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Synchronous online format broadens access to Swahili language courses

Ohio University is one of the few universities in the state offering courses in Swahili. And with courses available this spring, new classroom technology makes it easier for students from OHIO and other universities to access these hard-to-find language courses.

Swahili is spoken across East Africa, with approximately 5 million Swahili speakers in the world who use it as their native language and an additional 135 million people for whom Swahili is a second or third foreign language.

This fall, Jillian Turcola, a full-time student at Lorain County Community College who wants to join the Peace Corps, became the first remote, non-degree student to take Swahili at OHIO.

“I used to get several inquiries every year from students at other institutions asking about online Swahili classes at Ohio,” said David Bell, Ph.D., chair of linguistics in the College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Swahili and Arabic programs. “But I had to respond that there was no way we could offer both in-person classes and online classes.”

All of that changed with COVID-19 as faculty had to quickly familiarize themselves with Microsoft Teams. Returning to in-person teaching in the fall also introduced a new challenge of integrating remote and quarantined students with classroom-based students. That has all become more manageable with the Office of Information Technology equipping most classrooms with webcams mounted on swivel monitors and distance microphones.

“Now, there was a way we could recruit remote students at other institutions and integrate them into the regular in-person class,” Bell said.

Click here to view the undergraduate and graduate Swahili courses available in spring 2022.

Of course, distance learning at OHIO is not unusual. Ohio University Learning Network (OULN) has long been facilitating distance learning in dedicated classrooms equipped with multiple cameras and multiple microphones. Latin has been taught this way, connecting students in Athens with students at Miami University in Oxford. Now, regular classrooms are now equipped to offer remote and in-person possibilities, and more importantly, faculty have all become familiar with how to operate Teams.

Now, Bell is able to write back to students inquiring about online Swahili that they could indeed do the class synchronously online.

Synchronous online experience brings classmates together

“Swahili has been going great so far. I feel like I have learned so much so quickly,” Turcola said. “Seline Ayugi Okeno, or Mwalimu Seline, as I have learned to call her, has been so informative, helpful, and most of all, patient. The course moves pretty quickly, with every new topic adding on to the last. However, between the speaking and listening assignments and normal, written homework, it’s been easy to keep up.”

“This is the first time I have taken such an intense, interactive course online,” she said. “I had imagined it would be difficult, but Microsoft Teams is a wonderful thing. Mwalimu Seline shares her screen so I can see the lecture PowerPoint, and it’s as if I am right there with my classmates.”

Seline Ayugi Okeno
Seline Ayugi Okeno, coordinator of the Swahili language Program at Ohio University.

Prior to fall 2021, Swahili coordinator Okeno had only ever taught and attended fully in-person or fully online classes. 

“I was therefore not prepared to receive a student who would be joining my in-person class remotely for the whole semester,” she said. “The technological upgrades in the lecture halls make the switch seem easy, until I realized that a foreign language class has a unique set of demands. Top of this list is the sense of community. I had to acquire an extra laptop to position facing the students in the classroom, so that my remote student could see her classmates. This laptop also comes in handy during pair work speaking practice.”

Since students in the classroom are not logged into Microsoft Teams, Okeno was not able to use the breakout room function, which she had used when she taught synchronous online classes. She therefore paired an in-person student with the remote Turcola, using the laptop for the speaking activities. “After these speaking activities, my remote student and whoever she was paired with spend a minute or two getting to know each other, thus building relationships,” Okeno said.

“Another challenge has been my movement in the classroom,” Okeno added. The camera in the desktop and in the laptop are relatively fixed. This means that either the instructor is not visible at times to the remote student as they move around the classroom, or they have to stand fixed in front of the desktop camera. 

“I have become hyper aware of the amount of time I spend at a particular spot. I have also adopted more precise language during my instruction, dropping demonstrative words like ‘this’ because the remote student cannot see whatever I am pointing at on the board,” she added. 

This is not a problem in OULN classrooms with their multiple cameras. Bell is aware of this problem and the Linguistics Department is seriously considering purchasing an auto-tracking camera that moves with the instructor, and which can be shared by all the department’s instructors.

Access to Swahili enables career pathways

“The reason for my complex enrollment plan is that my end goal is to join the Peace Corps,” Turcola said. “I am working toward a degree in international cultural studies with an emphasis in either environmental studies or sustainable agriculture, and will also be taking Peace Corps prep courses which are offered at a select number of universities across the U.S. I decided that the Peace Corps was right for me a couple years ago while volunteering in Kenya after my high school graduation. I couldn’t decide on a career path, so I decided to spend a gap year abroad in order to figure it out.

“I spent two months in Kenya with a group of like-minded people my age from all over the world. Together, we built mud houses, planted trees, embraced, rooted ourselves in the local cultures, ate as the locals did and picked up some Swahili along the way. My time in Kenya was the best two months of my life, and it led me to the Peace Corps website where I got all the information about what I need to do to go back to volunteering in East Africa,” Turcola added.

“This led me to reaching out to Dr. Bell. I knew I needed to fulfill a language requirement for my degree, but I didn’t want to do Spanish or French when all I really want is to go back to East Africa. So, I did some research, found out that Ohio University is one of only a few universities that offer Swahili, and I reached out,” Turcola said. “Fast forward to present day, I am loving every minute of class. Overall, online synchronous learning hasn’t been that much different from in-person learning, and I am so motivated to learn as much as I can from Mwalimu Seline.”

“After our initial success with our first remote student, we are ready to welcome other remote students to Swahili and our other language programs,” Bell said. 

If you are an OHIO student looking to start Swahili, there is a new in-person Swahili elementary class, SWAH 1110, starting in Spring 2022, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 2 p.m. to 2:55 p.m. For more information, contact Bell at

November 2, 2021
Staff reports