Feeling connected online

Attitudes to the value of teaching online

I recently heard a conversation on Music Matters (UK BBC Radio 3) between the presenter Tom Service and Ray Chen, a young Australian violinist, ‘who redefines what it is to be a classical musician in the 21st Century’, by embracing and celebrating social media as a way to connect with his audience in these strange times. Most other musicians are also recording concerts in their homes for online audiences, with some creative collaborations, but the usual comment is that they can’t wait to get back to the concert hall and a real audience. They see their online concerts as inferior kinds of music making, presumably with unreal audiences. In contrast, Ray Chen embraces social media, with 151K subscribers on his Youtube channel. He sees his Youtube concert platform and so-called live performances as equally valid. For him, the essence of the connection in an online performance is how much the performer and the concert goers really want to be there.

This made me reflect further [see also] on the experience of moving Pre-sessional English (PSE) programmes online. The typical response from many teachers, students and their parents was that online teaching would be inferior because it did not involve at least 20 hours of face-to-face teaching. Similar to many musicians, teachers felt that there could be no authentic connection between them and their students online. This seemed to be such a firmly held belief that some centres simply tried to replicate their face-to-face courses online with teachers and students together for 20 hours per week. In my limited experience of teaching in synchronous classrooms, I had found the online space to be confined and teaching to be much more intensive. I didn’t think it was fair to ask teachers to teach in this way for 20 hours per week.

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

On the other hand, I’ve always enjoyed asynchronous online activity. In the late 90s I used an early discussion board application with a group of exchange students. They had complained about the limited amount of teacher-student interaction, compared to what they were used to back home. Using an asynchronous platform was a way to increase this with discussion on current topics. I also introduced another identity, Lucy Evangelista (Devil’s advocate) who always took a contrary viewpoint on any of the issues. Lucy always made a few grammar mistakes in her posts to make her look more like a second language speaker. By the end of the semester the students were extremely curious to know who she was. It was a great way to engage all of them – especially the quieter ones – in the discussions.

From 2009 to 2011, I was a moderator for the IATEFL pre-conference online discussions for the EAP strand. The online discussions were first introduced at the Cardiff (2009) conference and were an enjoyable and relaxed way to connect with teachers world-wide who were not going to be able to attend the conference. I could log on and join in at times that suited me. I really enjoyed the intimacy of these online interactions and felt a real connection to the teachers who joined the forum. For this reason, I’ve always designed an asynchronous component into the EAP programmes at Heriot-Watt to give a wider variety of experience for the students, e.g., an opportunity to build a community of practice through peer review of short pieces of writing. Not all teachers have seen the value of this but it did make course design for PSE Online relatively easy because the asynchronous elements were already in place and familiar to the teachers.

I also had experience (in 2001-3) of designing a paper-based EAP programme for independent distance learners with my two friends and co-authors, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer. This gave me some insights into the possibilities for autonomous (flipped) learning. A central question we discussed for that early programme was how to bring the teacher presence into the distance learning materials, which we did with a linked narrative of instructions, hints, answer keys, reflective quizzes and metacognitive statements to make explicit what the answers meant and what had been learned. With advances in technology in 2020, this narrative could be supplied in part as a voiceover to Power Point slides, which students were instructed to work on before class for at least three hours. These Preparation slides provided instructions and orientation to tasks in the coursebook (Access EAP: Frameworks), some hints and some answers. The teachers in the synchronous classroom, therefore, had to do the metacognitive work of checking understanding and making explicit what task outcomes meant for successful academic study. They also had to use the synchronous sessions to build a class community of practice to encourage peer learning in the asynchronous aspects of the programme.

Throughout the summer I was able to observe some of the PSE Online lessons. What I didn’t anticipate was some teachers’ lack of understanding or engagement with this new orientation to flipped learning. One teacher commented in the final evaluation survey that ‘The programme needs to do more than use teachers as biological answer keys.’ Well quite! Some teachers did not take into account the need for a faster pace in a short 50 minute lesson. They spent far too long on the initial warmer activities, designed as a quick review of learning in previous lessons. This meant the task which delivered the key learning outcome was rushed or not covered at all. More worrying was a marked tendency for much more ‘teacher talking time’. In the worst cases, the teacher simply talked for the whole 50 minutes. Some teachers appeared not to have taken the student preparation into account and taught the 50 minute lesson as though the students had not studied the tasks beforehand. They missed opportunities to check students’ understanding and so move quickly to more challenging tasks. There was also very little explicit reformulation and summary of the learning outcomes to develop students’ metacognition and enable transfer to other study contexts. I got the impression that there was very little connection between these teachers and their students because none of them wanted to be in this space.

Not all the observed lessons were like this and some teachers were very creative in their use of the affordances of the online synchronous classroom. They used the emojis and response icons together with polls and the chat function to encourage interaction with their students. It was noticeable that there were many more opportunities in these classrooms for students to interact with each other and to display their understanding.

During teacher induction we spent a lot of time explaining the functions of the online classroom and giving teachers practice in using it. I had not thought it necessary to discuss flipped learning and how to focus on metacognitive aspects of the tasks. On reflection, it would have been helpful for teachers to have guided lesson planning to think about the most efficient way of using the time and making the learning outcomes explicit to students. It might have helped them to have discussions about their attitudes to the online classroom as an equally valid space for teaching and one where they really wanted to be.

It seems universities in the UK and elsewhere are embracing the move to online learning, which means that EAP pre-sessional and foundation programmes will need to do the same and some teachers on these programmes will need additional support to see the online and face-to-face teaching spaces as equally valid spaces to connect with students and help them to learn.

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm an author 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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