Demystifying project communications for students (part 2)

kermit the frog looks at screen of Mac laptop

**crossposted from Celeste’s blog**

This post expands on my previous post about some of the basics of project communications, with the idea that these can be helpful references for students who are new to doing project/community/client work. In this post, I want to talk a bit more about time (which makes my historian heart happy!) and managing expectations.

The obvious: people are busy. People lead complex lives. It’s incredibly rare that anyone has huge swaths of time dedicated to one thing and one thing only. And scope creep is all too common.

The idea of “working hours” is fraught and complicated: technology affords us the ability to respond quickly, at all hours, to issues as they pop up. And lots of folks find there are certain times of day when they’re more productive (night owls, early birds…why are these all bird related?)–which is great. But it becomes a problem when these start to create implicit expectations about responding on demand or at any time of day. The responsibilities people have in their lives outside of their academic or professional selves are present and important, so finding ways to be open and realistic about communication is key. Here are some ways to do the best you can to keep project work contained on a personal level, and work with others toward solid practices:

  1. Think about how you work, how you manage tasks, and meet deadlines. Write down when you think your most productive hours are and what is realistic for you in terms of being able to turn around responses.
    1. Example: I know that I’m best from 10-2 for generative work (writing, coding). I check emails 3 times a day (9a, noon, 4p) for ideally 30mins. I respond in those windows of time and try my hardest to avoid checking email outside of those times (I fail at this all the time, but I strive toward this goal daily).
  2. At the outset of a project, ask how the group prefers issues and notes to be communicated.
  3. Discuss with your collaborators what the expectations are for responding to emails, issues, messages, etc.  
  4. Do what you can to triage and manage incoming and outgoing communications. A couple examples:
    1. I use Boomerang (Gmail, Outlook, Android): I schedule the emails I write at 11p to send to collaborators the following morning at 9am when I know they’re at work or in their productive hours.
    2. Manage your notifications: for example, I’ve turned off push notifications for email because email is a huge distraction for me, but I’ve turned on push notifications for Slack because I know those are usually more time-sensitive messages.

The hardest part of all this is sticking to the boundaries set. But, setting and maintaining those boundaries helps deter burnout and unfair encroachment on collaborators’ time, while managing the expectations of all involved. Just because it can be done right away by you, does not mean that it needs to or should. Busy is not a virtue in itself.

Sharing the Bounty

See Carly’s Blog by clicking here.

Last fall, the ACM announced a language sharing project called Sharing the Bounty was awarded $42,448 from the Enhancing the Midwest Knowledge Ecosystem (EMKE). The EMKE is a Mellon-funded partnership between the ACM and the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), which is an academic consortium of the universities in the Big Ten Conference and the University of Chicago focused on exploring potential collaborations amongst those schools.

Sharing the Bounty is a collaboration between professors at the University of Minnesota and Macalester College and the University of Michigan to develop an online language course for Hindi. As with other Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTL), Hindi is not often taught due to lower enrollments and the lack of high quality language materials. So the team is planning to develop a new online textbook for this program. From what I’ve read, it sounds like they will be following a more content-based approach that will focus equally on cultural fluency as well as linguistic competence.

Hendrix College Language Lab, circa 1950. Provided courtesy of Hendrix College.
Hendrix College Language Lab, circa 1950. Used with permission from Hendrix College. Original image available on their Flickr page.

The field of foreign language education has often been targeted for these kinds of distance education programs, but as any language educator knows this is a difficult proposition. There is a natural fit for online grammar and vocabulary exercises, or viewing audio and video recordings of the language and culture in action. Foreign language educators have always been on the forefront of technology use even in face-to-face classes, bring records, cassette tapes, laser disks, computers and streaming video into the classroom in abundance.

But these are only part of the language teaching and learning puzzle. A critical component of language learning is language production. The students must have not just ample, but plentiful opportunities to speak and interact in the target language. They must be interacting with peers and their instructor in the language on a very regular basis, daily is ideal. Even with this component, it’s very difficult for many students to get through a typical first stage of language acquisition, known as the silent period [1], to the point where they are even mildly comfortable speaking in the target language. And so instructors must encourage and cajole, creating a comfortable and safe atmosphere for students so that they lower their affective filter [2] enough to start participating frequently.

The art of creating this atmosphere in a language classroom is difficult in a face-to-face setting, but seems overwhelming and nigh impossible when you take these interactions online. Anyone who has attended an online meeting or webinar can attest to how the different medium, though synchronous, creates an entirely different set of social interaction challenges. There is a slight time lag to synchronous interactions such that participants must tolerate unnatural pauses and frequent requests for repetition as everyone inadvertently talks over one another. And that’s even when the technology is working flawlessly!

And yet…

And yet the opportunity to offer Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTLs) to those who are motivated to learn them no matter their proximity is very enticing. LCTL educators are often seeking higher enrollments both to maintain the program offerings and to create a better balance of interactions in the classroom. If we can overcome the interaction challenges in the synchronous online classroom, we could have students from different areas and more varied backgrounds in the same classroom. This fact alone gives students even more reason to speak to one another, promoting more authentic target language interactions in the classroom. It could be really great!

The Sharing the Bounty project will be one for language educators to watch closely. It could also be a model for how Carleton College and our LACOL partners approache our collaborations in all disciplines. I know I’ll be interested to see how they handle some of the issues specific to teaching language, particularly in their choices of technologies. But it’ll be exciting to watch!