Jasna Novak Milic, Lecturer and Director, Croatian Studies, Languages & Cultures (MCCALL), has years of experience with blended synchronous teaching. We spoke to Jasna about what works for her students and how her teaching has evolved. As told to Kylie Coaldrake & Karina Luzia.
Q What are you teaching and who are your students?
I’m currently teaching six Croatian Studies language units. Croatian is offered as a major, minor, non-award and as a diploma, which is our most popular course.
I have students from 18 years of age up to, currently, 72, so teenagers and mature students. And that’s not rare. Many are working full-time, some in very high-up positions.
Most of my students have a Croatian background, but some don’t. Currently the gentleman who is 72 years old, his family is Croatian, but he himself is not.
Some students just have an interest in Slavic languages or some professional interests, for example, ancient history students doing excavations in Croatia (or at least they were before the pandemic).
A lot of my students are external – mostly due to the fact that we are the only Croatian Studies program in Australia, possibly even the Southern Hemisphere. In 2023 I have students from all states across Australia. During the pandemic I also had students joining the class from the US and Croatia.
Heritage speakers as ‘false beginners’ in language learning
Q Are your first-year students all beginners?
Not all my students start as complete beginners. Sometimes they are heritage speakers who picked up language when they were kids. But they may not have the writing skills or formal grammar. Or they may speak a specific dialect. So, they start off, as I call them, false beginners, because they have some basic everyday knowledge of the Croatian language, but they’ve never been formally educated in the language, so they want to learn everything from scratch. The Croatian language is quite complex, so they would have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to formal language learning and learning about grammar and so on if they jumped into the intermediate course.
Why and how blended/hyflex language teaching works
Q You’ve been teaching on campus and online students together for several years, even before the pandemic. Why were you such an early adopter of the blended/hyflex mode of teaching?
At least half of my students are from outside Sydney and studying externally. Due to the nature of the units and cohorts I teach, I ended up opting, or maybe I should say, landing, on a hyflex mode of teaching – to cater for students who for various reasons can’t make it to campus but don’t want to miss that in-class experience.
With most things I would say ‘Oh yes, you could easily learn that online’. But I myself would never choose to learn a language online. I think, for language learning, that in-person experience is really important, otherwise it can be a very lonely process. Learning a language entails four major skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking. And that’s really hard to learn on your own.
I think real-world speaking and listening situations can’t be replaced with asynchronous modes where you’re watching a recording or where you’re just listening to what’s going on. The classroom is the closest real-life experience those students get on a weekly basis and that’s why it’s so important for them to have the option to participate in class as much as possible.
Prior to commencing at Macquarie (in 2016), I had only ever taught face to face students. It took me a while to learn about the needs of my external students that I inherited when I started. I had that feeling that they were disadvantaged somehow, that providing them with plain text and audio files just wasn’t enough.
Of course, they had the option to call or email their lecturers, but they were still missing out on that in class experience, and as learning a language is a social activity, I really wanted them to be part of it. So that’s how I started searching for other options.
There is another reason why I’m doing blended synchronous teaching – it’s because we have a small cohort of students, and we just can’t afford to have separate online and in class tutorial sessions. My colleagues who have large cohorts can easily do that. Even my class schedule is adapted to the needs of students who work full-time or are in a different time zone. Most of my classes take place in the late afternoon and evening so that the maximum number of students can join the classes. This is a small sacrifice I make to foster my students’ learning and learning experience.
In the beginning, it was not easy. There was a need for change, but the possibilities were limited, primarily concerning available technology. It took a while before I ended up with a solution that worked for me and for the students. Along the way there were a lot of sound issues, camera issues, and students not being able to see what I was writing. I tried numerous different things before I landed with the solution that I’m using now and that I’m pretty happy with. I can now set up literally in less than 5 minutes.
Finding solutions by trial and error – and climbing on desks!
Q Did your solution involve using Zoom?
Actually, when I started, it wasn’t Zoom – I started with Skype! Skype was OK for students who could join in real time. But then I couldn’t record. Skype Business allowed me to record at the same time, but the students didn’t have access to Skype business, so I couldn’t use that either.
I would change from week to week depending on whether there would be more students attending face to face or if more of them were planning to join online. I would perhaps decide to do a recording instead, sometimes even using three devices.
It was very much trial and error, including experimenting with the sound. Also involving (don’t tell anyone!) climbing on the on the desk and getting down the microphone because it was too high up and wasn’t serving the purpose, the students could not hear me, so I put the microphone closer to where I was standing.
At some point in 2019, I discovered Zoom and that solved a lot of my issues because suddenly I could easily have students online and record at the same time. That did not resolve all the issues at once, but the sound and video quality improved.
My ‘Newton’s apple’ moment – aka how I invented double Zooming
When I started doing this, I always relied on the resident computer. The classroom had a camera, but it was high up on the whiteboard and I wasn’t satisfied with this because then I was turning my back to my online students if I was facing the classroom, or when I was facing the camera then I was standing with my back to my in-class students.
And then someday literally, you know, like that Newton’s apple, it just hits me. What if I try to log in to Zoom on a second device?
I had my laptop with me anyway. What if I try to log in again? If the system allows me to log in twice as myself, or as a guest, then I can look at my laptop so my online students can see me, and I can still face my classroom students.
And that’s how I came up with double zooming!
At the time the Arts precinct was under reconstruction, and I was teaching in the temporary classrooms (demountables). The new Arts classrooms have some additional features that make the experience even better for students, however, I still use the same general setup. It is important to note that the blended synchronous delivery with Zoom-in-room will work differently in every classroom as they each have a slightly different setup.
To prevent echo, you must know your specific room setup – how you are going to use the microphone, which microphone or on which device or which speakers you’re going to use.
I do see that fear of technology is what prevents some people from trying new things. I’m not afraid of technology. I don’t know why I don’t have that fear. Maybe because my dad was into computers – he transformed himself from repairing radios to computers and was one of the first technicians for computers in Croatia. I was always surrounded by PC’s and parts of PCs, so maybe the interest comes from there.
But yeah. Not afraid.
Exploring virtual reality is next
I can think of pretty good ways where I could use virtual and augmented reality in a language class especially with situations like we had during COVID where students couldn’t travel, and they couldn’t go on exchange.
With learning a language, it’s not just grammar and vocabulary, it’s the cultural immersion and those intercultural and communication skills that you need to gain, and these are hard to accomplish unless you have the option to travel and engage with people.
I’ve created some simple virtual reality in H5P enabling students to take a virtual walk through the capital of Croatia, Zagreb, with tasks that prompt students to explore and learn and so on. This is a start, but I’d like to explore and do more with virtual reality in the future.
To the right is an example of a (2-min) virtual walk through Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, that Jasna created for her students using H5P.
To get the full experience, make sure you turn the sound on and click on all the pop ups.
Being a student while being a teacher
I am passionate about providing my students with the best learning experience I can give them. That, in addition to my interest in technology, prompted me to enrol in a Graduate Certificate of Learning Design during the second lock down in 2021. When it comes to me trying new things, I am quite an impatient learner. I am more likely to just start testing a new application than watching instructional videos and reading instructions. I do that too, but only when I get stuck and need help. With the graduate certificate I wanted to get a wider frame for what I was already doing, confirmation that often intuitively developed approaches had foundations in learning theories and modern learning practices.
That’s where I found out I was already doing HyFlex, not even realising that it had a name. That was a very good experience because I consolidated the theory behind learning design and some practical elements. It gave me a sense that what I’m doing is OK and is justified by theories and research.
And another wonderful aspect to being a student: as teachers, we forget what it’s like to be a student, and working full time, which a lot of my students are experiencing.
To simply to be in their shoes I learned so much and I think my students benefit so much from my experience, because I have a better understanding of their needs now.
Q How did that change your teaching practice?
I realised that due dates can be very challenging. Things happen in your life and in your work and here is that assessment that you still have to do and it’s sometimes very hard to juggle everything, especially if you really want to commit yourself to what you’re doing.
I also realised that you pay a lot of money to do a degree here in Australia.
And I learnt that essentially, we do always care about grades. We all like to do well.
I’ve always tried to be objective and follow the rules, but I am a little bit more understanding now. I was always making myself available to my students, but I think now, even before they say something, I’m trying to catch things happening in the background and offering help where I can. What if I have a student who is working as a manager in a well-established company. They don’t want to ask for an extension necessarily, as it’s almost like they’re failing by doing that, or they’re failing the lecturer! Preempting and helping them in that sense is a good thing.
Assessment is my biggest challenge
Q What issues or aspects of teaching do you find yourself thinking about or reflecting on most at the moment – what are the things front of mind for you?
I’m pretty content with how the blended and hyflex is working and how I set it up for myself and my students. But there are some things that I don’t have a direct impact on. For example, the textbooks we are using are fantastic, but they’re not ideal for my students, simply because they are made for students who are studying Croatian as a foreign second language in Croatia.
But I don’t have any influence on that. I could write them myself, but writing textbooks for a three-year language program or six proficiency levels will take time even if I start today, right? So, it’s not really an option considering everything that I do. Instead, I try to put a twist on whatever we do from the textbook with the Australian context in mind.
On the one hand, you want to learn about the culture behind the language you are learning, but when my students here are learning about Croatia, in the beginning they might learn, for example, that Zagreb has blue trams or something like that. But if you go over there, nobody will ask you about the trams in Zagreb, but they will ask you about public transport in Sydney, they will ask you about schooling and the education system in Australia and that’s why you have to always put it in that real local context. So, this is what I struggle with a little bit.
But mostly what really gets me these days, and where I’m really still searching for the best options is assessments. In the era of Google Translate and ChatGPT, teaching a language and assessing language proficiency, especially now we’ve moved to online contexts, is very challenging.
We don’t have formal exams anymore. At the end of the second semester each year we have longer online written tests. But then because they are delivered online, they have to be open book. So, you have to come up with activities that are authentic, that are meaningful, that are testing what you want to test and that are also, regardless of how wonderful my students are, minimising their chances for academic integrity breaches.
So, this is probably the hardest thing in the context of teaching and assessing mostly online these days. And yes, Turnitin is a helpful and wonderful tool, but…, but it doesn’t perfectly work in my experience with languages such as Croatian and can’t detect automatic translations.
Find your teaching comfort zone… and then push out
Q What advice do you have for your teaching colleagues?
I’ve been asked a lot about what I do, especially recently and I get feedback from colleagues that “it’s too much”, or “I’m not good with technology”, or “what if I don’t know what to do in the middle of class.” I always talk quite passionately about what I do, because it comes naturally to me, out of my own curiosity.. But I understand that what works for me and my students does not need to work for everyone and it’s definitely not going to work in the same way for a cohort of 100 or even 500 students.
I think that as teachers our task is to find the ways of teaching that feel comfortable first and foremost for ourselves, because we have to be confident in class, but at the same time, I do feel we have the obligation to listen to the needs of our students and to do the best we can to accommodate them if we can and where we can.
So, if that means pushing our own boundaries and getting out of our comfort zone or at least trying new things, I think we owe them at least that much.
I would recommend to anyone who can afford it timewise, moneywise, whichever wise, to go back and study – it’s a great experience. Any kind of professional development, online workshops – there are so many options available.
I did a Graduate Certificate in Learning Design, but you don’t have to go that far! LinkedIn Learning for example offers so many wonderful things. I’m trying to learn some coding there at the moment.
For us language teachers, it’s also good to start learning another language again, whether that’s with Duolingo on the app or attending an Open for Observation Class, simply to be reminded of what it’s like to be a student. We should not get stuck or feel too comfortable as teachers!
But I also don’t think it’s worth doing something that really scares you or makes you uncomfortable. In some instances, pen and paper are still working just fine, I really do believe that.
And it’s not technology that’s going to change the teaching. It’s all in the teacher, essentially. If it works for you and your students, that’s the most important thing.
A supportive environment makes for a happy teacher
Q That’s a lovely note to end on. Is there anything else that you would like to mention?
What I’d like to say is that we don’t need to know it all. But you do need to know the people who you can turn to for help.
In Languages here at MQ we really do work together beautifully and help each other – we share advice and experiences and literally go into the classroom and help each other set up when needed.
It’s really amazing to be working in such a supportive environment. I’m privileged. And it’s not just in languages, the whole MCALL department is like that. This is the only environment within Macquarie that I have experience with and I’m sure there are other teams that are very supportive. Just sharing ideas and helping each other, I think that’s the advice that I have for colleagues.
I feel supported, but I also feel that my support is appreciated, and if I’m asked for my support, I’m so happy to provide it. I feel that my skills are recognised and it’s not like” she’s doing some crazy stuff, let’s just ignore her”. But it’s more like, “oh, she’s doing some cool stuff, maybe we can do some of that, too, let’s find out more”.
Today, I am doing what I am doing and how I am doing it thanks to the support of my colleagues and supervisors who recognise the value of innovation and invested efforts. I have the opportunity to grow, further advance, and share my experience and knowledge within my discipline, department, or more broadly at the university, for example, through the work of the Teaching & Leadership Community of Practice or through this text. This means a lot to me, especially because by moving to Australia, I had to take many steps back career-wise. I came to Macquarie as a relatively established academic recognised in my home country and in my research fields, but my current job here is primarily focused on teaching my native language and culture. Among my former colleagues in Croatia, this sometimes provokes ridicule or at least pity.
Someone once openly told me, ‘So you’re just a language teacher now!’ ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘but I am a happy and fulfilled language teacher.’
Dr Jasna Novak Milic
Jasna Novak Milic is a linguist, lecturer, researcher and Director of Croatian Studies at the Department of Media, Communications, Creative Arts, Language and Literature, Faculty of Arts.
View Jasna’s Research Profile.
Observe Jasna’s approach to teaching
Jasna is participating in the Open for Observation program. If you are interested in seeing first hand how she manages to teach face-to-face and online students at the same time, you can register to go along to one of her classes (either in-person or online).
See how Jasna uses H5P to create engaging learning for her students in this 9-minute video showcasing 3 different interactive videos made using H5P.
See also this TECHE post on Jasna’s tips for blended synchronous (hyflex) teaching.
Banner Image: Kylie Coaldrake
Dubrovnik : Photo by Ivan Ivankovic on Unsplash
Apple: Photo by Bodrov Kirill on Shutterstock
Students with papers: Photo by Antonio Guillem on Shutterstock
Zagreb blue trains: Photo by Leonid Andronov on Shutterstock
All other images and Zagreb Virtual Tour (H5P) supplied by Jasna.