13 March 2017

10 Tips for Organizing Online Spanish

There is ZERO room for confusion in online courses. Even if I could answer every email immediately, their emails are the ONLY cue I have if they are confused. Forget about checking for comprehension--much less compensating with compensating with circumlocution or figuring out when it's time to switch back to L1!

In an online course I simply have to anticipate questions, and eliminate them before they're possible.

In my second semester, I've happened upon a few strategies that I think made my job (if not my life) significantly easier--hopefully for my online students, too!

1. Screencast EVERYTHING 

In a pinch, screenshots can fill in a lot of blanks for things I would usually demonstrate live, but they are still going to send me confused emails--or worse, just skip the assignment--if I don't go ahead and walk them through exactly what I want and how to do it with a narrated screencast--in English--of me doing the same thing they have to do. I've done it for blogs, Thinglinks, Adobe Spark, VoiceThread, Vibby; even broke down and got the paid version of Screencastify so I didn't have to convert the videos to uploadable formats every second.

2. Weekly modules

I thought it would be logical to organize tasks and information thematically in an online course, like I do in real life. I thought very wrong. I simply HAVE to have everything broken down to a relatively predictable weekly cycle so there's now way they can say they don't know what they need to do when. They should expect to have their warmups done by Wednesdays, their project-related reading/listening/speaking/writing practice and blogs done by Saturday, and then I'll post the next week's work by Sunday. The Spanish is confusing enough, so everything else HAS to be 100% predictable!

3. Title dates

Patterns and routine can eliminate a lot of question, but again, there can be NO room for doubt. So I've taken to putting the due dates EVERYWHERE. The modules have titles like "WEEK 6  (DUE 3/4)." Headers for weekly warmups include the Wednesday due date, and headers for the project work  and blogs include the Saturday due date. Discussion boards all include "***POST BY WEDNESDAY***" at the end of their titles and then an extra indented text header that says "RESPOND TO 3 POSTS BY SATURDAY!"

4. Announcement video

It probably takes me an extra 30-60 minutes every week to turn announcements into video on Adobe Spark. (It took WAAAY longer on Powtoon, and there's no "costume and makeup"--ie getting out of pajamas--if I don't have to actually appear.) However, I KNOW they don't read or retain every single word when I type it all out, and this way is also just a little more personal. And I think the little visuals with minimal text are helping the message stick better, whether it's mistakes from the previous week I want them to fix or quit making or a heads up for what's coming this week.

5. Anticipation emails

This is probably THE best step I've added to weekly warmups. It was especially useful when I was taking time out every Monday to respond to them, but then it was a pain when some were trickling in Tuesday still, so I confess I've slacked until Wednesday or Thursday a little. This way, at least, I have some record of whether or not kiddos have even looked at the assignments for the week, and I can answer questions before the second-to-last minute, maybe even create another screencast if several are having the same issues. Some make detailed overviews of exactly when and where they are going to work, so if I am checking a little later in the week, I can check the Canvas analytics and see if they are actually sticking to their plan! And if they're not, and I know they have work/rehearsal/meets over the weekend, then I can send a heads up to get back on track before the deadline!

6. Language practice

Those people who can make a curriculum that anyone can use beginning to end, I envy them. What I'm doing the next week in any class depends largely on what I see the prior week. I know about 14 years into the game, I can predict a lot of problems, but not all of them, so I always have a little activity where they can work on something I see popping up in multiple assignments or conversations or blog posts. They try to tell me they NEED notes, but a little quiz (that's really only a practice grade) that they can take as many times as they want in the Weekly Warmup section seems to be working at least as well for getting people to use "O" on the end of yo verbs and to put object pronouns in front of verbs. I always put a "content page" before it that spells out EXACTLY what I want them to do so they can easily ace the quiz--in writing and sometimes with video too.

7. Singalong songs

This might sound terrible, but I find it harder to care about my online students. Part of the problem is I have such limited face time with them. Prescribing a chorus a week that they have to A) sing or chant along with, B) interpret, and C) react to the song. It lets me look at their little faces at least, and hear their little voices. (I know most of them are high school seniors--but they are precious babies, dangit!) I also get a nice quick peek into what they struggle with or excel at while they get exposed to cool music. Win-win!

8. Discussion board protocol

I use discussion boards primarily for interpretation, but also for making class decisions. The key is to have consistent expectation across the board (pun not intended a little). While interpretive discussions are in English and decision posts are in Spanish, the same rules apply. For "original" posts:

  • Reference - If I designated a text to interpret, they copy and paste specific lines to analyze; if they're picking a text, they link it. If it's a discussion topic, they have to pick a stance in response to the prompt, e.g. which topic they like best, which UN millennium development goal we should focus on, which country they want to research.
  • Response - If interpreting, they put what they think the line means in English and why they think it is interesting/important. If deciding, they have to say why that is their choice. Very simple--just a sentence or two.

For reaction posts for classmates (at least 3):

  • Reaction - They have to pick something specific the classmate said and respond in a positive, supportive way.
  • Question - They have to ask the classmate a relevant question--it can be as simple or as complex as they're ready for!
I recently started building answers to the questions for the next week's weekly warmups, and I think that will prove useful.

9. Portfolio week

In another case of trying to teach my online class like my face-to-face class, I thought I would have students submit one portfolio a week: reading, then writing, then listening, then speaking. This was tough. For one, the first couple of weeks, they didn't have a whole lot of evidence. For two, having to explain (screencast/screenshot) procedures for a new type of portfolio each week really messed with the flow of the week--and added to the stress. Since I cut back to 1 IPA per grading period, generally in the middle to avoid the four-class pileup at the end and give me somewhere to work from, the last week of the six-week period is the perfect time to pause, assemble their work, and reflect.

10. Appointment calendar

Would that ALL online classes could take place in the community where they're being taken. In my interview for the online position, I asked if I could mandate "field trips," and Bossman said he thought it was a great idea. It was originally to get some interpersonal practice, but really, like the singalong videos, it's so I get to love them...almost like face-to-face students.

So I asked which days were off limits the set up a calendar with at least 6 dates that students could meet with me: 2 or 3 at the Mexican restaurant, the rest online.

This way I know

  1. Everyone is going to touch base with me in real time at least once or twice a month.
  2. Who needs to make room to touch base with me in real time.
  3. When I maybe don't even need to show up.
  4. What they need from me that is NOT coming across through email or assignments.

Teaching online has forced me to reflect honestly on my organization, communication, and motivation. Language learning online may never be as fun or fruitful as face-to-face, but I do think with some adjustments, it can be possible.

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