My little experiments


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.


Making up for the cons of asynchronous online classes


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.

When it’s all over and gone


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?



Filling the void


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.

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.



Teaching online (changing perspective)

Message from a student (12-year-old!): Dear teacher, I don’t think I can do the homework you recently assigned. It’s a listening task and I don’t have the recording. John.

My reply: Dear John, in your workbook, there is a CD with all the recordings.  I told you already back in September and I have told you a million times since. Do you not read my messages?

Student: Thank you Ms Teacher. I actually remembered the CD right after I sent the message. I truly apologize for disturbing you.


I would feel really ashamed if I had sent the message as it is, i.e. without the crossed-out part (luckily, those were words I only thought to myself). You know, I get such rather annoying messages from my students all the time these days and it’s getting more and more tiring. So, quite understandably, I occasionally catch myself feeling somewhat impatient. And at such a moment I do want to add something a little bit sarcastic. Normally, in the classroom, I would probably say it all out loud. And then I would smile and add something to defuse my sarcastic remark. But I try to avoid this type of rhetoric in written correspondence completely, especially now that all we have is online communication.

So, I guess the point of this post is that online teaching during the pandemic has taught me to see things from a slightly different perspective. Actually, the way I see things has shifted a great deal since my first post on this topic. I’ve come to realize, for example, that being a control freak (especially regarding deadlines) is not the best idea. The students’ lives have virtually turned upside-down recently; some of them get up at noon and go to bed at three at night – I can tell from the times they submit their assignments (not to mention all the stress they are exposed to at so many different levels).

Also, the ‘screen’ looks different from the student’s perspective. What I mean is that since I go through the process of creating an online task, I obviously find it fully comprehensible and manageable. The student, however, may not feel the same way. The instructions may seem unclear, even confusing. Also, it sometimes happens that things don’t work the way they should. A link is broken. They have trouble uploading the files. You name it. In the classroom, you would get immediate feedback, now it takes hours, sometimes even days, for you to find out something went wrong. And by the time you discover it, the odds are you will have punished a few students for failing to complete the task.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m fully aware of the fact that there are students who will never stick to deadlines, no matter what environment they are working in. But if the most diligent student occasionally gets lost, it tells me to take things easy. I mean, this is not some regular online course my students voluntarily and knowingly signed up for. Such a course would probably be well-planned and well-thought-out. This is not the case. Sorry. It’s more like cooking Stone Soup.

There’s one more thing I’d like to mention before I sign off. We, teachers, put a lot of time and energy into preparation and teaching. There’s no doubt that these days, it’s even more time-consuming. So maybe, deep down some of us may feel a bit offended when students don’t give a damn. I mean, we expect our students to appreciate all the work we do for them, right? So when some of them happen to ignore it, we won’t hesitate to force them to see how good our intentions are. Just a thought. 🙂