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Monday, November 14, 2011

New Hybrid French 1004 Class Development: A Conversation with Rick Treece

The French program debuted two sections of hybrid French 1004 this Fall semester. The five-credit classes meet three days per week, and have two online contact hours. Other language programs have also experimented with online learning, and Spanish has a long running hybrid 1022 class. French hybrid 1004 is distinguished by its incorporation of TandemPlus partnerships into the curriculum, as well as the fast pace of development. The majority of curricular development occurred over a single summer.

I spoke to the lead developer, Rick Treece, about the development process and plans for the future.

Students enrolled in the hybrid sections have a TandemPlus partner in France with whom they they communicate using Skype, and they are expected to complete seven activities during the semester. How will this opportunity enhance their acquisition of French, and their understanding of French culture?

There are three important benefits of the Skype exchanges:

1. Students in class speak for only a few minutes during a typical class session. And a disadvantage of small-group work is that weak students may have a too-sympathetic partner (who understands their English-influenced French too readily) while strong students may be frustrated by weaker partners who fail to understand their more advanced remarks. With TandemPlus partners who are native speakers of French, students get at least 15-30 min. per week of French conversation (often far more) in a situation that is far more authentic. This more than compensates for the speaking practice they're missing Tuesday and Thursday in class.

2. Research shows that language acquisition and retention are enhanced by the process of "negotiating meaning" in the target language in real communication. This is exactly what is occurring in the TandemPlus class-to-class exchange.

3. The over-arching theme of French 1004 involves comparing French and American cultures and their influence on personal identities. The Skype exchanges are based on detailed worksheets on which students prepare for their Skype sessions, take notes during the interview, and then follow-up on the personal and cultural insights acquired with meaningful Récapitulation assignments, which are evaluated with rubrics tailored to each type of assignment.

When students first learned that their sections would be partially computer-based, and that they would communicate with a partner in France, what were the general reactions?

General reactions were positive and even enthusiastic. Only one or two students said that they would have preferred meeting every day.

Did any students decide to switch to a standard section of 1004?

Only one!

Spanish 1022 has been offered as a hybrid-only class for several years. How were you able to use the experiences of the Spanish developers and instructors as a model, and what did you find was different when targeting higher-level students?

Because higher-level students bring more skills to the process, we thought that we could let them have more flexibility in their assignments, so we gave (or imposed) much less structure on the assignments than Spanish 1022 typically does. This has worked out for the most part, but in the case of at least one major large-group assignment, I think that we should have been more "hands-on" in the early organizational phases. But frankly, I don't think that the issue was lack of French skills, but rather just general generation of the escape velocity to get the project off the ground.

Spanish 1022 makes significant use of online exercises in My Spanish Lab, which is apparently quite good, but we found that the French equivalent was not up to our standards. The online substitute that we adopted, Tell-Me-More, is a bit pricey and has had a mixed reception from the students (and from us, truth to tell). We're meeting soon to decide on a strategy to tweak or replace it.

What has surprised you most about the Skype exchanges and the activities that students are doing as part of those exchanges?

I've been surprised to find that some students on both sides of the Atlantic simply fail to show up for their scheduled Skype sessions. Though overall the number is probably fairly small, every instance is a moderate to major irritant to the student inconvenienced by the missed rendez-vous.

Right now, Spanish 1003 is being developed as a hybrid class, and German is exploring options for hybrid development as well. How has this simultaneous development impacted French 1004, and provided opportunities for collaboration?

The coordinators of French, German and Spanish are meeting regularly to share updates on successes and challenges. In fact, our current French 1004 TandemPlus model was developed in imitation of one that Italian used last year, so we're all open to consideration of models and experiences from a variety of levels and sources.

Moreover, the Language Center Instructional Team addresses issues relating to hybrid-course development at our bi-weekly meetings. German, Scandinavian and Dutch liaison Beth Kautz and I will meet regularly with the Director this year as a particular task-group to foster hybrid-course adoption.

What is the most important piece of advice you would give a student enrolled in a hybrid language class?

Allow me to quote from a message that I sent to my students and posted on our Moodle site at the beginning of the term:
The student that will thrive in this hybrid setting is:
  • self-motivated
  • regular and disciplined
  • a good time manager
  • comfortable using the web
Conversely, this approach could be perilous for a student who:
  • puts off things to the last minute
  • relies on regular class attendance or personal over-qualification for the course level to skate by without doing much work outside of class
  • does not work well independently
  • is a technophobe
For more information on hybrid courses see this recent article on how sustainability content is being integrated into several classes, including lower-level hybrid Spanish.

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