Can I Teach a Foreign Language in the Online Environment

Brian Hunter, University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College, Assistant Professor of Spanish
Sheri K. Barksdale, University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College, Assistant Professor of American Sign Language

Teaching a foreign language in an online environment is not an easy task. Language acquisition requires interaction, which is awkward at best in the world of Zoom learning. Most of us were in a traditional face-to-face learning environment before scrambling to remote teaching and learning mid spring semester 2020. We eventually had to develop online distance delivered courses in either the synchronous or asynchronous formats.  Teachers had to make decisions and transitions quickly and efficiently. Below is a discussion of two approaches for remote teaching.  During the summer and fall 2020 semesters, one instructor taught American Sign Language (ASL) completely synchronously, then moved to a combination of synchronous and asynchronous, while the other taught Spanish courses completely asynchronously. 

Our initial experience in teaching was face-to-face.  We took a distance learning design seminar and built hybrid courses where we developed activities that used distance learning components. We then realized the value of these “distance learning components” and used them in face-to-face courses, leading us to transition these components to the flipped classroom.  We began to consider how it might be possible to teach a foreign language online. We felt overwhelmed with the logistics of getting students to engage online and complete assignments.  We had some vague ideas about ways to teach online and strategies to engage students.  The prospect of teaching online was a faraway dream that would probably not happen for many years.  Then came March 2020, and that faraway dream was a necessity that needed to be brought to fruition.  We went back to our notes and hashed out ideas for online teaching and made them work in our Learning Management System.  So now let us discuss how our instruction changed from a traditional classroom to class in the online environment.  

Before March 2020, in the face-to-face ASL class meetings, the flipped classroom approach was used.  Introductory material was presented with teacher-created videos, as well as companion videos from the text. Students completed short assignments to prepare them for the classroom presentation; the goals of the assignments were to stimulate questions and also to develop a base on which to build upon in class.  During the class meetings, the topic was presented in greater detail and student discussion and questions were reviewed.  With the goal of 90% target language, students were sent to small groups/pairs with an assignment to practice and complete.  Depending on how far they were into a unit or topic, there were three general outcomes of the small group work.  First, students practiced with feedback from the teacher.  They may also have practiced in small groups and presented to the larger group.  Finally, they created a video recording for feedback and a grade.  Students saw the teacher in the classroom as well as in and around the school, which gave some availability of the teacher to the student.  Students may happen to have walked by during office hours and asked a question.

Similarly, in the face-to-face Spanish class meetings, with the introduction of new vocabulary or grammar, a Presentation Practice Performance approach was used. The Presentation comes in the form of the flipped classroom approach. The Presentation includes completing the assigned tutorials and graded activities on the textbook publisher’s website. Then, once in the classroom the students would move onto Practice. Instructor-created PowerPoints were used to give the students an opportunity to practice their language in a low-stakes environment. During the Practice portion of the class, there is 100% instructor interaction with the students and no new material is being presented. Once the Practice was over, the entire class moved into Performance. Either using the textbook provided materials or an instructor created activity, students typically worked in pairs or groups.  To ensure that the target language was being used, the teacher moved around the room to answer questions.

Mid-March 2020 all classes were moved to a remote platform.  Instructors and students were in a panic and just wanted to get through the term.  Teachers wanted students to still learn the content, but students were not sure how they could possibly be successful.  Teachers worked to implement resources and provide a suitable learning environment for their students.  It was clearly a difficult transition for students.  At times, they did not attend the classes due to new responsibilities and conflicts that arose as a result of the pandemic.  This change made from traditional classroom to fully online courses required the development of an effective and easy to understand online environment.  Some students were not prepared for negotiating a new class format that was no longer the class they signed up for.  We instructors had no choice but to be flexible and assure that our students were successful.  One difficult part of remote teaching during this time was to keep the flow of the class going, especially when transitioning to pair or group work.  The ASL classes were taught synchronously which provided the students to work in those pairs or small groups while in the Spanish class each student was assigned a peer they had to exchange ideas with for certain activities.

For the summer 2020, with classroom instruction done remotely, there was a focus shift for all courses.  The changes made from traditional classroom instruction to fully online courses required the development of an effective online environment.  For both courses in the summer and fall, the completed course design and material preparation took weeks to prepare.  However, both instructors did not start from a blank slate with course development.  The first step in the transition process was to look at all of the material that had already been created for the face-to-face classes to see what could be used.  In the end, each PowerPoint was modified to be more concise.  The Spanish class was held asynchronously and so a narrated PowerPoint was provided for the students.  For each class, either taught synchronously or asynchronously, the same Presentation Practice Presentation approach was used.  For both courses, the flipped classroom approach was used as the Presentation of the material, whether it was for vocabulary, grammar or a cultural topic.  For the synchronous ASL course, class was held virtually on a regular weekly schedule and for the asynchronous Spanish, the course material was provided online.  The Practice in the ASL course was active discussion and activity completion with the instructor while in the Spanish course the students completed low stakes, graded for completion assignments within the Learning Management System that provided feedback.  The final component of the courses was the student Presentation.  In the ASL class, the students completed activities with the instructor for points, even exam completion.  In the Spanish class, the students completed assignments online which were graded for points.  These assignments ranged from question and answer, either written or spoken, sentence completion, Integrated Performance Assessments and even exams.  The overall design and layout of the course was important also. Thematic Modules (vocabulary, grammar or cultural) were crafted in the Learning Management System and each module had the same layout.  The idea of the module design was to mimic the same Presentation, Practice, Performance approach that would have been done in a face-to-face class. With starting at the top of the Module, the students would access and complete the Presentation material followed by the Practice assignments or attend their online course before moving onto the Presentation assignments either in their online course.  

Fall 2020 saw overhauled courses for most teachers.  For remote teaching, in the ASL course, the instructor initially decided to use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous presentation.  Students do preparation assignments for class Zoom meetings.  There is instructor and student interaction during presentation for two hours a week.   The students meet one hour weekly to complete tasks that they would have done in small groups in the classroom.  The question came to be, when should the students meet?  Should they decide on a time as a group?  It was decided to have the students meet synchronously, during the third day of the week at the normal class time.  They practice what is presented in the class meetings.  The instructor moves from group to group and assists and answers questions, but it was largely student run and the looming assignment completion deadline kept them focused…well, as far as I know they are focused.  

One additional component that aids each student is the completion of instructor-created readiness activities during the first week of the course.  These activities do not focus on the language component of the course rather the technical aspect of the course, including assignment completion and successful participation.  By having the students complete the readiness activities, they gain the confidence needed to complete each assignment successfully, instead of being preoccupied with the technology.

As you know, when teaching online you can teach synchronously, asynchronously or have a combination of the two.  In our minds, synchronous teaching was synonymous with face-to-face teaching in a classroom while an asynchronous classroom would possibly require a more motivated student, a factor that cannot be ignored when developing an online course.   We soon came to understand that being in the same place at the same time can happen in a virtual environment too and that there are students that can learn in an asynchronous online environment.  

The question is, “Can I teach a foreign language in the online environment?”  The answer for each of us is “Yes, but….”.  It is a completely different mindset teaching online for everyone involved.  Preparation and organization is key.  When a student sees a module, there should be no doubt about what they have to do and how they go about doing it.  Finally, students are often overwhelmed in foreign language courses, and having it online might not be most favorable.  We do not have the advantage of seeing our students outside of the classroom, so extra support has to be provided online through announcements and personalized feedback, within the virtual classroom and during virtual office hours.  Being flexible and supportive to students is imperative to their online learning environment.