When Dr. Ruhui Ni joined the Department of Language Studies at University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), Canada, in 2014 to teach the introductory Chinese 100 course, she knew she wanted to use technology within an online learning environment for content delivery, communication, and classroom engagement. Her research in the application of technology to teaching and learning, especially for languages, convinced her of the possible benefits – but also the challenges of matching the right technology to each teaching and learning task.
Pedagogical Goals: For her introductory course in Chinese language, Dr. Ni outlined six pedagogical goals, each of which could be supported by technology:
- Speaking and communication practice;
- Building familiarity with language;
- Vocabulary practice and assessment;
- Class engagement and group/self-assessment;
- Interactive conversation practice; and
- Writing practice.
Continuous Assessment: Dr. Ni and Simone Laughton, Coordinator, UTM Library Instructional Technology Services, were awarded funding from the University of Toronto Instructional Technology Innovation Fund to select, apply and assess technologies to facilitate each pedagogical goal. Every academic year since 2014, various third-party tools are integrated into the course, with student feedback as an integral part of the assessment process. Simone Laughton describes her role as helping instructors determine which tools will best meet pedagogical needs, how various apps work with student needs and the subject matter, and whether they meet institutional expectations for pedagogy, teaching philosophy, ease of use and other criteria. She offers a quote from a colleague to illustrate her role: “We take the lead from instructors so that the technological tail does not wag the pedagogical dog”.
Throughout each year of the course, students and the instructor, with the support and advice of the UTM Library Instructional Technology Services team led by Simone Laughton, are involved in an ongoing consideration of which tools are the most helpful to language learning, with students providing individual, in-class, online, focus group, and survey feedback. Suggestions for new tools come from the knowledge and experience of Dr. Ni and Ms. Laughton, tools used by other instructors and suggestions from students.
Case studies illustrate the continuous process towards achieving the first of the learning goals, ‘speaking and communication practice’ through assessment of various online tools. The first tool used for this task in 2014 did not allow students to keep a copy of their work or review their submissions, did not provide for instructor feedback, and raised security issues as submissions were external to the institutional LMS. Tools tested in subsequent years featured improved security and allowed copies to be kept, but had ease of use issues and still no provision for instructor feedback. The current tool used to support this pedagogical goal, YouTube, is embedded with the LMS; and it is employed in a way that allows for private feedback to each student, ensures security and privacy, supports grading, and offers ease of workflow for instructor and students. Now, students can use YouTube to capture speaking practice with their practice buddy, securely submit their assignments, and receive embedded feedback from the instructor.
Some tools prove to be flexible and adaptable to multiple uses. For example, Quizlet is one of the tools tested for the pedagogical goal of ‘vocabulary practice and assessment’. Feedback from students has indicated that it is effective for multiple purposes, including pre-class check-ups, in-class quizzes, post-class review and vocabulary memorization. It is also easy to access and requires no training to use.
Personal Learning Environments: Although students are required to use specific institutionally-provided tools for particular purposes, such as assignments, in other cases a choice of tools is offered so students can determine the ones that best suit their learning requirements. For example, Dr. Ni encourages the use of a phone app to practice Chinese writing, but its use is not mandatory. In this way, Dr. Ni hopes to encourage each student to create a “technology bubble” – their own micro-environment for language learning. As a result, students develop the metacognitive ability to steer their own learning.
Academic Toolbox Renewal Initiative: This choice of mandatory and optional tools for Chinese 100 took place within the context of University of Toronto initiatives, policies and practices; most recently the Academic Toolbox Renewal Initiative announced in October 2017, with the aim of creating a standards-based online environment that allows the integration of multiple standards-based tools and resources for teaching and learning. Simone Laughton describes the previous process as “somewhat of a Wild West” as instructors want to try technologies, but institutional concerns and requirements need to be addressed.
The Academic Toolbox Renewal Initiative, under the leadership of Academic & Collaborative Technology (ACT), is a University of Toronto-wide initiative to provide a strong foundation for flexible, quality choices concerning educational technologies, which also ensure the needs of the University are met in such areas as privacy of data and protection of intellectual property. Canvas is the software chosen to be the core engine of the new environment. The goal is to have all courses and applications migrated to the new environment, to be called Quercus, by September 2018.
The focus of the initiative is ensuring tools and services can be connected with the Learning Management Engine (LME or LMS) from anywhere – if they pass the university’s requirements – and are adopted seamlessly so students see a cohesive course and faculty can use tools from different sources. The initial stages of the project include:
- Set up of common standards to guide the selection of educational technologies and services;
- Determine the core requirements for a Learning Management Engine for the operation of the Academic Toolbox; and
- Develop processes for instructors, departments and division to recommend new tools and for assessing and adding them.
In the new Learning Management Engine environment, faculty, instructors and students can continue to use many of the applications and tools they currently rely on, as well as suggest or build new tools for additional functionality. For each new educational technology, there is an extensive list of criteria to be met as part of the recommendation process. Among the key factors are:
- Security and privacy - technology must protect student data, intellectual property, etc.;
- Tool interoperability and integration, rather than a closed proprietary system;
- Seamless log-on and movement between apps in the Toolbox or a specific learning environment, such as one serving a school or department;
- Authorization for different roles for students, instructors, administrators, and others;
- Ability to access data and metadata, such as learning analytics and business intelligence, for research and operational needs;
- Compliance with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA);
- Compatible with technical standards and specifications of school and classrooms where technology would be used;
- Terms of Service compatible with policies and practices and protective of the interest of users; and
- Independent proof of pedagogical value.
This extensive review process is currently under development and integrated at the University. As new tools are considered for the Chinese 100 course, they are reviewed according to these new processes and criteria. Dr. Ni points out the reasons for learning another language have changed – it used to be more about travel, culture and interest. Now that “the world is ‘flat’, language learning is more critical and, so we have to change how and what we teach. We need to teach how to communicate in the real world.”
Outcomes and Benefits
Analysis over the four years of assessing various tools shows which characteristics determine a technology’s usefulness:
- Ease of use of the technology for both the students and the instructor;
- Ease with which the third-party tool is embedded in the Learning Management Engine (LME or LMS);
- Unique contribution of the technology to achieving the pedagogical goal;
- Online privacy management of third-party tools sufficient to protect student data;
- Possibility for the instructor to provide individual, group and class feedback; and
- Capacity of the tools to work together or allow for easy switching.
With 30 students in the class, technology offers the best option for language practice and feedback. Learning can be task-based and focus on communication.
Student feedback reveals their choices of different tools for learning:
- QuizBreak was helpful and the activity improved my understanding of the course.
- It (Quizlet) gave more details and information regarding characters... It complements lecture slides. Indeed helpful for preparation for tests and exams.
- I like Jeopardy like games prior to quizzes … they are helpful for learning and preparing for tests … competitive aspect makes it more engaging.
In learning to use and assess the effectiveness of technology tools, students develop skills that serve them far beyond education.
Challenges and Enhancements
The technology itself can be a challenge, with issues of access, interoperability, security and reliability.
Students also need training and support to use tools for learning purposes. Dr. Ni uses class time to train her students how to use YouTube to ensure privacy. The need to devote class time to technology training can discourage instructors, who question whether the benefits are worth the time and complications.
Students have different views concerning the use of technology – some are enthusiastic, and others are reluctant. Institutional policy requires the use of technology be optional for assessment, so alternatives must always be provided.
Simone Laughton points out the extensive time it takes to thoroughly assess and test a technology, as well as gather and analyze student input. As the university gains more experience going through the process, the necessary time will decrease. As well, the process is helpful for vendors to understand education organizations’ requirements.
As a result of this experience, Ruhui Ni and Simone Laughton outlined a Wish List for specifications that support teaching and learning with technology, such as IMS GLC Inc. Learning Tools Interoperability:
- Seamless privacy-enabled enrolment of students from Learning Management Engine (LMS) to 3rd party tools, allowing privacy-protected collection of data from 3rd party tools to the LMS;
- Support for learning communities, especially for small groups of four to six students for language practice; and
- More discrete performance data point reports, beyond the broad course aggregate data to focus on discrete learning outcomes and factors and interactions of student performance, course design, and content specifics. This contributes to the continuous improvement cycle, helping to pinpoint areas to improve and to do differently.
Ruhui Ni and Simone Laughton both stress there is a need to continue the conversations – and assessments – with the students as no final decisions are made. New possibilities are always being introduced.
One question in teaching Chinese is when to teach, encourage or even allow student to type Chinese characters in conjunction with handwriting characters. The idea has been to delay the introduction of typing to avoid influencing or limiting the development of the skill of handwriting the characters, which is considered as better helping learners to memorize the structure of characters. Technology now offers early and easy access to Chinese characters key boards – adding a new element to this pedagogical issue. Dr. Ni is researching when typing can effectively be introduced in language teaching.
Currently, the Chinese 100 course is classroom-based, with essential and numerous technological enhancements. As class size increases, Dr. Ni can see moving to a blended model with two hours weekly (rather than four) in the classroom and more time online. The blended model would continue to be built around student learning experiences. Even a fully online course can be imagined if student numbers continue to grow.
In a fully online course, Dr. Ni envisages seamless integration of technology, with each student having a personalized learning plan with multiple tools to support and expand learning. Students could work as individuals or in small groups of those with similar plans and learning pace, and as the instructor, she would help them achieve their learning goals. They might choose family, relationships or work situations as topics for vocabulary learning – and so their study would start from their personal needs and interests. This is a long-term vision for an ideal blend of pedagogy and technology.
For Further Information
Ruhui Ni, Ph.D.
Chinese Language, Language Teaching and Learning
Department of Language Studies
University of Toronto Mississauga
Coordinator, UTM Library Instructional Technology Services
University of Toronto Mississauga Library