Language Prof. Yoshiko Okuyama: “Try to look for the silver linings of this pandemic-driven remote education”

Prof. of Japanese Yoshiko Okuyama’s transition to online teaching included countless hours of elective training, researching, and learning, going above and beyond to enhance the experience of her students.

Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura.

Yoshiko Okuyama in her office with a class up on the computer screen.
Yoshiko Okuyama

With the fall semester coming to an end, the once foreign concept of attending school in a completely virtual format has now become the norm. Though the adjustment hasn’t been easy, students and teachers are learning to persevere through these trying times, being more prepared to take on the spring semester.

For one such University of Hawai‘i at Hilo educator, one can never be too prepared. In fact, her work ethic to convert to distance learning didn’t just encompass finding ways to get the transition done. The process also included countless hours of elective training, researching, and learning, going above and beyond to enhance the experience of her students.

Yoshiko Okuyama is a professor of Japanese at UH Hilo, within the languages department, who has been with the university for over 20 years. Her areas of expertise are Japanese mythology, folklore and religion, as well as semiotics, second language acquisition, deaf studies, and technology-mediated communication. She received her master of arts in teaching English as a second language and her doctor of philosophy in second language acquisition from the University of Arizona. Her book, Japanese Mythology in Film (2015, Lexington Books), is a significant contribution to the literature on Japanese mythology.

Her most recent accomplishment at UH Hilo is creating a new certificate program. Okuyama says the Japanese teaching certificate program “provides undergraduate students with a theoretical background in language pedagogy as well as hands-on practice for teaching Japanese in the community and abroad.” The first cohort is anticipated for fall 2021.

A new reality

When she first heard the news about mandatory online instruction, Okuyama had one thought: “Okay, I have to evolve.”

“To be fair, due to my sabbatical in the spring, I did not experience the abrupt shift to online teaching, as my colleagues did,” she says. “But by the summer, we knew remote education would be an inevitable part of the fall 2020 semester.”

Logo: Center for Language Technology Professional Learning Series

This immediate acceptance of the world’s new reality enabled Okuyama to instantly begin working toward new avenues of growth. One avenue was in attending technology and distance learning workshops presented by UH Hilo and the UH System, as many as she could, to prepare for online teaching.

Kristen Roney, UH Hilo’s vice chancellor for academic affairs, informed Okuyama and her colleagues of a six-week program for foreign language teachers run by the Center for Language and Technology based at UH Mānoa. Okuyama says she “seized the opportunity and obtained badges for computer-assisted language instruction this fall.”

“The university’s moral and financial support for that faculty technology training and our distance learning team assistance have helped me turn the onerous task of converting my classroom Japanese language courses to full-fledged online ones,” she adds.

Okuyama, who teaches elementary elementary to advanced Japanese language courses, also has been teaching online both Japanese mythology in film (JPST 380) and gender and disability in manga (JPST 382) for about 15 years. She found her previous experience with online teaching helpful during this transition. In 2004, she was asked to experiment with an online course on introductory psycholinguistics at UH Hilo. With her doctoral degree in applied linguistics, and computer-assisted language learning the subject of her dissertation, online teaching quickly became her passion.

Still, though familiarized with building online classrooms, Okuyama says she was not prepared for certain challenges specific to teaching language courses online.

“Because language learning involves skill development, the transition from classroom to remote education is more challenging,” she explains. “Furthermore, things such as incidental vocabulary learning and acquisition of sociocultural aspects of communication, such as the right timing of pausing and responding, take place in naturally occurring language use.”

Okuyama admits that it took a “herculean effort” to become well-informed about the specific teaching strategies and technology tools available for online language instruction.

She says she spent a great deal of time reading about online pedagogy in The Chronicle of Higher Education and other outlets. These materials gave lots of great advice, she says, on how to keep courses taught through Laulima (the long-established online teaching platform for the UH System) simple, consistent, and well-organized. She keeps her online pedagogical approach as contextualized instruction through a variety of techniques, media, and materials, just as she does for in-person classes.

In addition to Laulima, Prof. Okuyama has stepped outside her comfort zone to use a series of software programs and Web 2.0 tools. She uses Google Meets to conduct her synchronous components of class and has also found Google Forms and Google Calendar helpful.

“I create lecture videos with Screencast-O Matic and upload them to YouTube weekly,” she says. “The program allows me to record a lecture, add music, present PowerPoint slides, and edit the recordings so easily.”

Screenshot of Japanese language lesson. Yoshiko Okuyama pictured at right.
Prof. Yoshiko Okuyama teaches an online Japanese language class. Courtesy photo.

She also incorporates external tools such as Quizlet and Flipgrid to provide a variety of learning materials and activities in addition to adopting the use of a free e-book in place of the regular, commercially available, print-only textbook for Japanese.

“Musubi is a downloadable OER (open educational resources) textbook developed by award-winning instructors of Japanese at UH Mānoa. Use of the digital book has been working very well for us as all chapters are accessible wherever students are currently located.”

Student-centered approach

Combining all of these multimedia tools, Okuyama roots her teaching strategies in a student-centered approach. She sends out reminder emails and classroom updates, scheduling virtual speech practice appointments, and giving feedback on assignments as soon as possible.

“To me, it is important to know how learning activities are working for them,” she explains. “In my online courses, I cannot read signs of struggle or confusion from their facial expressions easily. So, I give an anonymous course survey to hear their voices during the mid-semester and final week of instruction.”

Okuyama also reminds her students not be too critical of their academic achievements.

“We, the faculty, understand that you have been taking on the challenges of virtual classes for months,” Okuyama says to her students. “Surviving this semester will be a big personal achievement in and by itself. Please acknowledge that. And if possible, try to look at any silver linings of this pandemic-driven remote education.”


Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura, who is earning a bachelor of arts in English with a minor in performing arts and a certificate in educational studies at UH Hilo.