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The Importance of Product Focus in Digital Learning

As we all scrambled to launch digital learning last spring, one of the biggest things I noticed colleagues do was transfer paper and pencil activities and assessments to comparable digital formats. Worksheets turned into PDFs. Presentations turned into Powerpoints. Visual support for comprehensible input (CI) became vocab lists with pictures. Personally, I'm of the philosophy that digital learning should cut ties with the desk and move to the cloud. Why weigh yourself down with desktop learning and textbooks when digital tools revolutionize our access to actual contemporary media? When children can create unique digital products using the tools they are familiar with and have access to? Particularly in world language, where we strive to find the intersection of communication of culture, why wouldn't we embrace the shift to realia - material designed in the target language for an authentic target-language audience?

Beyond the rich content that is available to us online, we have to ask the same question our students have been asking- What's the point? The Covid Scramble didn't give us the time or the luxury of thinking this one through, so let's do it now. What is the point of the work we are asking our world language students to do? The philosophy of design tells us that one quality that affects engagement is product focus- that student work results in a product or performance. Did that product or performance also have inherent value to the student? How about in the world?

One of the biggest elements that many classrooms lost in the digital shift is an audience for student work.  Whether it was simply not having the time and place to share work with others, or challenges of digital safety and privacy, I felt like students lost something by not being able to see their peers' work.  I think they lost inspiration for what their work could be, they lost feedback for how they could improve, and they lost affirmation that they were doing good work.  As we consider what online education will look like, what our product (not just work) will be and who it will be for are important questions to ask.  Even with the best of relationships, it is naive and arrogant of me to believe that having me as an audience and consumer is enough to satisfy my students.  We will need to be creative and careful in how we showcase and incorporate student product in ways that are meaningful and extend beyond our own classrooms. 

As the teacher, of course our goal (our standards) is a proficiency product. Our intention is that students will improve their ability to communicate with cultural sensitivity in the target language. We will, of course, ask them to perform a variety of tasks to demonstrate their ability to use language with discernment. Can they tell their likes and dislikes? Can they order a meal? Can they talk about their summer? If these goals are your desired products, does the work you designed really empower them to do so? Further, do their products represent or relate to the skills and desires your students already have? I don't know about you, but my students probably won't ever actually talk about their summer in Spanish to their friends. They might, however, make a TikTok video about it. They might cross paths with a native speaker in their video game who asks about it. They might read some posts from an influencer in a target country.

In my dream world, my students are fully engaged in their work because of their intense passion for communicative proficiency. In reality, I know if I ask them to make a video and share it with their friends to comment on (safely on the class platform), they'll dive in because that's how they've entertained themselves the last 5+ months and they can't wait to discover the personality of their classmates on video. IT'S OKAY if your students engage in the work because of the product instead of the content because either way the work leads to mastery.

The "Level-up" happens when we also design work with a product that has meaning in the world. For example, this is the perfect time to compare protest in our country vs. target countries. This is the perfect moment to open students eyes to the historical ramifications of the slave trade and white supremacy across the world, not just in their town. This is the perfect moment to ask students to create a lasting digital product like an electronic CV that builds their academic and professional reach in uncertain economic times. Find ways to connect their performance with language to a bigger audience or a greater cause than just a grade in your class.

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