The Shift Online is Both Good and Bad for International/L2 Students

This could be great.
Most of the advice out there for online teaching emphasizes scaffolding and transparency, which is absolutely key for international/second language students. As Raichle Farrelly, Shawna Shapiro, and Zuzana Tomas explain in Fostering International Student Success in Higher Education (2014), scaffolding can mitigate the fact that college learning is rife with unarticulated assumptions and expectations that can baffle international students, or other populations, like first generation students. For example, we often take for granted what office hours are for and how they work. Online “office hours” will require explicit discussion of expectations around when/how to interact with particular tools and interfaces, and this transparency will be a relief for many students.  When I was first trained to teach online at the University of Massachusetts, my eyes were opened to scaffolding techniques, like keywords lists and pre-discussion reading questions, which I immediately began to incorporate in the face to face classroom. This temporary move online may result in more inclusive face to face classrooms when the crisis is over.
Relatedly, online teaching requires crystal clear communication–exactly what experts like Shapiro recommend for your international, multilingual, and second language students. Written instructions using concise, everyday language and that leave little room for ambiguity will help faculty from getting too many clarifications emails, and will help students succeed.
The asynchronous learning that comes with online coursework can lower some of the barriers that international students using English as a “second language” tell me they face. They often report that their class discussions move so rapidly that students have trouble formulating their thoughts quickly enough to jump in with their idea. Online discussion forums, whether written or recorded, allow students to plan their responses to discussion and re-read/look up words if they don’t understand their classmates’ comments at first. What’s more, asynchronous, recorded lecture videos (which is the recommended mode of lecturing in an online course) can be paused for note-taking, and difficult portions can be reviewed. This will be a relief to many students who are used to feeling that they only caught a portion of what was said.
This could also be bad.
What makes online learning potentially more accessible for some international/second language students is also what could make it a barrier. The stakes for scaffolding and clear communication are even higher. If it is not done right (let’s face it–we are human!), lack of scaffolding and transparency might disproportionately disadvantage international, second language, first gen students, not to mention students with accessibility needs.
More emphasis on writing in discussion/reflection/other tasks might mean that students writing in English as a second language spend an inordinate amount of time on those tasks. L2 writers spend a lot of time doing the aesthetic labor of sounding “native” (revising for -s endings, deciding which preposition is best), even if their ideas are clearly understandable, because they know that most courses will penalize them for not doing this aesthetic labor (my words, not theirs).
Shapiro and other also explain the importance of building rapport with international students, which can be more difficult with distance learning because of the, well, distance. It might be more difficult to know if/when these students feel alienated or become disengaged.
Online instructors will be on the lookout for cultural content, like movie clips, memes, etc., because they are fun ways to engage and invigorate students during the tedium of increased screen time, but these texts might go unexplained or decontextualized, which could disproportionately disadvantage international students who don’t get the joke, or who don’t see how it applies to the course concept.

 

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