Leveraging Curricular Consistency

Faculty Focus: Dawn Heston, Department of Romance Languages and Literature

“Directing a course with over 20 sections is not easy, but it is certainly made easier by the Blackboard learning management system,” says Dawn Heston, Assistant Teaching Professor of Spanish. “Our Blackboard course site makes it so much easier to distribute information to large groups of students – and ensure that all students in all sections receive equivalent information about tests, projects and course materials.” However, that is not the only use of Blackboard relevant to the Elementary Language course she directs. It also serves as a wonderful repository of activities and materials to enhance the course – and bring the content to life for students.

Recently featured in the online educational technology magazine, Converge, Dawn’s use of YouTube videos as a source of authentic materials allows for the integration of real-life contexts for communication. Numerous videos including news clips, advertisements, video tours, and interviews add to the course materials – increasing the student attention on the relevance of studying Spanish.

“It is an attempt to bring the Spanish-speaking world to the student in the hopes that he or she will choose to study abroad and use it there in the future.” Student understanding of the relevance and real-life application of what is studied in class enhances student motivation. “It is quite easy to embed YouTube videos in a Blackboard course site. Finding the perfect video – that is the challenge!”

It may seem like looking for the proverbial ‘needle in a haystack’ – but many times, Dawn has found materials through a ‘happy accident’.

“One day, I was looking for a video that had to do with daily routines. Instead I found a fabulous public service announcement, ‘La salud está en tus manos,’ created by the Mexican Government in Health and Human Services about the importance of washing your hands to avoid the flu virus. It was intended for children, so the language used was accessible and had great visuals. I ended up using it during our health unit where students learn how to explain their symptoms to a doctor.”

The added benefit of the course site is the materials are there semester after semester, organized by thematic unit. Of course, with YouTube videos, instructors need to verify that it has not been removed, but most are relatively stable.

Newspaper articles are also extremely useful. Newseum provides a section called Today’s Front Pages that includes front pages of newspapers worldwide in portable document format (.pdf). This way, comparisons may easily be made in coverage or topic. They are also searchable by region, so one can easily find materials.

The course site is also host to a wealth of other materials including assessments. There are online audio quizzes, web site reading materials that must be evaluated to complete specific tasks, and a Wiki where students may post their multimedia projects toward the end of the semester. “We try to vary the type of assessment, so that we offer something that allows every type of student to display their strengths in using the language.”

Dawn explains in Spanish that the item she is holding is an arpillera, a handcrafted item from Peru. It is a three-dimensional craft made entirely by cloth through traditional sewing techniques. This arpillera is a colorful agricultural scene that includes people, vegetables, cacti and llamas.

Another benefit to the course site, is the ability to post materials for teachers as well as students. With a turnover rate of approximately 2-3 years for the average graduate instructor, it is important for the course to have continuity and stability. The common materials, such as textbooks are provided to the instructors, but having additional materials posted can also assist the instructors in their day-to-day interaction with students.

There is a folder on the site visible only to instructors, where additional materials, drafts of exams and teaching tips may be posted. This helps to enhance communication with instructors and is intended as additional support beyond the pre-semester and during semester teacher training sessions.

In the future, Dawn hopes to add even more materials to the course; possibly enhancing the interpersonal communications between sections or possibly with students at another school. But for now, Heston is adjusting to the new version of Blackboard, and simply where to find everything within the new interface.

“I’ve always had the help and support I needed from the ET@MO staff, and I think version 9 of the Blackboard system is more visually appealing – more like a web site. And with our tech-savvy, visually-oriented students we need to focus our energies on appeal, relevance and authenticity.”