Blended courses and online teaching veterans share insights at 2006 CIBER Business Language Conference.

Constance Bates, associate professor, Management and International Business Department

While online and blended (partly online, partly on-site classroom instruction) course formats bring convenience and flexibility to students, they require a complete overhaul in the way professors present material—a potentially painful process that two professors from Florida International University recently made a little easier.

In a paper titled “Teaching Spanish for Business and International Business Using an Online Format,” Constance Bates, associate professor in the Management and International Business Department, and Maida Watson, professor of modern languages in the College of Arts & Sciences, offered helpful advice to participants in the 2006 Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER) Business Language Conference. The idea for the presentation evolved from discussions the two professors had about challenges they had faced as they responded to the increasing demand for online and blended courses.

Learning how to deal with surprises.

Maida Watson, professor of modern languages, College of Arts & Sciences

“There are a great many surprises, and what we tried to do was alert teachers who are new to web-based instruction about how to deal with those unexpected occurrences,” Bates said. “For many of us, our whole orientation has been on giving lectures, interacting with students face-to-face on a regular basis, and structuring our courses around a few milestones such as a midterm, a major paper, and a final.”

That formula doesn’t work in the online and blended course world. For example, Bates realized that assigning long research papers puts a burden on the professor who must print them all out, or read them on the monitor, and then figure out a way to provide feedback to the students.

“Among many changes, I have come to rely less on tests and papers and more on my students’ performance on exercises I assign frequently,” she said. “I constantly develop exercises that will keep students engaged as they read the text, and I think about ways to structure exams that can be computer-graded with accuracy.”

In the case of teaching a language online, Watson also discovered a number of challenges.

“There is the challenge of teaching the audio portion of a language and the skill of putting words together into sentences that communicate,” she said. “There is also the difficulty of establishing rapport with students when you don’t see their faces or hear their voices—both very important in teaching a language. Finally, there is the challenge of evaluating students’ language skills without that aspect of the language learning situation.”

Benefits exist in the web-enhanced process.

However, the challenges can be met—and there are benefits to faculty as well as to students.

“The college’s online learning capabilities provide an exceptional level of knowledge and support as we rethink how to approach the material in a technology-enabled course,” Bates said.

She also acknowledges the value of learning new skills.

“On the one hand, starting over is hard because we can’t use techniques that we know and are comfortable with,” she said. “But with the support from our college’s Online Learning team, we are learning new techniques and are benefiting from the experiences of others, which is helpful, as is communicating our knowledge to each other. Even though Dr. Watson and I think of ourselves as amateurs, we learned that our experiences are beyond those of many colleagues at other universities.”

The university’s CIBER was a co-sponsor of the 2006 conference, which was titled “Matters of Perspective: Culture, Communication, and Commerce.” Held in April at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, the conference brought together educators and administrators—from kindergarten through college—representing the fields of foreign language, cultural and area studies, business, and management.

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