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Socially Distant Yet Intellectually Close

While some students criticize the quality of online learning in the age of COVID, those in one class describe a highly positive experience -- and how it allowed them to reimagine pedagogy.

 
August 12, 2020
 
 
A Pueblos Blancos in Andalusia

This past summer, our professor, Nicholas Henriksen, was scheduled to be in Spain teaching a study abroad program. Many of us, his undergraduate students, were supposed to travel alongside him. Instead, we found ourselves isolated at home, relegated to learning via a collage of video tiles on Zoom. Working from childhood bedrooms, we struggled to manage the many unfamiliar facets of remote learning. What could we learn from a virtual classroom that we could not find in a free online lecture series?

To make things more difficult, our class was an interdisciplinary research course centered on Andalusian Spanish -- a dialect spoken in Southern Spain, thousands of miles out of reach. With the disruption of the usual opportunities for international learning and cultural exchange, Professor Henriksen decided to build an innovative class structure that incorporated our input and expanded our educational environment beyond the edges of our computer screens.

We've read the many articles complaining that COVID online learning doesn't measure up academically and isn't as satisfying as taking courses in person. Instead, we found that this amalgam of experiences on and off of Zoom cultivated a course that surpassed the limits of traditional classrooms. The structure grounded our learning in tangible work, and we believe this experience offers multiple pieces of insight for the upcoming fall semester and beyond.

To minimize the stress of "Zoom fatigue," our lectures and discussions took place in topic-specific sections, with rest breaks and adapted testing structures. Moreover, interacting in real time with Andalusian informants through video conference and WhatsApp messaging maximized our ability to apply our learning and engage with the implications of our new knowledge. With the help of our informants, we developed a collaborative research project regarding the Andalusian dialect, resulting in a 53-page research paper that we continued to work on for the rest of the summer.

We've identify four key elements that led to our course's success. As the fall semester gets underway, we believe these factors might act as good recommendations to other instructors:

Split class time according to clear themes, and incorporate student feedback. Many of us started our summer term already familiar with the experience of reaching the end of an online lecture and realizing the professor had only covered a fourth of the planned content. Among the most insidious elements of synchronous class online is that, unlike in-person instruction, when the time is up, no one has elsewhere to "be." This tends to warp our sense of time, making it harder to feel grounded but easier to lose time in tangents and technical difficulties.

With his own intuition and our input, Professor Henriksen worked preemptively and collaboratively to combat this distortion. Our three-hour sessions were organized in two clearly themed blocks separated by a 10-minute break. This template was established on day one, assuring that we all shared timekeeping responsibility. In Block 1, we focused on socio-cultural topics: the politics, history, culture and folklore related to Andalusian speech. In Block 2, we dealt with linguistic theory: the distinct phonetic and morphological characteristics of Andalusian Spanish. Our professor actively sought our input on this structure, and we decided to alternate the order of these blocks throughout the term.

The organized structure provided a consistent framework and clear expectations for how the class would function, thus increasing our engagement with the material and each other, a crucial step given our various states of isolation. Since our sessions lasted three hours, a 10-minute intermission minimized eye strain, encouraged self-care and allowed for a cognitive reset between two course themes. Perhaps the most positive effect, however, was that we felt heard. As course policies were explained and put into practice, we the students were able to communicate our academic needs effectively in open dialogue with our instructor, and he responded with thoughtful and tangible actions.

Use online apps to connect students to elsewhere in the world. While some professors struggle to provide students with connections between course content and contemporary relevance, Professor Henriksen came up with a solution, through a teaching grant from our university, that simultaneously built our online classroom community and enhanced course content. Each week, pairs of students met with their "Spanish informant" -- university students from Jerez, Andalusia -- to ask questions pertaining to that week's topics of study. As a result, we learned about the culture we were studying directly from the source.

One classmate recalls her experience talking with her Spanish informant:

"At first, it was a bit awkward talking to someone I had never met before over video, but we both quickly became comfortable with the dynamic as we got to know each other better. As time went on, we began sending messages about our everyday lives and sharing photos of our hometowns and hobbies. My informant loved riding his bike and sent us photos of the best views along his favorite routes in Andalusia. After learning about famous 'pueblos blancos' in class, I asked my informant about them, and he took a ride to one just to take a photo for us. The term refers to Andalusian villages in which most houses are painted completely white. Seeing the photo from him was far more impactful than something off the internet. Interactions like these made everything we learned much more meaningful."

In addition, another classmate experienced substantial mental health benefits from the opportunity:

"Having to push myself outside my comfort zone and confront excited jitters once a week, in addition to regular contact with our small, supportive community, truly kept me afloat during the toughest moments of this spring. The access to familiar faces and the chance to get acquainted with someone new made quarantining alone seem less isolating."

Adapt tests for the digital space. Personal living spaces are never the ideal testing environment and, in the context of COVID-19, differing family situations and time zones mean that not all students have the same access to a quiet and test-friendly space. To accommodate that, our assessments were open-note and unproctored with windowed deadlines during which our professor was available for support as needed.

This reimagination of our testing also worked to better reflect the new structure and learning goals in our course. Professor Henriksen distributed pruebas largas or "long quizzes" via Microsoft Word that contained a combination of true/false, multiple-choice and open-ended critical-thinking questions, along with pronunciation assessments via recordings. We followed guided essay prompts based on politically charged texts and videos that required us to creatively exercise core concepts through impromptu argumentation. For example, our final quiz included an excerpt from the Andalusian translation of The Little Prince, which is controversial for its pseudo-phonetic dialectical spelling. We identified its key linguistic features and then analyzed them through a sociocultural lens.

Ultimately, this open-note assessment was founded on a great level of patience and consistent communication between us and the professor. The meaning-related activities naturally led to deep levels of processing, which was beneficial to long-term retention. The result was a flexible system that supported each of our diverse learning styles and living situations while also alleviating unnecessary stress.

Propose a single, collaborative final project with front-to-end student involvement. After working with Professor Henriksen to select a topic, each of us chose a task to complete, naturally dividing us into small groups based on our interests. This provided a heightened level of freedom in our academic inquiry. Our work explored sociolinguistic perceptions of three Spanish dialects, and we worked in teams for stimuli creation and the construction of a Qualtrics survey. We used the connections with our Andalusian informants to obtain preliminary data from Spanish nationals. Each sub-group communicated back to the whole team to then analyze the data and write our final report.

This blend of autonomy and accountability created a supportive environment that fostered productivity. Moreover, our professor was clear about this standard of collaboration from the beginning: on day one, he emphasized that we would remain active participants in our own learning even as it took place online.

With an uncertain future and a quickly changing job market, the novelty of this project design allowed us to experience the realities of online teamwork, which will undoubtedly be useful in the long term. This was possible because our professor took proactive steps to redefine traditional classroom methods.

These four guiding principles shifted our perceptions of online learning. Rather than focusing on what we could no longer do, we learned to appreciate the possibilities of what we could still accomplish. The academic community faces many obstacles right now: a world full of travel restrictions and closed borders makes it hard to imagine the likelihood of community-building happening within sleepy breakout rooms on Zoom. But our class's ability to remain engaged, build an international support system and apply our knowledge to real-time research is a promising glimpse of the invigorating possibilities of an education online.

Bio

Zoe Phillips, Amber Galvano and Ellie Maly are undergraduate students at the University of Michigan. Phillips is currently pursuing a B.A. in Spanish with minors in dance and American culture. Galvano is pursuing a B.A. in Spanish and cognitive science, and a B.MA. in voice performance. Maly is pursuing a B.A. in Spanish and psychology. Six other students who took Nicholas Henriksen's course also contributed to this article.

 

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