Zoom lagging and hot correction issues

I’ve written about the challenges of remote teaching several times here on my blog. Lately, I’ve also shared my thoughts on remote formal observation and I’ve expressed my reservations about some types of feedback. Today, I’d like to touch on all the above topics once again when discussing the problems connected to ‚remote feedback ‘.

I’m not even sure whether it’s an ELT term but by remote feedback, I simply mean correction of errors during online synchronous classes. In offline lessons, we normally distinguish between hot correction and cold correction. To put it simply, in the first scenario, oral correction comes shortly after the mistake was made. In the latter case, however, there is a period of time between skill execution and feedback.

In an offline lesson, we can obviously switch between these two modes as we please. This doesn’t mean, though, that we do so in a totally random manner; the choice is usually made on efficiency grounds. So, if we want to avoid interrupting the student, for example, we wait and delay the feedback until a later stage of the lesson. We have several options here: we can either postpone the feedback till after a student has finished speaking or we can anonymize the feedback by waiting till everybody is done, which would then become generic feedback. During pair and group work, students can provide their partners with peer feedback and the best type of feedback (IMHO) is self-correction, i.e. when a student realizes the error and corrects themselves instantly.

Well, that’s all very nice. The good old classics, one could say. The problem is that during remote teaching, things get a little complicated – everything is sort of delayed. It’s not overly surprising because that’s the very nature of the digital world. So, no matter how fast our own internet connection is, there’s no guarantee that all students have the same state of the art equipment. And even if they do, there’s always this tiny little lag that makes online communication so notorious. This can obviously be pretty annoying, especially when students are performing speaking tasks. Not only does Zoom lagging slow the exchanges between the students and hinder the overall spontaneity of an activity, but it also makes hot correction almost impossible.

Now, I guess that at some point, we were all innocent enough to think that we can correct a student’s mistake straight away in a Zoom lesson. But, alas, at that very moment, our lesson turned into a chaotic bar chatter with the speakers talking over one another barely getting what their conversational partner actually meant. When we sensed this happening, we quickly paused to deal with the chaos. But the student our comment was meant for immediately paused too because, well, due to the digital and cognitive lag, they heard our remark too late and were too bewildered to make sense out of it. This resulted in a somewhat strange dialogue, interlarded with periods of awkward silence. And if we by any chance decided to take advantage of those moments of temporary quiet in an attempt to reiterate our words, surprise, surprise … the student had the very same idea. More chatter. More chaos.

You know, if we were having an ordinary phone call, all the above chaos would be quite natural. After all, we’re used to the fact that phone calls get choppy. However, the fact that we were staring at each other through the computer monitors desperately trying to get back on track every time we had got off it made the exchange even more ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong, these moments can be funny and cute, under certain circumstances, plus it wasn’t that confusing all the time. Still, I think it’s better to avoid these situations completely.

And that’s what I decided to go for … Even if the mistake was blatantly unacceptable, I never corrected the student, especially when the lesson was observed by my superiors. Having said that, I was fully aware of the potential consequences of my actions, so it was often hard to resist the temptation to show the observer that I had actually noticed the mistake. In other words, part of me felt the urge to correct in order to demonstrate my professional competence. But I didn’t in the end, mainly for the sake of the integrity of the inherently fragile lesson. However, later on, during the feedback session, I did bring up the issue to justify my decision behind not correcting. So I explained the lagging problem and all that jazz. But in the end, I felt it was not necessary because the observer fully understood the mindset behind my choices.

All in all, this is another illustration of the wide gap between online and offline teaching. Although I admit they can be both equally efficient in some regard, in a remote lesson, there are too many restrictions – the hot correction case being just one of the problems. On the other hand, this little analysis of mine has shown me that delayed feedback may always be the better option, even in the offline teaching environment. In other words, the online environment has shed light on some of the issues related to immediate oral correction. What I’m implying here is that if we hope for our students to become highly competent English speakers and, most importantly, if we want to create a natural learning environment in the L2 classroom, we may want to stop clinging to accuracy because, firstly, this approach impedes genuine communication and secondly, it is plain rude to interrupt and correct people when they are trying to get a message across. 🙂