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Joshua Thoms "A Love of Language Learning"

Dr. Joshua Thoms is an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Applied Linguistics at Utah State. He teaches several undergraduate and graduate courses including: The Study of Language; Advanced Spanish Grammar;Technology for Language Teaching; and Second Language Acquisition: Theory and Practice. Dr. Thoms has lived, studied, and taught English in many Spanish-speaking countries. He also organized an undergraduate student trip to Logroño, Spain this summer. To understand where this love for Spanish and teaching come from, it is important to start from the beginning.

Dr. Thoms grew up in a small town in rural Iowa, a place that he describes as “lacking cultural diversity.” However, from an early age, he was fascinated with aspects of language and culture that were different from his own. He distinctly remembers the first time he heard Latin when his mother took him to a religious service. From there, his interest was sparked and he decided to take classes in the only foreign language taught at his high school at the time—Spanish. During his junior year of high school, a foreign exchange student came to his school from Mendoza, Argentina. Dr. Thoms said many students were unsure of how to interact with her because she looked different than them, spoke Spanish, and wasn’t from the US. However, he was excited to have a native Spanish speaker to practice his Spanish skills with. He quickly became friends with her and spent the last three months of his senior year attending a high school in Argentina while living with the exchange student’s family. This unique linguistic and cultural experience changed him in many ways and set his course for a love of both learning and teaching Spanish and eventually developing an interest in how adult learners acquire a second language.

One of Dr. Thoms’ current research interests focuses on the effects of using technology to learn and teach a second language. Many of the materials and tools that he investigates are open educational resources (OER). OER are texts, resources such as podcasts, or online tools that are not protected by restrictive copyrights and are created with the intention of freely sharing them with others. During the 2015 spring semester, Dr. Thoms worked with a graduate student to collect data for a research project in a Spanish poetry class. The project involved students and their professor using a digital annotation tool called Hylighter. This OER tool allows students to digitally highlight and comment on literary text outside of the physical classroom. Dr. Thoms explains, “The use of this kind of technology from a teaching perspective is quite new in that it allows for a social reading experience of the text; in this case poetry. To date, very little has been published on the use of digital annotation tools in second language learning and teaching contexts. In a traditional classroom environment, a teacher assigns a reading and then students go home and read it by themselves. Then, the next class is typically devoted to in-class discussion of the text. Digital annotation tools can therefore allow for some of that collective discussion to happen in a virtual space before physically coming back to the classroom.” Dr. Thoms is interested in exploring the benefits and challenges of using these kinds of online tools from both a pedagogical and language acquisition perspective.

Dr. Thoms says his research in this area is in the “early stages.” He indicates that the current focus of this area of his research is to gain a better understanding about how the social dynamics among students, when collectively carrying out a close reading of literary text, affect how they understand/interpret literature via the use of the digital annotation tool. Dr. Thoms states, “These kinds of studies will also shed light on how social reading might afford learners in lower-level language courses the ability to understand linguistic aspects of a foreign language, such as grammar or vocabulary, while socially engaged in reading a text. Sometimes one can learn more from another student, rather than from the teacher. Very often in a typical classroom the material is presented once and then the class moves on. If a student, for whatever reason, doesn’t feel like they can address the teacher with a question, this gives them a chance to ask and learn from their classmates in a virtual environment.”

Dr. Thoms’ first major experience working with computer-mediated learning in a language department was at Louisiana State University, where he was tasked with overseeing the implementation of a hybrid Spanish language program. He has brought what he learned from that experience to Utah State. In 2013, Dr. Thoms published a co-edited book entitled Hybrid Language Teaching and Learning: Exploring Theoretical, Pedagogical and Curricular Issues. Dr. Thoms said that part of the co-edited book is a ‘how-to guide’ for language program directors who are looking to reconfigure how they deliver their courses to students. The book also reports on empirical research studies that have indicated that there is little to no difference with respect to student learning outcomes between face-to-face and hybrid language course contexts. Dr. Thoms explained, “Sometimes people think if you move content online, you are somehow sacrificing linguistic outcomes of students. A lot of times, people think face-to-face language courses are the gold standard when it comes to language learning.” He went on to explain that face-to-face learning can have the advantage of a teacher being able to provide immediate feedback to students that can, in turn, facilitate students’ developing oral proficiency. “However,” Dr. Thoms continues, “technologies have improved so much over the years that the worry about students not being able to fully develop their speaking abilities is going away. Students are now able to fully interact with each other and with their teacher via real-time, video-based, virtual conferences.”

Dr. Thoms reports that often students in a hybrid language course environment do better than when in a traditional classroom setting. He says a reason for this could be because students self-select their courses. Thoms says, “Students like technology; they are familiar with it. They live their social lives online. This is not to say that merely being social online will immediately translate into a positive language learning experience. As far as self-selection goes, however, those students who opt to take hybrid and fully online language courses do so because many of them are familiar with technology and are inherently more adaptive than their peers.” Overall, Dr. Thoms states, “A hybrid language program, when implemented correctly, is not detrimental to student learning.”

While Dr. Thoms does not currently teach hybrid or fully online language classes, he does incorporate OER materials and tools in the courses that he is assigned to teach. “I try to allow for meaningful experiences beyond the classroom with the use of digital tools,” Thoms says. “Given that students are online a lot anyway, to not incorporate technology in a classroom to a certain extent can be awkward or possibly detrimental to student learning. In other words, if you have a student who is used to using these tools outside of the classroom context and comes into a classroom where no technology is used, it must be like walking into an academic desert. Proper use of technology can be beneficial for students and can be more interesting for me as an instructor as well.”

Dr. Thoms offers a Technology for Language Teaching graduate course for the Master of Second Language Teaching program at Utah State. Dr. Thoms stresses to his graduate students about the importance of knowing how to incorporate current technologies in their teaching given that announcements for language teaching jobs oftentimes specify familiarity with technology as a requirement. Dr. Thoms said, “I enjoy teaching this course because it provides an overview of the research related to the technologies that are currently used in the field of foreign language education. It is also designed to give students a hands-on experience with what will be important for their future careers.”

Dr. Thoms offers his students a multi-faceted and enriching learning environment along with useful tools to be implemented in their own future teaching endeavors. His love for language, teaching, and technology combine to give students a superior educational experience. Dr. Thoms will continue with his research and use of OER’s to provide his classrooms with cutting edge curriculum and help his students far out reach their academic goals.

By Raegan Erickson