Covid-19: threats and opportunities.

Opportunities and experiences of moving to online pre-sessional teaching.

The Covid-19 pandemic has the UK in lockdown with the cancellation of sporting and cultural events and the closure of schools, sports facilities, museums and art galleries. Those with desk-based jobs at the university have been asked to work from home, the library is shut and the campus may soon close completely. It would be easy to panic in these extraordinary circumstances. Indeed, supermarket shelves are empty of products such as toilet rolls and pasta, and shoppers are being restricted in the amount of some products they can buy. However frightening the situation feels, it is still possible to see opportunities that would not otherwise be available. Focusing on these helps me to stay positive and deal more easily with the prescribed social isolation.

One immediate opportunity is that the status of the English Section I lead has suddenly improved considerably because the crisis management team suddenly came to recognise the importance of Pre-sessional English (PSE) in the recruitment of international students. Previously recruiters in my institution paid scant attention to PSE as a recruitment tool, preferring to leave responsibility for meeting the English condition on their degree offer to students. Suddenly the focus is on PSE and the possibility of being able to deliver the programmes online. We have received a small amount of funding to employ three experience PSE teachers for a month to develop the online delivery.

Getting ready to work online

So I’ve been thinking about how to teach online, using the tools our institution supports, to deliver a comparable experience to classroom based learning. The Learning Technology Developers have worked hard to provide a toolkit for teaching staff to use the Blackboard virtual learning environment (VLE) and in particular the use of Collaborate Ultra embedded within the VLE. This enables a simulation of the classroom experience online. Teachers can share documents and divide students into small breakout groups to work on tasks before recombining in one virtual classroom to discuss answers. However, I’ve begun to realise how course design and teaching methodology need to change in order to work effectively in an online space.

I found that using the Collaborate Ultra classroom is actually very tiring for both teacher and students. The space feels quite tight (metaphorically speaking) with everyone crowded together as icons in a space the size of a computer screen. I used audio only, to reduce bandwidth problems with video, and this seemed to increase my sense of claustrophobia. Even though students have been together all semester, some were unwilling to speak. I tried using breakout rooms to form smaller groups but only the confident students participated. In the evaluation, reticent students said they could not think of anything to say, or they were new to the technology or they did not feel confident to speak.

Reflecting on the experience made me realise that some of the advice given to me in my first teacher training course applies equally to these online spaces.

  • Specify a clear learning outcome for each online session and the key task to deliver that outcome so students know what they need to prepare.
  • Keep it Simple so the technology doesn’t become the focus of the lesson. I have to learn precisely how to use the tools so as not to waste time when something goes wrong.
  • Reduce teacher talking time in order to encourage students to contribute. When asking a question, it is important to wait long enough to elicit a response. Count to 20 or 30 before speaking again.

We will be using a flipped teaching approach to accommodate the time difference between the UK and China (8 hours) or the Middle East (7 hours). The PSE uses a coursebook, Access EAP: Frameworks, which students will be able to buy as an e-book. They will be directed to prepare specific tasks during the day so they can participate in the virtual classroom to discuss the answers in the afternoon.

Teaching methodology will need to change from teacher-driven to materials driven. Laurillard (2002, in Alexander et al, 2018, pp.121-2) presents the process of learning as a collaborative conversation in which teacher and student describe to each other their understanding of a concept and become aware of the difference between their descriptions. The teacher then adapts her description to the level of the student who uses this feedback to change his own understanding. The process happens relatively easily in a traditional classroom but Laurillard was interested in thinking how it might happen through materials and tasks without the teacher present.  We will try short video presentations over Powerpoint slides to direct students to prepare specific tasks in the coursebook for discussion in the virtual classroom.

I’m looking forward to the challenge of moving PSE online and have become less interested in thinking about retirement as a result. It will be fun to work with experienced colleagues on this new project and to learn new skills.

Laurillard, D (2002) Rethinking University Teaching: a framework for the effective use of learning technologies. London: Routledge Falmer.

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm a teacher and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

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