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SPS Adapts to All-Online Teaching

Submitted by Casey Colvin on May 7, 2020 - 2:30pm
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SPS Zoom Meeting

On March 6th, 2020, in response to the growing Novel Coronavirus / COVID-19 Pandemic, University of Washington President Ani Mari Cause announced that the remainder of Winter Quarter would be held online.  This declaration expanded to cover all of Spring Quarter and Summer Quarter. The faculty of the Department of Spanish & Portuguese Studies responded by arranging language and content courses to be taught online.

“Our main goal has been to minimize the impact on our students”, said Ana Fernández Dobao, Associate Professor and Director of the Language Program. “We have tried to keep things as ‘normal’ as possible by adjusting our activities and assignments to the online mode, rather than developing totally new assignments.”

Switching an entire department’s curriculum in a matter of weeks was a tall task for the faculty. “I have colleagues at other institutions who teach online exclusively”, said Associate Professor Leigh Mercer. “I know it can take months to build an online course. So having a couple of weeks to make the transition meant that I had to look for ways to best mirror an in-person class in an online form, and then recognize that some pieces of my courses were not going to be possible in this new format.”

Students, aware of the change in instruction,reached out to the department with questions about their Spring Quarter courses.  Dalia Correa, Senior Academic Advisor, observed that “There was definitely a spike in emails with inquiries about online courses”, but “nothing that could not get resolved”.

Changes had to be made for the last week of Winter Quarter affecting 37 courses, including 25 language courses, For Spring Quarter, the entirety of 42 courses, including 26 language courses had to be held online. Lead Teaching Assistant Tom Grizzle helped convert all of the department’s language courses at the end of Winter Quarter and before Spring Quarter: “I helped Ana Fernández Dobao work on some quick solutions for the end of Winter Term which worked well, given the situation. But figuring out how to convert the last two weeks of a term versus moving all of Spring Term to an online format is quite different. Ana was working around the clock during Spring Break to find the best platforms and digital tools to maintain the quality of our language courses during the Spring.”

Under these circumstances, the kind of curriculum adaptations varied depending on the content and level of the course.  Senior Lecturer Sabrina Spannagel, who taught both the introductory language class SPAN 103, as well as the more literarily- and culturally-focused advanced SPAN 301, offered this contrast on preparation: “Spanish 301 was easier to prepare because students have the language skills to get to know each other more quickly and they are more autonomous, working in small groups on projects. [Spanish 103 students] need more structured guidance and they are less confident about speaking in class.”

Teaching Online

Preparing for online instruction also required faculty be set up to work and teach remotely. Spanish & Portuguese Studies Senior Computer Specialist Cecile Kummerer helped with the transition: “I assisted faculty in installing software they needed to connect to their students, and provided technical help to set up a home office. For example, some faculty needed better webcams, others needed help with their wireless network.” Faculty also did their part and were up to the task of learning new software, and collaborating with their colleagues to get up to speed. “In the beginning of Spring Quarter, most faculty had to learn how to use Zoom to manage their classroom instruction…the faculty shared information and solutions to problems among themselves, and asked me for more technical help,” said Kummerer.

Faculty were concerned about learning new technologies, but quickly found confidence in the new platforms. “At first, I was anxious because I didn’t know how well I’d be able to manage the technology and whether I would be able to do a good job in a totally different medium. Once the quarter started, I was confident and ready to teach”, said Principal Lecturer Inma Raneda, who addressed her initial anxiety by training herself on remote teaching and technologies.

Senior Lecturer Jorge González Casanova echoed similar sentiments. “As soon as I learned…that classes would be taught online [spring] quarter, I knew that it would be a big challenge. My biggest concerns were Zoom being overloaded and crashing, classes being too impersonal, not understanding Zoom well, students not being prepared, and many of my usual activities not working for an online modality”.  However, González Casanova practiced using Zoom with other colleagues and found that the platform is reliable, and even has advantages: “My concerns have dispelled: I am able to use Zoom successfully and it has never crashed; Zoom feels actually like an intimate environment, since students’ faces are just a few inches from me on the screen, as opposed to the classroom.”

Challenging enough, the scramble to alter course curriculums and to set up the technology to teach was daunting but manageable. “It has certainly been a challenge, that has required a considerable amount of effort from all our faculty and graduate student instructors, but the result has been quite positive. In fact, most of us are quite positively surprised about how smooth the transition has been”, said Dobao.

Asynchronistic Learning

Asynchronistic learning has become a useful technique for handling the challenges some students face. “Many of [our students] had to go back home and are now living in different time zones, and yet, they manage to join their class every day. When this is not an option, they are given alternative asynchronous assignments. Some of our teachers are also recording their classes and others have extended their office hours and are meeting with individual students in the evening”, said Dobao.

Other obstacles encountered were on the students’ end. Mercer experienced that “the biggest obstacles have just been logistical issues. Some students have poor internet connections at home and it can be hard for them to fully participate in our Zoom sessions. At almost week four of the quarter, I have two students who still haven't received their textbooks, despite having ordered them many weeks ago.” However, Mercer found a way to help bridge the connectivity gap that some students experience by “recording all our Zoom session for later viewing (when hopefully they have a better connection) and by providing PDFs of the first weeks’ reading to students when I can”, she remarked.

As for online platforms, Zoom is a relatively new one to most instructors and it is used for synchronous learning, but some established technologies, such as Canvas, have proved useful with asynchronous activities and conducting exams and quizzes. “All exams are now completed in Canvas”, said Dobao.  Although in some cases, a different platform is used: “In our advanced level courses, for high-stakes exams, we have started using the UW recommended proctoring tool, Proctorio. For lower-stakes quizzes and exams, we are using Zoom and Canvas activity reports.”

Connecting with the Class

Due to ‘stay at home’ orders issued in the United States, students have found it difficult to fulfill assignments designed to be conducted in the Spanish-speaking community, but our faculty has found ways to fill out those blanks to facilitate the involvement and connection with the class. Dobao noted that “opportunities [to engage with the local Spanish speaking community] are now limited to online communication, but our faculty and graduate student instructors have been able to come up with a wide range of alternatives. They have found museums in Latin America and Spain that have started to offer online virtual tours [and] compiled lists of radio shows and podcasts on Latino issues, as well as films and TV shows in Spanish.” The department has also expanded on previously existing offerings in advanced courses: “we have increased the opportunities for students to interact, via Zoom, with students from the UNAM in Mexico. This is an opportunity that before was limited to a small number of students. This quarter, thanks to the effort of two our faculty members, it has been extended to all our Spanish 301 students.”

Although the adoption of asynchronistic learning strategies and distance learning technologies assist in conducting classes, some adjustments and flexible agendas are still needed.  Senior Lecturer Marilís Mediavilla explains that her “daily objective is to create a realistic lesson plan that can be achieved both by students and by myself in a stress-free mode. I approach my classes with rigorous preparation, but also with empathy, flexibility and even a little humor.”  González Casanova also said that additional preparation is advisable and suggests that “every document, website, and [PowerPoint] must be open on my computer, so I have easy access to them when I switch to a new activity”.

Equally important is student engagement for this preparation to pay off. Mediavilla found that, taking into account the level and content of a course, the option of “offering students some control and responsibility over activities such as leading discussions, researching personal interest topics, or preparing a complete launch of a business strategy or product, give them the space to be motivated, get more productive, and be genuinely involved and connected with the class.”

One more relevant step that our Faculty have also found effective is maintaining communication with students and asking them for feedback. These techniques allow teachers to determine students’ involvement with the class and whether their efforts are working. “Regular check-ins allow me to course-correct and it also provides valuable evidence of whether they are learning and improving in their Spanish”, said Raneda. Additionally, at the university level, instructors have been able to request mid-quarter feedback forms be sent to their students through an optional program offered by the Office of Educational Assessment.

Successful Adaptation

Teaching and learning from home has required flexibility and adjustment on everybody’s end, and Faculty in SPS department are making sure that students’ feel comfortable with this new learning environment to make the most out of it for everyone. For instance, Spannagel takes the time at the beginning of her class to greet her students and ask them about their lives, “sharing aspects of my own as well”, she said. Likewise, Mercer starts almost every Zoom class with “a conversation about how our lives are changed at this moment, or new things we are eating or binge-watching, or how our learning environments are altered in whatever new living circumstances we find ourselves in, and even changes we have noticed in the natural world around us.”

Without a doubt, all SPS’s instructors have shown an outstanding commitment and dedication to their job so the mission of the department to produce and transmit knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese languages, literatures and cultures is in effect. “All [of this] would not have been possible without the collaborative effort and innovative thinking of our faculty and particularly of our graduate student instructors”, said Dobao.

Finally, let’s emphasize that the success in adapting department courses to an all-online format was a collective work of both the department and its students, and as Dobao pointed out “thanks to everybody’s effort we have been able to create a classroom experience that is as close as possible to the in-person one and, in this way, continue to support our students through these uncertain times”. Dobao was extremely proud of the work accomplished and “the resilience shown by our faculty, staff, and students”, she added.

By Casey Colvin and Marilís Mediavilla

This article has been updated; after initial publication, it was declared that all of Summer Quarter 2020 would be online.