WeSpeke Follow-Up

In my last post I talked about using a social media site for my upper level conversation class as a way to connect to native speakers. The main purpose of this experiment was to have access to native speakers for text/video-chat on some of the topics discussed in class. This exercise would give my students the opportunity to hear unfiltered opinions from native speakers beyond the class discussions and ask questions. Topics for the class are drawn from current news articles and are chosen so that they not only generate conversation but also inform on modern Italian society. So, hearing the perspective of Italians directly seems like an excellent exercise for the students both culturally as well as linguistically. For this purpose, I decided to try out WeSpeke, a social media site that connects speakers from all over the world to practice world languages. I chose WeSpeke because of its user-friendly interface and good online reviews.  

After setting up the account in class and restricting the community to Italian-English speakers, the students spent time on their own on the site in multiple occasions. Unfortunately, even with the Italian-English setting, many of the students reported being bombarded by people seeking to learn English and not Italian. These same students also experienced some type of predatory behavior at first. However, once the students figured out how to avoid irrelevant partners, most of them reported establishing at least a couple of connections with which they could engage in a fruitful conversation. Unfortunately the conversations were just limited to text-messaging and didn’t go much beyond first introductions and superficial exchanges. Some of the students responded positively to this exercises, and thought it was an interesting twist for the class.

From my point of view, however, and from what I have read from the students’ reports so far, I have become skeptical about the pedagogical value of this site, or similar ones, in a structured course. Although the site seems to promote “long lasting friendships”, the reality is that most people on sites like this are not reliable, not consistently active, or willing to commit or engage in a meaningful conversation. Even my students reported some sense of discomfort with these interactions and they themselves were not ready for video-chats or discuss more complex topics. Although I asked my students to write reports about their activities as a way of documenting their interactions, I have no way of properly monitoring the exchanges and evaluate their relevance to the topic.  Moreover, and most importantly, very few of the people that post their profiles on this site are college students, which made my students even more uncomfortable to move beyond a text chat.

In conclusion, although these types of sites might have some appeal for teachers and students because they seem to solve the native speaker problem, I would not recommend investing too much time and energy on them. A structured course needs a structured platform whereby both sides are fully engaged and invested, and equally accountable.

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. 

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.

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.

Using Quizlet for Elementary German

Quizlet "Gravity" Question
The Gravity question type in Quizlet.

For the first time this semester, I am incorporating Quizlet into my Elementary German class, as a mandatory tool to study new vocabulary on a regular basis. Most of you will be familiar with Quizlet, a collaborative online learning platform released in 2007 that offers students different gaming and study modes. These gaming and study modes include “Flash Cards”, “Speller” (students must type a term that is read out loud), “Match” (students have to drag terms on top of their associated definitions), and my very favorite “Gravity” (see above), where students must type a term that goes with the definition in the shape of an asteroid before the asteroid reaches the bottom of the screen. Quizlet thus addresses a number of different language skills and learning styles. It simulates testing conditions, students are familiar with its different study modes from high school – and most importantly: it is fun, and the students love it. It is also free and easily accessible.

I had prepared the vocabulary lists for this semester at the Tempel Summer Institute, including articles and plural forms of the nouns as well as the third person singular of each verb. That way, students are forced to study them as a unit. Every other day, we now have a brief vocab quiz in class. I use the Quizlet “Test” tool for that but print out the tests to ensure that all students are tested on exactly the same vocabulary. So far the use of Quizlet has been hugely successful: students now study the vocab on a regular basis and not just for the chapter exams – which makes a big difference in terms of teaching. Also, almost all of the students do extremely well in these quizzes. I am very happy with this new tool and am definitely going to use it in the future!

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.”

Language Learning with Japanese “Tadoku”

Last semester my JPN 201 students learned how to communicate with Japanese college/university students in Japanese through the #CCJpn201 Twitter Project. I wish I could continue this project. However, the academic year in Japan will end in March. Furthermore, since months of February and March have no classes for students, it would be difficult for me to find Japanese students who are willing to work with my students.

Are my students having easier time in JPN202 because they don’t have to tweet everyday? Since the project during fall was so challenging, do you think they deserve a break? My answer is “Absolutely not!” There is no time for them to rest in terms of learning Japanese before their going to Japan.

I already started the “Tadoku” Project in JPN202!! What is “Tadoku”? “Tadoku” is a Japanese word. “Ta (多)” means “many,” and “doku (読)” means “reading.” What I ask my students to do in class is to read books written in Japanese. Why is it so special? Nothing. They just have to read books without a dictionary or without checking unknown words. Is their vocabulary large enough to understand a story? Are they not frustrated because they are not allowed to use dictionaries? Some students worry how they could read without using dictionaries.

Let me explain how “Tadoku” works. There are four rules for “Tadoku.”

  1. You must start reading books from an easier level.
  2. You must not use dictionaries to read a book.
  3. If you encounter an unknown word, you must skip it.
  4. If you cannot continue reading, you must stop reading the book, and start reading a new one.

Japanese ebooksI purchased graded books from level 0 to level 4 for a “Tadoku” activity in class. They are graded on the basis of vocabulary, grammar structures, and the numbers of words used in a book. I also asked the library to purchase “Tadoku” ebooks through EBSCO which students can access through the library catalog.

Books in JapaneseLast Friday my students had their first “Tadoku” class. I brought the level 1 books with me. Each of them picked up a book which appealed to them. After finishing a book, they picked up another one, then another one, then another one. The ticking from the clock on the wall was the loudest noise in the room. When class was over, there was an assignment for them to reflect on what they read.

I created this assignment by using Google Forms. They need to tell one’s own name, the date of reading, the titles of the books they read on the day, the title of the book they choose to recommend; and to describe easiness to read by scale from 1 to 5, how interesting the book is by scale from 1 to 5, and their recommendation by scale from 1 to 5; and lastly they have to write a comment in Japanese on the book.

Would you be interested in knowing how I used Google Form for this purpose? When you create an assignment by using Google Forms, you will email the form to the students. After your students respond to the assignment, you can see responses collectively as well as individually. When you click “individual” on the page of their responses, you can find how each student responds to your questions. It is very convenient for me to use this form because I want them to use a scale to describe certain things and to write a paragraph about their reflection on the same page. And students’ responses will be kept in a folder in my Google Drive. There will be more “Tadoku” activities throughout this semester. I’m looking forward to reading their ratings as well as their comments.Comment in Japanese from Google Form

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.

Results from #CCjpn201: A Semester-Long Twitter Project

Tweet from student of Japanese

My project was to have my JPN201 students communicate with college/ university students in Japan through Twitter for 13 weeks during the fall of 2015. This project challenged not only students but also myself. My students were asked to find out Japanese college/ university students’ lives. We ended this project by presenting each student’s discovery in class. Each student uploaded his/her Storify on our hashtag, #CCjpn201 (see image above and slideshow below).

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Why so challenging? Students have difficulty communicating in the first place. On top, they had to communicate with native speakers of Japanese in the Japanese language!! None of them had communicated with native speakers with this intensity. It was difficult for them to read “unedited” Japanese passages written by native speakers. There were so many unknown words or Chinese characters in tweets written by natives. It was easy to misunderstand natives’ tweets. It was frustrating for them not to be able to ask what they wanted to ask because they didn’t know how to ask. Even if they used a dictionary to find a word they wanted to use, they ended up choosing a wrong one, which created further miscommunication! They protested to me that they used a dictionary or asked a Japanese friend on campus. Nevertheless students in Japan didn’t understand what my students asked, and replied apologetically, “I’m very sorry, but I don’t understand X,” “What do you mean by Y?”, “Maybe you wanted to ask me Y didn’t you?”

After this project, I asked both my students and students in Japan to take surveys. The following is what they said:

  • I strongly disagree or disagree to the statement, “I enjoyed the Twitter Project.” (3 out of 6)
  • I didn’t enjoy this project because it was time consuming. (5 out of 6)
  • It was challenging to tweet in the Japanese language. (4 out 6)
  • I felt this project was very challenging. (4 out of 6)

Chart showing 4 students considered the project challengingAlthough these were rather negative opinions on the Twitter Project, all of them agreed to recommend this project to next JPN201 students. Interesting! I am sharing some of their responses.

  • It was difficult for me and often I didn’t like it. But I have improved enormously in my reading and writing ability, also in my ability to think creatively and respond well. It is important to get to know Japanese culture as told by Japanese people, not based on the positions of the people who wrote our textbook. I would recommend this without reservation.
  • It is a great opportunity, despite its many challenges to use Japanese in the context of conversation and communication with native speakers.
  • It let you have chance to use the language even you are not in Japan.

Students in Japan also felt challenged because they had to think through in order to explain things to my students who are not sharing their lives. All of them encountered differences between US and Japan in various aspects. They said that they enjoyed the project unlike my students, and wanted to participate again.

My students realized that they needed to study Japanese harder!!! I am very happy to know that I have convinced my students to study Japanese harder;)