Testing language app gives students applied research experience

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

“My students are applying the concepts they had learned in class to a real world situation” says Professor Camelia Nunez of the Department of Spanish and Latin American Studies. She’s referring to the integration of the Milao Language beta program in her classes. Similar to BBM or Facebook chat, the new language practice program asks questions and leads a conversation with the user, helping learners improve their comprehension and composition skills. Milao is the brainchild of Professor Nunez, and, with access to students at all stages of language learning, she transformed her startup into both a language practice and research opportunity for students in the department.

During this academic year, Milao Language is in beta testing with students of Spanish (SPAN) 101. They use the program to learn the language in a familiar way: chatting. Earlier in the testing phase, the teaching assistants (TAs) for SPAN 101, observed the first year learners chatting and interacting with the program and noted trends and errors. The TAs approached Professor Nunez and said ‘let’s look at the data.’

“That’s really what you want as a teacher,” says Nunez of this testing process.  “Milao became a learning tool for first year students and a research opportunity for upper year students.”

Professor Nunez at computer with two students

Professor Nunez worked with her two TAs, guiding them through the data analysis. Jhotisha Mugon is a fourth year student in Psychology and Spanish. “Once Professor Nunez started beta testing, I was already asking ‘what comes next? What are you doing with the results?’” Jhotisha works anywhere from 5-20 hours a week on the Milao project, analyzing results and looking for patterns.

To further enrich their research experience, Nunez plans to co-author a paper with the two upper year students and publish their findings; in addition, the pair has already presented their Milao work at two recent conferences, at the University of Waterloo and Concordia University. An impressive feat for undergraduate students. “This kind of opportunity is not one you would normally get at this level,” explains Jhotisha. “Not only were we able to present at a conference, we translated the results from English and presented in Spanish. We were able to put our own language acquisition skills into practice.”

Professor Nunez has received funding to hire 1 or 2 students to continue work on Milao throughout the spring and summer terms. “The research opportunity is providing students with a deeper learning experience.” And the beauty of the project? “Every time we analyze data with the help of students, we make the program better for the students using it to practice their Spanish.” 

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