoom, for instance, I let my students use the chat function to express their opinions and interact with their peers only in Japanese. At times this may be challenging and frustrating for some students who are not able to type as fast as others do. However, to acquire further knowledge and skills, learners need to be a little outside of their comfort zone. This is how those who constantly challenge themselves by setting a slightly demanding goal become a better language learner, and this is why I strategically impose this type of task on my students. In the wake of the pandemic, both teachers and students had to rely heavily on technology much more than ever before, which turns out to be a great learning tool that helps learners boost their writing skill. As proof, they have become more communicative in the chat rooms on Zoom and are able to leave longer comments in the video on VoiceThread. I can also tell through their writing assignments that the use of such tools has become an extension of their personality and thus they have become better at typing and writing in terms of accuracy and fluency compared to similar assignments previously submitted. In a sense, using these tools with a non-Roman alphabet has even given them more confidence and motivation to learn the subject even better. I plan on incorporating what I learned into all future online classes.
FLTMAG: How long did it take for you and your students to become comfortable with the tools? Who provided training and support?
Kinji Ito: When schools were first shut down, I was rapidly adapting how to use those tools that were even new to me. As you can imagine, all of this happened virtually overnight so principally I had to train myself to carry on my courses for the rest of the semester. In retrospect, however, I must say that it was all about learning from mistakes. In the beginning, whenever I used slides with sounds on Zoom, they were always muted simply because I forgot to check the box that says, “Share computer sound.” Since the students were told to turn off the sound during lectures unless they had a specific question to ask or were placed into a breakout room for discussion, they sent me a message via chat to tell me that they could not hear the sound. I remember seeing my students smiling and trying to tell me something through the screen. To make matters worse, I have given a lecture several times while being on mute. Although some made mistakes in conjugation and some typed the wrong words, they were trying to let me know that they could not hear me. For this reason, they now know how to politely warn their teacher in perfect Japanese. Honestly, it took a while for me to learn these skills—when and what to mute and unmute—, but it was worthwhile because I too no longer make the same mistakes. What I liked the most about this experience is that the students were engaged in this accidental activity and all seemed to be enjoying it. Sometimes you need to show your students how to make a mistake to let them feel comfortable about making a mistake as well. Indeed, it was true that actions speak louder than words. I have to admit that my students and I provided training and support to ourselves and each other through several sessions of trial runs. Hence, it took almost a month for us to become comfortable and proficient with the tools. In all it was a pleasurable experience for all of us to learn together.
FLTMAG: Thank you for talking with us!