The widespread shut down of face-to-face delivery in teaching institutions globally in early 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the move to online teaching. At our university, we reconfigured the course content and assessment of two beginner-level Japanese classes in order to move them entirely online. Fortunately, we had already implemented a blended learning approach, so some of our course content was already set up on digital platforms. For students and instructors alike, the lack of face-to-face interaction was especially challenging in the early weeks, but as we all settled into the new structure and students became more active agents in their own learning, we also made some pedagogical gains.
The shift to online teaching and some initial challenges
The sudden change to teaching online in the Australian university sector in March 2020 as a result of the spread of COVID-19 caused significant and unimagined disruptions to course deliveries. Following a few confirmed cases on our campus, the university executive made the decision to move all Semester 1 classes online after our third week of classroom teaching. The university itself remained open, but all face-to-face teaching and learning activities were suspended and staff were instructed to work from home as much as possible.
Teaching staff had one week to reconfigure courses to the virtual classroom format for the remaining weeks of the semester, and possibly beyond. For our team, this rapid transition meant moving a beginner Japanese predominantly speaking/listening course and a predominantly writing/reading course into formats that could (hopefully) achieve the same learning outcomes as face-to-face interactions. Fortunately we had already completed the hiragana and half the katakana syllabaries in class, and had been able to give students in-person feedback on their writing.
Given that any foreign language learning is a cumulative learning process where a combination of knowledge acquisition and conceptual understanding is critical to success, my immediate concern about the transition revolved around whether we could effectively teach Japanese language beginners online. I also wondered whether students would remain engaged with the course content, and whether we could maintain integrity with assessment items. Another unknown was how students would cope with the transition. Did all students own computers to connect with from home, with a reliable internet connection? Did they have a dedicated space where they could concentrate on their studies? In the first few weeks, I became aware that many students had far more pressing concerns than their studies: adding to their anxiety about the pandemic itself, the loss of reliable income, caregiving responsibilities, and cohabitation with vulnerable older relatives were recurring points of conversation in email exchanges and on a student social media platform.
Among those scholars who tout the benefits of online language learning, many add the caveat that it must be implemented with caution (Gautreau et al., 1014; Isenberg, 2010). Some scholars are sceptical of any pedagogical advantage in online language courses, and have doubts about their efficacy, especially for attaining oral proficiency among beginner learners (Blake et al., 2008). Other reasons offered for resisting the virtual language classroom include learner isolation, academic integrity, teacher redundancy, and the self-evident benefits of active in-class learning (Deslauriers et al., 2019). My specific concerns with the Japanese beginner courses were whether or not we could ensure that students would adequately attain foundational skills normally moderated in the classroom, such as proper character formation and stroke order, competency in basic conversation skills, and correct pronunciation.
One of the things that helped most with the move online was that prior to the pandemic our Japanese language programme had already made the push towards blended learning—that is, computer and smartphone activities combined with traditional, face-to-face classroom learning. In 2019, a generous grant from the Queensland Program for Japanese Education (QPJE), established under NF-JLEP, enabled a complete redesign of our two beginner-level Japanese classes. The team—comprised of fixed-term and sessional academics, and students in advanced-level Japanese classes—collaborated on building resources that presented a holistic approach to beginner Japanese, using innovative materials and softwares. As part of this initiative, we moved to the first level Genki: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese textbook and workbook (the japan times Publishing), rewrote the course powerpoint slides, and incorporated recent online learning technologies into the curriculum, with the aim of increasing the authenticity of (and student interest in) the learning materials. The timing of this project was propitious, as we had already familiarised ourselves with various resources, making the online transition much easier.
The most significant change to course delivery was that classes (a two hour lecture and a two hour tutorial) were moved online. Our university opted to use the video-conferencing platform Zoom for classes. Before moving our work bases home, the beginner Japanese team attended face-to-face workshops run by our university’s teaching and learning unit to optimise our understanding of Zoom and to work out which of its functions were suitable for use in language teaching. Initially, many Zoom classes had stability problems due to inadequate bandwidth, but the university resolved this issue quickly, albeit with the recommendation that students not turn their videos on during classes.
Keeping students engaged
When classes started, we tried to keep students engaged by using a number of strategies. Initially I found that asking open-ended content questions led to awkward silence, so I started asking students by name, which also resolved the issue of the class extroverts answering all the questions. The class powerpoints incorporated a “?” slide after the introduction of each key point (for example, new grammar or kanji) so that students could pause, collect their thoughts, and ask questions. This was helpful in cases where students’ internet connections were slow or dropped out intermittently. We also utilised the Breakout Rooms function in Zoom, which divides students into small groups. These were useful in practising speaking and listening skills, with the added advantages of developing student-to-student interaction and enabling closer instructor observation. We also incorporated Kahoot online quizzes at the end of most classes (where time permitted) to consolidate learning. Students seemed to enjoy these and most stayed online to participate. Finally, at the end of all classes we carved out some time for informal chat sessions where students could ask about course content and assessment, or just let us know how they were going. I was surprised at the number of students who stayed online for these, even if they were not active contributors to the conversation. Overall, I think this regular social connection helped them feel more comfortable with the virtual learning platform and with their studies more generally.
Also critical to our set up was our learning management system (LMS), Blackboard, where students were able to access the class powerpoints and supplementary materials such as handouts, listening practice files, and grammar videos. At the end of the preparation week, I sent out details of how the courses would be run and the changes to assessment necessitated by the new environment. Some of the software we used was embedded into Blackboard (e.g. Flipgrid, for recording assessment videos), but other digital formats were useful as well, such as the list of Japanese language teaching apps that we supplied to students. In the early stages of the pandemic, some publishers made materials free to support the transition to online learning, such as the Genki Vocab Cards app (it remains free at the time of writing).
From the beginning, we tried to carefully monitor the student experience in order to problem-solve or make adjustments to the course delivery. I emailed each of the student cohorts every weekend with the activity schedule for the coming week, including assessment. Roughly half of the enrolled students regularly attended classes. Many of those were fully engaged in classes, and stayed in frequent contact through email and the informal chats after class. In every class, we reminded students to send work through for feedback. Some students chose to complete exercises and send them through as type-written files. Others sent image files for feedback on their handwriting. This level of sustained engagement (particularly in peak assessment times, where we usually see a drop in class attendance) was an unexpected payoff from the move online.
Not surprisingly, the most challenging aspect of the semester was keeping students motivated. A number dropped out a few weeks into the online model, and around a third of each cohort only participated at assessment times. The university’s initial request of students not to use their videos remained in place all semester, despite encouragement from the teaching team to turn them on. From our side, this took some getting used to. Students could see us, but we could only see their names. The difficulty in not being able to see if students were content, confused, or distracted highlighted how reliant we were on body language in classroom interactions.
Gains and remaining challenges
Without doubt, one of the greatest gains of moving online was observing many students take a greater responsibility for their learning. In the classroom, students tend to take notes on new content to study after class, but in the online learning environment, where their attention is focused on one screen, they seemed to engage more directly with the class content. I think this is due to the immediacy of the content delivery, and the lack of physical freedoms we are all used to in the classroom, such as moving around to practise conversation skills or to ask questions. When students are set pairwork speaking tasks in the physical classroom, sometimes they will wait for the instructor to come around before they properly engage. However, in the Breakout Rooms (the online equivalent), students really needed to focus on listening to each other and building their own responses, particularly because their videos were not turned on. Although these exchanges were awkward at first, as the students got used to them, they engaged more attentively with each other. At the same time, I noticed my own role changing from instructor trying to motivate students to participate in conversation practice to that of observer answering occasional questions. If they can persist with this increased agency, it will be a great asset to their Japanese language acquisition and usage when they travel to Japan.
A lingering concern is whether our students this semester have attained the level of understanding and competency that we know they achieve in face-to-face classes. At this stage, it is difficult to assess if they are able to use the course content independently, especially because the circumstances necessitated that some of the assessment items were conducted online in an “open-book” style. Some students may not have consolidated the requisite writing skills that they will need in intermediate- and advanced-level classes. However, the final oral examination in the speaking/listening course incorporated an unprepared “question and answer” session on Zoom, where we could ascertain with some certainty the level of competency students had achieved. The results in this assessment were generally encouraging.
Although the semester panned out in ways that were unpredictable and sometimes stressful, the move to online learning did give us an opportunity to carefully examine the structures we had set in place prior to the pandemic. Naturally, the move to online teaching highlighted vulnerabilities with the current system of course delivery, but it also allowed us to confirm that the blended learning approaches we had already established were vital and engaging elements of the new courses.
We are yet to receive the student feedback for the semester, but when we do we will field responses carefully to see what students’ main concerns were in Semester 1, and how we may be able to address these in Semester 2 (which will be conducted mostly online, due to social-distancing requirements). Whether the rapid transition to online learning this year will transform universities to more digitally-diverse environments remains to be seen, but it has highlighted the need for contingency planning and flexible delivery methods. In our continued attempts to create meaningful language acquisition environments for our students, this semester’s experience has afforded the Japanese language teaching staff a greater understanding of the specific challenges of the virtual classroom, while at the same time drawn attention to unexpected gains, such as increased responsibility for learning among some of the student cohort.
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