Finding silver linings in online learning

By Caitlin Gaffney, UTS French Teacher      

Caitlin Gaffney - UTS French teacher

We would not be returning to UTS as we knew it.

Over March Break, this realization dawned upon UTS teachers, staff, and students alike. The unprecedented global action to combat COVID-19 required a critical response to create a drastically different teaching and learning reality.

Initially, I worried about what our community as a whole would be losing as our school prepared to go online. For some subjects, online learning seemed highly restrictive, if not impossible. There will be missed labs in science, physical activity in gym class, rehearsals in music, and immersive experiences in our language classrooms. The competitions, trips, exchanges, and athletic events that enrich learning and provide excitement would be hard to replace.

However, then I began to think of the silver linings. My French Linguistics doctoral research at the University of Toronto (U of T) found that online learning actually provides numerous advantages for students. 

Our personalities shape
how we learn

UTS teachers online

Our individual differences, which are stable psychological characteristics, can have profound effects on how we experience and interact with the world around us: how we learn, what we see, how we live.

For example, in this time of self-isolation and physical-distancing, one common message has been to check on our extroverted friends. The ease with which we cope with social isolation varies drastically from person to person, and this will depend greatly on one’s personality, the variables that predict human thought, feelings, and behaviour (Pervin & Cervone, 2010, p. 228).

Personality significantly influences people’s daily lives: their health and happiness, identity, quality of relationships, political ideology, and career success (Ozer & Benet-Martínez, 2006, p. 401). Research has even shown that personality traits are linked to people’s visual perception of the world around them (Kreitz, Schnuerch, Gibbons, & Memmert, 2015; Antinori, Carter, & Smillie, 2017), essentially determining how they view the world.

The psychological impact of quarantine varies for each person. However, an important question for educators who are now teaching online as a result of COVID-19 is how does the effectiveness of online teaching and learning vary depending on a students’ individual personality?

Some personality types are more suited to online learning

My ongoing doctoral research in French Linguistics examines how differences such as personality, anxiety, motivation and intelligence affect a person’s ability to learn a new language.

While teaching French at U of T, I informally observed the positive effects the online environment seemed to have for some of my students. Weekly in-class lectures were paired with online tutorials in which instructors taught grammar and vocabulary and led activities via typed chat and live audio and video (think Google Meet).

Students primarily communicated with their instructor and peers via typed synchronous chat. Some students that were silent in the face-to-face classroom, became very active in online classes. My colleague, Stephanie Côté, and I began a formal study to see if the students’ learning would turn out to be statistically different between the two environments. 

Foreign language anxiety –
it’s a thing!

One frequently studied individual difference in second language learning is foreign language anxiety, defined as feelings of fear, nervousness or apprehension experienced when using a second language (MacIntyre & Gardner, 1994). This variable is of particular interest to language learners, teachers, and scholars since the more anxious students are, the less success they have in  language learning (Horwitz, 2001). Anxiety inhibits the cognitive processes required for speech production in the second language (e.g. Bailey, Onwuegbuzie, & Daley, 2000) and reduces student’s willingness to communicate in the classroom (e.g. Delaney, 2009).

While some individual differences such as personality are considered stable throughout life (Costa & McCrae, 1997), foreign language anxiety can be mediated by environmental factors.

Our study aimed to address questions like: Would students experience less foreign language anxiety in the online environment versus a traditional face-to-face classroom? Would students participate more frequently and produce longer sentences online as a result of their reduced feelings of anxiety?

Online learning can help

To see if an online environment would mitigate the negative effects of foreign language anxiety, we studied the results of 61 beginner French students, learning either online or face-to-face. They learned new vocabulary and the present tense forms of two irregular French verbs, then completed a picture description activity targeting the new vocabulary. 

Following each session, we asked the students to complete a valid and reliable foreign language anxiety test (Horwitz, Horwitz, & Cope, 1986).

We concluded that students were not only significantly less anxious in the online environment than in the traditional classroom, but they participated significantly more often and produced significantly more words during each turn in the online environment. Read the results here: Côté & Gaffney, 2018.

Many learners thrive in our face-to-face classrooms, shooting their hands up to share their ideas with the class and feeling excited to deliver a presentation in front of their classmates, while others excel online, feeling sufficiently stimulated in the peace and quiet of their home workspaces. This new experience of distance teaching and learning will reveal tremendous flexibility and creativity in both UTS students and staff. I trust that we will respond with resilience and find innovative ways to capitalize on this experience. There are plenty of reasons to be hopeful, and as my colleague, Negar Shayan, who teaches French and Spanish at UTS, said, “Maybe this will be good in ways we don’t know yet.”