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The New Normal? Remote Teaching in Asian Languages and Literature

Submitted by Elizabeth F Self on August 19, 2020 - 2:26pm
Screenshot of Professor Kaoru Ohta teaching his Japanese class online via Zoom.
Screenshot of Professor Kaoru Ohta teaching his Japanese class online via Zoom. Screenshot by Kaoru Ohta.

Following the spread of COVID-19 and the resulting global health crisis, the Department of Asian Languages and Literature moved all classes to a remote format starting at the beginning of March. On March 9, the University of Washington officially declared that all classes and exams would no longer be held in person. With this change, our faculty, teaching assistants, and students alike had to suddenly step up and meet an unprecedented challenge—both pedagogically and logistically. While many believed at the time that this move to remote teaching would be temporary, it continued through the spring and summer quarters. As a result, we have seen our students and teachers forced to adjust to the day-to-day challenges of these remote quarters—not just temporarily, but perhaps much longer than anyone could have predicted.

Our faculty have all faced these challenges bravely, but language teaching in particular poses unique challenges when conducted online. Language learning generally emphasizes student-to-student interaction and conversation practice, as well as interactive learning exercises, which can be more difficult to implement online. However, faculty in the Department of Asian Languages and Literature have done an outstanding job rising to these challenges.

For this article, I interviewed three teaching professors who teach very different classes: Kaoru Ohta, Associate Teaching Professor, who teaches first- and fourth-year Japanese; Pauli Sandjaja, Teaching Professor, who teaches all levels of Indonesian, and Liping Yu, Teaching Professor, who teaches first-year, second-year heritage, and third-year Chinese.

What changes have instructors implemented as response to teaching remotely?

For the most part, instructors told me that changes had to be made to their class plans when moved remotely. Professor Yu noted that the pace of language classes in some cases slowed when moved online, so she wasn’t able to get through as much material in one class session. The types of material covered can also change—a lot of language instructors use interactive games (like bingo or cards) to teach vocabulary or get students engaged with reviewing material; this can be hard to replicate online. Professor Sandjaja said, “I substituted a lot of digital content for games. Through Zoom, we can use online resources like YouTube videos as a replacement for other teaching materials.”  Professor Ohta noted that teaching classes remotely has made him re-think some traditional timed assessments, like exams, and that he has increased flexibility for students, especially those who may be taking quizzes or exams in other time zones.

What are some of the challenges that language instructors face when teaching remotely?

One of the biggest challenges that instructors noted was the importance of creating classroom community and cohesion early on. Professor Ohta noted, “During an in-person class, people make jokes, laugh—we all quickly realize who the class comedian is. That can be hard to get online, because everyone is usually on ‘mute.’” However, Professor Sandjaja, who teaches Indonesian language to a small class of three students, noted that although the students felt a bit awkward at first, they soon became comfortable with each other, and even expressed the desire to meet in person when it was safe to do so. Professor Yu also commented that, especially during her summer intensive online Chinese class, the students quickly became comfortable with each other. “Some students wouldn’t turn their video on at first, so it’s important to strongly encourage everyone to do that right from the start. This also keeps students from getting distracted and not paying attention in class.”

What are the benefits to teaching online?

“It’s very efficient!” Professor Sandjaja says with a laugh. “It’s much more time efficient for students. They don’t have to worry about commuting with buses running late or stopping for coffee at the Starbucks before class. Everything is already ready to go when we start class.” She noted that no one has ever been late for class since she started teaching remotely. On the other hand, Professor Ohta mentioned that teaching remotely has been really beneficial to his own teaching practice and caused him to re-examine some pedagogical principles that he always held—but he realized many were not necessary. For example, he has built more flexibility into his classes. “When I thought about it, I realized there was no need to limit the number of times a student could listen to an example sentence in a quiz, for example. These things were really not necessary. It’s a great opportunity to reflect on whether or not certain practices actually contribute to student learning.” Finally, Professor Yu notes the importance of coming together for language classes, especially during this time. During the spring quarter, she added a section on learning ways to express feelings around the pandemic, introducing vocabulary such as ‘scared’ and ‘depressed.’ She said, ‘We were able to cheer each other up in Chinese class because at the end we came to the conclusion that ‘We can be scared, but not hate; we can be quarantined, but not feel lonely.’ To me, this was not merely a language class, but a class that can nurture each other through the beauty of language.”