Research Project – Virtual Learning at Adult School

online school by Nawicon from the Noun Project

Summary

Research Question: How do adults in Adult School Spanish class talk about virtual learning? What does virtual class mean to adults in Adult School Spanish Class?

As the Spanish class that I have taken at the adult school changed to virtual settings, I have noticed that older adults were having some problems with the class. For this reason, I chose to research accessibility for older adults for my qualitative research method class project. I interviewed four adults in the Spanish class at the adult school, conducted a diary study and a follow-up interview with one adult, and observed one of the synchronous online classes. All of the students felt they ate still getting benefits from the learning with virtual settings. And they liked that they do not have to travel to class. However, one of the most notable findings was that older adults did not recognize the gap in digital skills, so could not close the gap. For the people who design online language classes for adults, I recommend to create a syllabus for the class, use the minimum number of tools, and use breakout rooms for speaking practice.


Issue

Due to the spread of COVID-19 in the area, Mountain View / Los Altos Adult School ended one class early in the winter semester and canceled the spring semester. The school started fully virtual in the summer and continued virtually in the fall. As a student in an adult school Spanish class myself, I was curious about how other people feel about the class. I thought it might be different from my experience because I was the youngest student in the class. Based on the previous research (Czaja & Sharit, 1998), older people perceived less comfort, efficacy, and control over computers. Also, I had a lot of virtual learning experience as a graduate student whose program is also fully online. With this interest, I try to understand how adults in the adult school Spanish class talk about virtual learning and what virtual class means to them.

Methods

My research question is, “How do adults in Adult School Spanish class talk about virtual learning? What does virtual class mean to adults in Adult School Spanish Class?” All research methods were used to understand students’ experiences at the adult school Spanish class after the class changed to a virtual setting.

To understand the experiences of students, I used the following methods:

  1. Four interviews with students who are taking a Spanish class at Mountain View / Los Altos Adult School
  2. Diary study and follow-up interview with a student who is taking two Spanish classes at Mountain View / Los Altos Adult School
  3. Observation of a virtual Spanish class of Mountain View / Los Altos Adult School

All participants were in the same Spanish 2 class that started in September 2020 and ended in December 2020.

Interviews
I started with the interviews by asking questions about interviewees’ experiences at the Spanish class at Mountain View / Los Altos Adult School. I recruited the participants through the Spanish 2A class. During the class, I announced that I was researching virtual Spanish learning at adult schools and recruiting participants for the research. They gave me the email addresses during the class, and then I reached out to set up the interview schedule. All of the interviews were done through Zoom and lasted for approximately an hour.

Since I also had a virtual Spanish learning experience, I wanted to know the interviewees’ diverse perspectives. For that purpose, I tried to recruit interviewees with different backgrounds – a white man over 65, a white woman over 65, a Persian woman in her 50s, and an Asian woman in her 50s. The research question that I wanted to answer does not require producing standardized and quantitative answers, so I did not choose to use survey data for this research. Rather than the survey research where it is hard to get unexpected and open answers to the questions, I used qualitative research, in this case, interviews, to get open and surprising perspectives from others.

I had the interview guide questions to guide me through the interview, but I did not go strictly to the interview guide. In one interview, the interviewee completely led the interview. In this particular interview, I asked less than a quarter of the questions in the interview guide, but the interviewee touched upon all the points that I wanted to ask about her virtual learning experience.

Diary Study and Follow-up Interview

I used a diary study with one participant who took two Spanish classes in adult school to capture the participant’s everyday Spanish learning experience. I used a diary study because the interviewees could miss small details of their experiences with the interview process if it was not a notable event. For example, when participants had a difficult question in homework or a hard time answering the teacher’s question, there is a high chance that they would not remember the incident a few days later because it is not notable. With the diary study, I wanted to know what the participant experienced every day while studying Spanish or taking the class.

During the interview, the focus was on the online lectures, not different kinds of everyday activities that they can learn the language outside of class like listening to the podcast or watching Spanish shows. I wanted to know what methods she used to study Spanish and how she used them to achieve her daily goal of studying.

To get a different perspective of the research, the diary study participant was an Asian woman in her 30s. I asked her whether it was a typical day for her, how she studied Spanish that day, and how her study was.

Observation
I did an observation in one of the classes. The class was after all the interviews, so I already had a good understanding of how people think about virtual Spanish class, but I wanted to observe the things that did not come out from the interviews. In this observational research, I was the known investigator, who knew everyone in the class, and had known the people and their characteristics. Therefore, it was not an invasive setting, but I had to be careful not to make confirmation bias.

Analysis

I used Airtable to analyze interview data.

Why is this important?
According to the research about technology use (Vogels, 2019), the oldest generation, the Silent Generation, who were born before 1945, have difficulty in adopting new technologies. The age distribution of the class I studied leaned towards the older population. 75% of the class is over 50 years old, and half of the class is over 65 years old. So a virtual classroom setting might not be as comfortable as for younger generations. However, Vogels (2019) also reported that internet use increased for older generations for the past several years. Therefore, I believe that it is crucial to make virtual learning tools easier to learn and use. Online education for K-12 and college students is dealt with in a lot of literature, but not much literature talks about adult school virtual classes. Adult schools in local communities give adults some opportunities to learn new skills and languages. It has been inevitable to change the classrooms to virtual settings because of COVID-19, but there might be more virtual classes for adults even after this ends because there are some benefits like the safety and the convenience of time and space (Valentine, 2002). Therefore, educators in adult school need to know how the virtual language classes work and what students say about the classes.

What does a virtual Spanish class mean to the students?
As students did not have class during the spring semester this year due to COVID-19, all interviewees were happy to take the class even in a virtual setting. One of the interviewees said, “I am grieving over the loss of face to face teaching, but I’m still getting the benefits of the learning.” This comment captures well what this class means to the students. Even though interviewees had different opinions about whether they like online learning or not, they felt they are still getting benefits of the learning. They appreciated the teacher’s effort to organize this class and happy about how the class is done.

Benefits of virtual Spanish classes

1. No need to travel
Not traveling to class kept coming in the interviews as the biggest benefit of virtual classrooms. All interviewees said the best thing about having virtual classes is that there is no need to travel to classes. Since the class ends at 9 pm, it would be a huge burden for them to attend the in-person class because it will be 9:30 pm if they come home after class. So 30 minutes before and after the class are saved with the online classes. One of the interviewees said it only takes a few minutes to go to class, so she can do other things until two minutes before the class starts. 

In addition to saving time, interviewees also claimed that they are saving a lot of energy since they do not have to drive to the class at night. They said they could not do anything on the night of the in-person Spanish class because they were tired; they had to travel, even though it was at most 30 minutes, and physically sit in the classroom. However, they have enough energy in a virtual classroom setting even after class because they did not leave the house. One of the interviewees said that the fact that she does not have to travel is a huge benefit for her, so she does not want to go back to an in-person setting even after COVID-19.

2. Smaller class
As the class changed to virtual, the number of students in a class significantly decreased possibly because people were not used to virtual classes. Before, it was more than 15 students per class, but it was reduced to under ten students per class. According to Pate-Bain et al. (1992), students in small classes showed a significantly higher achievement scale. It is obviously bad for the profit of the adult school, but students have better class experiences with a smaller number of students per class. They usually have fewer opportunities to do the activities or answer the teacher’s questions in the in-person class, but they have more opportunities in a virtual setting because there are fewer students than an in-person class.

Challenges of virtual Spanish class

1. Technical difficulties
Most interviewees had minor issues with the technology either before or during class, but their issues were diverse. Some of the problems that came out from the interviews and observations were the difficulty to join the class and unstable devices.

The first and most surprising technical difficulty was struggling to join the class. The link to the online class was sent on the day of the first class. The teacher sent the link through the email, and the class is using the same link for the whole semester, so she does not send the link again. Most interviewees said they joined the class with the link to Zoom class that they saved to the calendar app or starred email, but one of the interviewees said that he joins the class by looking for the email that the teacher sent every time he joins the class. He does not search for the email but just looks through the whole email list. He joined the class 20 minutes late one day because he could not find the link. Looking at the invitation that I sent him for the interview, he does not use the calendar app for managing his schedule. He is one of the oldest students in the class, over 70, and that might be why he does not use an online calendar to keep track of his schedule.

One of my interviewees could not turn her camera on. Since turning cameras on is recommended by the teacher, she wanted to turn on her camera, but it was not working. She could not figure out what was happening, but the camera came back after about 10 minutes. In the interview later, she told me that it was frustrating to keep everyone from the class because of her technical problem. Throughout the interview, the notable concern was that she might waste other people’s time. Interestingly, she said she did not feel bad when other people had some technical problems even though they were wasting her time. 

Some of the interviewees brought up the incidents they had with technology from the last semester (summer). The teacher used Google Classroom to share the documents, and there were many problems regarding the access to Google Classroom because someone in the adult school was an administrator for that, not the teacher. Many students kept having problems accessing, so they had to spend at least three sessions just for the technical stuff. However, the teacher decided to minimize the number of tools in class – email for the documents and Zoom for the class. And that made everyone’s life easier. The teacher adapted to virtual adult education as the semester went by. She had to try different ways for her adult school class from her high school class. 

2. Lack of social aspect
The drawback that everyone brought was a lack of social interaction in the class, which leads to fewer opportunities to practice Spanish speaking. The interviewees said that they had some time to talk to other students in Spanish or do the presentations to the class in an in-person setting, but those opportunities drastically decreased in virtual classes. After learning new content, they did 1-to-1 conversation practices in the in-person classes. They said it was a good practice to use what they learned in real-life conversation. One of the interviewees said that she even met with other students after class to do the homework and practice Spanish together. However, it is hard to do in online classes because people will have to talk over others, which will create chaos. Based on the observation, students talk when they do the activities in the book. The teacher picks one person to do the activity. So it is hard to talk with other students. I believe this classroom setting is one reason that one of the interviewees said that she feels like she is in 1-to-1 class, like a private Spanish tutor.
3. Irritated by other students
One of the interviewees honestly told me that she was irritated by another student because that student talks over other people and sometimes she could not listen to the teacher. While observing class, that student talked over the teacher and other students. She also answered other students’ activities even though the teacher called a different person.

I found this issue is related to the comment about feeling like it was a private class rather than the group class. It is important to understand this person to capture the reason why she talks over other people. She uses her phone to attend the class. She puts her phone to see the screen that the teacher shares and her book to look at the contents. Unlike other students who use their computers to go to the class, she cannot see other students’s faces on the screen because her screen is too small to have both the shared screen and other students. In online classes, the classroom setting is different for everyone, and everyone has different situations. So, even though people are generous about other people having technical difficulties in the class, sometimes, people get annoyed by others when the problem continues.

Limitations

I tried to minimize my bias during the whole research process, but I knew it was impossible to achieve, even without considering the nature of participant observation research. I was a classmate of the participants, and in the observation, I was a participant who was taking the same class. This might have influenced their answers to the questions and their behaviors.

Diary study did not work well in this study because she did not spend much time studying Spanish on the week of diary study due to her moving. However, with the follow-up interview, I could better understand what her typical Spanish study is like, and I could use that data in this research.

The participants in this research are who decided to stay in the class even after changing to virtual. It was the second semester to do the virtual class, so the students who are in the current class are the people who tried and successfully continued the class. Therefore, the positive opinion about the virtual Spanish learning experience might not be valid to the people who dropped out after the class changed to virtual.

For further research to understand how adults in Adult School Spanish class talk about virtual learning and what virtual class means to adults in Adult School Spanish Class, I want to do more interviews with the students in other Spanish classes and the ones in the Spanish classes with different teachers, and the people who dropped out of the class after changing to virtual. Besides the interview, I want to conduct another round of diary study with different timing to capture adults’ every day studying habits in Adult School Spanish class.

Recommendations for people who design online language classes for adults

  1. Create a syllabus for the class

Before a semester starts, a teacher should create a syllabus. It should include what the students should expect to do in the class, what kind of technology they will use, how they use the technology, and how to enter the class. You should design a class assuming that the students do not  know how to use those technologies and guide them in the syllabus.

For example, if a teacher sends a Zoom link only once, you should give the instructions or at least links to pages that explain starred emails, calendars, or search email.

  1. Use the minimum number of tools

Learning new tools for the class can be overwhelming for some people. You should use a minimum number of technology and try to stick with the ones that students are familiar with. Try to find out what technology students are comfortable with and design the class with that technology. It will save so much time from learning new technology.

  1. Use breakout rooms

It is hard for students to talk to each other in online classrooms. Give them the opportunity to talk to each other by sending them to breakout rooms with the topic that they can talk about. With a small instruction, students can get to know each other and practice the language at the same time.