“Are you even my student?” – Teaching and assessing language skills online: a continuing challenge

-Justine Huet (2021-04-15)

As willing and eager to learn a language you might be, asynchronous language teaching and learning is not a viable pedagogical option (looking at you Rosetta Stone and Duolinguo).

Language learning requires practice with peers in the form of in-person conservations, role-playing and spontaneous conversations. And it also requires some form of oral assessment. In person, this is no ordinary feat, but doing it online is a different beast.

So, picture yourself in the following situation: here comes one of your students, you have never heard or seen (courtesy of the “Google Meet void”), ready for their language oral exam:

Prof X (congenially): « Hello X ! How has your day been going? ».

Student X (impassionedly): « It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t professor».

Quite a droll answer, for sure … but for a beginner language class, that is inarguably a major red flag. If this sounds like a farce, well this is certainly not one to language instructors at MRU who all teach synchronously.

Among the main challenges, knowing whether students are truly present is probably the most daunting one. Most of them don’t turn their microphones, let alone their cameras on. While language students are generally eager to participate and practice their language skills, the virtual platform seems off-putting to most of them.

Besides the challenges to teaching and learning new material, online learning also raises the issue of academic integrity:  the online format is undoubtedly encouraging academic misconduct. All language classes have some form of oral assessment. If the student decides to not show themselves and if they never participate in class, the instructor has no way of knowing whether they are dealing with their student or a native language parent or friend of said student. In some language classes, students magically changed their voice from one exam to the next, seemingly becoming language virtuoso overnight. Proving that the student cheated is both taxing and difficult. When confronted with the ‘incriminating material’, the student can say they had a cold or that their recording device was not functioning properly. Even if the instructor confronts them or tells the Chair, this is a very delicate situation.

Instructors also had to lower their expectations when it came to writing because students could cheat with online translation tools: some students who could barely string three words together were suddenly the new Marcel Proust. Instead, many instructors favoured speaking and comprehension skills with some success.

There are thankfully small triumphs. Games (Quizlet, Wordwall, Kahoot) worked and even prompted some shy and fleeting apparitions. Breakout rooms (once Google actually figured it out) were a great success and a lifesaver for language classes. And, finally, the online format allowed for some “fun” new ways to connect with each other.  For one oral activity, students had to film or audio record what they were doing ; some showed what they were cooking, others commented on a walk in their neighbourhood.

Online learning and teaching has definitely pushed the envelope in language classes. Whether the future for language learning is online remains to be seen…or, rather, heard.