Searching for native speakers for video-chats with students: Free and risky or costly and safe?

Previous posts in this blog have reported on the use of videoconferencing in foreign language classes in order to provide students with authentic experiences that can bring a completely new dimension to the language learning process. See my previous post  and Luis Gonzalez’s post for details.

When video-conferencing is used with the main purpose of providing out-of-class opportunities for the students to practice the target language, one of the main issues and challenges we face is finding native speakers who will engage with our students in a meaningful way.

For my elementary class project in Spring 2017 I used Talkabroad. Although this platform comes with a cost, I highly recommend it with elementary level students. The platform itself is very user-friendly both for the instructor as well as for the students. The instructor can create a classroom where students register, and design one or more assignments for the students to complete within a set deadline. The instructor can track the assignments and review the students’ performance as it records the audio of the video-chat. The technology is quite reliable and good quality, out of 25 conversations only 2 were cut off after 15 minutes (each conversation lasts 30 minutes), which was more due to the partner’s connection than to the technology itself. The conversation partners are all native speakers residing in the foreign country and are trained to be kind, patient and to never use English when talking to the students. My experience with this platform has been very positive and has resulted in a successful final project last spring. One complaint I have, though, is that the pool of native speakers for Italian is a little small. There were only 5 partners to choose from and my students ended up interviewing mostly 3 of them based on their profiles. Nevertheless, I still highly recommend it for elementary level students because the sheltered experience guarantees success, necessary to boost their confidence at this stage of their language learning process and increase motivation toward the language.  

For intermediate students I think this type of hand-holding is no longer necessary. These more mature language learners can safely venture into one of the free online language exchange communities that connect people all over the world to practice language with native speakers.  Years ago, I tried to direct my students to using The Mixxer, a free site hosted by Dickinson College, but the technology at the time was not well developed and the community of Italian speakers was extremely small and unreliable.

Next Spring, I am planning on incorporating video-conferencing with native speakers in my upper level conversation class again as I find it an invaluable tool, and I am optimistic that this time around things will work better.  I did a quick Google search to see what other language communities are available, besides The Mixxer, and I found quite a few. Of the many that came up, WeSpeke seemed the most promising of all. I decided therefore to test its reliability and the community that uses it.

First step to access a language community in WeSpeke is to create a profile and specify your native language and the language that you want to practice. You can also write a little bio for other people to read. Based on your preference it will match you with a community of speakers that have similar preferences. You can always reset your filters so that it will narrow down the community even further. Once in a community you can then directly message people that you want to establish a friendship with. I must admit that this is an extremely active community, as soon as I signed up people started messaging me and had 4 friendship requests in the matter of a few minutes. I had to switch my profile to offline because I couldn’t keep up with the messages. I, however, didn’t go past a few introductory greetings with other people as my focus was to just test the platform for future use.

The messaging system is not perfect. Some chats are saved but they do not show up in the chat window for some reason. There is also the possibility of doing audio and video chats once you have established friendship with your language partner. The bar at the bottom of the screen has a number of interesting features. There is a quick dictionary feature, and you can also send an image or URL. The community seems quite active but, I was told by one of my new acquaintances, it is also a little volatile. Establishing a contact is extremely easy as the community is very large, but maintaining the contact and laying down the grounds for a video-chat is a little harder, according to some.

With this in mind, I have, nevertheless decided, to give WeSpeke a try for my intermediate conversation class for next semester and see how it will work in the context of the assignment that I will design over the winter break. 

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2018 Digital Scholarship Fellows Program: Call for Proposals

Have you been thinking about creating a digital companion for your book project? Do you have collections of research materials collecting dust or physically degrading in your office, or large datasets you’d like to develop into a digital archive, maps, or visualizations to accompany your written scholarship? Would you like your students to actively engage with Special Collections & Archives materials to create a digital project?

If any of these questions resonate with you, and you would like to involve students in the processes of digitization, analysis, and online publishing, please see the Call for Proposals and consider applying for the Digital Scholarship Fellows Program. As a 2018 Digital Scholarship Fellow, you would have the opportunity to work with Information Services staff members and other faculty fellows to 1) gain new technological skills to support the development and broad dissemination of your research; 2) scaffold research projects that involve digital technologies and collaboration with students and other partners; and 3) present the results of your participation in the program at speaking engagements at both Connecticut College and other institutions engaging in creative digital scholarship.

Digital scholarship offers liberal arts colleges opportunities to leverage the close working relationship between students and faculty and develop students’ research and technology skill sets through experiential learning. Digital scholarship tools and methodologies reflect a changing landscape in both teaching and scholarship, including innovations in instructional technology, content management platforms, computational analysis, and open-access publishing. Building upon the successes of the Technology Fellows Program (2014-2018), the Digital Scholarship Fellows Program invests resources in faculty who want to both model these changes and help build a foundation of best practices for the campus. In support of the College’s commitment to enhancing academic distinction, the DSF Program will promote the research objectives outlined in the College’s Strategic Plan.

Participation in the Digital Scholarship Fellows Program provides up to $2000 to be used toward expenses related to a project (e.g. software, hardware, data storage, student labor), funding to present at a digital scholarship conference, and a stipend of $1000.

Proposals of no longer than 1000 words should be submitted to Lyndsay Bratton (lbratton@conncoll.edu) by Sunday, December 3, 2017. All proposals will be reviewed by the Office of the Dean of Faculty, the Vice President of Information Services, the Digital Scholarship Faculty Advisory Board, and the staff who lead the Digital Scholarship Fellows Program. Fellows will be announced by December 15, 2017.

Not sure if your project ideas are a good fit for the Digital Scholarship Fellows Program? Contact Digital Scholarship Librarian Lyndsay Bratton to talk about your ideas and hear more about the program.

A virtual field trip through the streets of Rome via Google Satellite View

Screenshot from student assignment

Learning a foreign language in a classroom setting outside of the cultural context in which the language is spoken often poses a number of challenges for the learner. One, in particular, is the lack of familiarity with the foreign country’s physical space and urban landscapes. I usually complement classes and activities with pictures and videos representing such landscapes in order to help the students visualize them. However, although valuable, pictures and videos are filtered through someone else’s eyes, are static and do not easily translate into a simulated real life experience. For this reason, I decided to design an assignment with Google Satellite View and let students in my elementary Italian class take a virtual tour of Rome.

The purpose of the class assignment was both cultural and linguistic. I wanted to engage students in the exploration of the Italian urban landscapes and let them familiarize themselves with popular touristic and typical residential areas of Rome. I also wanted to provide opportunities for meaningful connections and a first-hand experience that would simulate a real life experience and foster acquisition of basic vocabulary, as well as practice writing sentences.

Students were asked to work in groups, use the 3D Satellite View in Google Maps and “walk” around a few important landmarks of the city of Rome as well as a typical residential neighborhood. They were asked to take snapshots of those sites, of the details of the surroundings and of the people they encountered. They were then asked to create Google Slides to post their shots, label items in the pictures and write sentences for what they saw. They engaged in a virtual exploration of parts of Rome I wanted them to experience “first hand” and use the language learned so far to describe that experience.

Screenshot of student work

The assignment was a success as all students found it useful, interesting, and fun. There were no issues with the technology as students were quite proficient in the use of Google Maps and Google Slides, as well as taking screenshots. One thing they learned, though, was that it only takes a .it as opposed to .com to switch from the American to the Italian version of Google Maps.

On the basis of students’ exit feedback, I can happily say that the goals of the assignments were met. Here are some comments from the students:

  1. It was really cool almost like being there in person
  2. Residential areas are really different from tourist areas
  3. Getting to explore the country of the language we are trying to learn always makes what we are learning seem more real
  4. Effective way to practice vocabulary and writing sentences

In general, comments were highly positive and these, in particular, testify to the effectiveness of the assignment. Overall a good use of a class period!

Videoconferencing for students in the elementary language classes

Image of students with conversation partner.

Videoconferencing is becoming an increasingly popular tool used by many instructors to enrich foreign language classrooms with authentic experiences. In his post, Luis Gonzales, for example, reports on the advantage and success of using videoconferencing in his 200-level course SPA 250, Spain: A journey through history and culture.

Spring semester 2017, I also decide to explore the benefits of using videoconferencing in my language classes in order to increase confidence and motivation towards Italian. Previous research has, in fact, shown that for language learners a positive experience associated with computer-mediated communication in general, and videoconferencing in particular, can increase students’ motivation. Unlike Prof. Gonzales’s students, my students were all elementary students with less than 50 contact hours in the language. Their task was to complete a 30 minute exchange with a native speaker on a topic of their choice about Italian culture.  In order to assure that they would be ready to undertake this challenging task successfully,  I scaffolded the project throughout the semester with each step intended to build a layer of support that would provide the proper background for the exchange. These steps included a number of writing assignments that were corrected for grammar and content (the main one being a report on the topic they wanted to discuss),  semantic word maps for vocabulary, questions that they wanted to ask and possible answers. Another important aspect  was also the choice of a reliable technology and conversation partners who would be patient and amicable. I decided to use Talkabroad, a videconferencing platform  which provides a reliable technology, trained native speakers, and  recordings of the conversations for later review. This was possible through a grant from the Student-faculty Engagement Fund and turned out to the perfect choice with my elementary language students.

At the end of the project, students completed a questionnaire to reflect on the experience. They were asked about their perspective on perceived success of the exchange, adequacy of preparation, and effects on motivation. 46 out of 52 students responded to the questionnaire as follows:

  • 91% had a positive experience and perceived the exchange as successful; only 9% of the students reported a negative experience due either to problems with the technology or inadequate language abilities for the task.
  • 55% felt adequately prepared; 32% somewhat prepared; 13% felt unprepared.
  • 71% reported  feeling more motivated because the positive experience made them more aware of their own abilities and boosted their confidence; 28% reported no change even if they had a positive experience; finally only 1% reported a decrease in motivation due to the inability to carry out the conversation.

From my point of view, this was a very successful and energizing project. I saw many students come to life both while preparing for it as well as while teleconferencing with the native speakers. Many students expressed excitement directly to me, and, although it was challenging for them, I was extremely pleased with their performances. I will definitely do this again next year, and I would encourage other colleagues teaching elementary language classes to include some type of computer-mediated  authentic experience for the students.

Digital Storytelling on and for the Environment


Recently I met with Siri Colom, C3 Doctoral Fellow in Environmental Studies, to discuss an interesting project she incorporates into SOC/ES 329: Sociology of the Wild. Students are asked to critically think about what “nature” is, and how “our conception of it is socially and culturally based, and how it might preclude us from understanding the world around us.”

To demonstrate that they are engaging with these themes and to connect philosophical and theoretical reading to lived experience, Siri developed a series of digital story projects for students. Pedagogically, the goal is to get students interacting outside of the classroom using multiple senses and to think about audio literacy as they pull their pieces together. She employs podcasts as the medium for storytelling, an interesting juxtaposition of nature and technology.  

The three podcasts projects are scaffolded and build in complexity – both in content and technology – over the course of the semester. The first requires students to make a two minute recording that includes one sound and explains a personal connection to the environment. The second requires two sounds and students describe a historical example. The final podcast is 10 minutes or less, requires interviews with two experts, and includes sociological analysis. The podcasts are shared publicly through a website Siri created in WordPress for the class.

With several semesters of the class creating podcasts, Siri now asks students to record 30-second summaries of the class readings so that they are engaging with audio in all aspects of the class. In addition, one student enjoyed this medium so much that she is creating a series of podcasts for an independent study with Joyce Bennett. 

Asynchronous Collaborations: Using Google Docs to Facilitate Working in Community

This semester Ariella Rotramel and I are engaging in community-based teaching and research. In order to work efficiently in our collaborations with community partners, we have both turned to Google Docs as an important tool. This post describes how each of us use use Google Docs in this work.

Joyce

IASC LogoMy course, ANT/LAS 431 Globalization, Transborderism, and Migration, is partnered with an organization I have a longstanding relationship with, the Immigration Advocacy and Support Center (IASC) in New London. Students are working on two projects: creating bilingual Know Your Rights materials for our local community and  interviewing immigrants that IASC has supported through the legal system. Students will write synopses with selected quotes for IASC’s newsletter to highlight success stories. The interviews also provide data that IASC can use in grant applications. Finally, these interviews will provide me with research materials for my long-term research project on the local migrant community and the non-profits they interact with.  

Google Docs has been essential to creating and editing the materials that are at the core of these projects. First, IASC members logged into Docs and commented on the course syllabus as it was being designed. IASC’s direct input into the syllabus follows best practice guidelines for community learning courses. Google Docs allowed IASC collaborators to comment and co-design at times that were convenient for them, enabling us to make progress without meeting in person. While in-person collaboration is key, many of the challenges our partnership faces is finding times to work together given that we exist in two rather distinct work-cultures: academia and nonprofit service sector. This kind of collaboration and co-designing never would have been possible without Google Docs technology.

Most recently, students have used Google Docs to create Know Your Rights materials for our local migrant community. Google Docs has allowed us as a group to share materials already created (such as materials from the ACLU). We were then able to adapt pre-existing materials to the needs of IASC. Collaborating on Google Docs allowed students to share the responsibilities of formatting issues, and it allowed IASC to comment on our work as we went along. That kind of valuable feedback saved us time, as IASC was able to guide our work effectively and quickly.  

Finally, students will be using Google Docs to share their interview transcripts and field notes. Students are completing interviews in pairs, which means using Google Docs facilitates their collaboration. More importantly is that using Google Docs is a convenient way for me to archive the data produced by this class from year to year. A word of caution: be sure to own all of the documents, because if students own the documents and graduate, one could lose access. Barring this particular issue, using Google Docs to archive the data has been convenient  because I cannot misplace it and, more importantly, IASC always has access to the Drive. This means they can access all the data our partnership has produced whenever they need it, which again, is in line with best-practices for community partnerships.

Ariella

Fresh LogoI have been engaged with FRESH New London over the past year as a volunteer and board member. As FRESH began to explore the possibility of a youth participatory research project (YPAR) to tell New London food stories (related to questions of access, inequality, and culture), it became clear that I could help develop this idea into a collaborative research project that would address FRESH’s goals and draw on my experience with community-based research. Over last fall, I worked with FRESH staff to develop an IRB for the initial stage of the project, mapping New London’s food resources using Google Maps. This semester we are working together with youth as co-researchers, meeting weekly to design, collect, analyze, and map information related to New London and food.

I used Google Docs to share initial academic articles on YPAR and food stories, and FRESH reciprocated by sharing existing grants and other materials. Together, we were able to mix in-person meetings with Google Doc work to develop the IRB proposal and all of the related documents. As we received feedback from each other and then the Connecticut College IRB committee, we used Google Doc to make changes, give comments, and  track this work easily through the “see revision history” function. After the project was initiated, we continue to use Google Docs to share materials including brainstorming notes, research links and PDFS, as well as using Google Spreadsheets to track  research findings.

Final Thoughts

Overall, using Google Docs for our community collaborations allows us to follow best practices for community engaged learning because it facilitates input from community partners and community partner’s access to the data we produce. If planned, using Google Docs can also cut down on the amount of coordinating and administrative work the instructor has to do in community learning courses, which can be a barrier to engaging in this important and fulfilling work.  

Filling in the Gaps Together: International Women’s Day Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon

Rose Olivera introducing the edit-a-thon

By Lyndsay Bratton, Rose Oliveira, Becky Parmer, and Ariella Rotramel

On Wednesday, March 8, we hosted the first annual International Women’s Day Wiki-Edit-A-Thon in Shain Library’s Advanced Technology Lab (ATL). International Women’s Day is observed throughout the world on March 8 and in some countries it is a public holiday. While celebrations in some countries include bringing women flowers or celebrating with a women’s night out, the day has a political history that resulted in this year’s call for a women’s strike in the United States.  International Women’s Day provides an important opportunity to reflect on ongoing gender inequality and the ability of women and allies to act to make change. Editing Wikipedia collectively provides one platform for responding to issues of gender inequality.

According to the 2011 Editor Survey, 91% of Wikipedians are men. Not only does such a homogenous editor force yield a body of work that reflects a limited scope of perspectives, but the survey also found that the relatively few women editors each make far fewer edits than men editors. Wikipedia Edit-a-Thons are staged periodically around the world, and often focus on reversing such trends by bringing women editors on board to fill in gaps in content related to women’s issues and women in history. A great example of one such initiative is the Art + Feminism Edit-a-Thon.

To address these issues of gender bias, we held an International Women’s Day Wikipedia-Edit-A-Thon. Edit-a-thons are events where newcomers and experienced Wikipedians alike come together to learn and participate in editing. Everyone was welcome and no prior editing experience was needed to participate. We had 13 people attend the evening’s event to create or improve articles on women and related topics.

Faculty, staff, students, and community members at the edit-a-thon

Rose Oliveira, Becky Parmer, and Ariella Rotramel started the event by talking about the the gender issues that face Wikipedia and how Ariella has used Wikipedia in her feminist theory class. Becky and Rose then reviewed the Five Pillars of Wikipedia to ensure that editors understood how to carry out their work effectively. Rose demonstrated how to create content on Wikipedia and the basics of editing. Andrew Lopez and Ashley Hanson shared a set of library resources they curated to help participants get started in their work. We also linked many resources on our Wikipedia libguide to assist editors in moving into editing.

Articles edited or created during the edit-a-thon

For the remainder of the time, we dove into the work. People chose to either collaborate in teams or work by themselves to research, create or improve a variety of articles. They contributed citations; rephrased poorly written sections; added new content to existing entries; and began work on developing new entries. All of these actions help improve Wikipedia by creating or strengthening content that relates to women and other underrepresented groups. In the last 10 minutes, everyone added their entries that they worked on a whiteboard: Lois Gibbs; Mary Foulke Morrisson; 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence; Trans Day of Action; Caroline Black; Avtar Brah; Beatrice Cuming; and Marie Hoppe-Teinitzerová. We concluded the evening by taking turns sharing the woman, organization, or event that they worked on. It was rewarding to see what we were collectively able to do in a short amount of time.

As a result, on the third Wednesday of every month, we have decided to hold an informal Wiki Meetup or “Wiki Wednesday” at The Social at 5:15pm. We welcome new and experienced editors! To check in about the meetup, please contact Rose Oliveira (roliveir@conncoll.edu). For more information about working with Wikipedia in the classroom, please contact your instructional technologist or library liaison.

Building an Italian Virtual City

One of the main challenges that I face in my second semester of elementary Italian is to strike a balance between meeting the needs of the students who want to continue studying the language and the needs of those who are not interested in continuing any further. How do I keep the former motivated and challenged and the latter engaged? Can I use technology to  break up the tediousness of language learning with something that is fun and engaging, that ties all language skills together, and that teaches the students about Italian society and lifestyle?

In the past five years I have fully embraced the concept of blended learning and used a number of different digital tools to accomplish my pedagogical goals. However, every semester, I keep searching for new and fun ways to enrich my courses. This semester, I am experimenting with conversations with native speakers through TalkAbroad. Next spring semester  I want my students to build a virtual Italian city.  I was intrigued by prof. Kronenberg’s similar project at Rhodes College. I want my students to create, explore, and possibly interact in a virtual Italian city by completing a number of tasks that will include writing texts, recording audio and videos, creating cartoons and more, all embedded into an interactive website. For example, some students will be responsible for creating a virtual restaurant, in doing so, they will be responsible for a number of tasks where they can see their language in action. Here is just an example of what these tasks might involve:


Some of these tasks will use familiar technologies, whereas some others will be new to the students and to me, like for example using Powtoon to create animated videos and presentations, or Voki to create speaking characters. Ideas are still floating and open to new possibilities as I explore new tools and technologies. I look forward to sharing my progress in this blog.

Building a New Approach to Online Discussions

working-in-snow-620x826Earlier this semester, I experimented with a “virtual class” on a day when snow closed down the college. Had there been class, students would have discussed a reading in small groups. Typically during these sessions, students spend roughly 2/3 of the class period working through discussion questions. The final 1/3 is spent debriefing with the entire class, hearing from the groups directly and collectively filling in the blanks. On the snow day, I figured that students could use GChat and Google Docs to collaboratively answer these same discussion questions, allowing me to use this time productively and not have to push my course schedule back. Students connected with their groups over GChat and typed answers on a Google document that was shared with me.

Jumping ahead in time, I am currently putting together the first midterm in this course. As I debate the set of questions to put on the exam, I am reflecting on what was actually accomplished during this virtual class. It was a way to get something out of this brief period of time when I knew that students could get together, and it enabled me to keep the course on schedule. But what did the activity accomplish aside from these basic goals? Could I be confident that students understood the key components of the reading? Could I know who was driving the discussion, who contributed to the final answers, and who simply was passively along for the ride?

Upon reflection, I cannot answer any of these questions. While the activity was not a total waste, it did not successfully mimic the learning that would have occurred in a regular class; it did not allow me to assess the degree to which students understood and appreciated the reading. As a result, I do not feel comfortable including questions about this reading on the exam.

I know that I, with the help of technology, can do much better. I am seeking to substantially enhance my approach to online discussions, with the dual goals of “snow-day-proofing” my courses and creating modular discussion-based assignments that can take place in, or out of, class. In the initial stages, I am taking a content-free approach, thinking about general best practices, methods of instruction and tools of assessment that help me think through the various challenges and strategies for dealing with them. How can I assess relative contributions? How can I develop ground rules, and provide instructions to encourage full participation and successful collaboration? How can I use chat transcripts to help me answer these questions without being overly intrusive? What would a successful transcript look like, and how can I model successful collaboration for students at the start of a semester? What kind of rubric can I use to set expectations?

The sheer number of these important questions (all of which have to be answered if this approach is to reach its potential) tells me that this journey will not be an easy one. But the payoffs are potentially high enough to make an initial time commitment well worth it.

Image Credit: Susan Dickerson-Lange

Active Engagement and Group Work at the Visualization Wall

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The Visualization Wall can instantly and wirelessly display up to five smartphones, tablets, and laptops at once, or one device full-screen. Pictured above: dual display of a MacBook Air and an iPhone.

The Diane Y. Williams ’59 Visualization Wall in the Technology Commons of Shain Library offers new possibilities for group work and classroom engagement. With just a few clicks on one’s own smartphone, tablet, or laptop, the wall wirelessly displays up to five devices at once.

Biology Professor Martha Grossel used the Visualization Wall weekly for her Accelerated Cell Biology class, asking students to work on problems in groups. One member of each group then displayed their work simultaneously for discussion and comparison of all the groups’ results as a class. Theater Professor Sabrina Notarfrancisco takes part in the Instructional Technology team’s DELI program to provide her students in Costume History with iPads each semester and meets regularly at the wall with her class. Whenever relevant to the discussion, students can easily display and compare examples from the visual portfolios that they build on their iPads, encouraging active engagement in discussion.

The furniture in the Technology Commons is all flexible and can be arranged to be most conducive to your class activities.

Interested in how this feature can be used in your own class? Email Lyndsay Bratton to discuss ideas or to schedule class meetings at the wall!