Research Project – Virtual Learning at Adult School

online school by Nawicon from the Noun Project

Summary

Research Question: What does virtual class mean to adults in the adult school Spanish class? How do they talk about virtual learning?

As the Spanish class that I have taken at the adult school changed to virtual settings, I noticed that older adults were having some problems with the class. 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. As a result, I created the virtual class design principles.

Meaning of Online Class: Students felt that they were still getting benefits of learning.


Benefits

  1. Saves time and energy
  2. Smaller class size

Challenges

  1. Technical difficulties
  2. Fewer social activities
  3. Interrupted by others

Virtual Class Design Principles

  1. Give clear and detailed instructions about tools used in the class
  2. Use the minimum number of tools
  3. Use breakout rooms

Issue

I have taken Spanish classes at adult school since I moved to the bay area because I wanted to be closer to the Spanish-speaking community. As the pandemic started, the class changed to the virtual setting, and I noticed that older adults were having problems with the class. The class was delayed many times from technical difficulties. For this reason, I chose to research accessibility for older adults’ virtual learning for my qualitative research method class project. I wanted to know about their experiences and what problems they have with online learning.

My research question was, “What does virtual class mean to adults in the adult school Spanish class? How do they talk about virtual learning?”

It is crucial to make virtual learning tools easier to learn and use. Adult schools in local communities give adults opportunities to learn new skills and languages, and it has been inevitable to change the classrooms to virtual settings because of COVID-19. Even after the pandemic ends, virtual classes can benefit adult learning for safety and convenience. Therefore, educators in adult schools need to know how virtual language classes work and what students say about the classes.

Methods

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

  1. Four interviews with students in a Spanish class at a local adult school
  2. Diary study and follow-up interview with a student in two Spanish classes at a local adult school
  3. Observation of a virtual Spanish class at a local adult school

Interviews

I interviewed four adults about their experiences at the Spanish class at a local adult school.

I tried to recruit interviewees with different backgrounds and age groups to get diverse perspectives from the interviewees. The research question that I wanted to answer did not require standardized and quantitative research where it is hard to bring unexpected and open answers to the questions. Therefore, I used qualitative research, in this case, interviews, to get open and surprising perspectives from others.

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 other interviewees said they only studied one day a week and wanted to know if a student with two classes has different study habits. I wanted to know what the participant experienced every day in her Spanish learning routine.

Observation

I did an observation in one of the classes. The class was after all the interviews, but I wanted to observe the things that did not come out from the interviews. In this observational research, I was the known investigator, a fellow student in the class. Therefore, it was not an invasive setting, but I had to be careful not to make biases.

Analysis

I transcribed and used Airtable to analyze interview data.

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 she taught.

Benefits of virtual Spanish classes

1. Save time and energy

Not traveling to class kept coming up during 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.

I don’t have to go anywhere. Up until two minutes before the class, I could be doing something else. So that’s really convenient. I actually wouldn’t mind staying this way

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 have enough energy in a virtual classroom setting even after class.

2. Smaller class

This class as engaging as if I were in the in-person class because the class is small.

As the class changed to virtual, the number of students in a class decreased, possibly because people were not sure about virtual classes. It was more than 15 students per class, but it became under ten students per class. Students usually had fewer opportunities to do the activities or answer the teacher’s questions in an in-person class, but they had more opportunities in a virtual setting because there are fewer students than in 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 in using tools and joining the class.

  • Unfamiliar tools

Some of the interviewees brought up the technical difficulties from the last semester (summer). The teacher used Google Classroom to share the documents, and there were many problems regarding the tool. Many students kept having problems accessing, so they had to spend at least three sessions just to solve technical problems.

  • Hard to join the class

I have to keep the link to the class protected, to make sure I don’t lose them, because I’ll never get to class. That’s really a problem. I should figure out how I keep those links protected on reoccurring.

The most surprising technical difficulty was struggling to join the class. The teacher sends the link to the online class on the day of the first class through the email. 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 looks through the whole email list. He joined the class 20 minutes late one day because he could not find the link.

2. Lack of social activities

There’s a social aspect that’s totally missing in zoom. I met a couple people last summer. We met for a coffee and some Spanish chatting as well as some socializing.

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. 1-to-1 conversation practices are hard to happen in online classes. Students only talk when the teacher picked to do the activities in the book. 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.

She acts like her personal class. She’s so loud. She’s talking over the teacher all the time, it’s really hard for the rest of us. 

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 continuing interruption.

Recommendations for people who design online language classes for adults

1. Give clear and detailed instructions about tools used in the class

Before a semester starts a teacher should provide clear and detailed instructions about the tools that that will use in the class. If there is a syllabus, the syllabus should have 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 before a semester starts. For example, if a teacher sends a Zoom link only once, you should give the instructions or links to pages that explain how to star emails, to save link, or to search emails.

2. 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 tools 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.

3. 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 they can discuss. With small instruction, students can get to know each other and practice the language at the same time.

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 a usual amount of 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.

Implications

Separately from this qualitative research, I had a chance to talk about virtual learning with current graduate students in their 20s for the in-class interview activity for another class. Graduate students said they had some technical difficulties during the class, but those were all because of an unstable internet connection. The graduate students did not experience technical difficulties with joining the class and using different tools in the class. Also, they did not talk about being interrupted by other students because students mute themselves or instructors mute students unless they are willing to talk.

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’ everyday studying habits in Adult School Spanish class.