They have to talk and you have to listen

The importance of collaborative conversations in online classrooms

I used to repeat this mantra to a rather garrulous colleague who taught translation studies in the languages department where I worked. He was a larger than life character who liked to entertain his students with personal anecdotes of his many adventures in far flung locations. We collaborated on short English courses for interpreters who wanted to improve their spoken fluency and repeating the mantra seemed to be the only way to make him stop and think about his impact on student learning. Now we’re seeing an analogous situation in the recorded online lessons from the Pre-sessional programme in 2020 that my colleagues, Sue Argent and Judith Gorham, and I are analyzing. We find some of the teachers spend the short (one hour) synchronous sessions talking most of the time. Students stay silent or contribute one or two-word responses in the chat function. Indeed one of the more experienced teachers, who has taught on the programme for over 15 years commented in his evaluation: ‘I found myself monologuing and not being able to stop doing this’.

Why is it important for students to talk and teachers to listen? One of the main reasons is given by Laurillard (2002, summarised in EAP Essentials, pp.121-2) who 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. Without student talk, the teacher has no immediate way of knowing whether the students understand the materials and tasks and therefore no opportunity to adapt to the in-the-moment needs of the students.

Not all the teachers who gave permission for us to use their recorded lessons in this project monopolised the talk in their online classrooms. So I wanted to reflect on the possible reasons why some were more successful at encouraging students to talk than others. The data support the claim often made of ELT teachers when they move to EAP teaching that they revert to the status of novices and feel de-skilled in the new context. The online teaching in a flipped learning mode was certainly a new context for many teachers. In addition, those new to this specific programme also had to grapple with unfamiliar course materials, tasks and assessment.

The most noticeable indicator of novice status was some teachers’ inability or unwillingness to give students control of the lesson. Sue Argent discusses the importance of the teacher ceding control to students in EAP Essentials (Chapter 9, p 292): ‘By continuing to exercise control, the teacher denies students opportunities to be active, to take risks and to reflect on learning’. Teacher control was most obvious in excess talk, with teachers telling, describing and explaining rather than setting up collaborative conversations that let the students come to an understanding themselves. However, there were other more subtle ways in which teachers failed to give up control. One teacher had her students read aloud all the supporting PowerPoint slides. At first this seemed to be a useful way of letting students practice speaking but it was overdone for the whole lesson. Another teacher gave control but in a stilted way by nominating different students to ask the discussion questions, thus parroting a discussion experience rather than giving students the real experience.

The teachers who were more successful at supporting genuinely collaborative learning conversations were more easily able to tolerate silence in the online classroom. Early advice from learning technologists on the use of synchronous classrooms was to wait for a longer period for responses from students. One teacher waited an impressive two minutes in silence for her students to respond to a prompt – which they eventually did. Other teachers would signal that they intended to wait and that they needed longer responses not just one or two words. The less confident teachers, however, who felt pressured by the lack of time, tended to go into a hectoring mode: ‘Quickly I need your ideas quickly so participate don’t be shy or I will jump on you […] If you don’t know, tell me because we need to move quickly.’ This was unlikely to encourage reticent students to contribute and indeed the nominated student took up the offer to say he didn’t know.

The most effective practice was seen with teachers who understood the concepts they were teaching and the underlying principles of the course. The teachers knew where each lesson was going and could manage their time effectively. By week 5, when this lesson was taught, these teachers had established a classroom community of practice, in which students felt comfortable and confident to contribute their ideas. This was done in synchronous sessions but also in the asynchronous threaded discussions and blogs that supported the delivery. The more effective teachers engaged fully with this asynchronous aspect of the programme, responding regularly to student posts by valuing but also challenging the students. This collaborative conversation carried over naturally into the synchronous classroom.

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

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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