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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hybrid Language Courses Expand

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Hybrid language courses, made up of both online and classroom-based instruction, are growing at the University of Minnesota. French and Spanish are piloting refined second-year hybrid courses this semester, while German is piloting its first ever hybrid class this fall in 1003.

Spanish was the first to offer hybrid courses, starting with 1022 over a decade ago. Concentrated efforts to expand hybrid course development began in 2011, when Spanish created hybrid options for 1003 and 1004 and French piloted a hybrid version of 1004.

A Hybrid Working Group was formed during the Spring 2012 semester. It includes representatives from French, German, Italian, Spanish, the Language Center, CARLA and CLA-OIT. The goals of this group are to share resources, compare experiences and learn from one another without producing identical classes for various language programs.

The group worked diligently over the summer and continues to meet this semester. Meetings typically feature at least one technical training and exploration opportunity.

The new hybrid courses address the five national standards for foreign language learning, known as the "Five C's": Communication, Cultures, Comparisons, Connections, and Communities.

I sat down with Dan Soneson, coordinator of the Hybrid Working Group and spokesperson for ComSLE, to learn more about hybrid courses and the process of the work group's collaboration.

Saoirse: How are hybrid courses adjusted/customized to suit different languages? Is there a specific model for the ideal hybrid course?

Dan: It would be great if there were one model out there that we could all adopt, but the concept of a hybrid course has developed over time and only recently have we begun to think about actually replacing class time with time online. We started the process looking at how Spanish 1022 works, and went from there.

We quickly discovered that the amount and quality of prepared online resources available to Spanish is not as readily available to the other language programs, so French, German and Italian had to find and develop more of their own materials. While Spanish had begun with the intensive elementary course, both the French and German programs decided to start at the second year. The reasoning was that by the second year students have experience with the language and might be able to work more independently in a partially online context.

Saoirse: Will hybrid courses expand to more languages and levels in the future? Are there any more languages that may be experimenting with hybrid?

Dan: That will depend on the success of these newly developed courses. The original plan was to have blended learning or hybrid courses in place for at least semesters two through four of Spanish, German, French, and possibly Italian. If we can solidify the models we develop for these languages, perhaps they can serve as templates for related language programs.

Saoirse: Do you think a hybrid model would work with upper division language courses?

Dan: I definitely think a hybrid model can work throughout the curriculum. A great deal depends on what kinds of activities can be developed to take advantage of the wealth of material and communication possibilities that technology provides.

Saoirse: What are student's reactions to these new courses? Instructor's reactions?

Dan: As you can imagine, reactions have been mixed. One thing we've learned is that students discover quickly that this course involves more work than a strict face-to-face class, even though the expected time commitment is equivalent. While it may be possible to participate less in a face-to-face class, online you need to do all the work and demonstrate your participation. This work, however, can yield greater results, since everyone is participating equally.

Instructors also note the increased workload, primarily due to reading and responding to every student's contributions to forum topics and threaded discussions. However, regular classroom participation can increase as well. One instructor stated recently that once the class gets into the rhythm of online work leading to live classroom activities, the quality of the classroom work improves, with more engaged students and more stimulating discussions.

Saoirse: What are the expectations of a hybrid course? What are the characteristics of a student who will be successful in a hybrid course?

Dan: Basically, a hybrid course represents a transformation from a conventional course that meets exclusively in a physical space (a classroom) to one in which a regular number of classroom hours take place online or through use of technology. In our case, the conventional 5-credit course meets regularly at the same hour, five days each week. The hybrid version reduces the physical in-class hours to three each week, while the other two hours take place virtually, with students engaged with similar activities or with the kind of activities that are desirable, but difficult to accomplish in a large class setting.

The expectation is that these online "classes" carry the same weight as a regular in-class meeting, and that students spend at least 50 minutes focussing on the assigned activities, at a time that is convenient for them. In addition to these online activities, students also complete regular homework assignments for each class period, whether it is virtual or face-to-face.

Successful students are well organized self-starters who can work independently and are willing to work with peers outside of the classroom. Much of the "group" work that takes place in the virtual classroom requires teamwork and an ability to contribute to a discussion in a timely manner.

Saoirse: What are some things the Hybrid Work Group achieved over the summer? What kind of technology were instructors trained on?

Dan: The Work Group met weekly over the summer to share ideas and experiences. The idea was to provide both structure and a support system for all instructors working on the process. We had people from CLA-OIT participate and share technologies in an effort to help the instructors develop activities and format the courses. We experienced the capabilities of Moodle, Kaltura, UMConnect, Google Hangouts, TurnItIn, and Avenue.

One of the major opportunities that I see for hybrid courses is the ability to pair our students with speakers of the language they are learning. Our TandemPlus program is developing connections with institutions abroad, and ideally we can connect our learners with learners of English to engage in mutually beneficial regular exchanges in which each participant has an opportunity to discuss cultural issues with a partner in the target language.

Once we have these networks firmly established, our students could spend 50 minutes online with a language partner instead of in class. The possibility of using the language in meaningful communication in 50 minutes is much greater in this situation than in a large class. There is still much work to be done to bring these internet exchanges about in a regular manner, but it would be an excellent activity taking full advantage of what internet technology has to offer. Pilot programs are already underway in French, Spanish, German and Italian.

Saoirse: Is there anything else you would like to add about hybrid language courses in general?

Dan: This hybrid development process provides a great opportunity to rethink our language programs, to take advantage of the wealth of authentic materials available on the internet and the wonderful capabilities of Computer Mediated Communication, such as threaded discussions, chat, voice chat, and teleconferencing. You mentioned the National Standards above. We have an excellent opportunity now to address all five C's through technology, exploring Cultures, Connecting to disciplinary content, drawing Comparisons through in-depth experience of cultural practices and perspectives, and providing access to a vast array of Communities that function in the target language on the Web.

This is the first in a series of articles planned on hybrid course development. Look for future blog entries concentrating on hybrid courses for Spanish, French and German.

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