Graciela Vidal, Lecturing Fellow, Romance Studies
Graciela Vidal was one of fourteen faculty and one graduate student who participated in a Spring 2010 CIT Fellowship for language faculty interested in exploring with colleagues the most effective and most efficient ways to increase students’ oral production in the target language, in order to increase students’ language learning.
Vidal serves as the course coordinator for Spanish 105: Discourse Strategies through Politics, Culture, and Society, organizing 5 sections of the course. The objective of Spanish 105 is to develop students’ Spanish speaking and listening skills through readings, videos, discussions, and other tasks on three main themes: politics, culture, and society, as well as to challenge students to think critically about cultural issues pertaining to Spanish speaking people.
To accomplish these objectives, students do a number of oral assignments: oral forums, group and individual class presentations, voice chats, recorded oral exams, debates or round tables, interviews of native speakers of Spanish, and a podcast. Most of these assignments are assessed with the help of rubrics, to ensure inter-rater reliability. In the case of exams (presentations, oral exams, round tables, interview, podcast), both content and grammar are evaluated. For the other projects assessment is mostly done on content and some grammar feedback is provided.
To achieve the linguistic, content, and academic enhancement objectives of the course, Vidal wanted to provide students with creative tools which would enable them to express their thoughts in Spanish in more original and varied ways. She decided to use VoiceThread for all sections of Spanish 105 during the Spring 2010 semester, expanding a successful one-section pilot of VoiceThread from the Fall 2009 semester.
VoiceThread is a tool to “talk about and share your images, documents, and videos,” which was extremely useful for this course. Students can, through the use of VoiceThread, work collaboratively to develop their language learning, by sharing comments, ideas, pictures, videos, and other documents.
More specifically, VoiceThread assignments replaced the pre-existing Wimba Voice Chat task, which Vidal felt were more like an artificial series of monologues rather than a conversation, and for which, additionally, the Voice Chat tool had been recently discontinued.
Vidal reported that the use of VoiceThread led to a more engaging task for students, as well as more reflection on ideas, which in turn led to critical thinking. She wrote:
As Warschauer says, “Time and place independent communication extends the potential of online collaboration in several ways. First it allows for more in-depth analysis and critical reflection, because email can be answered more deliberatively than synchronous messages.” Email, though, is not the only “time-and-place-independent communication” tool available; VoiceThread also falls under this category.
Vidal surveyed Spanish 105 students informally during the semester and also at the end of the semester to find out their thoughts about the VoiceThread activities. In spite of a few technical difficulties in the beginning as the students learned how to use VoiceThread, students were very pleased with all of the VoiceThread assignments. Students also stated that VoiceThread was more exciting than other activities due to its collaborative nature. All 26 of the students that filled out the written end-of-class survey recommended VoiceThread’s use in the Fall 2010 semester. Twenty-two of the 26 students agreed that it was useful to improve fluency, and they said it was useful (or somewhat useful) to improve critical thinking and the use of varied Spanish structures. This positive feedback encouraged Vidal, and suggested that VoiceThread be used in Fall 2010 and beyond. In order to improve the development of critical thinking skills, the VoiceThread prompts will be enhanced.
In addition, all students agreed that the feedback they received on their VoiceThread assignments was useful (and even expected). Therefore, instructors of Spanish 105 in future semesters will be asked to provide feedback on grammar, vocabulary, and content/organization using a rubric developed in Spring 2010 (see below).
Students in Spring 105 voted to select a rubric to assessment their VoiceThread assignments. Most students voted for a holistic rubric that evaluates students’ performance on a scale of A/B/F. On this rubric, A represents work where objectives of the particular assignment were completed satisfactorily; B represents work where objectives were only partially completed; and F is for work that was not submitted. This rubric makes it simple for instructors to assess students’ work, it provides space for instructors to provide specific feedback, and it will encourage students to experiment with the language without fearing that every mistake will be counted against them.
Suggestions to optimize VoiceThread use:
- Organize an orientation session for students (in class) on how to use VoiceThread.
- Give students a week since the prompt is assigned for students to submit it.
- Vary the assignment prompts
- Prepare prompts that encourage student collaboration and/or more active participation (for example, by adding their own material. Students specifically noted that they liked those types of prompts better)
- Make sure the content of VoiceThread assignments is brought to class through discussions or other activities.
Warschauer, Mark. (1997). The Modern Language Journal 81, Computer-Mediated Collaborative Learning: Theory and Practice. Department of ESL, University of Hawai’i at Manoa. http://www.gse.uci.edu/person/warschauer_m/docs/cmcl.pdf.