International Friday: Collaborative Online Learning
During the first mod of the spring 2021 semester, Gabriela Cerghedean and Robin Zebrowski took up an invitation from the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), Ecuador, to partner with a USFQ faculty member in teaching one of their courses. USFQ had shared a list of potential faculty partners and courses. Both leapt at the opportunity, in order to give students in SPAN 105, Elementary Spanish II, and COGS 260, Cyborg Brains & Hybrid Minds, a chance to learn with students located in another country.
Robin: My Cyborgs course has traditionally had a cool out-of-classroom experience baked in where we visit the Logan Museum a few times each semester and look at ways tools enhance and alter our bodily and cognitive capacities, but with COVID I knew we couldn’t do that this year. So I was on alert for other kinds of experiences I could add on to the class when I saw the call for collaborators. When I saw there was someone teaching a class focused on extremely similar themes in Ecuador, I thought I’d reach out and see if it was a match. We hit it off immediately and it was easy and exciting to see how we might foster the kind of international collaboration that we want all of our students to get, but which is hard to come by right now.
Gabriela: I have been searching for opportunities to connect Beloit students who are studying Spanish with students in Spain or Latin America and are studying English for quite a long time. But the need to make it real became evident when I knew that I would be teaching synchronously again in Spring 2021 and the online teaching would provide a space for this type of collaboration. I explored different ways of engaging Beloit students with peers across the world in order to facilitate a cross-cultural dialogue with a focus on conversation. My goal for the Spring was to provide my Spanish 105 students, who were at the beginning level, with different experiences dedicated to conversational practice. Therefore, when Betsy presented COIL as a possibility my dream came true and added to the partnership with the University of Alicante with whom I had just begun discussing a possible exchange, but were not sure if the time difference would work out. Thus, I was extremely excited when I found a perfect match with USFQ, Ecuador. When I met professor Montufar Delgado who was interested in a Conversational Spanish-English collaboration and our visions and outcomes matched, we immediately started planning our COIL class.
Robin: In our case, we had the misfortune of scheduled teaching times that didn’t overlap. We’re also on mods, while USFQ is on semesters. (And our mods got pushed back at the last minute, so a bunch of our planning was thrown into chaos before we managed to make everything work). But in our case, we ended up splitting my class of 25 and my collaborator’s class of 20 into groups that would meet for 30 minutes a week outside of class time. The groups were mixed between both classes, and we had shared readings for the weeks we collaborated. Every week, one student in the group was the facilitator, who had to send either me or Sara (my collaborator) discussion questions and a plan for the meeting 24 hours before the group was scheduled to meet. The students who weren’t facilitating were required to write up a summary of the meeting and hand it in within 24 hours. For the students in Ecuador, the summary was part of their writing practice; in our case, it was for me to see what kinds of conversations about embodied cognition and human-computer interfaces the students were having with students from a very different culture, much more than a writing exercise.
Robin: My students found it profoundly valuable to be able to discuss these topics with a very different culture. Since part of the way we ask questions about bodies and technologies involves a pretty serious analysis of the ways we label some bodies disabled and others “enhanced,” seeing that this differs across cultures and spaces really matters. (We talk about it, but hearing it from others their age directly in those places is a way more powerful way to learn it, of course). Having much more clear immediate evidence of how some things are socially constructed is immeasurably valuable in discussions like these, which can be really tricky sometimes. And especially on Zoom, a lot of students are hard to draw out into discussions when 25 of us are on a screen, and this was a stable group they could get more comfortable with to just test out their ideas. I think the biggest benefit to my collaborator’s students was at least in part the fact that they were getting real practice speaking in English about these topics (since they’re generally all non-native English speakers). A lot of these topics are kind of technical, and so the language piece was probably not trivial to them. But they also brought such valuable perspectives to the conversations that I expect the benefits to my students were similar to the benefits to the other class.
Gabriela: The greatest benefit for Beloit and USFQ students from COIL was the opportunity to connect across the world with peers who are sharing a similar experience: learning a foreign language. Being together as non-natives of the other language provided comfort when speaking. Who else would have better understood the nervousness and uncertainty that my Spanish 105 students confessed they were feeling the first day than the USFQ learners of English? At the end of Mod 1 both groups had managed to become more confident and improved their speaking abilities. In their own words: they made friends, learned about Ecuadorian culture, traditions, used new grammatical expressions, were engaged and exposed to idiomatic expressions, were intrigued about different celebrations, and surprised about similar taste in music, art, movies, literature, etc. In sum, BC & USFQ were positively surprised and cherished the fact that they were able to communicate, understand each other and be part of a conversation for 1 hour with a native speaker. Also, they discovered many things about themselves when learning about the Ecuadorian perspective and acquired intercultural knowledge.
USFQ: “For us, this course was very “chevere” jajaja and also useful because we learned and had so much fun, it’s sometimes different and it gives us the knowledge that we don’t get in a normal class.” Beloit: “Thursdays allowed us to make new friends, it was a good experience that connected us with students from Ecuador; we enjoyed the cultural lessons; gained confidence in speaking in Spanish and meeting students from another country.”]
Robin: Honestly, it was a ton of work, but for me it was all worth it just to know that most of the students found it a valuable way of learning the material. I feel like I had to be realistic about everyone’s capacities during mods in a global pandemic, and honestly some of the regular material was cut from my class to make it manageable. This was something I could feel good about spending a lot of time on- it made me feel like there was some other piece to the class that was over and above the classroom experience for them, and that’s a benefit to me because it’s a benefit to them!
Gabriela: I consider it a success, even beyond my expectations and a dream come true. It was a pilot COIL, a small step towards something that may become a bigger, more robust project. I believe that there is nothing as useful for my students of Spanish than being engaged in a dialogue with their Spanish-speaking peers who are studying English. Besides the obvious goal of improving their communication skills and giving them self confidence, this collaboration proves the necessity to take the initiative and cross the bridges between us and learn about different cultures, places and especially the people whose language we are studying. It made Spanish come to life. For me, it is a first step in encouraging our students to study abroad and continue with other Spanish courses. In fact, it was their contagious enthusiasm that made this experience worthwhile for me.
Robin: It was absolutely worth it for me. (The biggest hiccups for us were entirely out of our control: Beloit College pushing back the start of the semester after planning had already begun; the mod system; Daylight Savings Time, which absolutely broke our last week of meeting times). I would do this again in a heartbeat, and if I teach this class during a future semester when Sara is teaching hers, I will be thrilled for this to be a full 14-week collaboration.
Gabriela: Beside the hours of work during the weeks before we started Mod 1, we continued to meet every week for more planning, coordinating, considering what works best, what topics to include, what type of activities would be more beneficial for both BC and USFQ. It took time but now, we are getting ready AGAIN for Mod 2 and planning another set of preparations since we are teaching different courses. Nevertheless, Professor Montufar Delgado and I will continue to radiate positivity.
Robin: Do it! If you can find a collaborator who seems to work in the same kind of way you do about the same material, it is SO worth it to see the students have to step slightly out of their comfort zone, and then learn so much extra from being there. We all know a lot of the best learning happens outside the classroom, and this is a spectacular way to push what that means.
Gabriela: Definitivamente! Do it! Try to find a way that works for you and it is beneficial to both groups. It is a unique chance to discover new worlds, perspectives, and to engage in person with ideas and people. Besides an excellent pedagogical tool it is a way to connect our teaching and research and learn from and with our international partners.
Other COIL partnerships in development include Akita International University (AIU) in Japan. Susan Furukawa, Modern Languages and Literatures, is already in discussion with an AIU counterpart to collaborate in teaching courses on Japanese Women Writers. Jim Rougvie (Geology) is also pursuing possible COIL partnerships at AIU. Over the past several years, JIm and Susan have led the Landscapes Japan Program collaborative project with AIU. Landscapes Japan field studies are set to resume in August 2022.
Gabriela Cerghedean also notes that virtual teaching collaborations with faculty in universities abroad can also take place outside the formal COIL framework. Thus, this semester, she and her students have been meeting with their counterparts at the University of Alicante for weekly Saturday coffee hours on culture, language, and literature. She plans on continuing with it during Mod2.