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Knowledge Mobilization Spotlight: Graduate students focused on language learning innovated to create virtual projects as COVID-19 limited in-person interaction

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By Emily Carman on December 9, 2020

Language learning is a very inter-personal subject that often requires face-to face attention and instruction. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a stop to these things and has delayed teaching and research in the field of language learning. 

Shahrzad Ghobadlou, Andromeda Romano-Lax and Ye Li are studying various subjects related to language learning. The obstruction of in-person assembly, teaching, and data collection caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed their projects and research. However, their creativity, adaptability and innovation allowed them to develop virtual ways to push these projects forward.   

In October, the Graduate College asked graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to share the challenges they have faced as a result of the pandemic and the innovative ways they overcame those challenges. Now, we are highlighting several of these innovative solutions to create a resource that students, fellows and faculty can turn to for inspiration as COVID-19 continues to impact research.

Expanding the Arizona Computer Assisted Language Learning Conference 

Shahrzad Ghobadlou is studying comparative languages and cultures while leading ASU’s Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) club. 

This year, Ghobadlou was in charge of organizing the 7th annual AZCALL conference, which was scheduled to be held in-person.

“The purpose of the AZCALL conference is an opportunity for members of the computer-assisted language learning club at ASU and faculty and scholars from regional universities to come together for professional development,” Ghobadlou wrote. “This event promotes collaboration between ASU and scholars from academic institutions in the region.” 

The pandemic made holding an in-person conference impossible, but rather than cancelling AZCALL altogether, Ghobadlou decided to develop a virtual conference. 

In doing so, Ghobadlou was actually able to expand the reach of AZCALL.

“Instead of thinking of just regional institutions, we promoted our work more vastly and finally we gathered presentations from not just the U.S. but also all around the world: Bangladesh, Russia, Turkey,” she wrote. 

The conference also hosted presenters from Iowa University, Ohio University, the University of Oregon and Yale.

Ghobadlou worked hard to make the conference more interactive and inclusive as possible using free online tools and, in doing so, “created a space for sharing and making life long acquaintances with scholars in CALL pedagogy.”

Ghobadlou’s innovation made this year’s AZCALL conference the most successful yet and, for this reason, she was awarded a $100 Knowledge Mobilization Spotlight Grant from the Graduate College. 

Designing an app to facilitate and motivate extensive reading

Andromeda Romano-Lax is working towards her Master’s of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages in ASU’s English Department. 

As part of her masters program, Romano-Lax was practicing teaching English face-to-face until COVID-19 led to a reduction in physical classes offered. 

Because she was unable to complete her credits through in person teaching, Romano-Lax decided to pick up a material development unit and use the class to develop an app that will later support her teaching.

“Focusing on this app has been a great way for me to immerse myself more deeply in the research of my topic area (extensive reading),” she wrote. “The design work has challenged me, stretching me well beyond what I expected to learn and do in this practicum.”

Romano-Lax hopes the app she is creating will help facilitate and motivate extensive reading by English as a second language (ESL) and English as a foreign language (EFL) adults.

“Just as fitness apps can improve accountability and promote self-efficacy, my app –called ‘Million’—aims to make learners more accountable for their own beyond-classroom reading and motivated by the ability to track progress and compare with other users,” she wrote.

Romano-Lax believes this app will be extremely beneficial in teaching English because “reading done outside the classroom, including reading of less-conventional texts (movie captions, social media), is a powerful way to improve language skills.” 

Despite the challenges that COVID-19 posed to her teaching and studies, Romano-Lax is grateful for the unique experience she had outside of the classroom.

“I believe that the technical and design know-how I've gained developing this app will enhance my future as an ESL/EFL instructor,” she wrote.    

Understanding bilingual language learning via Zoom virtual data collection

Ye Li is researching bilingual language learning as she works towards a graduate degree in Psychology. 

Specifically,  Li is examining the language mechanisms that affect how adult learners from a variety of language backgrounds learn novel, or new, words in order to better understand the process of bilingual language learning.

“Although almost half of the world’s population is bilingual, much is still unknown about how bilingual language learning unfolds,” Li wrote. “It is not yet clear how bilingual experiences drive an advantage in novel word learning.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Li planned to collect data for the research project in-person. Li was forced to adapt and convert the project to an online format when the pandemic no longer allowed in-person research.

Participants in Li’s study were given a link to complete language learning tasks using two different online platforms, SONA and MTurk. 

“However, the two different platforms drew inconsistent task accuracy and invited participants with chaotic and diverse language backgrounds,” Li said. This led Li to reconsider the research project for a second time. 

Eventually, Li was able to conduct a 3rd wave of data collection using Zoom.

“This format of data collection might increase online data credibility in two ways. First, participants’ involvement can be transparent as in the case of an in-person study,” Li wrote. “Second, the data in questionnaires can be more reliable since it may reduce the chances of participants filling out a question randomly while not understanding the question.”