Asynchronous learning – in the center of attention

It’s October 30, the last day of the ‘Autumn holiday’ week. Here I am, working on my lesson plans for next week, when the school ‘starts’ again. Well, it’s not a real holiday and the school doesn’t really start on Monday, at least not in the sense one would normally imagine. I’ve actually been working from home for the past couple of weeks and it seems I will be doing so for another few weeks, months, …? Who knows.

So far, I’ve mostly been teaching asynchronously but since the situation regarding the reopening of schools is more than uncertain here in the Czech Republic, I’m planning to include synchronous lessons as well from Monday 2 on. I must say, however, that so far, teaching asynchronously has been a truly enjoyable and creative process for me. Finally, I have all the time in the world to search the internet for interesting materials. I simply love creating quizzes and making videos and recordings of my own. The sky is the limit. But it’s important to constantly ask questions: Is the process as enjoyable and creative for my students as it is for me? How useful are the materials? Are they as efficient as they appear to be? And how do I actually know?

Based on my experience, an asynchronous lesson has the potential to be much better-thought-out than any real lesson (be it in the actual class or via Zoom). It’s a bit like coursebook writing, I guess; you need to think twice before you include a task and the accompanying instructions. For example, you need to carefully consider the length, the actual wording and the fact that sometimes the students are better off with instructions in their mother tongue. You constantly change and rewrite things before you post them. You include a picture if it’s all too visually boring and delete one if it appears a bit too overwhelming. You shorten an exercise once it seems too daunting and you add a sentence or two to avoid the dumbing-down effect. Balance is the key word. And once everything is in balance, you can enjoy the end result to the fullest.

Having said that, while a coursebook writer doesn’t usually know their end ‘viewer’, you do. In fact, it’s imperative to think of the actual student doing the tasks. You need to constantly imagine them in front of their computers: how much time will they potentially spend completing your assignment? What resources will they need? Will their need their parents’ help, for example?

No wonder you end up spending far more time on each lesson than you normally would. But it’s a good investment. I believe that students can gain a lot from a good asynchronous lesson. Why? Particularly because the student is finally working most of the time. You, the teacher, no longer rob the student of their precious time, as you would inevitably do in a synchronous lesson. In other words, they don’t get distracted by everything that is going on in the class and they can fully focus on the task. They are in the center of your attention, so to speak. With that said, the fast finishers get no longer bored (because when they finish, they go about their own business). The slow finishers aren’t so stressed anymore (because nobody is impatiently waiting for them to get a move on).

All in all, it’s a whole new world for me, which I’m really enjoying at the moment.

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Embracing uncertainty

OK. It’s been a week since I wrote my last post and I must say things have changed a lot. Well, actually, things haven’t changed at all, at least not to the better. Still, I feel my perspective has shifted a great deal.

It’s unbelievable how flexible a human being can be, especially in times of despair. People can bear a lot of load. And the more of it they carry, the lighter the burden from previous days seems in comparison to what they are struggling with at the minute.

The teaching and learning conditions at schools here in the Czech Republic (and I dare say in the rest of the world) are nothing like they used to be, say, a year ago. Apart from the physical changes (masks, disinfectants, social distancing), there are some mental obstacles we need to tackle on a daily basis. At the back of our minds, there is this omnipresent fear of something we don’t quite understand. And that’s a hell of a load.

Yet, we are getting used to the invisible enemy. At least I am.

Last week, the weather was splendid. It was as if Mother Nature wanted to make up for the mess people find themselves in right now. So it was possible to have some lessons outdoors (where no masks are needed). For example, a group of my senior students did a project about their hometown – Šternberk. I split the group into pairs and each pair worked on a different topic. Their task was to find information about some of the places of interests found in the vicinity of our school. Then we wandered around and pretended to be tour guides, meaning each pair presented their findings to the rest of the group in English. Whenever possible, they presented the information on the spot, e.g. when talking about the castle, we were literally standing in front of the sight, Later, they wrote their parts up and sent me the electronic versions so that everybody had the the whole compilation at their disposal for their final exams.

Other group did some ‘outdoor’ collaborative writing. The students were working in pairs, lying on the grass or sitting around in the sun. One group wrote a story starting When I was seven years old … The story was supposed to be written in the past tense (which was the focus of the lesson) and it had to include a moral or an interesting twist. Another group wrote collaborative essays on the topic My future is in my hands? (the question mark is important here). Again, the lesson was based around the topic of future, which we had talked about in the previous lessons. All the stories were finally written up in an electronic version for me to see before the students will present their work in class next week.

Learning outdoors is fun and honestly, it’s great to have a change of scene. However, there are some pitfalls to it too. Firstly, it can get a bit noisy from the traffic. Also, not all students are disciplined enough to be able to concentrate on the given task – there are way too many distractions. Finally, outdoor teaching is not suitable for all types of activities. In fact, unless you have a fully equipped outdoor classroom, it’s something that definitely spices up the time spent at school but it’s just a temporary measure. Not to mention the most important thing – the weather must be nice.

Today is Friday and we are not at school. In an attempt to improve the epidemic situation, The Ministry of Health advised us to stay at home till Tuesday, which is a bank holiday in the Czech Republic. Well, we’ll see what the future holds for us. Hopefully, we’ll be back at school on Tuesday, teaching face to face. Otherwise, hello, online teaching!

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I enjoy every day (at work) like it was the last …

I resumed teaching ‘full time’ on September 2. It was after the long, infamous break starting back in March. I was so happy to see the students face to face again and I was eager to see the new ones. I dare say many of them were happy to see me too. I had had plenty of time to get ready for my job during the lockdown and the holidays – emotionally and professionally – so I jumped back on the bandwagon enthusiastically.

The first days were great and on the face of it, everything seemed back to normal – no masks anywhere. Then COVID-19 ‘attacked’ again so masks were introduced again – inside the building, in the shared spaces. This was still OK although many of us questioned the decision. If the virus was not dangerous in the classrooms, why was it dangerous in the school corridors? Anyway, it was always a major relief to enter the classroom and take off the mask.

Then things got a bit mixed up again and since Friday, masks have been compulsory in the classrooms too. This means that so far I have ‘only’ done one full day of teaching English in a mask (to be precise, I used a shield but I’m not sure if this will be possible in the upcoming days since for some reason, it is not officially deemed to be a proper protective tool). My students had to have their masks on all day long. And they all suffered.

You might be based in a place where this has been the standard for a long time – for example, in Slovakia, the have been wearing masks in the classrooms since the beginning of the school year. So, you might be thinking: why the heck is she complaining? Yet, I am. I simply believe facial masks don’t belong to school – at least at the primary and lower secondary level. Although I know the Czech Republic is not doing well in terms of the COVID-19 situation and I partially understand the reasoning behind the new measure – it is better to wear masks than have the schools closed completely – I am very sad and feel terribly sorry for the students. A school should be a safe space and learning should be enjoyable. Apparently, it is by no longer safe to go to school. Plus being at school is probably a nuisance rather than a joyful experience.

First of all, it is hard to breath in the masks, let alone speak and concentrate. What is more, I fear it may be detrimental to the students’ health in the long term. It may be easier at universities, where the lecturer speaks, and everybody just listens and takes their notes. But in an English lesson, for example, where the students are supposed to listen and speak (preferably in pairs and groups), wearing masks is absolutely inconvenient.

I really don’t like the arguments stating that “in other wakes of life people have to wear masks all day long and they don’t complain”. The people doing these jobs, such as surgeons and nurses, who I have always truly appreciated for what they do, have chosen to do what they do. They knew long ago what the challenging jobs entail. But our kids did not choose this; school education is compulsory up to a certain age, so they have no choice and neither do their parents.

So, apart from wanting to rant a bit here on my blog, I guess I just wanted to say this: I love my job even more than I did before even though it may not be as enjoyable as it used to be. I sometimes feel terribly emotional. I feel enormously compassionate with the students, which can sometimes be hard to bear (and lead to such rants). Also, it seems inevitable that schools will be closed again soon so I enjoy every day of teaching like it was the last, regardless of all the obstacles we are dealing with at the minute. In the meantime, I hope for better days. Also, I will try to plan my lessons so that we can be outdoors as much as possible, at least as long as the weather is warm and dry.

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Fancy taking a sabbatical?

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This time it feels like I’m taking a really long break. Apart from enjoying my summer holidays, I’m taking a mental break from anything related to my job. You might have guessed that anyway since I haven’t written a single blog post for quite a while, which is not typical of me – I’ve normally been the most prolific in July and August in the past. I’m not very active on social media either, especially Twitter is being neglected at the minute.

This, by no means, was some conscious decision of mine. As cliché as it sounds, I need to say it just happened. I suspect it’s partly because back in June, an important era in my professional life had ended and I suddenly felt like there was a new beginning on the horizon. And so on a subconscious level I probably felt it might be good to just ‘sit down and chill out’ a bit before diving in my duties again. Also, the pandemic obviously mixed things up a bit so this summer can never feel the same summers normally feel.

Anyways, I’ve recently been doing the most trivial things you can imagine – reading fiction (obviously non-elt related), listening to YouTube videos about simple life and slow living, watching HBO (nothing to do with teaching), cleaning my house, decluttering, organizing, looking for my style (oops, that’s a bit too trivial, even to my taste), you name it. You may think I will probably have a hard time catching up when I get back in the teaching saddle again. Still, I feel I’ll be perfectly ready when the school starts because ironically, my brain is currently taking in much more than it can normally afford during the busy school year.

The only thing directly related to my job I’ve done recently was when I had a session with one of my students to help her to prepare for her final exams. And that was when I felt the flutters in my chest again – I realized how much I love my job. I suddenly felt I couldn’t wait to be back in the classroom. I couldn’t wait to share with my students everything I’d learned over the past few weeks (months, in fact, because I haven’t seen many of them since the COVID-19 started). I’m sure many of them will have changed a lot and I’m looking forward to seeing how they’ve grown and what they’ ve learned.

The other day I read a post on Facebook where someone asked this question in a teachers forum: What are you doing during the holidays to prepare for the upcoming school year? Lots of teachers replied enthusiastically, saying that they are doing lots of stuff: cutting out pictures, looking for new teaching materials, organizing their digital files, etc. There were a few, though, who got a bit angry and accused the person that by asking such a question they are implying that teachers should be working on holidays and as a result, those who are just chilling out and recharging their batteries feel a bit guilty for not being busy getting ready for work.

Well, I remember the days when I ‘worked hard’ during the holidays too because I had loads of energy and ideas and I simply wanted to take advantage of that. This year, on the other hand, I barely think of school and it feels right too. So, I guess the trick is to do what you enjoy doing, whether it is job-related or not. In the end, either will be beneficial for your well-being as well as your professional development.

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that being able to take my mind off the stress of my job for a longer period of time (while still getting paid!) and having the opportunity to focus on what I love outside of my work is highly beneficial both for my psyche and subsequently for the psyche of others – my students included. I believe that we, ordinary teachers, should be entitled to a longer sabbatical. This way we could pursue our personal interests, develop new skills – both professional and personal – as well as gain new energy and motivation. Also, it would definitely be an efficient way of avoiding burnout.

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Like seeing an old friend

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Today, after three months of teaching online – asynchronously – I saw my younger students face to face again. I was obviously eager to see how they were doing and to learn all about their learning experience over the past few months. So, in order to get the picture, I asked them personal questions as well as questions about their learning progress. In other words, I wanted to know how they had learned and how they felt about the learning strategies they had had to apply.

Apart from small talk, I also tried to include some revision of the things we had covered during the COVID-19 period to unofficially gauge my students’ progress. I took it easy and slowly in the beginning because I assumed that they might need some time to adjust, especially in terms of their speaking performance (after all, they hadn’t practised speaking for nearly three months!). But I was pleasantly surprised – they caught up quickly. Well, I’m not saying they were as fluent as they had been before the lockdown, but I can’t say they were less fluent either. So, I thought to myself that after all, speaking fluency is not that easy to lose once you’ve mastered it to a certain degree, and I felt truly relieved that no damage had been done despite what many sceptics assumed. All in all, we simply picked up where we had last left off. It felt like seeing an old friend at a school union – although you haven’t seen each other for ages, you immediately find topics to talk about.

What surprised me even more though was the fact that in the face-to-face lesson, they were producing language which we had specifically covered during the lockdown. When I asked them if they needed me to re-explain some things, they refused politely. What’s more, they later proved that they truly didn’t need my additional help. Honestly, I should have felt rejected and useless, but instead, I felt excited. To put it bluntly, I was pleased that my online teaching had had some positive effect on my students, which was particularly true for their grammar knowledge. It seemed to me that the fact that they had had plenty of opportunities and time to process the new language items on their own and at their own pace contributed to their progress in the grammar area.

The above-mentioned discoveries shook my beliefs concerning how grammar should be taught. I am not a big fan of explicit presentation of grammar points and I have always believed that grammar should be taught implicitly, inconspicuously, i.e. through meaningful context and plenty of practice – written as well as oral. However, it seems that if you give students the time and space they need to truly grasp a problem, even in an online, asynchronous environment, they may later need less practice than you think they do. Also, it occurred to me that if *I* am given the time and space I need to plan activities and think things through in the online environment, I can probably do much better as a teacher than I do in a physical classroom. Scary, right?

Well, I’ve always known it – it takes each and every one of my students a different amount of time to really master the content I throw at them – but now the truth has revealed itself to the fullest and I can’t ignore it any more now that I’ve seen it. 🙂

 

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My little experiments

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The realm of online teaching is perfect territory for all sorts of experiments – social, pedagogical and educational – especially now when the parties involved are not under too much pressure from the education system. What I mean here is that nobody forces the teacher to produce a certain amount of grades, nobody strictly tells them how much work they need to complete and assign (more is definitely not better) and so they are less stressed by the need to come up with concrete results and tangible outcomes.

So, I wake up every morning and promise myself that from this day on, I will assign tasks which will be totally optional. I will finally set my students free from the constraints of the system. And I will see what happens. Will the participation drop dramatically? Or will I be pleasantly surprised? I keep telling myself that, after all, assigning work exclusively to students who really want to do it will actually save me a lot of time and energy. There will be less feedback to write. There will be less to worry about in general. But, for some reason, I haven’t had the courage to go this ‘unconventional’ yet. I believe it is because for some people (me being one of them) it’s terribly difficult to change their mindset overnight – the mindset telling you that many students won’t do anything if you don’t make them and that people must appreciate your work by responding to it in some way.

But I’m not a monster. I do give my students some leeway in terms of completing their homework. For example, I recently assigned an exercise for students to practise comparatives and superlatives through L1-L2 translation. I asked them to do the task, but I also included the key with the correct answers and asked them to afterwards look at the key and correct the mistakes. The idea that they can look at the key prior to actually doing the task is nagging at the back of my mind but, well, that’s the risk. That’s part of the social/pedagogical/educational experiment. I have nothing to lose and my students have nothing to lose either. They can only gain.

Some say that it is vitally important to stick to a daily routine when you end up confined like this. But I’ve heard others argue that flexibility is the key and that rigidity of any kind is detrimental to your mental health in such a difficult situation; it will kill your spirit and finally drive you even crazier than you already are. I strongly believe in the former and thus I try to work around a regular timetable. I wouldn’t have to be so persistent if I didn’t want to – I could skip a ‘lesson’ here and there or add one on a day I don’t teach a particular class but that’s my experiment. I decided I wanted to be a predictable type of teacher, even though I can’t really say whether it is beneficial for my students or if it actually drives them crazy. It probably depends on what kind of people they are and what situation they find themselves in right now. One way or the other, they can always count on me – I will always be there on certain days and at certain times. Will they eventually appreciate it? We shall see.

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Making up for the cons of asynchronous online classes

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In my previous posts on online teaching, I mentioned that I only teach asynchronously. I guess I could start teaching synchronously instantly if I decided to because I know how to handle Zoom, Duo, Skype, Messenger or Instagram, but for some reason, I haven’t reached that point yet (one of the reasons may simply be that nobody encourages forces me to). So, instead of entering this unknown territory of my own free will, I would like to look at the pros and cons of synchronous vs. asynchronous online classes and I would like to discuss the ways in which I can make up for the cons (and potentially exploit the pros) of the method I am currently using.

Let’s start with a short overview:

SL = Synchronous e-learning involves online studies through chat and videoconferencing. The pros (+) and cons (-) are the following:

  • + Learners can easily interact with instructors and other learners.
  • + SL enables students to avoid feelings of isolation.
  • + Students can get immediate feedback.
  • + They can ask questions and get instantaneous answers.
  • – SL is not as flexible in terms of time. >>>
  • – Learners have to be online at a certain time.
  • – Some learners may feel threatened in this type of online environment.
  • – SL teaching is also challenging for the teacher so they may need to receive relevant training so they’re fully prepared for their role.

AL = Asynchronous learning can be carried out even while the student is offline. It involves coursework delivered via web, email and message boards that are then posted on online forums. The pros (+) and cons (-) are as follows:

  • + AL offers lots of flexibility, especially time-wise.
  • + Learners can go at their own pace and access their course at any time (almost).
  • + Learners have significantly more time to reflect on the content material they are learning.
  • + AL is learner-centred.
  • – Contact with the instructor and fellow learners may be limited.
  • – The lack of interaction with instructors and peers may result in a sense of isolation.
  • – AL requires self-discipline, intrinsic motivation and focus on learners’ part (but sometimes on the teacher’s part too).

Based on the above, it is obvious that ideally, effective e-learning courses should include both asynchronous and synchronous learning activities. But if you (need to) choose one type of e-learning, you should at least do your best to make up for the cons.

In my case, the main 4 cons would be:

  1. limited contact with the instructor and fellow learners
  2. feelings of isolation
  3. lack of self-discipline, intrinsic motivation and focus on the student’s part
  4. delayed feedback

I believe that as a teacher, I can have a huge impact on number 1 and 4. In other words, it is in my power to make the contact and feedback as immediate as possible. I practically work non-stop these days and so whenever I get a message from a student or any time an assignment is submitted, I react straight away, i.e. I respond to such a message immediately. Also, although I normally won’t send out the results and collected feedback until everybody in the group has finished, I correct and comment on the assignments right on their arrivals (even though these will also be visible to students later on). This continuous approach helps me to detect and foresee any potential problems students may come up against and it also helps me manage my time effectively. If I postponed the corrections and commenting until all the assignments have arrived, it would get totally overwhelming. It would also be counter-productive because my collected feedback would be unnecessarily delayed. What I mean is that instead of being able to send it right after the submission deadline, it would take me a few more hours to get back to my students. And since I teach many different groups of students, I would probably soon get totally lost in the heaps of assignments if I didn’t work continuously.

As far as number 2 above is concerned, unfortunately, we can’t prevent our students from feeling mentally isolated these days because, in fact, they are physically isolated. In other words, we have a very limited set of tools to influence this, especially when teaching asynchronously. But we can try. As I already mentioned, apart from sending individual comments, I often give collected feedback – I write a message to the whole group, addressing all the students as a class, and I attach the correct answers in a document in which I summarize how the students did as a group. Also, I sometimes mention that, for example, 3 students out of 50 reached the maximum number of points, but I do not give specific names (the students in question know). I may also say that participation in this assignment was almost 100 %, or, on the other hand, I express my sadness at the fact that the participation was very low this time. This, I believe, creates some sort of collective spirit and I secretly hope that those who skipped the task will feel a bit guilty and will hopefully join in next time (and they often do) whereas the ones who did well will feel flattered and even more motivated. One way or another, it reassures everybody that they are in the same boat and most importantly, that I am there and ‘listen’ all the time. One specific attempt at getting a bit closer to my students was recording an audio file in which I gave them feedback on the activity they had done that day.

Regarding the lack of self-discipline and focus on the students’ part, I don’t have many tips and tricks here. Since grading students’ work is not recommended under the given circumstances and I am not right THERE with the students to really monitor their work, there aren’t many tools to enforce discipline, let alone self-discipline. Those who struggled in regular classes will probably struggle in the online environment too, although I wouldn’t like to generalize because some students keep surprising me pleasantly.

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When it’s all over and gone

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We are struggling. We are grappling with all sorts of obstacles at the moment. But these obstacles are temporary and soon, with a wave of a magic wand (when the governments decide it is time to open the schools again), they will be removed. We will be able to return to our classrooms and things will get back to normal. Or will they?

I often catch myself picturing the moment when I stand in front of my classes for the very first time after this is all over. What will I say, what will I do and what will I ask my students to do first? Asking them ‘How have you been? would seem proper but somewhat awkward too. Diving right in into the course matter without further ado would seem a bit insensitive. Telling them to open their book on page XYZ would seem rather strange. I feel like we will all need some time to adjust and settle in. But how shall we go about it? How to make our reunion feel smooth and genuine but not overwhelming?

Let’s be honest, it’s not like seeing each other again after the summer holidays. Things won’t be the same given the fact that by the time we meet face to face again, our students will have changed and so will we, the teachers. It’s a bit like the lost generation kind of feeling. Despite the happiness that the ‘war’ is over, feelings of confusion and aimlessness will probably be around for a bit. Luckily and ironically, everybody will feel a bit lost, at least for a while. It’s not just a handful of survivors reuniting with those who have no idea what life on the front is like. We will all be survivors, in some way. But we will also be losers because regardless of the victory, we will have lost some of our beliefs – beliefs in the current situation in politics, economy and most importantly, education.

At the moment, the ministers and administrators advise us to be compassionate. The students are facing all sorts of problems so we should not add more stress to that. We should take into consideration the inequality – not all students have the same conditions for learning and working in the online environment. We should offer a plethora of engaging tasks for students to choose from. Students should take responsibility for their own learning and they should be able to work at their own pace. We should not grade their work because grading is terribly unfair these days. Most importantly, we should not give bad marks to enforce students’ participation. We should merely motivate, encourage and provide formative feedback in order to modify teaching and learning activities to improve student attainment.

But aren’t the above some of the fundamental principles of any successful education system – not just the one during a pandemic? So, will we go back to ‘normal’ again after the virus is gone? Will we resume grading, adding stress and assigning compulsory tasks? Will only the fast finishers, the brightest, the most resilient and the ones with the best resources and equipment lead the classroom again? Or will we keep some of the wisdom we have acquired during the lockdown and actually try to apply it at last?

 

 

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Filling the void

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So, this is the fourth post in the series I’m producing during the COVID-19 pandemic. No matter how much I hate the introductory sentence and particularly the last word, which has been used so much over the past few weeks, for my future reference, I feel I need to put it like this.

Last time I wrote about the types of tasks I assign when teaching online – asynchronously. It’s good to hear that many teachers here in the Czech Republic as well as abroad teach synchronously, via various platforms such as Zoom or Skype. I myself haven’t come to that point yet although we’ve had two unofficial staff meetings via Zoom and so I did get a vague grasp of how things work there.

Nevertheless, the bravest thing I’ve done so far was sending my students some oral feedback in an MP3 file. It took me less than an hour to record and I was quite happy with the somewhat imperfect result. It felt quite authentic and natural, and I imagine this is how I would speak in the real offline classroom. Still, it didn’t feel perfectly comfortable, mainly because it was the very first time I did something that ‘personal’. What will the students think of this crazy move of mine? Will they laugh at the way I speak? Will they be critical of my occasional faltering?

This insecurity on my part has made me consider some of the following questions. One of them is this: everybody is concerned about the students and their well-being, their technical support or the lack thereof, but what about we teachers? What if we also feel terribly uncomfortable in this online world? What if we don’t want to be recorded or seen on camera? What if we hate listening to our voice giving students instructions? I know, we are professionals; we should find a way to overcome these fears. We should be able to step out of our comfort zones. But since most of us never got official training in teaching online, I feel our concerns are perfectly legitimate.

Also, during this somewhat dreary period of time, and especially if you are teaching asynchronously, it is very rare to get some feedback from your students. They usually do their work and they don’t hesitate to complain if something stops working or if they feel something was not quite fair, but they rarely feel the need to tell you that something works just fine. This creates some sort of void in the teacher; you go out of your way to keep your students engaged but you miss the kick that would encourage you to carry on enthusiastically.

Well, don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame my students for not writing comments full of excitement – they are probably not overly excited after all. What I mean is that when your students are finished doing their work, they think to themselves: Well, it wasn’t that bad; it was actually quite interesting and fun. But then they just go about their own business. And even If they are excited, for a fleeting moment, it’s not too common in our system of education to praise the teacher whose job is to teach, grade and provide feedback. And that’s what they probably think we are doing right now. So why should they suddenly start commenting on our work when nobody asked them to do so before?

This brings me to a conclusion that feedback, in any form, is not only crucially important for everybody’s progress but for their well-being too. Even if it is negative or critical, it has the power to fill the void that the teacher inevitably feels deep down at the moment. We,  teachers, are human beings too, and we also crave some kind of interaction, even with our students, who are so far away these days. That’s why any type of feedback on the work we do, going both ways, can be the only type of ‘bonding’ we have with our students right now.

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Thinking online

IMG_20200405_092538The internet is so full of amazing ready-to-use resources that one may think that there’s no space left for creativity in the realm of online teaching. But I believe that if you are the creative type of English teacher like I think I am myself, the online environment will probably be your thing. Before the quarantine, I’d actually never had an opportunity to fully explore all the endless possibilities out there. I hadn’t needed to after all; I’d had my coursebook, my CD player and my bank of activities that proved useful over the years. Now that these tools are pretty much useless, I need to go out hunting, so to speak.

Anyway, this is the third post in my series on online teaching. Today, I would like to look at what types of online tasks I create for my students. However, this is not a collection of activities – it’s rather an attempt at categorizing the things I assign based on how reliable and valid the outcomes are.

In the online world, you simply need to have a lot of faith in your students and/or you need to accept the possibility that what they submit may not be their own work. There’s no other option. Also, you have to believe that there are some students out there who do want to learn. Genuinely. So, if you give them an opportunity to practise English, they will immediately seize it. Some will even do voluntary and extra tasks you didn’t even ask for. Unbelievable!

What about the rest, though? It is plain to see that many students, on the other hand, have no intention to spend time completing your online tasks if they know they can somehow avoid it. Now, what can you do to ensure that they actually do the work, preferably without the help of their peers or some tools which are unacceptable, at least under normal circumstances? Is it in your power at all?

Well, if you assign an activity, let’s say a multiple-choice reading comprehension task, the lazy ones will probably immediately text the diligent ones who did their homework first thing in the morning. This type of cheating literally takes seconds. You can make things a bit tougher and ask them to justify their answers by adding the keywords, but that doesn’t solve much, does it? Another option would be to give everybody a different text, for example, but that would obviously be too time-consuming. What now? Over the past few weeks, I’ve come to a conclusion that it’s simply best to ask open-ended questions and ideally, the students should provide some sort of personal statement or opinion.

I also think it helps if you offer your students some choice. For instance, give them a list of stories to choose from. Get them to read a few of them (you don’t even need to specify the number) and then just ask them to tell you in English (or not) which ones they liked and why. This definitely gets a bit more challenging in terms of plagiarism but it also becomes way more interesting.

As the trust between you and your students builds up over time (because let’s be honest, trust doesn’t come easy), you can give them tasks in which you know they might easily cheat if they wanted to. For example, on YouTube, there is a ton of ELT-related videos through which the students can practise their listening skills or grammar. And sometimes, at the end of the video, the correct answers are provided. So, if a student wants to skip to that part straight away, they surely can and some probably will. But you know what? Let them do it. Let them cheat. Let them live with that feeling if they do. Ask them to only tell you what their score was. That’s all. This is something they can make up too. But you know what? Let them do it too!

Obviously, you can’t grade such tasks. But should we grade our students’ online work at all these days? If yes, what specifically and how? Should we provide some type of feedback at least or should we avoid it completely? Once a student submitted a task and I gave her an F because she didn’t meet any of the criteria specified in the instructions. She was very sad afterwards and a bit angry too and said: It’s not fair that I got an F even though I had submitted the task. Look at the others – they didn’t even bother. I have to admit she had a point there but since she is a senior student and will soon take her final exam, I found it useful for her to learn from this minor incident that she can easily fail her exam if she fails to meet the basic requirements.

Anyway, for all the reasons above, online teaching can be extremely frustrating. But it can be enormously satisfying too. It is such a pleasure to read your students’ views on certain topics. In the classroom, it’s often just a handful of students who are not afraid to speak, but here, everybody has a chance to come up with something (without being judged by those whose English is much better). And it is so gratifying to learn that your students actually liked a task and that they learned something new.

 

 

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