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Digital DIY

Kristal Bivona shows how creating their own digital workbooks can enthuse students of all levels and all languages 

Teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) spoiled me—the shelves of books at English schools, the textbook series with multiple levels, the countless digital resources, the ready-made curricula, and the online community of thousands of EFL teachers scattered throughout the world. Indeed, there is a great deal of investment in the industry of teaching English to speakers of other languages, and the tools developed with this investment spoiled me. Currently, as a Portuguese instructor, my library is a single shelf, and there are fewer online resources and only a handful of colleagues with whom to collaborate. 

Teaching a less commonly taught language has prompted me to be more creative and has even afforded me the freedom to experiment in my courses. In this article, I will describe how integrating HTML5 through an open-source tool known as H5P into my class enabled me to write a digital workbook that I can reuse or revise every time I teach the same course. I hope that my experience can show instructors of other less commonly taught languages (LCTL) that with technology, we can use authentic materials to create visually pleasing and dynamic digital materials that even grade themselves.

Fear Not the Technology

Anecdotally, I have heard that, like many other professionals, some teachers fear that we will be replaced by machines. Online courses and language-learning apps exist, and they are not going away. My department switched to a hybrid model for lower-level language courses, cutting down our contact hours with students (our pay was not affected), while increasing the hours that students spent completing activities online. The explicit instruction of grammar and vocabulary became part of the online self-study component, and class time focused exclusively on student-centered, communicative activities that practiced the new forms and vocabulary students acquired on their own. When I had the chance to teach second-year Portuguese, courses that had previously been instructed by visiting faculty and had no set textbook or curriculum, I decided to continue this hybrid model to which the students were already accustomed. Designing and teaching a course for the first time requires more prep time than teaching a course one has already taught, and I was willing to put in the time designing my own material after realizing that there were only a few options for intermediate-level textbooks and not all of them were easily available—I am sure other LCTL instructors can relate to the dearth of readily available materials after the beginner level. 

In consultation with my language program director, the instructional technology coordinator at UCLA’s Center for Digital Humanities (CDH), and CDH’s team of research and instructional technology consultants, I began creating curricula for second-year Portuguese that would include a substantial online component. My ultimate goal was to have a digital text that could be reused in the future, easily updated, and revised, and that would grade itself. After testing out different possibilities for content creation, I chose to use H5P.

Why H5P?

Among the other options available at my institution, H5P stood out to me for aesthetic reasons. It is easy to read and makes beautiful activities that can include images and video. H5P is also easy to use. But what is it? H5P is a web plugin that is free and open technology. It offers a framework for creating content and has many templates. Its use is not limited to educators—it is available to anyone with a website. 

H5P allowed me to create different activities in one column of content, meaning that students did not have to open multiple activities or tabs to complete their homework. They could scroll through the learning modules, which contained grammar explanations, vocabulary presentations, practice activities, videos for listening comprehension, and texts for reading comprehension. Within the column, I embedded different item templates. The templates upon which I relied most created questions in multiple-choice, true/false, short-answer, and drag-text formats.

The “Slideshow” template is perfect for grammar and vocabulary presentations. With the exercises corresponding to each slideshow in the same column, students can scroll up to refer back to the presentation while they complete activities without the need for multiple browser tabs or windows. 

Creating these activities was easy on H5P. In addition to user-friendly instruction, there are tutorials for each content type available that show each type’s capabilities. The range of content types ensured variety to make each learning module more dynamic. Editing the activities is also simple, whether the instructor needs to fix a typo or switch out a whole activity.

Why DIY Digital Activities for LCTL?

DIY activities are not a new concept for language teachers, but textbooks often become the centerpiece of the curriculum and the language classroom. Many of our colleagues do not even get to choose their own books and must teach with the ones that their school or department has selected. DIY digital activities are a great way to write one’s own course materials and activities, whether one has no textbook or a textbook one wants to supplement. The most compelling reasons for creating one’s own digital activities include:

Integrating current events and cultural content from the target culture. Choose recent news clips or articles and create activities about important events occurring in the target culture. Interviews with important figures, political speeches, advertisements, and social media also serve as authentic material that can teach students about the target culture.

Including materials that reflect the diversity of the target culture. Let us face it: some textbooks, especially older editions, might not present the target culture as diverse and, at worst, can even perpetuate stereotypes. Give students a more nuanced perspective of the target culture by including material that shows its diversity. For example, create activities around videos, audio files, or texts about the LGBTQ community, immigrant communities, ethnic minorities, and people who live outside of cosmopolitan centers. 

Creating activities for specific purposes. If students are learning a language for a specific purpose, procure content that will reinforce specialized vocabulary and the grammar they will need to function in the target language. 

Making lesson plans with students in mind. As you get to know students and their interests, integrate materials that expose them to aspects of the culture you know they will love. For example, perhaps a student wants to visit a specific place in the target culture. Design a lesson plan about that place. Maybe you have artists or musicians, and what better way to get them obsessed with your class than to show them art and music in their second language?

With a digital platform like H5P, we can create and plan courses that share the aspects of the target language that we love, and our enthusiasm will be contagious. 

Creating a Learning Module on H5P

To create a learning module on H5P, begin with the same type of preparation that is necessary for “analog” lessons: a theme, grammar points, vocabulary points, and the skills. Personally, I do not include speaking activities in my learning modules, so the skills I include are reading, listening, and writing. Typically, this is how I would plan:

Choose a theme. I aim for an overarching theme for two weeks with subthemes in each learning module and in each class meeting. For example, when my theme was immigration, my modules for a Brazilian Portuguese class had the subthemes of Japanese immigration to Brazil, the experience of Syrian refugees in Brazil, Brazilians living in the U.S., and Brazilians in Spanish-speaking American countries. 

Choose authentic materials, minding copyright law. I like to search for videos, podcasts, and written materials. With H5P, one can embed video with just the link. No need to download it to a computer and upload it after.

Create a vocabulary activity using language from the authentic material. This activity should be completed before students watch the video so that they are familiar with the words beforehand. 

Write comprehension questions using one of H5P’s templates. Options include fill in the blank, multiple choice, true/false, and others.

Choose a grammar point and create grammar activities that utilize the same subject in their content. 

Write a prompt to get students writing. 

There is an activity based on a video produced by the Centre of Excellence Against Hunger about a Brazilian farm co-owned by formerly landless farmworkers. This activity was part of a thematic unit about human rights in Brazil, and the theme of the module was land rights, so students learned about the indigenous people’s struggle for rights to land and the landless workers’ movement in Brazil.

By creating DIY digital workbooks, instructors of less commonly taught languages can plan activities that facilitate learning on an attractive online platform while using content that reflects the target culture today. These digital workbooks can be reused and updated to keep language courses up to date and replete with material specially designed for the students in the class. 

Kristal Bivona is a PhD candidate in Hispanic languages and literatures at UCLA. 

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