For the past few years I have had a gnawing feeling that my Ukrainian curriculum felt stale. No matter how many modern topics I included, how many innovative classroom activities I implemented, it felt like when my students were going home they were still interacting with their homework in a traditional way. They did exercises from the book, supplemented by assignments I developed on my own. However, during the 2017-18 academic year I was finally able to break from this somewhat outdated model. This year in my Ukrainian 151/251 classes, I experimented with introducing blended components to my classroom.
A blended component is a web based assignment which forces students to work with authentic target language materials to the fullest extent of their abilities. It may be as simple as watching an episode of a Ukrainian show and completing supplementary activities, or as involved as working through a custom-made module on how Ukrainians sometimes shun grammatical conventions in speech. These types of materials present a major advantage, but also have one drawback which I will address later. The advantage is that students are inherently more interested in authentic materials than grammar textbooks. The blended assignments present a guided path to comprehending authentic content that may otherwise seem daunting to the students. For example, it is difficult for a second-year student to just sit down and watch a show in Ukrainian. However, given some cultural background, a list of vocabulary, and methods for how to deal with segments that are beyond the students’ level, the students happily engage with authentic material. Unlike in the classroom where time is limited, students can work through these assignments at their own pace since they are given ample time to complete the work.
The only major disadvantage is how much time goes into preparing these types of assignments. Compared to traditional homework assignments, blended modules can take almost three or four times as long to prepare. Therefore, they are almost impossible to design “on the fly” during a busy semester; they must instead be written during the summer. Once the course is developed, it does not take significantly more time to run or grade, but the up-front workload is heavy. For this reason, given the relatively low pay of lecturers, additional funding to develop the course is indispensable to developing these courses. Our pilot program was funded through CRLT (Center for Research on Language and Teaching), which we glowingly recommend as a resource for anybody at the University of Michigan who is interested in developing their curriculum.
It is my professional opinion that blended components greatly increase the value of a foreign language course, particularly for intermediate and advanced students. This year’s cohort of Ukrainian students advanced significantly further in their mastery of the language than in previous years. I would be overjoyed to be able to bring blended components into all of my foreign language classes.