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.

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Global Classroom: Teaching about Refugees in the Age of Trump

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I am teaching GER/GIS/GWS 262: “Refugees in Europe: Germany” for the second time this semester. Obviously the recent change of government in the United States has impacted this course in many ways. As we all know, on January 27th, President Trump signed the Executive Order 13769 “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” limiting – among many other things – the number of refugees to be admitted into the United States in 2017 to 50,000 and suspending the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days. As a consequence, the course has become much more comparative in nature, with students discussing the impact of the Executive Order and drawing parallels to Germany’s refugee policy. Right after the Executive Order was signed, students – as an online assignment on a snow day – wrote a letter to an (imaginary) friend or (imaginary) family member or local, state, or federal elected official, discussing the legal implications of the recent Executive Order in light of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

Another assignment in this class that has been heavily impacted by the above-mentioned Executive Order was the Twitter assignment. Throughout the semester, students are asked to tweet 4 times a week about our course readings and news sources regarding the situation of refugees in Germany and Europe. While students’ privacy is always a major concern, the recent changes in U.S. Customs and Border Protection that make social media accounts part of the screening process clearly affect the privacy and safety of non-US citizens more than ever:

If you travel, know that CBP will open all of your electronic devices (laptop, phone, tablet) and examine the contents. We know of instances where individuals have been turned away for being perceived as “anti-Trump.” If you delete the content on your phone, they will ask for your email username and password. They will do the same for all of your social media accounts. –  a newsletter from Global Immigration Partners, sent to me on January 31st.

Again, this is something most of us are probably aware of, but a threat that, in a global classroom with extensive online and social media components, poses itself with particular urgency.

At the same time, the Twitter assignment this semester has triggered even more engaged discussions about its use as a tool for political social media marketing and branding; the challenges to distinguish between facts and lies; and one’s own responsibility to respond (or not to respond) to unsettling responses to one’s own posts.

Video of student answering why he signed up for this course

Like last year, the second half of the semester has been dedicated to the videoconferences with our German interview partners (see my Engage blog post). This year, I have had a larger group or students, raising some of the technical issues that we had discussed during our Technology Workshops throughout the year, so I felt well prepared to address them (as always, thanks to Laura Little for her support!). This semester, we Skyped in a young female refugee from Syria, two volunteers from a private reception center for refugees in Lübeck, a teacher from Hamburg, the organization “Flow” from Lübeck that offers programs for young refugees; and a lawyer who volunteers his time to help refugees with their asylum applications. Our final interview with “KidzCare Lübeck“ is scheduled for May 3rd, focusing on the special situation of female refugees.

On Wednesday, May 10th, we are going to have the public “launch” of our collaborative WordPress site. You’re welcome to join us from 11:50-1:00 at the Visualization Wall in Shain!

Bringing Experts into Class to Increase Student Engagement

How do we increase student engagement in a topic that is new to them? How do we promote collaboration between a class and an  invited guest/speaker?

Lecture hall with projected imageThese were the questions that I faced last term in preparing for the Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble to be in residence at Connecticut College as part of the Ammerman Center’s Colloquia Series focused on the “Body and Technology.” The Quince Ensemble uses technology to enhance or accompany their voices in performance. Our students would learn about these ideas by learning a new piece prior to their visit, rehearsing with the Quince Ensemble in a short rehearsal, and then performing it in concert together.

Since we would only have one rehearsal together for about 2 hours before the concert, we needed to find a way to make a connection with the new music and Quince well before the residency. We decided to web conference our choir rehearsal with the Quince Artistic Director, Kayleigh, who lived in New York City. The goals of the session were to receive feedback about our work on the choral piece, facilitate a connection between our students and the Quince Ensemble, and learn more about the work itself from Kayleigh. The resulting experience was very positive! Our students felt more connected to the experimental work which involved non-traditional singing techniques. Since they became more excited for the residency and worked even harder to prepare for it in the weeks ahead.

Do you have a guest speaker that will be coming into your class to share about their work or perhaps evaluate a class project? Why not create interest and “buy-in” by having them meet your students via a web conference before the visit? This maximizes their time at CC and students will be more prepared for their visit. Below is my advice for creating a successful web conferencing session between your students and a guest speaker.

  1. Set up a time with your speaker taking into consideration time zones. Suggest that they have a headset, microphone (the one attached to the earbuds is OK) and hard-wire ethernet connection, if possible.
  2. Prepare your speaker by providing background information on the course and the students involved. Establish an outline/agenda for the conversation.
  3. Prepare your students ahead of time. What questions would be appropriate to ask? What is the background of the speaker? What are the goals of the session? Remind them that they will be on camera, too and to look engaged.
  4. Find a room with a hardwire ethernet connection with quiet surroundings that will not interrupt the conversation. Contact Mike Dreimiller mike.dreimiller@conncoll.edu, Instructional Digital Media Specialist in the Instructional Technology Department for assistance.
  5. Borrow a web-conferencing kit from Mike Dreimiller.
  6. BEFORE the session, download Skype or Zoom (if you want to record it.) Create a login and add your guest as a contact.
  7. Do a dry-run without students. Find a colleague with a remote connection or someone in Instructional Technology Department to help test your connection, camera, mic, and lighting.
  8. Have a backup plan. If all else fails, can you do a conference call over the phone?
  9. After the session, ask your students what they gained from the conversation and how it will help prepare them for their future project or meeting.
  10. Take a selfie or screenshot and share it on social media. Share with the greater community the lessons or connections gained from this experience!

Refugees in Germany: Bringing Global Perspectives into the Classroom

One of the areas that I’m going to explore as a Technology Fellow is the use of videoconferencing tools in my course on the situation of the refugees in Europe (GER/GIS/GWS 262). This course explores the refugee crisis in Europe with a special focus on the case of Germany, where more than one million refugees and migrants arrived in 2015 alone. The course is cross-listed with German Studies, Global Islamic Studies, and Gender and Women’s Studies and has a FLAC section in German attached to it.

During the first half of the semester, students got an overview of the situation of the refugees in Europe: the different routes taken by the refugees; the role of the smugglers; abuse, exploitation, and human rights violations along the way; gender issues; European refugee and asylum policies; the Common European Asylum System and the distribution of refugees among the EU member states; the lack of solidarity among the EU member states; Europe’s reception system and conditions; restrictive policies such as fence-building and push-backs; and anti-foreigner rhetoric and xenophobia in several European countries.

During the second half of the semester, we are focusing on the case of Germany, the recipient of the largest number of asylum applications in Europe. We started with an overview of Germany’s history of migration before exploring the current public debates in Germany.

One of the highlights of the semester is the international collaboration with local organizations, schools, NGOs, and refugees from Germany who join us live via videoconferencing.

GER 262 students interview Nele Brüser, Associate Director for Migration Services at the German Red Cross, Central Reception Center Neumünster, Schleswig-Holstein
GER 262 students interview Associate Director for Migration Services at the German Red Cross, Central Reception Center Neumünster, Schleswig-Holstein

Our first videoconference took place right before spring break. After learning about the role of the central reception centers for refugees in Germany and the first (legal) steps refugees have to take in Germany, the students – in pairs – prepared the interview questions for Nele Brüser, Associate Director for Migration Services at the German Red Cross, Central Reception Center Neumünster, Schleswig-Holstein. The role of the weekly student assistant was then to collect and organize the interview questions and to email them to our German partners in advance – as well as to follow up with them afterwards.

The first videoconference exceeded all our expectations: after introducing themselves in German(!), the students and Nele Brüser had a very lively, engaged, and thoughtful discussion about her work and the situation of the refugees at the reception center Neumünster. In their written reflections, the students highlighted how much they had enjoyed the first-hand exchange, how “real“ the refugee situation now felt for them and how much they appreciated Nele Brüser’s dedication and honesty. The feedback we got from Germany after the videoconference was equally enthusiastic.

Both the students and I are very excited about meeting our remaining interview partners via Skype: we are going to talk to a refugee from Afghanistan and his German “tandem partner,” and in the remaining weeks of the semester, we will be joined by a teacher who teaches German to refugee children at a high school in Hamburg, three social workers whose projects focus on the special situation of young male and female refugees respectively, and a music teacher who works on integrating refugee and migrant children and teaching them the German language through different music projects.

Virtual Classroom Connections

Students videoconferencing with alumni
Slavic studies students connect with alumni via Zoom.

This post was written by Laura Little and Jessica McCullough.

More and more CC faculty are using web conferencing or teleconferencing tools to bring experts into their classes, to connect students to a different culture or language, and to broaden course offerings. To facilitate these connections, the instructional technology team has worked with many technologies: Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom, GoToMeeting, and a host of others. You can see how these tools stack up against each other in this chart.

We really like Zoom. It is easy to use, for both organizers and participants, only requiring a small software download. You don’t have to establish reciprocal relationships with Zoom; “hosts” send invitations to “guests” via email instead of linking accounts, as you have to with Skype. The audio and video quality of Zoom, in our experience, is much higher than other programs we tried, and it easily accommodates multiple participants. It includes a number of useful features, such as screen and file sharing, on-screen annotation, instant messaging. You can also easily record sessions. If you attended our virtual workshop in January you saw some of these features in action. You also may have read Hisae Kobayashi’s post about using it with Japanese students. 

ZoomLogo

Though you can easily get set up with Zoom on your own, there is a 40-minute limit to meetings with a free account. Instructional Technology has purchased 20 educational licenses, allowing you to host longer meetings. To request one of these licenses, contact Laura Little.

Although we favor Zoom and are happy to get you started with it, there may be good reasons to stick with what you or your virtual guest already knows. If either side is doing a “virtual visit” for the first time, but feels comfortable using, say, Skype, you can reduce the number of unknowns (and associated anxiety) by using that as your connection platform.

As we work with faculty to connect to other people and places, the Instructional Technology team is gradually developing best practices. We’d be glad to share these with you to make sure that your visit is a success. If you’re not sure who to contact, start with your Instructional Technology liaison.

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.”

Don’t Miss March Workshops

We have two great workshops scheduled in March, the first takes place on Wednesday.  We hope to see you there!

Wordpress LogoThe first, WordPress for Reflecting, Creating, Sharing and Contributing, will take place this Wednesday, March 2nd, from 1:15-2:15 PM at the Visualization Wall in Shain Library. WordPress is an easy-to-use, yet robust, blogging and website development platform. The College now hosts WordPress, giving you and your students the ability to create professional-looking websites that reach well beyond the classroom. If you have ever wondered  how your students could create blogs or websites, or how you might do these things yourself, join us at the Visualization Wall where we will see examples of student and faculty work using WordPress. Karen Gonzalez Rice and Sufia Uddin will share their experiences integrating WordPress into assignments. Register to attend, refreshments will be provided.

Students in Professor Andrea Baldwin's Gender/Sexuality/Race in Caribbean Culture class participated in a discussion-based presentation with Dr. Tonya Haynes at the Institute for Gender & Development Studies at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill in Barbados.

Later in the month we will hold a workshop on the topic of video conferencing, Virtual Classroom Connections. The workshop takes place on Thursday, March 31, 9:00 – 10:00 AM in the Dilley Room in Shain Library, but register now! Video conferencing technology can allow you to team teach with a colleague outside our campus or to offer a course to students at different campuses. It also supports institutional partnerships and global connections. More and more CC faculty are using web conferencing or teleconferencing tools to bring experts into their classes, to connect students to a different culture or language, and to broaden course offerings. At this workshop, faculty practitioners will discuss the benefits and challenges of mediated presence and inter-campus collaborations; instructional technologists will describe the technologies currently available on our campus to facilitate consortial course-sharing and to further global engagement. Refreshments are provided.

The Dilley Room Is Back!

Students in Professor Andrea Baldwin's Gender/Sexuality/Race in Caribbean Culture class participated in a discussion-based presentation with Dr. Tonya Haynes at the Institute for Gender & Development Studies at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill in Barbados.
Students participate in a discussion with Dr. Tonya Haynes at the Institute for Gender & Development Studies at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill in Barbados.

Over the January break we installed a new, state-of-the-art videoconferencing system in the Dilley Room, located on the third floor of Shain Library. The room’s Cisco SX80 videoconferencing system enables connection to other locations with similar or compatible systems. Faculty can share high quality video, audio and course content with students at the other sites, including, but certainly not limited to, Trinity College and Wesleyan University.

For example, an advanced Russian course with a small enrollment taught at Connecticut College can include students at Trinity College, with the Trinity students using their own videoconferencing site to participate in the class from their own campus. To use the system, the faculty member simply connects her laptop and calls up the Trinity classroom using the controls on the wall panel. At Connecticut College, students will see the laptop content on one screen and the Trinity students on the other. At Trinity, students will see the course content on one display and the professor on the other. Built-in high quality microphones and speakers at each site allow for live lectures and discussions between the two rooms. Two sophisticated cameras allow users to see the room from multiple angles, in addition to being able to zoom in on individuals, small groups, or the chalkboard.

The room also supports projection from laptops, a built-in DVD player, or VCR (by request). Contact Media Services for assistance at x2693. The room is also well-suited for web conferencing using software such as Zoom or Skype. We recently announced the availability of web conferencing kits that enhance the video and audio quality of your sessions. Kits are available at the Digital Scholarship and Curriculum Center. Finally, the room also offers built-in phone conferencing. If you are looking to utilize the videoconferencing system or would like to borrow a web conferencing kit, Mike Dreimiller, x 2093, can help.

The technology in this room was funded by a generous grant from the Alden Trust Foundation, and is one of the many technologies available in the library funded through this grant.

Shortening Distances through Technology

Employing technology in the classroom can shorten distances; this semester student researchers into topics of sustainability and social justice enrolled in SRS/HIS/CRE299 History and Cases of Equality interacted through Skype with counterparts in California, Illinois, Washington, D.C., Peru, and Mexico.

Alumni in each location described how they came to engage in social justice research while at the College and in study away. Critical pedagogy, on-going self reflection, and making study away intentional proved critical in each case. Finding ways to combine activism with research remains core to how they are currently undertaking teaching, law school, and graduate school.

Cuban popular educator Ariel Dacal Díaz visited class September 30th
Cuban popular educator Ariel Dacal Díaz visited class September 30th

Skype allowed the class to learn from and share their own beginning projects the students and activists who have gone before them. Technology in the classroom allowed this to happen during the assigned class period in our assigned room, bridging time zones, overcoming the prohibitive costs of bringing these guests to class in person, and requiring only 30 minutes of their time (half a lunch break for one of the teachers).

The main flaw in my approach to this was not scheduling enough time to reflect on and discuss the Skype interactions in class right after they happened and we had hung up. I also scheduled too many, sometimes two back to back in the same class period. In the final analysis, the students concluded that the class visits by activists and scholars from Chicago and Cuba were more powerful and more beneficial to their own research. Therefore, I will strive to improve the first and continue the second.

Making Global Connections and the Digital Divide

Classroom technology can widen the digital divide and strengthen language barriers and socio-economic inequality. This can happen if we expect all students to have smartphones to complete an assignment, if we expect the classrooms and students that we connect with abroad to speak English, if we assume everyone has internet access, and if we do not actively work to interrupt this cycle. In our College, in our home neighborhoods, in our country, and in our world today, information and communication technology becomes yet another mechanism that awards ever more privilege to the privileged at the expense of the rest, of the majorities.

The courses in the Pathway on Sustainability and Social Justice attempt to interrupt this cycle and to always remain aware of its presence pushing us to perpetuate systems of inequality almost without thinking. To make our Skype connections work optimally, we require extra equipment in speakers, microphones, and especially designed classrooms with screens, projectors, and overhead speakers. We absorb extra staff hours to set everything up and make sure that it works well. We rely on excellent Internet access and a whole team of staff people who keep it working and virus-free. To interrupt the cycle, our staff indicated simple steps and best practices that our “virtual guests” via Skype can take to optimize the communication link with us. To confront the language barrier, we push ourselves to learn Spanish and French, and we take turns translating.

Connecticut College staff and faculty in Chiapas
Connecticut College staff and faculty in Chiapas

Our library and IT staff dedicated time this year to travel to Chiapas to assess the Internet and computer capacity of our partner university—Universidad de la Tierra—and the MSN house that our students, MSN personnel, and we use as living  and teaching space. Through some simple changes to how the Internet is accessed in both spaces, service was sped up. Back on campus, we found Cisco System Access points that possibly could be provided to expand Wifi coverage to the whole UniTierra campus. And we became involved in a project to extend internet access to five rural centers that serve many dozens of rural villages. Each center houses schools, cooperatives, medical facilities, and autonomous governments. There is usually not even cellphone service in these centers. $1,600 in equipment from the Tech Fellows/Mellon Global Initiative cooperation allowed Internet to reach two of these five centers this fall. And a similar amount may bring it to two more.

These changes are making it possible for communication among these two centers and UniTierra as well as making it possible for our students to be virtually present at weekly and monthly public events, forums, and debates at UniTierra and hopefully soon at some of the rural centers. Many more steps remain to be taken but these are the first ones.