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4. The E-TA Project: Using Technology to Obtain Teaching Chinese Assistants from Abroad
The Chinese program in Harvey Mudd College is rigorous and fast-paced. The students meet four times a week to study the language in regular classroom settings, but they still lack opportunities to use what they have learned in real-time communications.
Like most small liberal arts colleges, Harvey Mudd does not hire Teaching Assistants for languages, and the instructor for the courses, who is often the only the faculty member on campus teaching a particular language, does not have enough time to engage with students in conversations outside of classrooms.
The teachers ensure that each student is taught at a pace one is comfortable with, whether first time learners or using the course to supplement Chinese studies. Some trainers can also speak several languages, including Spanish, French and Spanish, and can teach Mandarin Chinese in those languages. However, while instructing in Mandarin, the instructors use simple language.
Our project, which is co-developed by the Chinese instructor in Harvey Mudd College and the Chinese-learning website, aims to solve the problem by employing certified "E-TAs" from China through web-conferencing technology.
The virtual classrooms at delivers synchronized live presentations with interactive whiteboards, which enables the students and the E-TAs to communicate both verbally and visually; The courseware is presented in PowerPoint and can be viewed by the students and the tutor simultaneously throughout the practice session. The students only need to get a free Skype account to get started. They may pick their own tutors and book the sessions at times of their own convenience through the online scheduling system at And everything is conducted online.
Unlike the real Teaching Assistants in most universities, the E-TAs coach the students on a one-on-one basis, which provides individual students ample opportunities to ask questions, to review materials, and to practice the targeted language at his or her own pace. The instructor at Harvey Mudd College co-designs supplementary courseware with the project manager from the company. The content of the courseware emphasizes on the grammar and vocabulary of the current lesson, uses visual as well as verbal cues to facilitate discussion, and illustrates real-life situations in which the students and the tutors may converse more freely and creatively.
Combining communicational technology with efficient collaboration, the project offers virtually the same experiences a real Teaching Assistant could offer, at flexible hours, and at lower costs.
We piloted the E-TA project at Harvey Mudd College for four weeks and achieved excellent results. The survey we conducted after the pilot shows that the students found the experiences at once intense and liberating, challenging and relaxed. Because of the close collaboration between the instructor and the E-TAs, the students found the online practices consistent with their real-classroom experience. They also appreciated the userfriendly technology and the personal attention they received from the tutors. As a result, such practices not only improved their proficiency in the course materials, but also gave them more confidence to use the language in real life.
In conclusion, most students agree that the E-TAs from may substitute real Teaching Assistants in foreign language instructions.