By Jeffrey D. Samuels, PhD, World Languages 360
As the co-founder and leader of a nonprofit organization that consults with and supports educators, I have redirected our organization’s mission to support colleagues who are transitioning courses into an online modality. Many educators with such an interest may not be as familiar with online teaching and learning as they are with a traditional setting. The thoughts below are based upon prior consulting with clients and colleagues as well as observations about the kinds of questions and concerns that have surfaced in webinars and professional discussion boards since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. These thoughts comprise an articulated framework intended to encourage colleagues interested in language learning and technology to differentiate between remote instruction and online teaching and learning, particularly as the next academic year appears on the horizon.
This article begins with some thoughts about the situation that educators have found ourselves in during the COVID-19 pandemic and the move to remote teaching. Then it provides you with an interactive tool that allows you to think through where you are in your remote or online teaching and what you can continue to do to aspire to improve your teaching in this situation. The tool has a number of criteria that cover a wide array of aspects of a given course. Each criterion has descriptors of three “levels” that correspond to “remote instruction,” “online teaching and learning,” and “aspirational.” You are invited to take notes in the tool itself, and it will allow you to download the prompts and your responses as a way to take something concrete away from your reading. Those who teach may wish to use it to assist in planning for the next online iteration of their course. Those who are leading workshops for faculty about online language teaching may find this tool helpful to assist them in getting started thinking about where they are currently and where they would like to go as they improve their courses in the online space. The article also offers a downloadable PDF version of the whole article at the end.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a storm cloud with arguably few silver linings and a touch of gray—in terms of the gray areas that leave us scratching our collective heads. For those with a background in online curriculum design and instruction, one such lining stands out: colleagues who were not engaged in distance learning now have turned to “remote instruction,” and a consensus has emerged that “remote instruction” is a preferred descriptor for the recent emergency changes in the classroom due to COVID-19, as opposed to “online learning,” as the latter represents a more purposeful modality (whereas the former reflects emergency, stop-gap measures). Those who have a background in online teaching and learning, or who chose to enroll in vigorous, online accredited programs as learners themselves, see a silver lining insofar as their expertise can be helpful to others in the aftermath of what is by any other measure a tragic turn of events.
This summer, as the pandemic continues and the world struggles to figure out what’s next in education as we know it and when on-ground academic institutions can begin to offer face-to-face or hybrid/blended courses again, there is a very real possibility that online teaching and learning will remain the predominant modality into the fall (and a parallel modality beyond). One thing is certain: if that happens, learners who are paying high out-of-pocket costs and borrowing considerable sums to stay in school will expect an online experience commensurate with the on-ground, face-to-face education they signed up for in the first place. Canned and downloadable presentations with templated graphics and automated quizzes housed in a learning management system alone will no longer suffice. Learners—whether consumerist in their perspective or more intellectually curious—will expect an experience that is high quality, engaging, Socratic, unique, and value-added.
Also, this experience needs to mirror well-established best practices that have evolved to a large extent from face-to-face instruction. It should have parameters such as a cognitive load and a time-on-task workload that allow for other courses to vie for time and attention. The list goes on. For example, learners will expect significant interaction with faculty as well as with each other, i.e., some group work but a predominant ability to impact one’s own achievements and grades as an individual. Layer onto that the expectations of the institutional leadership itself about course quality, program integrity, retention, assessment, and accreditation. Remember, if you and your colleagues are scrambling to define and actualize quality online education, so is the dean or principal. The potential for a “remote instruction” pandemonium to accompany our global pandemic is real.
There are tried and true principles and approaches in the field of online education that will allow your courses to meet the above expectations head on, and perhaps even exceed some of them. If your summer study abroad program is postponed or your research plans are thwarted due to travel restrictions, you may find yourself with just enough time to turn your attention to preparing for the fall. Whether you are a classroom instructor, language resource center staffer, instructional designer, or other educator with a vested interest in quality online world languages courses, you may wish to take this summer’s brief respite to reflect on what just happened and prepare for the next wave.
The checklist below is a multi-tiered, performance narrative approach that you can apply during the summer and then in the fall offer your learners a course that reflects some best practices in online education—the kind of practices that go beyond what we’re calling “remote instruction.” Think of these criteria as descriptors with action items that you can extract to form an action plan. If you are an instructor who is new to online teaching and learning, you might focus on moving your courses from the first to the middle criterion in as many categories as is possible and reasonable in the time you have before the fall. If you support instructors in your role as a language resource center staff member or an instructional designer or technologist, you may wish to identify aspects where your expertise and resources best position you to work with instructor colleagues.
The set of interactive tools below allows you to think about your course from a variety of perspectives. As you read the criteria, reflect on where you are in your course development. Are you at stage one – remote instruction, where you are moving your course online on an emergency basis? If you are, what can you do to move towards stage two – online teaching and learning? Or if your course is in stage two, what can you do to continue to aspire to move your course towards stage three? You are encouraged to enter some text under each criterion about where you are and what you can do to move toward the next higher stage of online course development. When you reach the end of each section, the tool allows you to export and download a document that includes the criteria as well as your reflections. The tool will remember your answers as you move through each set of criteria, but it may not remember your answers if you close your browser before exporting.
World Languages Specific Criteria
To the extent that you can say legitimately that you have moved from the first attribute in many categories to the second, you are well on your way to offering your learners an improved online experience. If you have done this for most of the criteria by the start of the fall, you should feel pride and a sense of accomplishment. Keep in mind that the “aspirational” category is something to get you thinking about what happens if the online modality becomes permanent, or if you find that face-to-face instruction remains suspended into next spring. Those aspirational items, taken as a collective, might form the basis of a course development grant proposal or a consultation project with your internal or external language learning technologists, language resource center, or instructional designers.
FLTMAG has a list of resources for your professional development in online learning during the COVID-19 crisis, as do many professional organizations such as IALLT and ACTFL. Beyond World Languages-specific organizations, you will find a number of resources from multi-disciplinary ones such as Quality Matters and The Online Learning Consortium. Above all, take a deep breath, don’t try to do it all at once or in one round of the course offering, and tap your network of colleagues and the plethora of resources as you need them. If you are excited and passionate about your successes this summer, that will be reflected in your online courses and your interactions with learners and colleagues. And that in turn will contribute to a valuable and rich experience worthy of the tuition fees and reputation for quality education that drew you and your learners together into a community of learners in the first place.
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