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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Using Google Drive for Peer Review

Screenshot of peer review formIn ANT 320 Anthropology of Sexuality and Gender, students work in pairs to compose posters that address an issue on campus or in a workplace related to sexualty and/or gender. For example, one pair of students is writing about intimate partner violence and bystander intervention. Another pair is writing about the erasure of queer people through daily microaggressions. A core component of the assignment is peer review. Each student will review other students’ posters and provide feedback. In the assignment instructions, I have included why peer review is critical to the project, including bringing new information and perspectives, ensuring high-quality work, improving critical thinking skills, and the opportunity to practice providing critical, meaningful, and constructive feedback.

To facilitate collaboration and the peer review process, I am using Google Docs for the poster project and the peer review. Each pair of students creating a poster has a Google Folder that I created for them. It looks like this. In the folder is a template of a Google Slide using the correct dimensions for printing. Also located in each folder is a Google Form with the questions for the peer review. When students are ready to engage in the peer review, they simply share their poster via the sharing settings in Google Slides. They then send the form to their designated peer reviewers, which I have chosen for them and noted in the assignment instructions.

A student who is conducting the peer review will receive a link to the form in their inbox. The form includes guiding questions for students to consider as they work through the poster. When a student completes a peer review, the results are logged under “responses” in the Google Form. This way, each pair of students only sees the feedback related to their poster, it is accessible anywhere there is internet, and both authors of the poster can see the feedback.

Prior to using Google Docs for the peer review of posters, I found peer review difficult because I did not want students to waste paper by printing the first draft of their poster.. That made sharing the poster difficult. Using Google Drive for this endeavor has eliminated the seemingly endless paper shuffle that my old peer review process used to ential. Furthermore, students can leave specific feedback on the poster using the “suggesting” mode in Slides.

If you are considering doing peer review for a project in your class, here are some important tips:

  • Schedule the peer review during class time. That way you are there to address any technology concerns and where things are or how to do them.
  • Use a technology lab on campus, such as the Advanced Technology Lab at Connecticut College. The monitors are much bigger than students’ laptops, which enables them to see the poster better.  
  • Make sure to include in your instructions that students must read the poster once, read it a second time, fill out the peer review, and then read the poster a third time to make sure they provided quality feedback. Otherwise, they will rush through the assignment.
  • Also be sure to include instructions on how to handle the peer review feedback. This semester, I am asking students to make their revisions and then write a few short paragraphs addressing why the feedback and changes they made. This reinforces the critical thinking component, and it provides valuable experience in how to professionally handle criticism.

Teaching with Wikipedia, the Fall 2017 Edition

Image from the Eli Coppola Wikipedia article created in Fall 2016 ; Polaroid photo of Eli in 1992, captioned by Eli

This fall I am again working with Wikipedia in my Feminist Theory course (check out: Why You And Your Students Should Work To Improve Wikipedia, Feminist Praxis and Wikipedia in the Classroomand Adding Voices to Scholarship: Wikipedia Editing). It’s the second time that I’m mixing the Wiki Education Foundation’s online dashboard with our Linda Lear Center’s archives. This Wikipedia-based assignment continues to be a uniquely engaging for students because they are not only able to contribute to public knowledge, they become Wikipedia editors. They shift from being passive visitors to the Wikipedia site to editors with a working knowledge of the principles and culture of Wikipedia and an ability to add and edit Wikipedia pages.

In this blog post, I want to offer up a few key reasons to consider using Wikipedia in your class:

Ubiquity

As of As of Friday, November 10, English Wikipedia had 5,491,385 articles and is estimated to be the seventh most popular site in the United States, and the fifth most popular in the world. I have yet to teach a student who has not visited Wikipedia. While there is a longstanding skepticism of the reliability of Wikipedia, students are often unclear about how the encyclopedia works and yet often use it for information. Through a Wikipedia-engaged assignment, faculty can assist students in learning when Wikipedia could be useful and when it is not an appropriate source.

You can do it!

Thanks to the Wiki Education Foundation’s development of an online dashboard, there is an increasingly easy to use and nicely scaffolded way to plan out an assignment. My dashboard allows me to draw on the trainings provided by Wiki Education to help students learn the basics to Wikipedia as a community, as well as how to edit, conduct research, write an article, and provide substantive feedback to their peers. It also harnesses the transparency of Wikipedia to make it easy to track students work throughout a project. Plus, each class gets connected to a Wikipedia content expert who can provide additional support to students. I have asked my content editors to video chat with students the past two years and that has been helpful for establishing rapport. All in all, while I don’t ever feel like I’m an uber-Wikipedian, I know that I have the basic knowledge needed and when I hit a roadblock, I have the support I need.

Built-in Motivation

Students respond well to the challenge of a Wikipedia assignment because it engages with a public-facing platform. In this case, it’s a site that possibly everyone they know has visited at some point. As a result, they care more about doing high quality work because they have a sense of responsibility towards a public audience. They also look forward to sharing their work with friends and family. Finally, I already have had a student be asked to do Wikipedia work during a junior year internship, and she surprised her placement supervisor by already having this experience.

Student Feedback & Assessment

This fall in their reflection essays, students noted that this assignment allows them to engage with a mainstream audience.

As a student argued:

In 2017, in a climate of extreme political polarization and turmoil, as well as an increasing sense of distrust in news and credible sources, assignments such as the Wikipedia Project are exceptionally valuable, in terms of the content they produce, as well as the online communities they form and support.

Another observed:

Student created content creates a sense of accountability and agency within learning. Producing knowledge is empowering. It gives students a sense of greater purpose within the classroom, creating a conversation in which students can be critical of information and its production. Instead of simply reading about theories about voices being left out and that there is not enough content written by women, I was able to learn transferable skills and add to the voices on Wikipedia that are written about and by women.

Overall, while they noted some limitations of both Wikipedia (an important element to the assignment to develop their understanding of concepts like positivism, objectivity, situated knowledges, and standpoint epistemology) and working with materials from the archives, students reported that this was a particularly compelling assignment unlike a standard research paper.

In regards to assessment, Wiki Education provides suggestions and an assessment rubric that can be repurposed for your own needs.

Interested, but not sure about all this? Drop me a line and I will be happy to meet up to look through the dashboard with you.

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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!

Leveling the Playing Field with DELI

Three years ago in my Costume History class, I noticed that students with access to color printouts and Photoshop were producing higher quality work on their assignments. Committed to creating a more equitable learning environment, I made an appointment with Digital Scholarship and Visual Resources Librarian, Lyndsay Bratton, to discuss ways that the College’s DELI program might help level the playing field in my class. After some collective brainstorming, Lyndsay suggested that I integrate DELI iPad loaners into the course and recommended the Skitch, Paper, and Morpholio applications as potential digital tools. After some testing, I decided to go with Skitch, because its intuitive interface allows users to label, caption, and markup imported images on both the iPad and Mac.

Fast forward to fall 2015 and the introduction of iPads into my Costume History course. After giving students guidelines on how to successfully complete their weekly “costume research dossiers,” an assignment in which they must accurately locate, cite and label images of historical western dress, Lyndsay stopped by to distribute iPads, chargers, and styluses. She took time to walk students through the iPad’s various functions and together we familiarized them with Skitch, Google Drive, Pinterest, Vogue Runway, and the many other applications she generously installed onto everyone’s tablets. After solving some minor tech issues, the class quickly acclimated to the new technology. The ultimate test finally revealed itself when the first round of annotated images were due. Not surprisingly, the clarity/quality of work executed with the aid of Skitch showed a vast, across-the-board improvement compared to assignments submitted the previous year.

To conclude, I recently completed my third round of teaching with iPads and I find that the majority of students appreciate the opportunity to borrow the devices. Some said they thought the Skitch app worked better on their personal laptops and a small minority found borrowing an iPad burdensome. Since my goal is to create equal access and not to add more stress, I make borrowing completely optional. This policy has the added benefit of freeing up limited resources for the DELI program to accommodate more classes.


Note: To participate in the DELI program, proposals for Spring 2018 are due Wednesday, November 15!

Getting It Together! Teaching with Digital Portfolios: Part 2

Partial screenshot of “Extracurriculars” page in a student portfolio.

This is the second of two posts in which professors Ari Rotramel (GWS) and Sabrina Notarfrancisco (Theater) team up to share their experiences teaching with digital portfolios.

Preparing for Graduation through Eportfolio Work

Last spring, I worked with Jessica McCullough to integrate the digital portfolio platform, Digication, into the newly offered Gender and Women’s Studies Senior Capstone course. Connecticut College’s Digication page is here and you can visit also their company’s site for more information here. Even better, you can set up a time to meet with Jessica McCullough to chat!

Sidenote: Digication holds possibilities for students tracking and reflecting on their work throughout their studies. E-portfolios are worth considering as an option both for Pathways and majors to support student learning. It is particularly disappointing when students lose an important assignment they had in a lower-level course, and an e-portfolio could help both with preservation, considering why their work matters, as well as making connections across experiences.

Back to the course… Students were assigned to create a basic portfolio that addressed proposed areas like their “about me” page, coursework, extracurricular activities, and five year plan. The aim was to help them to pull together their work and develop a more professional online presence (they could choose to make their portfolio publicly available). Digication was an attractive option because it has basic functions that are easy to use for editors, we were able to create a template to share, and it is easy to access student work through the Digication site.

I coupled the work on Digication itself with work within a Google Drive folder where students would collect material and images, as well as draft written content for their portfolio. Overall, Sstudents appreciated the opportunity to reflect and organize on their undergraduate work and future goals. As Digication was in its beta stage, there were some hiccups that they found to be aggravating, and that was a challenge to navigate as a faculty member with my main response option being “Keep on trying, let me know if it’s still not working!” In sum, the platform was a mixed bag, but the overall assignment goals were met and students understood the significance of this work.

My discussions with Jessica suggest that this year, we may want to offer students the opportunity to use either Digication or another platform they already are familiar with (Tumblr, WordPress, etc.). While normally it is an issue to have students work on different platforms, in this case as students are preparing for graduation it may be empowering to allow them to use something they already use while also providing a simple and well-supported option.

Concluding Thoughts

Any portfolio requires taking the time to introduce it to students. We also suggest faculty decide how much direct support from instructional technologists and/or peers is appropriate as well as how much time in class for work, troubleshooting, and feedback may be needed. Students respond well to using technology when it has a practical application, so make that connection in your assignments explicit. They also may be very excited about an outward facing portfolio or prefer to keep their work more private.

Getting It Together! Teaching with Digital Portfolios: Part 1

An excerpt from Misao McGregor’s ’18 journal

In this 2-part blog series, professors Ari Rotramel (GWS) and Sabrina Notarfrancisco (Theater) team up to share their experiences teaching with digital portfolios. Together, they hope to offer readers insights into the possibilities for portfolios in their work with students.

Digital Portfolios in the Design Classroom

In a blog post last March, I shared my goal of incorporating digital portfolios in my Costume Design and Construction course as a way for students to document and reflect on their process in conjunction with showcasing their completed work. I tested a variety of applications before discovering Morpholio Journal, an innovative app for the iPad and iPhone that allows students to combine sketches, thoughts, and images in a virtual Moleskine® Notebook.

I was instantly drawn to Morpholio Journal –  it has a clean and customizable format that is easy to use and my students quickly figured out how to draw, write, and create dynamic layouts with the aid of their DELI iPad loaners. They particularly liked the virtual page-turning feature, a small but splashy detail that made their portfolio-journals appear almost analog. Currently, the app only allows screenshots of individual page layouts to be shared digitally, an unfortunate drawback that diminishes the curated journal experience, but I enthusiastically recommended the app as an option to my class nonetheless. Several students took the plunge and thoughtfully chronicled their design process using Morpholio Journal while others opted to use traditional platforms such as Google Slides and Docs with similar success.

Before realizing how important a journaling feature was to meeting my pedagogical goals, I tested several “photo album” style portfolio applications including:

Foliobook – a highly customizable iPad portfolio app with a minimalist interface. This app looks great and it made my presentations look really polished. It didn’t take long to figure out how to import backgrounds, add labels, control the transitions between slides, add music, etc. I highly recommend Foliobook to both student and established artists wishing to create professional looking and shareable portfolios.

Minimal Folio – an inexpensive application that allows users to create galleries that can be viewed by not only swiping images from right to left but also by swiping up and down, similar to a tile board game. It is a minimalist and elegant platform without a lot of bells of whistles, but still solid and visually compelling.

Morpholio – developed by the Morpholio Journal team, this is another stylish portfolio app with a minimalist interface. It is shareable and allows collaborators to write and sketch suggestions directly onto images. I found this intriguing app to be less intuitive and there are a few features that I still can’t figure out, so if you go with this one be prepared for a learning curve.  

As a result of these explorations, I learned that digital portfolio apps are an effective way for students to document, showcase, and reflect on design projects and can be particularly beneficial to those wishing to impress graduate schools, potential employers, and clients with their visual artwork. However, for pedagogical applications, familiar (and free) platforms such as Google Slides and Google Docs can be equally effective. Nonetheless, I highly recommend exposing students to a variety of portfolio options, especially as they near graduation.

Exploring Gender and Sexuality Through Fictional Ethnography

All sexuality symbolThis fall, I am teaching Anthropology 320, Anthropology of Sexuality and Gender. In the past, I have struggled with this course because a central part of my pedagogical approach is to have some aspect of each course I teach connect to our local community and be applied. In the past, I tried connecting to Safe Futures, Southeastern Connecticut’s shelter and advocacy group working against intimate partner violence. One year, we had a tour of their facility in New London and a meaningful conversation with their employees, but it was clear that our class was taking time and resources away from their work. Our exchange was not equal, and I struggled with what to do instead.  Part of the problem was that it is hard to engage with community around issues of sexuality and gender without undergoing serious, time-intensive training that is difficult to schedule in a semester. I have been hesitant to have students work on a research project because of the ethical issues and privacy concerns surrounding gender and sexuality as culturally delicate topic areas. However, students in this class have always been well-prepared to thoroughly engage in timely topics that impact their daily lives, a fact that pushed me to seek a solution. Finally, in talking it over with previous Technology Fellows, I decided that a website and some creativity could be the answer.

I have tasked students with writing fictional ethnographies about a particular problem on campus or in a workplace related to gender and/or sexuality, like intimate partner violence, sexual harassment, transphobia, etc.. Students will share these fictional ethnographies on a website. Fictional ethnographies are becoming popular ways of exploring sensitive issues in anthropology; I was attracted to them because they do not come with the privacy and security concerns of traditional research. Instead, students use existing ethnographic research to write the experience of their identified problem from a particular point of view(s). Doing so allows a deeper exploration of the issue, and it allows students to highlight often marginalized perspectives. For that reason, sharing them on a website is a critical means of creating dialogue around important campus issues.  In the follow-up assignment that serves as the final for this course, students will propose a series of interventions to address their chosen topic.

Given the applied nature of the assignment, I asked to be part of the Career Informed Learning (CIL) initiative on campus that intentionally connects coursework to a potential application via a given assignment. I will describe more about our involvement in CIL and how we will use our website as part of this program in a subsequent blog post.

Productive and Meaningful (Virtual) Class Discussions

My technology-fellows project involves setting up a platform for online discussions with collaborative responses. This endeavor is motivated by the practical goal of being able to hold productive class sessions when I am forced to be away from campus and the pedagogical goal of using digital technology to help students more deeply engage with course material.

Desk in my hotel room in Accra, Ghana

In fact, as I write this blog post, I am preparing for the launching of this assignment in a hotel room in Accra, Ghana. I have sent students the assignment’s instructions and rubric, and I have shared with their groups a Google Doc that provides them with the questions they have to discuss in the “virtual class.” Students will open to Google Doc at the start of class, connect with their group members on Google Hangout, and discuss the reading in two phases. First, they will broadly discuss the reading, responding in their Hangout to a set of prompts that I provide. Then, they will continue their discussion by addressing a second set of prompts. This second set includes more challenging thought questions, and requires students to build off of their initial discussion and collaborate on a set of written responses in paragraph form.

Students are encouraged (and, through the rubric, incentivized) to be inclusive; it is expected that all group members will contribute substantively. All group members will receive the same grade, hopefully making it clear that they should work as a team. Groups will be inviting me to their Hangout session, which will allow me to assess the degree to which discussions meet the criteria specified on the rubric. Typically, being invited to the Hangout sessions will allow me to “roam around,” much like I would do in a standard class setting in order to briefly listen to what groups are discussing.

Trying the assignment for the first time, I am not sure what I should expect. I hope to see thoughtful, thorough discussions with students engaging with each other and teaching each other when there are gaps in knowledge. I also hope to see collaborative answers that show mastery of the difficult concepts within this reading and a level of engagement with the reading that exceeds what I see in standard small-group discussion settings. But I am afraid that students will come to the discussion without having read critically, spend most of the time reviewing the surface details of the reading, and rush through the collaborative responses simply to get something written on the document. Stay tune for updates!

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.