Synchronous online format expands access to Swahili language courses

Ohio University is one of the few universities in the state that offers courses in Swahili. And with courses available this spring, new classroom technology is making it easier for students at OHIO and other universities to access these hard-to-find language courses.

Swahili is spoken throughout East Africa, with around 5 million speakers of Swahili worldwide using it as their mother tongue and an additional 135 million people for whom Swahili is the second or third foreign language .

This fall, Jillian Turcola, a full-time student at Lorain County Community College who wants to join the Peace Corps, became the first distant, non-graduate student to take Swahili at OHIO.

“I used to get several requests each year from students at other institutions asking me for online Swahili lessons in Ohio,” said David Bell, Ph.D., chair of linguistics at the College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Swahili and Arabic programs. . “But I had to answer that there was no way to offer both in-person and online classes.”

That all changed with COVID-19, as teachers had to quickly get to grips with Microsoft Teams. The return to in-person teaching in the fall also introduced a new challenge of integrating distant and quarantined students into classroom students. It all became more manageable with the Office of Information Technology outfitting most classrooms with webcams mounted on swivel monitors and remote microphones.

“Now there was a way to recruit distance students from other institutions and bring them into the regular in-person classroom,” Bell said.

Click here to see undergraduate and graduate Swahili courses available in spring 2022.

Of course, distance learning at OHIO is not unusual. Ohio University Learning Network (OULN) has a long history of facilitating distance learning in dedicated classrooms equipped with multiple cameras and multiple microphones. Latin was taught this way, connecting the students of Athens with the students of the University of Miami at Oxford. Now, mainstream classrooms are now equipped to provide opportunities both remotely and in person, and more importantly, teachers have all become familiar with how teams work.

Now, Bell is able to tell students who have questions about Swahili online that they could indeed take the online course synchronously.

Synchronous online experience brings classmates together

“Swahili is doing very well so far. I feel like I learned so much so quickly, ”said Turcola. “Seline Ayugi Okeno, or Mwalimu Seline, as I have come to call her, has been very informative, helpful and above all patient. The course progresses quite quickly, with each new topic being added to the last. However, between homework Speaking and listening skills and normal written homework made it easy to keep pace.

“This is my first time taking such an intense and interactive online course,” she said. “I had imagined it would be difficult, but Microsoft Teams is a wonderful thing. Mwalimu Seline shares his screen so I can see the PowerPoint lecture, and it’s like I’m there with my classmates.

Seline Ayugi Okeno
Seline Ayugi Okeno, Swahili Language Program Coordinator at Ohio University.

Before fall 2021, Swahili coordinator Okeno had never taught and attended classes entirely in person or entirely online.

“So I was not ready to have a student join my course in person remotely for the entire semester,” she said. “Technology upgrades in lecture halls make it easy to change, until I realize that a foreign language course has a unique set of requirements. At the top of this list is the sense of community. I had to acquire an additional laptop to position in front of the students in the classroom, so that my distant student could see his classmates. This laptop is also useful when practicing pair work.

Because the students in the class are not signed into Microsoft Teams, Okeno was unable to use the breakout room feature, which she used when teaching synchronous online courses. So she paired a student in person with the Turcola remotely, using the laptop for speaking activities. “After these speaking activities, my remote student and the person she was paired with spent a minute or two getting to know each other, thus building relationships,” Okeno said.

“Another challenge has been my movement in the classroom,” Okeno added. The camera in the office and in the laptop is relatively stationary. This means that either the instructor is sometimes not visible to the distant student as they move around the classroom, or they have to stand in front of the camera in the office.

“I have become hyper aware of how much time I spend in a particular place. I also adopted more precise language during my teaching, abandoning demonstrative words like “that” because the distant student cannot see what I am pointing to on the board, “she added.

This is not a problem in OULN classrooms with their multiple cameras. Bell is aware of this problem and the linguistics department is seriously considering purchasing an automatic tracking camera that travels with the instructor and can be shared by all instructors in the department.

Access to Swahili enables career paths

“The reason for my complex enlistment plan is that my end goal is to join the Peace Corps,” Turcola said. “I am studying for a degree in International Cultural Studies with an emphasis on Environmental Studies or Sustainable Agriculture, and I will also be taking Peace Corps Preparation courses which are offered at a number of universities across the United States. I decided the Peace Corps was right for me a few years ago while volunteering in Kenya after graduating from high school. I couldn’t make up my mind on a career path so I decided to spend a sabbatical year abroad in order to find out.

“I spent two months in Kenya with a group of like-minded people my age from all over the world. Together we built mud houses, planted trees, hugged, rooted in local cultures, ate like the locals did, and picked up Swahili along the way. My time in Kenya was the best two months of my life, and this led me to the Peace Corps website where I got all the information on what I need to do to resume volunteering in East Africa. Turcola added.

“This led me to contact Dr Bell. I knew I had to fulfill a language requirement for my degree, but I didn’t want to learn Spanish or French when all I really want is to go back to East Africa. So I did some research, found that Ohio University is one of the few universities that offers Swahili, and I reached out, ”Turcola said. “Fast forward to the present day, I love every minute of class. Overall, synchronous online learning hasn’t been much different from in-person learning, and I’m so motivated to learn as much as possible from Mwalimu Seline.

“After our initial success with our first distance student, we are ready to welcome further distance students in Swahili and our other language programs,” said Bell.

If you are an OHIO student and want to start Swahili, there is a new in-person Swahili elementary class, SWAH 1110, starting in Spring 2022, Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 2 p.m. to 2:55 p.m. For more information, contact Bell at [email protected]

Sylvester L. Goldfarb

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