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Lessons Learned

Portland State University

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

What techniques contributed most to improving the quality of student learning?

Online materials. Grammar presentation, grammar drills, listening comprehension and reading comprehension exercises were delivered online, allowing class interaction to focus on student-student oral communication. The electronic activities provided consistent, automated grading across sections and instant feedback at the moment when the student was concentrated on the task. Activities were available 24/7. Automation relieved graduate teaching assistants from menial, repetitive and non-satisfying labor, while increasing the number of students they could facilitate and monitor.

Automation of sentence-level grammar activities was the most difficult element of the course to implement but was one of the most effective for student learning, instructor satisfaction, program consistency and cost savings. The course management software, WebCT, also recorded time on task, which informed the mandatory instructor-student consultations.

Increased interaction among students. The online chat and message boards were the easiest applications of WebCT to integrate into the class, and were the most effective in reducing seat time. Each was used according to their capacities as revealed by research in Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) for second language acquisition. Studies by Sotillo (2000) and Warschauer (1997) indicate that synchronous CMC (chat) resembles interpersonal oral discussion and asynchronous CMC (message boards) resembles presentational, formal written discourse. Consequently, students in the redesign were required to work in chat groups to learn about each other and then report this information on the message boards.

Online chat in Spanish extended meaningful Spanish use (communication) beyond the limits of class space and time while the message board was a significant improvement over paper compositions. The chat rooms provided transcripts and recorded student time on task. The amount and quality of information exchanged (communicative use of Spanish) exceeded that of most face-to-face discussions with time on task in chat rooms exceeding the minimum requirement by 10.5 % in fall 2002. The depth and extension of communication strengthened both student-student relations and student-teacher relations. Instructors asked follow-up questions of individual students in the message boards, extending the communication beyond its traditional termination. The chat group activities also served as excellent team builders, greatly enhancing peer camaraderie and mutual responsibility.

At their own choice, over 95% of the chat groups remained together to complete the required Student Showcase projects. Self-selected student groups (almost always the chat groups) prepared, presented and discussed a topic of their choice in a final poster session. The poster session allowed for simultaneous and repeated presentation and discussion by all groups within a very short period (usually 50 minutes). Suggested topics were those to be tested in final and oral exams, thus providing an effective review practice. The event represented a culmination of each group's studies during the session and the cohesion of the group. The sessions were highly successful as a motivation and showcase of student learning.

Student self-monitoring. Students were required to evaluate their performance after each class session, chat session and upon completion of each message board composition. The redesign acknowledged that students are the most concerned monitors of their own learning. They were provided with assessment guidelines for evaluation. Their assessments were revised each class period by their instructors and formed one basis of the midterm student-teacher consultation.

Technical habilitation. The online activities required students to learn to produce Spanish punctuation, special characters, accents and diacritical marks in word processing applications. Student training was provided in class and through online training materials. While some students were more appreciative than others of this habilitation, it is absolutely necessary for proficient word processing and will be expected in the job market. In the course of the terms students learned other technical skills as well.

Course administration. A big success in the redesign was in administration. The redesign allowed for a more thorough administration of the course, including putting in place a consistent management of student performance and, just as important, supervision of the instructional staff.

K-16 Alignment. The course has been aligned with K-16 benchmarks for second/foreign languages to provide consistency of content and assessment between the university and local secondary schools. Common content and assessment allows for better placement of incoming students with previous study. The K-16 benchmarks are based on the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages' proficiency guidelines, and reinforce the program's commitment to teaching and learning for proficiency. Consequently, class time is focused on language use in communication with grammar performing a supporting role but presented and drilled outside of class. End of year (end of sequence) oral examinations were modeled after the benchmark testing developed for the Oregon University System for its Proficiency-based Admission Standards System (PASS) for students entering the university from high school.

Cost Savings Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Automation of menial grading tasks. Grammar presentation, grammar drills, listening comprehension and reading comprehension exercises were delivered online, allowing class interaction to focus on student-student oral communication. Automated grading (grammar exercises, listening and reading comprehension exercises, related record keeping) and allowed each graduate teaching assistant to facilitate more students. The electronic activities provided consistent grading across sections and instant feedback at the moment when the student was concentrated on the task. Activities were available 24/7. Automation relieved graduate teaching assistants from menial, repetitive and non-satisfying labor, while increasing the number of students they could facilitate and monitor. Additional sections required no additional preparation, and the cost of assigning an additional section to a GTA was about 25% of the cost of the first section.

Reduced seat time. Reduced seat time meant a reduction in lesson preparation, contributing to the graduate teaching assistants' ability to facilitate more students. It brought significant space savings to this urban university with rapidly increasing enrollments. Online chat was perhaps the most effective replacement of seat time, allowing communicative use and practice of Spanish to extend beyond the limits of the classroom while maintaining student-student contact and instructor supervision.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

Changes in redesign plan. The increase in section size proposed for the redesign met with significant faculty, GTA and student resistance. (In spring 2003, 189 of 211 students reported that they felt their class section was too large.) It conflicts with the corpus of second language acquisition research: section sizes over 30 are contraindicated by the profession and by national ranking measures. Increasing section size was unnecessary, and may have been ineffective, as the same cost and space savings were derived from reduced seat time and assigning more sections to each GTA for fall 2003.

Proficiency training. Portland State University hosted an ACTFL Modified Oral Proficiency Interview workshop in Spring 2002 for its foreign language Graduate Teaching Assistants in order to effect a change in instructional culture. The GTAs were taught to focus on proficient use of Spanish as the goal for Spanish instruction, classroom activities and evaluation of student production, rather than obsessing on students' grammatical knowledge of Spanish and the grammatical inaccuracies inherent in foreign language acquisition. The result of the training was reduced instructor frustration with grammatical errors and increased facilitation and assessment of student communication in Spanish. Focusing on communication is far more appropriate and rewarding for GTAs and increases their efficiency. Most menial or mechanical evaluation is now performed by computers, which are much more efficient at this type of task. Proficiency training is now a regular part of the GTA orientation and practicum, and supports the program's alignment with K-16 standards.

Technology Problems. The technology created a considerable obstacle for a significant minority of students. Surprisingly, it was not the computer illiterate who encountered the most difficulty, but the students who insisted on performing all online activities from their home computers, where we could not provide technical assistance. Although all students were strongly encouraged to use university computer labs, about 90% did their activities from home, with about 10% of them experiencing chronic frustration. Both the Spanish program and the university continue to develop new WebCT training materials for student and instructor training.

The number of comments suggesting eliminating WebCT and dissatisfaction with the heavier reliance on technology-mediated instruction decreased over the year as more comments focused on improving WebCT. At the end of the fall 2002 and spring 2003 terms, students were given the opportunity to complete a WebCT evaluation survey that looked at student perceptions of the online learning experience in relation to technology use, course content, perceptions of the instructor and peer interactions. The percentage of students reporting that the use of technology hindered their learning decreased significantly from 38% reporting problems or "technical glitches" in the fall to only 17% reporting problems in the spring. Possibly this drop in technology problems was due to a combination of students becoming more comfortable with the technology and the increased levels of support to students using the technology. A hands-on technical orientation to WebCT is still provided every term to the students

Rigidity of online grammar activities. Some students remained critical of the rigidity of online grammar exercises, and greatly missed the subjectivity employed by human graders. Grammar lives through the proficient use of a language, not in isolation from usage. Through enhanced ability to use the language, grammar has more context and relevance for conveying meaning. At this point in the redesign, the best way to deal with nebulous student responses to online questions has been to evaluate them as presented by students, and make adjustments as warranted in the instructor's grade book, but not in the online materials themselves.

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