We schedule asynchronous coursework to provide flexibility for online students balancing multiple commitments. But asynchronous interaction is not ideal for achieving some learning outcomes. How can students learn to converse extemporaneously in another language, for example, through entirely asynchronous exchanges? If the outcome we want is the ability to engage in an unplanned spoken exchange between interlocutors engaged in social interaction, we can’t expect to achieve it by structuring learning experiences that are entirely self-paced, independent, and asynchronous. For this reason, many Ecampus world language courses require students to hold synchronous study sessions via videoconference software with other students who serve as conversation partners. This communicative approach to instruction provides for immersive experiences, frequent interaction in the target language, and improvisation.
The remainder of this post outlines how to structure this requirement for maximum flexibility and participation. While the focus is on application within world language courses, the general assignment protocol is applicable for facilitating synchronous study sessions in any course in which students would benefit from regular, live interaction.
During the first week, facilitate a sign-up process that matches students based on availability schedules and study habits. Allow the students to choose their own partners and to outline study session guidelines so that both parties feel respected. Provide suggested videoconference software along with alternatives, and encourage students to install and test the software in advance of their planned study sessions.
Once students have identified their study partners, require them to commit to a meeting schedule. Share the approximate dates by which their meetings should occur and give an estimate of how long students will need to meet in order to complete each assignment successfully.
As you plan a synchronous component, be cognizant of the competing demands on your students’ time. Depending on your student population, requiring even a weekly study session may be unrealistic. Also be aware that, like with any independent group activity, you will need to intervene in the case of student attrition, incompatibility, and conflict. For this reason, you might stage new partner matching twice in a term or require study groups of three students each so that no student is left without partner or is consigned to a bad match for the entire term.
Before each synchronous assignment, prepare students to complete a clear task and then follow up to see how it went. For example, students might design a presentation on an assigned topic or play different sides of a conversation using assigned vocabulary and grammatical structures. If there is a deliverable, like the presentation, you’ll have some evidence of how well the study session went. If the deliverable is intangible, like conversation practice, consider asking students to record and submit a video of their meeting. Part of the assignment might require students to re-watch their conversation and identify several strengths and areas for improvement. This makes the recording beneficial for the student on top of its utility as a monitoring and assessment measure for the instructor. There is a limit, however, to the volume of recorded study sessions you’ll want to watch and grade, so you might also consider appealing to students’ academic honesty to ensure that the study sessions truly take place. For example, assign a periodic 1-question quiz that requires the student to attest to having met with their partner and then leave the study sessions otherwise ungraded.
Benefits and Extension to Assessment
Synchronous student study sessions allow you to capitalize on student-to-student learning. Although the language learners themselves will not be able to provide each other with entirely accurate target language input, nonetheless each partner will offer different skills and resources for resolving conversational challenges. On a practical level, the scheduling of student study sessions is usually more flexible than instructor-to-student meetings, because students can choose from a range of partners with varied schedules at the outset and then renegotiate meeting times as needed. You can then assess conversational skills developed through the study sessions using higher-stakes, synchronous social interactions that require more planning. For example, is the student able to converse synchronously in an oral exam with the instructor? What about speaking with interlocutors in their own community? Can the student talk with others online, outside the confines of the course?
At Ecampus, some instructors facilitate synchronous conversation with native speakers by connecting students to the online service TalkAbroad. The instructor provides TalkAbroad’s trained conversation partners with general instructions and then reviews the resultant conversation recordings on the TalkAbroad platform. Because students pay $10-$15 per conversation, instructors are mindful of the cost. For this reason, a TalkAbroad activity is usually a culminating assignment at the end of an Ecampus language course. The practice students have had in synchronous study sessions earlier in the term prepares them to get the most value out of the TalkAbroad assignment, and it reduces students’ anxiety about speaking with a more fluent interlocutor.
With this assignment protocol in mind, are you ready to try out synchronous student study sessions in your course? Ecampus world language instructors would be glad to discuss it with you further – asynchronously, of course! Synchronous discussion will require a bit more planning. But sometimes, that’s the only way to get the job done.
Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation | Group Work: How to Create & Manage Groups