Karen Jang interviews Ji-Young Jung, Lecturer in Korean at Columbia University, about teaching remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic as a language educator.
It was Friday, March 6, 2020, during my first year at Barnard College in New York City. At the end of the first week of March, the sun lured students out onto the Lewman Lawn in front of the Milstein Center, our library, and its warmth teased students with a glimpse of spring that was ready to bloom. Many sat or laid down on the grass with friends and hung out together while eating pizza from the Diana Center. A few people who, retrospectively, wisely wore masks usually got stares or glances. As I watched from inside the Milstein, the urban campus started to empty by the hour, as friends took subways down to explore the rest of New York City for the weekend. Yet, I was busy, already thinking about next week. I finished up my homework and got my violin and a few books and clothes from my dorm, ready to visit my family for the weekend. Most, including myself, were oblivious to how quickly New York would transform into a hotspot for COVID-19 and how suddenly, students would have to move out of their dorms and attend classes remotely from home. Little did I know that would be my last time bustling around the Barnard College and Columbia University campus for the year and the last day being in my freshmen dorm in Sulzberger Tower.
College is all about guided independence. The epitome of a college experience lies in the in-person interactions between professors, students, and the new environment, and learning to build a new life away from the familiarity of your childhood home. College students lost much of that experience in the sudden transition to remote learning for the safety of everyone.
That weekend, as I sat in my room with my dogs snuggled around me, I read email after email about moving out of our dorms, the change to a mandatory Pass/Fail, and the continuation of remote classes for the rest of the semester. Barnard and Columbia’s faculty made fast policy changes as the timeline of the coronavirus rapidly progressed in the city. At that moment, I reflected back on the games we played in my Korean Language Class and the Korean food celebration we were supposed to have that following Monday. We recently learned numbers in Korean and played a game called “3, 6, 9” where the class formed a circle and each person took turns saying numbers starting from one in increasing order around the circle.
If the number had a 3, 6, or 9, we had to clap instead of saying our number in Korean. At the end of class, most of us had naturally memorized numbers in Korean by then, especially because it was a fast-paced game. I wondered whether cherished interactions like those would continue to be possible over Zoom.
Meet Professor Ji-Young Jung, a Lecturer in Korean in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University and my professor in Kent Hall of the Columbia Philosophy building.
While remote learning was a difficult and unfavorable experience for many, I had truly enjoyed my Korean class, even remotely. I asked Professor Jung to reflect for our readers upon the changes the pandemic has brought to the way that she teaches.
Who is Ji-Young Jung?
Ji-Young Jung is a fun, engaging, and interactive teacher who turned remote learning into fun games and taught us aspects of Korean culture by showing clips of K-drama videos, discussing celebrities, and introducing us to Korean food. She received her Ed.D. in Applied Linguistics from Teachers College, Columbia University in 2009. She is also a co-author of Accelerated Korean I and II, the first Standards-based college Korean textbook designed for heritage learners and published her work on Korean language pedagogy, including teaching pragmatics, multiliteracies, and intercultural competence.
I asked her, “Why is it that the coronavirus had to happen for society and the world to open up to the idea of remote work?”
“As a language educator, I think we had refrained from relying on technology and had chosen to avoid learning and keeping up with the ever-advancing technology. Most language teachers still believe that face-to-face human interaction is an integral part of language education,” said Professor Jung.
Yet, even with this positive switch to engaging more with technology, remote teaching came with challenges.
“The most difficult part for me was that it was very difficult to engage students in interactional activities like pair or small group work. Also, learning new technology was not always easy and could sometimes be overwhelming. To be honest, however, I have come to think that it is quite possible to connect with students online, although it still requires a lot of effort to sense students’ struggles and affective involvement, and lack thereof, and provide individualized feedback during synchronous sessions,” said Professor Jung.
Online Tools Have Turned Remote Teaching Into A More Engaging Experience
Many teachers had to reconsider their teaching methods and search for new online tools to interact with their students back and forth. Lectures transitioned more into an interactive form of teaching, and teaching became more active.
Professor Jung said, “teaching online has offered me an opportunity for a serious reflection of my pedagogy. I came to explore different ways to engage students and provide instant, ongoing feedback in a more constructive manner. I hope that this experience will help me brainstorm and provide more motivational and interactive instruction.”
She added, “teaching Korean remotely forced me to explore new approaches to teaching and make use of commercially available tools for online instruction. I got to know some very useful tools such as Edji, a collaborative annotation tool. Reading can be very boring. Incorporating such a tool could enhance the textuality and interactivity of reading texts. PearDeck and Edpuzzle can be useful for grammar learning outside the classroom because I could save instructional time for grammar explanations during class. Teaching grammar can be boring and mechanical. I realized once more that one-way lecture styles never work in language teaching.”
However, learning to use new tools and new technologies for the first time was not always easy.
Remote Teaching Provides New Perspective Of The Students For Professors
While remote learning isolated the college experience from the student, technology brought the college community closer. A professor no longer sees the student in class but also sees other aspects of the student’s personality. At home, parents; siblings; and pets often walked in the background or accidentally came in during class.
Professor Jung said, “meeting students situated in their private sphere certainly opened up a new venue to connect with them. Some students gave a tour of their home, showed a picture, and played videos during class. By inviting me into their non-institutional world, students let me know them better as a person, which in turn helped us build a sense of bonding. I learned that online learning can be more ‘personal’ than ‘in-person’ learning!”
“Do you think that teamwork will suffer as a result of remote work?”, I asked.
“No, I don’t think our teamwork has suffered from this crisis. I still prefer to meet my students and work with my colleagues in person. However, going through this pandemic has enabled me and my colleagues to discover our strengths (both personal and professional) and ways to collaborate to achieve the common goals. Each one of us in the program has made a unique contribution to maintaining quality instruction,” she said.
Will Cities Still Be As Appealing As Before The Pandemic?
One of Columbia University’s greatest selling points is being “in the City of New York.” Therefore, attending Barnard College has been an unparalleled experience.
However, during the pandemic, New York City’s population density became a hotspot for infection and many people fled to other parts of the U.S.
I asked Professor Jung, “Now, in the tentative aftermath of the pandemic, do you think that people will find cities less appealing than before?”
“Like so many, living in NYC life is still my dream. I strongly believe that NYC is the most exciting and culturally rich city in the world. I personally don’t think this will change after the pandemic,” she replied.
Professor Jung also mentioned an unexpected perk of remote teaching. She said, “I used to drive [to Columbia] from New Jersey. Working from home has saved me commuting expenses such as gas, tolls, and parking fees. More importantly, I have more time these days because I don’t have to spend two hours commuting every day.”
Similarly, students saved a lot of time not walking from class to class throughout the big Barnard College – Columbia University urban campus. In between my back-to-back classes where 10-20 minutes would not be enough time to grab a snack or stop by my dorm, I could simply go downstairs to the kitchen and cook a small meal, or reach for my books on the bookshelf instead.
Through the introduction of online tools to teaching, adaptations to more active and engaging teaching styles, and the personal aspects of seeing a student at home, remote learning has had positive benefits for both professors and students. Perhaps, the coronavirus pandemic can be a catalyst into the incorporation of online tools to teaching and a long-needed push into the era of technology.