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Implementation Issues

Portland State University

Looking back on the course pilot itself, what worked best?

The most important feature of our implementation has been the use of an instructor with proficiency training, lots of experience and with a strong interest in pedagogy. Our pilot instructor has been teaching with the current text for several years and was very familiar with it. He had previous experience with the ACTFL guidelines for proficiency assessment and he is applying to a graduate TESOL program (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages).

Providing proficiency training for the instructors and for teachers from other languages and schools has been a great encouragement and has rallied support among them. Portland State hosted a two-day Modified Oral Proficiency Interview (MOPI) Workshop on June 13 and 14, 2002. The workshop was a culmination of assessment training that included a course in proficiency- based assessment and inter-rater reliability training in the use of proficiency-oriented scoring guides. The workshop was delivered by Certified Trainer-Testers from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). The workshop treated assessment methods, lesson design and curriculum design. Participants included Portland State University teaching assistants, adjuncts, language coordinators and tenure-line faculty in French, Italian, Russian and Spanish, as well as Portland Public Schools Spanish teachers. Over half of the participants, including all the Spanish participants, decided to pursue tester certification, a process that will keep them engaged with proficiency training and with the grant project for another six months. First Year Spanish instructors reported that the proficiency training corresponded well to the assessment methods and lesson designs used in our courses. The Spanish trainer noted that our instructors were the most prepared and responsive group she had taught. The links between the concepts introduced, the examples, and the activities in the lecture hall and the concepts reviewed, the examples, and the activities in the labs seem to have become more obvious to students (a feeling that the lecture and lab components were disassociated has plagued the course in the past).

December 2002 Update: The majority of students found the course design and navigation easy to use and successfully completed assignments and quizzes in a timely fashion. Additionally, both instructors and students have reported being happy with the depth and breadth of learning that has occurred. From the surveys and monitoring of discussion boards and chats, we feel that the level and quality of student and instructor interaction was higher than in previous all face-to-face courses.

It appears that providing an orientation on the front end was well worth the time and that fears of a large number of drop-outs from the course were unfounded. The instructors found that meeting just once with each student resolved many questions and greatly reduced student technical frustrations. The instructors suggested and decided that the winter syllabus will require all students to visit their instructor in the 3rd or 4th week, and will assign 2% of the final grade to this visit.

Since the spring 2002 pilot, we have made several course enhancements important for reducing student anxiety. Graded grammar quizzes are now preceded by an interactive practice, and each quiz begins with an interactive practice question. These activities help assure that students not only respond correctly, but also give the type of answer required.

In response to student feedback from the spring 2002 pilot that indicated students were lacking a sense of community or collaboration, we asked students to prepare interactive (“interpersonal” in communicative terms), simultaneous, group presentations for the Student Showcase at the end of the quarter. It was highly successful.

WebCT Chat is now being used to extend class discussions beyond the classroom. Chat participation is graded using transcripts of the sessions. The exchanges are preparation for the weekly Discussion Board activity, in which students summarize and present the information they learned in the week's chat session. The Discussion Board allows instructors to efficiently provide a model of good work. Students read the model before writing their own composition, and frequently respond to feedback from the instructor. In both communication mediums students have performed well, staying in the target language and staying on task.

What worked least well?

The greatest difficulties with the pilot itself were the human errors in preparation of the online content. The most significant pedagogical difficulty is the lack of community reported by women in the pilot. Remedying this deficiency will be one of our main concerns. In the course software for the pilot, we gave students credit for completing listening comprehension exercises rather than grading them. While we were attempting to minimize their apprehension about these activities, many students reported that they did not take them seriously, a comment repeated by the instructor and the online instruction assistant. They will surely be graded in the future.

December 2002 Update: Though students reported a better experience with online learning and with their instructors, they still continue to consistently report frustrations with using the technology.

Although faculty were trained to answer technical questions, it was revealed late in the term that the training may have been insufficient and that new ways of communicating technical issues both with students and with the technical support network needed to be built and reinforced. The technology was misunderstood at times, and the instructors struggled with determining the problem and finding the solution. Some technical reporting forms are being developed to help streamline the process and quickly identify problems and potential solutions. Our plan is to create a form that an instructor can either fill-out by asking questions over the phone or send to the student to fill-out and return. This consistent reporting will then track to specific resolutions where possible.

We also now will spend more time in technical orientation at the beginning of each term. During this term students were encouraged but not required to attend technical orientation sessions. In the future, technical orientations will be incorporated into the first day of class.

Additionally, though the university has a Help Desk available seven days a week, it was apparent that many help desk workers were not as familiar with troubleshooting WebCT difficulties as we hoped. During the winter 2003 term we will be providing additional training to Help Desk personnel to enhance their ability to answer questions over the phone. Help Desk personnel are supposed to be the first line of customer service when students need technical assistance.

Though there were some technical frustrations, when asked whether students felt that their ability to learn and be successful in the course had been harmed by their technical problems, nearly all said no.

What are the biggest challenges you face in moving from the course pilot to the project's next phase?

In 2002-2003 the redesign will be implemented for the entire year, covering three Spanish courses. The redesign will allow students to choose between Web-enhanced sections that meet for 4 hours a week and Web-enhanced sections that meet 2.6 hours a week with electronic delivery of the activities that otherwise would have been performed in class. The pilot was of the latter type of section. Both types of section produce a labor and cost savings for the department and the institution. The choice of section type appears to respond better to student and instructor preferences.

December 2002 Update: Part of the course redesign has migrated into the traditional sections through sharing course content and delivery because the faculty believed that the pedagogical benefits should not be withheld from students not in the redesigned sections, plus it facilitated essential cost savings in instructional training and development.

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