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Throughout the semester, my students often expressed appreciation with the way the Polish language classes were taught and how so much material had already been moved online. While teaching in new circumstances was not without problems or unwelcomed surprises, I felt that having experience in teaching Polish in many different modes such as online, blended, and a distance course has certainly prepared me for the situation.
The sirens went off in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, announcing a shift to virtual instruction. As calmly as possible, I tried to remember what online teaching looked like and which features of blended and distance teaching and learning might come handy in this situation. I dived into my drawer to salvage my long unused headset with noise-cancelling microphone which I purchased when teaching an online course at the University of Pennsylvania in 2011. I remembered that communicative activities could be included in this new environment owing to breakout rooms, chats, online whiteboards and others. While many of the activities were spontaneous because of limited time for preparation, overall, the students’ engagement was noticeable, and the atmosphere of the online meetings was pleasant. I believe that a part of the success was due to all Polish classes that had been offered as a blended course with an asynchronous online component prior to the coronavirus outbreak.
Ohio State first offered Polish language courses for the Department of Slavic and Eastern European Languages and Cultures in the fall of 2017. As a blended course, most of the contact time was kept to traditional face-to-face instruction. Once a week, students logged on to Canvas and worked on online assignments. Overall, the instruction was divided into two 80-minute in-class sessions and one 60-minute online session each week. While the online portion was asynchronous and students had the flexibility to work on assignments, the in-class sessions were highly interactive and utilized the knowledge introduced in online materials.
Teachers of less commonly taught languages such as Polish deal with many obstacles of which enrollment is one of the most critical. The idea of offering Polish as a blended course came to me after trying to change the schedule of Polish classes so they could be offered only twice a week. Many universities take this approach with less commonly taught languages and offer them only twice a week, often in afternoon. The rationale behind the change was to give students greater flexibility to enroll in these classes.
Following the advice of creators of other blended courses in Spanish, Polish and Ukrainian, I decided to shift online more complex subjects that were easier to understand when explained in English such as grammar, vocabulary, cultural aspects, pronunciation and others. Typically, the online component would consist of a video of a grammar lesson followed by a quiz, in which I targeted the understanding a new concept. In class, I would briefly check the comprehension of the grammar and then employ many interactive activities to put this grammar or new vocabulary into practice. In every face-to face class, I would ensure that students had plenty of opportunities to practice speaking, interacting with others as well as listening, writing and reading.
The results of the transition to blended instruction have been quite promising. Enrollment has grown and students achieve the same level of proficiency as their peers who met in class four times a week. Students shared in their evaluations that they like the videos with grammar in English, then using the target language in class. It appears to empower them by breaking the initial stress of learning a world language. The only complaint, found repeatedly in many studies on blended teaching, was pace. Students often expressed their concern with how quickly things progress in a blended course. Despite that, however, I stand by my decision to change the way the language is taught. It serves its purpose, helps with flexibility and allows for more interactive activities during the face-to-face time.
Preparation for a blended course was laborious. Because I decided to transform both levels of Polish at the same time, I had to prepare a lot of materials. Since most of them consisted of videos, I spent many hours preparing and recording them. I used a PowerPoint add-in called Office Mix to record my presentations and then I exported them into a video. I like Office Mix because it allows to not only record your audio or video to each slide but also to highlight or even write on your presentation. I spent a good portion of the summer of 2017 to record some of these videos but I had to keep working on them while teaching in the following semesters. It was a painstaking process; One online component took me between three to five hours to create. Also, doing it at home, I did not know that some of my equipment such as a microphone or camera were outdated and the recordings had to be fixed later on with the help ASC Tech Services. The effort was worth the while, as this is the third year when the students watch the same videos without the need to record new ones. Also, I believe my grammar/vocab videos might help other teachers of Polish and I am creating a Youtube channel where I will share them with others.
Another experience that has helped me with virtual courses was teaching distance courses in the past. As a part of CourseShare, we hosted students from other universities in our Polish classes. While the Ohio State students met in class and had a regular interaction with me as a teacher, students from other institutions saw us on their screens and used microphones to communicate with us. In order to accommodate them, I had to adapt many activities to be able to conduct them with students who are not in class with me. Glitches such as, frozen screens or malfunctioning microphones, were quite common and caused delays. This experience taught me to carefully choose activities which allow for interactive work and consider a slower pace of teaching.
Overall, the rapid shift to virtual courses this semester has shown that classes which had already moved some content online are much easier to adapt to online teaching. Furthermore, students seem to be more prepared to the situation because they are used to working on their own. The online materials such as videos are much more engaging than PDF’s with grammar or vocabulary. They also empower students by providing a clearer explanation. Other online tools, especially Quizlet, also seemed to be well liked by students who can download the app and practice their vocabulary anywhere and anytime.