author: Eneida Garcia Villanueva
Eneida is a doctoral student at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures. Her interests lie in sociolinguistics, Hispanic studies, and educational research. In her PhD, Eneida investigates Family Language Policy and Child Language Brokering.
Modern Languages students across the globe have felt most strongly the restrictions to travel resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Students at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures (SMLC) have been no exception, having been prevented from travelling, or returning shortly after their time abroad had commenced. With the stay abroad element often being the highest valued aspect of their degree (QAA, 2019), for SMLC students, the Language Year Abroad is also compulsory for Honours entry. Students spend their third year normally either working as a language assistant in a school or studying at a university. If students are studying two languages, then they spend a term of 3-months minimum abroad in their fourth year, in a place where their other language of study is spoken. This past year, I have been working as a GTA with the Senior Honours (SH) cohort, who are completing their 5th and final year, exploring how we can travel together this part of their degree from home.
As we landed in our first week, my initial impressions were that disappointment, and feelings of anxiety and uncertainty were taking a toll on students. Our students were not alone in their fears that both language and degree may suffer as a result of the coronavirus pandemic as cancellations of overseas study and internships were made (Fazackerley, 2020; Hall, 2021). In order to mitigate the impact of the lockdown and ongoing travel bans, SMLC offered two additional hours of spoken language classes per week to this SH cohort. To deliver on this remit – and considering authentic stay abroad experiences – I decided that spontaneity, unpredictability and student autonomy should be prominent in the learning design. While students knew each other quite well as they were in their final year, they had never met me before. Thus, it was rather important to nurture a positive relationship, and for the classes to be exciting, inclusive and stimulating.
Co-creation embedded in the curriculum and involving the entire cohort emerged as a fit learning strategy to adopt (Bovill, 2020). My chief goal was that students were active so attendance, engagement and attainment were increased (or at least not reduced!). I saw my role as gatekeeper to a Spanish-speaking digital space. In this regard, it was beneficial that students had not met me previously, that we had the opportunity to meet each other virtually and build rapport as it would have happened had they been able to travel. From the start, I invited them to actively collaborate to design elements of the learning process and to take control of their learning under my guidance (McCarthy and Anderson, 2000).
There are a number of strategies and activities that I envisaged to support learning. I created a dedicated Teams chat which was particularly useful to build community, provide structure as well as offering an asynchronous communication channel through which engagement could be monitored. The space, of course, also sought to provide opportunity for impromptu and informal dialogue from home, which we immediately achieved. Synchronous interactions occurred via a mixture of classes on both Zoom and Teams. For every class, I came with a bag of prepared oral activities ready to adapt to their needs. For the first half of semester one, in each week’s initial class, we normally focused on the same topics covered in the written and spoken classes. There, students conversed with each other while I provided real-time feedback in parallel through the chat. In the second class of the week, we tended to do something more social: a watch-party, games, role-plays, movies, series and music recommendations, and sometimes also discussing the news. Active learning and informal learning were also encouraged through voluntary student contributions to the #ScotlandLovesLanguages Twitter campaign. The initiative was successful in this and also gave both students and SMLC a great deal of visibility during Languages Week Scotland 2021.
Through our established feedback loop, over time students took full ownership and grew increasingly comfortable holding power in the classroom. Under the direction of the students, the class continued to evolve as their priorities shifted. If they had identified immediate needs to delve into a specific topic, then they had space to speak up at the beginning of class. My input to guide the discussion of topics that students found more challenging was to add a creative element to the conversation. In some of the sessions we used role-playing activities where students acted out an imaginary role. In some other sessions, we organised a debate for students to argue their position and subsequently change sides (McCarthy and Anderson, 2000). Self-evaluation and decision making rested with the students, and the result was a class fully designed by them meeting the needs they identified week on week.
To inform future practice, I asked students their opinions on these speaking activities, and while response to role-plays varied, all students agreed that debating on a given topic both for an against provides opportunity for analytical and critical thinking.
Co-creation, in my experience, definitely requires flexibility, adaptability and some degree of improvisation. With greater levels of student agency and empowerment, we are shifting from teacher-centred to a fully student-centred approach – where students are in control and can make changes as they progress.
Fostering autonomy in this Senior Honours class translated into well-attended classes with students exercising their freedom to decide what they wanted to do; they have self-reflected on their learning journey and negotiated with me and each other elements of their learning process. Overall, it appears that students found these additional oral classes intellectually stimulating and that learning was supported. Not knowing what the future holds, co-creation permits an inclusive compatible approach to build positive relationships in learning and teaching.
Bovill, C. (2020). Co-creation in learning and teaching: the case for a whole-class approach in higher education. Higher Education, 79, 1023–1037.
Fazackerley, A. (2020). UK language students prepare for virtual year abroad in their bedrooms. The Guardian.
Hall, R. (2021). Thousands of UK language students left in limbo as Brexit hits travel plans. The Guardian.
McCarthy, J. P. and Anderson, L. (2000). Active learning techniques versus traditional teaching styles: Two experiments from history and political science. Innovative higher education, 24, 279–294.
Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) (2019). Subject Benchmark Statement. Languages, Cultures and Societies.