Intro Italian, Hybrid-Style

Ask most any faculty member or student about the Dartmouth class schedule and they’ll tell you without hesitation that it’s a bit of a puzzle. The physical grid alone—a matrix of shifting time slots, varying-length blocks, color codes, errant numbers, and random letters--is complicated. Add to that the constraints of classroom availability and the calendars of busy students and faculty, and you’ve got yourself a colossal scheduling challenge. 

Nevertheless, through herculean effort and a little bit of magic on the part of the Registrar each term, the class schedule seems to work out. Faculty find times to teach; students register and attend class; learning occurs. But not, at times, without some of Dartmouth’s busiest students missing out on some of learning opportunities they’re seeking.

Such was the case for the Italian department’s introductory courses, explains Professor Tania Convertini. Standard among language classes, Italian 1, 2 and 3 traditionally meet four times per week for an hour each time, plus four weekly drill sessions. Convertini expressed that having such regular meetings is ideal for language learning. “We didn’t want to lose any content hours,” she says, “But we noticed that students with other significant time commitments—athletes, campus leaders, certain majors--who wanted to take a language were not able to do so.” The department decided that sacrificing content hours for students or students for content hours were trades they weren't willing to make, so sought to develop a more creative—and more tech-enabled—solution.

Through conversation with a course redesign team comprised of Convertini and Italian language colleague Giorgio Alberti, along with members of Dartmouth’s Learning Design Team, the notion of a hybrid, or blended, course model for Italian 1 emerged. Convertini explains, “We were intrigued by the idea that combining face-to-face time with online learning could offer more flexibility, both to us and to the students.” The team identified a new time slot for the class—the 6A block—which meets only twice a week but for two hours at a time, then developed online modules of video activities, reading materials, research prompts, and recorded oral submissions for students to work on simultaneously but independently outside of class meetings. 

Convertini says, “Most often, online content in language courses is relegated to grammar exercises, but we wanted our modules to be useful and engaging. It was important for the content to connect directly back to what we were doing in the classroom—to wrap up what we’d covered the preceding week, and set things up for the week to come.”

As a result, the online modules, which were released on Canvas and completed by students each Friday, focused on applying language skills while studying topics of Italian life and culture. Each week’s topics and prompts were brought back to the classroom the following week, creating what Convertini refers to as a process of “cycling and recycling.” This approach helped to create continuity across the face-to-face and online components of the class, and allowed students to build continuously on what they were learning. Meanwhile, longer face-to-face class meetings allowed the group to explore topics more deeply and to experience more immersion. Convertini credits these longer class periods with the emergence of a close-knit, comfortable learning community.

Throughout the term and within each online module, students were asked to provide feedback on what was easy, difficult, or confusing, what they would change, and how they thought they were doing in the class. Using this constant feedback, the course redesign team could make adjustments along the way, a process of shifting and learning that Convertini describes as “interesting and beneficial.” For example, she says, “We saw in the Canvas analytics that students were clamoring to access the modules as soon as they were available, and we heard from them they they wanted more time. As a result, we stretched the timeline to include Saturday, and could see that students started using the full time allotted to engage with the online material.” Convertini observes that inviting students to give feedback so regularly created a space for them in what she calls the "pedagogical conversation of the course," a unique convergence of teaching and learning for students and faculty alike.

In addition to student feedback, the course team evaluated the success of the new hybrid model by comparing it with other sections of the course. Across three concurrent sections, just one used the hybrid model while the rest retained the standard design. However, all four sections covered the same content, engaged students in the same activities, and used the same assessments. “We always have motivated students and high levels of engagement in Italian courses,” reflects Convertini, “But we noticed differences in the quality of work that the students submitted across these sections. We observed that the work from students in the hybrid course was much more intellectually and culturally engaged than that of the others.”

Following a first successful implementation in fall term, Convertini and her colleagues were motivated to try it again. They offered a hybrid section of Italian 2 this winter and plan to offer one hybrid section each term going forward. “We’ll keep iterating and changing the course,” says Convertini. “Redesigning initially was a lot of work, and required us to change our thinking. But now that we have the basic structure in place, we can continue to adapt it more easily.”


Considering designing a hybrid course or adding online components to an existing one?

Start gathering your redesign team by consulting an Instructional Designer with expertise in the pedagogy of your discipline, then check out the University of Central Florida's Blended Learning Toolkit and Simmons College’s Getting Started and Preparing for Teaching Success in Online Education. These two collections of resources cover the key evidence-based principles and practices of hybrid teaching and learning. A few highlights:

From the Blended Learning Toolkit’s Design & Delivery Principles:

  • Focus on Outcomes: Begin with ‘What do I want students to be able to do by the end of this class?’
  • Optimize Interaction: Prioritize interaction over delivery mode within the course.
  • Redesign & Integrate: Redesign assignments, activities, and modules to maximize integration across face-to-face and online interactions.
  • Keep It Simple: Start with just a few simple tech tools that integrate easily into your course.
  • Allocate Sufficient Time: Redesign takes time! Approach it like you would any substantial project.

From Simmons College’s Faculty Fellows Hub:

A good online instructor:
…is comfortable with technology.
…clearly articulates expectations for students.
…guides learners through student-led activities.
…repsonds to students' needs in a timely way.
…manages time efficiently.
…is willing to do it all over again.