This week we’re interviewing Amy McTurk from French Studies in the School of Modern Languages as part of our series on remote teaching and learning. Amy is a first year PhD student and has experienced online learning from the perspective of a student and of a teacher. She thinks that teaching online poses a unique challenge for language teaching, since spoken language skills in particular are best taught and practiced face-to-face within small group settings. Amy also found herself reflecting more on how to create a welcoming and engaging atmosphere for the class when body language cues are removed. Along the way, she tells us that teaching online opens up opportunities for making teaching and learning more inclusive, and points us towards some excellent online resources for learning languages too. Finally, Amy recommends creating a separate work space when working at home to maintain a good work-life balance. Vas-y, Amy!
Could you tell us about your role at the University of St Andrews?
I am a first-year French Studies PhD student. Last semester, I taught as part of the Academic Skills Project in the School of Modern Languages. I also ran the School’s Language Café Initiative, which allows students to practice their spoken language skills outside of the classroom.
How much had you integrated the use of technology into your work before the Covid-19 outbreak?
As a student I also use online resources such as Gallica run by the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Online dictionaries such as Le Petit Robert and Larousse are very handy. I used Powerpoint when teaching my Academic Skills workshop.
What were your first thoughts when you heard that St Andrews teaching was moving online?
I thought it would be an interesting challenge, given that so much of the pedagogical approach in St Andrews is based on student interaction, often through tutorials. This also poses a unique challenge for language teaching, as speaking the language is an essential skill, and spoken language skills are usually taught and practiced face-to-face within small group settings. This involves a high level of interaction between the student and the teacher, and also between the students themselves. Moving oral classes online would, therefore, necessitate a high level of creativity to facilitate a similar experience for the learner.
How did you manage the process of moving your teaching online?
For the Academic Skills Project, one of the main aims is to ensure that the workshops are engaging and interactive – the students should be involved in practical activities rather than listening to a lecture. So, we tried to adapt our teaching plans to an online format while including this essential element of student participation. The workshops were delivered via Panopto with tutors’ emails available so that students could ask any questions. This meant that students could access the workshops anytime and anywhere. My workshop on translation techniques was formatted so that students could follow along with a text of their choice and apply the techniques that I explained as they were listening. One benefit of having these workshops online is that students can pause and rewind the theoretical explanations and do the practical tasks at their own pace.
Did the process of moving online make you think differently about your teaching and the best way to deliver it under these circumstances? Did you make any changes?
I think it made me more aware of the benefits of integrating more technology into traditional teaching methods – for example, having students submit their responses to a set of questions before the class and then considering these together could heighten participation for those students who might be less likely to answer out in a traditional classroom setting. As I am at the beginning of my teaching career, this is something I will be able to take onboard and take forward. Furthermore, moving teaching online prompted me to reflect on how to create a welcoming and engaging atmosphere for the class when body language cues are removed. I think it is even more important now to work to keep students engaged in the classroom conversation, part of which might be done through online chatrooms and polls. Finally, I think teaching online opens up opportunities for making teaching and learning more inclusive.
You are a PhD Student at the School of Modern Languages. Have you discovered any aspects of the new technology to be especially practically useful for your subject in particular?
Although I have not yet taught a literature class, I think that asking students to submit their initial responses to a text or setting some written questions ahead of the class could be useful as it allows students to reflect more deeply on the literary work than they might have otherwise done. This would also provide a basis for a meaningful and thorough discussion in an online tutorial via Teams. Online teaching potentially provides a chance for students to engage with the literature at their own pace. For my own research, having many e-books online at the Library has been great. I also use a lot of materials from libraries located in France, such as the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and many of those materials are now online too. These kinds of online resources have been very useful to me.
You also see things from the point of view of a postgraduate PhD student. How has your postgraduate student experience been?
I think the postgraduate student experience varies depending on each individual and their project, as some will have more difficulties accessing the necessary materials than others. Personally, I have been well supported by my supervisor, Professor Mary Orr, and have been able to continue with my research from home. A few issues have cropped up, for example I had planned a research trip to Paris this summer, which I have now postponed. However, being in my first year, there is a lot of other work I need to do, and I have been able to be flexible with my research focus.
What one piece of advice would you give someone based on your own experience both as a postgraduate student and as a tutor involved in teaching?
For me, the most important thing is to try and separate your workspace from the rest of your home, because it is very easy for the work-life balance to fall apart when working from home. I think having an area of the house that is specifically for working and studying is beneficial. However, if you don’t have the space to be able to do this, simple actions like lighting a scented candle when you are working can help, because then you begin to associate a specific smell with being focused on work, so it is easier to switch on and off.
Given what you know now, what would you say to someone apprehensive about moving their teaching and learning online?
It is natural to feel apprehensive in these kinds of situations, so I think being open and communicative is essential. Speaking to others in a similar position to you – a colleague, another student – can be a great way to share ideas, overcome problems, and reconnect with another person. A practical tip that I use is that if I feel nervous about an online meeting or class, I take some time to practice using the technology first. For example, before attending your first Teams meeting, you could call a friendly colleague. This way you understand where to find all the features you might need – including the mute button!
What are your favourite online resources to teach French?
For students learning languages at home, I think variety is key. Listening to songs (especially if you have the lyrics handy, for example with YouTube videos that display the lyrics in a karaoke style) is a fun way to improve your pronunciation and fluency. Podcasts are also a good way to incorporate language learning into your day – France Culture produce a range of shows on politics, history, literature, and so on.
Downloading a French news app on your phone and reading an article or two a day can be a useful way to widen your vocabulary and keep up to date with the Francophone world. There are lots to choose from – Le Monde, France 24, FrancoInfo.
I’ve also recently come across a site called Mubi, which allows anyone with an academic email address to set up a free account. It is full of great films in lots of different languages, including a good selection in French. They add new films almost every day and there are lots of subtitling options.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
No, that’s all!