Digital Learning & Design

“The third arm”: Brown Chinese language instructors discuss remote learning

It has been more than a year since Brown switched to remote teaching and learning, owing to the pandemic. While learning venues have spread from the Brown campus to kitchens, bedrooms, and parking lots, among other places in the world, the Digital Learning & Design team (DLD) has made efforts to facilitate the transition and ensure the vibrancy of Brown’s teaching quality. But facing the drastic changes brought about by online teaching and learning, how have teachers and students reacted to these changes? To what extent has the online setting and digital tools altered teaching quality and student performance? Will educators at Brown consider the new pedagogies useful even after the pandemic? DLD invited five Chinese language instructors from the Department of East Asian Studies to discuss these questions.

Learning modern languages like Chinese at Brown used to mean that instructors and students communicated with each other face-to-face on a daily basis or every other day during the semester. Instructors would attentively monitor and listen to the students’ pronunciation, diction, and conversations in the classroom. The sudden onset of the pandemic forced conventional methods to change in the middle of the Spring 2020 semester.  

Along with most teachers at Brown, our Chinese instructors had to quickly adapt to Zoom classes. Students were concerned about the lack of a classroom environment at the beginning of online learning. Their emotional frustration gradually dispelled when Zoom meetings became more routine. And many of these educators found online teaching not as bad as it first appeared. For example, our senior instructor of the Chinese language, Lung-Hua Hu found the shared Zoom screen and the “annotation” function clearly demonstrated how accurately the students pronounced Chinese characters. Several other instructors mentioned that online courses save both educators and students time and money commuting back and forth to campus. The introduction of digital tools allows the teachers to find more efficient ways to teach content, grade homework, and track performance. Lung-Hua maintains that online courses allow students to learn anywhere. Besides the mainstream tools Canvas and Zoom, many Chinese instructors have used other Brown-supported tools such as GoReact, Speedgrader,, Google Sites, and external tools like Wordwall and InsertLearning.   

But sometimes rapid expansion of the repertoire of teaching techniques can be challenging. Studying abroad and instant face-to-face feedback was nearly impossible. All the instructors had to make new arrangements for their courses at the beginning of the pandemic. Many instructors moved the in-class quizzes to online quizzes which left more time for the Zoom class. Liwei Jiao and Lulei Su paid more attention to the students’ preparation before class. Lung-Hua prepared more materials for online learning because the pace of online learning is more mechanically mediated by digital tools.  In contrast, face-to-face courses allow instructors to be more flexible in responding to the students and improving their practice.  One instructor noticed that it was challenging to make her classes cohesive. Liwei was concerned about how students would practice their tasks in breakout rooms. Without sufficient monitoring from the instructors, students might not realize they spend too much time casually chatting. 

Regarding the performance of online learning as compared to in-person learning before the pandemic, instructors’ opinions greatly differ from each other. Lung-Hua was happy with the online setting and considers it 100% of the quality of in-person teaching. Liwei estimated that online learning could reach about 70-80% of the quality of in-person learning for beginners of Chinese because many of them were more mentally distracted by the pandemic and less predisposed to learning the language. Yang Wang and Wenhui Chen both believe that the Zoom format’s influence on the students’ performance depends on the specific students. Yang tends to think that students in lower-level courses might be more susceptible to the negative effects of online learning, while students in higher-level courses are more disciplined and focus on the content. Also, introverted students might find it more comfortable to focus on their screen rather than interact in a real classroom.  

For these Chinese language instructors, online learning opens new possibilities for collaboration between Brown and other institutions as well. Yang and Lulei invited guests from other organizations to facilitate their courses. In her course “Business Chinese,” Yang invited Mr. He, the manager of a reputable Chinese educational materials publishing company, to play the role of a guest speaker to introduce the publishing industry in China. At the end of his lecture, Mr. He raised several issues his company was facing, which became the research topics for the final class project. At the end of the course, after investigating the issues Mr. He encountered, the students demonstrated in their Chinese presentations how they would solve those problems. Mr. He, meeting with the students for the second time, took notes and applauded the students’ improvement in Chinese and consultation skills. 

Lulei’s course, CHIN 350 “ Elementary to Intermediate Chinese for Advanced Beginners,” invited a group of students studying Chinese from the University of Pennsylvania to join a mini-debate on a topic they had studied recently. Not only could the students put their speaking and listening skills into practice with the new friends they had made, but the instructors from the two schools could perceive the results of different pedagogies. Liwei, who is popular among students for his skillfully-designed five jokes per class, recently received an inquiry from a student enrolled at University of Michigan who wanted to take the online Chinese courses at Brown since she could not go to Michigan in person. Those instances show that online learning, no matter how it develops after the pandemic, provides new opportunities for allocating resources in higher education. 

Several instructors stated that they would like to know more about the comparison of online learning and in-person learning. Liwei reminds us that the government may obtain and analyze data from the Language Flagship Programs, but could Brown assess the performance with its own data? A possible research project may decide how we guide the future of remote learning at Brown. Lulei views that the current pedagogies have not been updated for quite a while, but teaching trends are changing quickly. How can we better understand online learning? Do different disciplines need different kinds of digital learning? How shall we update our pedagogical design with the inspirations brought up by remote learning? Does class size matter to digital learning? Wenhui discusses that, currently, many different styles of online learning exist at Brown. For instance, the Japanese instructors at Brown have experimented on alternating between teaching live online and playing pre-recorded lectures during the week. How does this method of altering teaching modes work? Serious study of this topic would be beneficial to see how technologies, especially digital tools, influence educators and students. If some students feel more comfortable and have better performance with online options, why not continue offering them this option? Yang, experienced in organizing students’ activities, suggests that DLD might consider gathering faculty members to discuss their approaches to digital learning in the form of questionnaires, workshops, or contests. 

Lulei suggests that digital tools have become a “third arm” for educators after one year of trial. In what ways can this “arm” assist or hinder our two physical arms, a metaphor for the intuitive, conventional teaching methods? There is room for discussion as institutions of higher education like Brown put more thought into such questions. 

I appreciate the assistance from Brown faculty members Lung-Hua Hu, Yang Wang, Liwei Jiao, Wenhui Chen, and Lulei Su.