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Published April 7, 2013 | English (Second Language)

Virtual Classrooms for Second Language Business Courses – Take 2

In a Profweb story written in May 2011, I had received a grant from the Entente Canada-Québec to create a virtual course combining groups of an ESL course of English in Business. In Winter 2012, Rebecca Peters-Higgins at Collège Edouard-Montpetit and myself at Cégep du Vieux-Montréal started on a positive note. Suffice to say that the collaboration Rebecca and I had envisioned over Autumn 2011 vanished as our students marched out the door.

Virtual Meetings - The Good, The Bad and the Just Plain Horrible

In the four weeks before the student boycott, there was time to learn that students perceive an experimental course using information technology as valuable until it doesn’t work. Similar to the experience of Derek White using interactive whiteboards, students were very enthusiastic about online conferencing until… they weren’t. The feedback on our conferencing system using Adobe Connect was at times too loud for useful conversation. The background noise on the recordings sometimes made grading difficult, but Rebecca found it fun and interesting to have something to refer to when students questioned their grade or their actual participation.

The fix to the problem has been multifaceted :

  • The easiest fix of all was done last year. I deactivated my own microphone on the Adobe Connect interface. I found out that opening several virtual classrooms on my computer and keeping the microphone open in each created feedback.
  • Towards the end of last year, we began adjacent seating for students in the same discussion. Other discussions are not as disruptive, and the face-to-face aspect eases transition into a virtual environment.
  • Rebecca didn’t do this as she found her students focused on each other and not on the people in the other campus. It was too distracting to have them side by side. Just turning off their microphone when they were not speaking worked just as well for her. I also tried to get my students to follow this strategy.
  • This year, discussions play out over a two week period. In the lab, advanced students at both schools discuss while less advanced students have a different assignment. There is a lot less ambient noise, and this arrangement has allowed us to change the weekly discussion topic in order to allow less advanced students to have a simpler topic the following week. Some students find this unfair and have suggested that we do the same conversation at both levels and grade accordingly.

Conversations still lack clarity at times, but this year’s conversations are beginning to show the promise of the original concept. We have also been using Adobe Connect to broadcast guest speaker presentations to the other school. As with the conversations, each event allows us to improve.

Blogging Across All Kinds of Borders

This autumn, after the dust from the student movement settled, we realized that asynchronous communication needed to become an important part of student exchanges. This really hit home when I saw the Profweb story about the J@nus Project, a virtual class between Vanier College and Cégep Sept-Îles. When I covered Gabriel Flacks' website Newsactivist for Profweb, I began to realize that the site had potential for my classes. Newsactivist is a blogging site that allows students to post from one class to another. Our students have been blogging on a number of topics and commenting on posts with the other class. Rebecca and I are free to vary assignments as we need to, and students get writing practice, garnering reactions from their peers from several groups and feedback from their teachers in a controlled manner. We have been sending students comments on their posts using the tracking feature in Word. As we run into problems, Gabe has been around to tweak the site architecture to make the posts easier to access for students and to grade for teachers. One of the interesting dimensions that Newsactivist has brought to the project comes from its Humanities origins. Rebecca and I have built our course around ethical business, allowing us to interact with a larger audience of students using Newsactivist at an English language college in Quebec and the United States.

Although it continues to be a resource for the collaborative course, Newsactivist has not developed into what Rebecca had hoped for her other non-collaborative courses. In those, she switched from NewsActivist to the forum on LEA and found it simpler, and the students seemed to write more as they felt “safer” in a no choice non-public environment where their writing in a second language could never be shared with a larger audience. On the other hand, the sharing between classes has been an effective tool for students in the two schools to get to know one another better. Furthermore, those students who have chosen to make their posts public have been able to receive and continue to receive feedback from native speakers who are using the site in other classes.

I have also been experimenting with automated grammar correctors trying to encourage more autonomy in student writing. Virtual Writing Tutor (VWT is another find from Profweb) and the grammar checker from Word signal errors. Rebecca has also suggested that students use Grammarly Lite as she feels that it catches more mistakes than VWT. Students do an oral exposé on these errors. For my part, I flip my classroom by sending the class online quizzes containing cloze exercises, based on the writing of the student that is to present each week, created with the CCDMD’s Netquiz. Students arrive in class sensitized to the errors that their classmate is making before the presentation.

In order to make my students more conscious of structures transferred from French, I ask them to rephrase their writing into French once they have used English grammar checkers. As our project also brought in Claudie Menard at Heritage College who is teaching Le français langue des affaires, Claudie was able to use these passages for her students to return feedback to our students in French. As the semester goes on, we are looking to work more closely with the group at Heritage to give peer instruction to our teams working on their final project.

Spreading the Word

Second Language Business Classes are just one case where virtually combining cohorts can be advantageous. I’m thankful to the Entente Canada-Québec for having given me the time to experiment with the technology that makes these classes possible. Rebecca, Claudie and I would be pleased to partner with other teachers to share what we’ve learned.

If a virtual classroom would advance your pedagogical goals, contact us. Your advice and comments are always welcome.

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