Learning Language and Culture through Interviews


Students speaking with Spanish guest speaker

Among the different things related with technology that I have implemented in my classes in the last years, interviews that students in my SPA 250, Spain: A journey through history and culture conducted via Skype with people in Spain has been one of the most successful and popular.

The original idea was to interview three different people in Spain. I hoped to connect with someone related with Spanish politics, with a person in higher education, and somebody connected with social movements in Spain. The goal was to provide my students with a first hand glimpse of the most important issues in contemporary Spain.

“The interviews with the people in Spain were the most stimulating because they gave us an opportunity to connect face to face with the country we are studying.” – student evaluation

I was able to secure the participation of Jose Luis Blanco Moreno, socialist mayor of my native town. A few weeks later we chatted with Carlos Martinez Soria, the equivalent to the Dean of the College at the University of Castilla-La Mancha in Cuenca. Unfortunately, even though I was in touch with one of the leaders of a feminist organization, scheduling problems prevented a meeting with her. Our class met Wednesdays and Fridays 2:45-4:00, which unfortunately meant the interviews took place at 9:00 PM in Spain.

Preparing for Skype interview
Preparing for Skype interview.

In order to maximize the outcomes of the activity, I created a Google Doc in which each student added a question that we would ask later. Before each interview we spent time reviewing the questions, correcting them for grammar, and assigning students questions to ask. In both cases this worked very well and we were able to keep the conversation to about one hour.

“My favorite activity was video chatting with various Spanish professionals.” – student evaluation

I was a little bit worried about the possibility of technical issues, but in both cases the connections worked very well. I borrowed a web conferencing kit from Mike Dreimiller in the DSCC in order to improve the audio and video quality. My students, our guests, and I were very pleased with the activity. My class was held in the new Dilley Room, which is well suited for this type of activity.

“… the Skype interviews with Spanish leaders really helped with my comprehension and listening skills in a language other than my own.” – student evaluation

Based on the positive response of my students, I intend to expand this activity next semester by having up to 4 guest speakers in my class. I can’t wait to see my students using their language and cultural skills with “real” people, because, as one them mentioned in the evaluations, “Connecting with outside sources in Spain challenge students to utilize Spanish as well as seek distinct perspectives from the country in comparison to the U.S.”

Exploring Global Current Events through Twitter

Twitter conversation from #SPA250I learned about Twitter in a trip that I took a couple of years ago to Granada in Southern Spain to participate in a forum on the political future of Spain. In the long way back to Madrid, my friends helped me to create an account and since that day I have been using Twitter sporadically to get news from around the world and keep in touch with my friends in Spain. What I didn´t know that day was that Twitter would soon become an interesting, crucial and very rewarding component in my SPA 250 Spain: A Journey Through Culture and History, a class that I teach every fall with an enrollment of around twenty students.

With the help of the Technology Fellows Program, at the beginning of the semester we created the hashtag #SPA250 and asked the students to join the group. Since then, we have been regularly tweeting comments on news from Spain and around the world. Most days we spend between 10 and 15 minutes talking about the tweets and using this to foster conversations on currents events. In addition, since this is a class in which our students are still working with their Spanish skills, I use this activity to correct minor grammar or structural problems that I find in the 140 characters a tweet requires.

Even though, as in any new activity that we implement for our classes, there is a learning curve both for the students and the professor, it was evident by the middle of the semester that this activity was working very well and the students really saw the advantages of using social media to learn more about currents affairs. Right before Thanksgiving break, I bumped into a student and s/he told me ” Usually I don´t like social media, but I love the way we have integrated it in the class”. It was, certainly, one of the greatest moments of this semester. I have to tell you that I can´t wait for next fall when approximately 20 new students will join the special community that we have created around #SPA250.

Facing the Digital Divide

1024px-The_break_water_divide_in_Freshwater_BayI was recently surprised when watching television at home I saw a commercial that uses the idea of “digital divide” as a means to attract new costumers. As I recall, a student, clearly from an underprivileged environment, walks back home talking about the concept of “digital divide”. He mentions that hiring a particular company will bridge this gap since it offers a really good deal that makes the internet affordable for everybody. It is very interesting to see how capitalism is able to use the problems that it created and revert them in a way to gain more money. Anyway, I am not here to talk about capitalism but how we, as an educational community, should consider avoid the digital divide at our institution.

Maybe we think that here at Connecticut College we are alien to this situation and that in our community we won’t find anybody feeling left behind as the protagonist of the commercial, but this is not true. Recently, in one of my classes, a student suggested that we created a group account through WhatsApp. More popular overseas than here, this app allows you to send WhatsApp_logo-color-vertical.svgmessages by phone in a similar way as instant message. The idea was to use this system to get in touch with each other and, from the very beginning; it worked very, very well. I was thinking that we could use this resource not just to socialize but for the students to talk about the class and for me to answer questions promptly outside of class time. I was very pleased with the results, and the students seemed to be happy as well. However, in the second week of classes, another student signed up for the class and, when I suggested that s/he signed up for WhatsApp, s/he told me that s/he didn´t have a smartphone. At that moment, I realized that we need to be very careful with the use of technology and not assume that all students have access to the same gadgets. From that day on, I limited my participation in that group and I conducted all the formal communications with the students by regular email to include all the students in the conversation. I immediately realized that, without that resource, my ability to deal with issues on the spur of the moment was undermined. Even today, when we don’t meet as a class anymore, the WhatsApp group is very active and I sporadically participate sending invitations to have lunch together or participate in cultural activities. But each time I see a message from this group on my iPhone, I can’t help thinking that not all my students are there, and that one of them is always missing from the conversation.

From my point of view, there are some lessons we must learn from these two stories. First, as a community, we shouldn’t assume that every student has the same access to technology, and we need to make sure that, as an institution, we provide everybody with the same tools to succeed in a world that is more and more dependent on technology each day. If we fail in this task, as I mentioned above, we will always have somebody missing from the conversation.

— Luis Gonzalez, Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies

A Note from Instructional Technology:

If you are considering using apps in the classroom, contact your Instructional Technology Liaison. We can discuss possible alternatives that will allow you to achieve the same pedagogical goals, share information about technologies available to students through the library (iPad minis can be checked out, for example), or encourage you to participate in the DELI program which provides devices to all your students. We can also teach students to use the devices so they can fully participate in all course activities.

Image credit: By BihnX (The break water divide in Freshwater Bay) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons