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. 🙂

Too much colour

So, between my last post and this one, some time has passed – almost two months, to be precise. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to be back at school again. I’ve seen all of my classes, although some of them for just a fleeting moment. The students have had all sorts of learning ‘settings’; apart from the default face-to-face classes at school, they also had online lessons (synchronous as well as asynchronous ones) and recently a novelty has been introduced – rotation learning. This means that a class attends face-to-face lessons for one week and the next week, they have online classes. This is undoubtedly quite helpful from the epidemiological perspective since it ensures that there are fewer students in the school building at every given moment. However, it does have some drawbacks too.

This is an example of my timetable from one of the weeks (I deliberately chose the most colourful one to illustrate my state of mind at that point).

Wednesday

I’m not complaining; I love to have some colour in my life but to be honest, although I was happy to teach face-to-face again and I didn’t mind online teaching per se, this vibrant mixture was not my cup of tea. Given the fact that some breaks last for only 5-10 minutes, it was plain hectic. After all, you need some time to log in and log out of your Zoom lessons (physically and mentally), plus sometimes you just need a cup of coffee or a bathroom break. Some of my colleagues confessed that it was not uncommon for them to almost forget about their asynchronous online classes (they realized later in the day that they had not hit the publish button) or were late for a Zoom session. All in all, we were all a bit confused as to what day it was and what lesson we were actually supposed to be teaching at that particular moment.

Having said that, one should always be happy for what they have. Now, it’s Christmas holiday and we already know that there will be no face-to-face lessons whatsoever at the beginning of January because the pandemic situation has gotten worse over the past few weeks.

I mean, I don’t think our patience and flexibility has ever been tested more. But one thing is certain – most of us are grateful for every day at school. So because I know face-to-face lessons may continue to be scarce, I do my best to utilise every moment. For example, and this may seem a bit controversial, I almost completely ditched tests. I know that some teachers felt the need to catch up with grades as soon as they met their students in the physical classroom. After all, ‘virtual’ grades are not deemed as valid as the ones acquired during regular lessons. However, I felt that the time in the actual classroom was so precious that I didn’t feel the need to waste it on tests. There are other ways to verify that my students have learned all the necessary stuff.

What about you? How colourful has it been for you? 🙂

Too personal?

Back in spring, before one of my first Zoom sessions with my senior students, I had sent out a list of questions for them to look at. The questions were supposed to serve as a backbone for the upcoming speaking lesson. Most of them were directly related to the current state of affairs – I asked my students how they were feeling, what they were doing, what they thought of the situation, how their families were copying, etc. In the actual Zoom session, the students could then choose the questions they wanted to answer. Since many of the questions were very personal, I didn’t want to push them into answering all of them.

Half a year later, here I am, figuring out another set of questions, for another Zoom conversation lesson, with another group of senior students. Since I forgot where I had stored the original file from spring, I decided to write up a brand new set and I did. The other day, nevertheless, I bumped into the original set. Now I can remind myself of what I was actually asking my students back then. I can compare my train of thought from spring with what I’m thinking now. It surprises me that the questions from spring are very similar to what I’m asking now (some of them are literally identical). However, I can tell that I felt very different when the pandemic started. Between the lines, I can read what my state of mind was but most importantly, how I supposed the students might be feeling.

I remember back then it was a bit painful to talk about feelings. It felt painful for me to ask how the students were copying and how they processed the fears and uncertainties. I can sense that now it might be a bit easier. Although the situation in hospitals is truly dramatic, more dramatic than during the first wave of the pandemic, there is less fear in society (especially less fear of the unknown). So I believe I won’t have to tread so carefully this time. Still, I’m not sure whether my students will be overly excited to talk about their emotions at this stage. They will obediently answer my questions, that’s a sure thing, but if it’s just because they are being polite or because they really feel the need to discuss such stuff, that’s a million-dollar question. The media is full of news babbling about the virus, over and over again. Do we need more of it in the lessons? Well, I could obviously dive right into the school matter I want to cover and completely ignore what is happening. But it would feel a bit inappropriate, especially since I’ll see them for the first time since the schools closed down.

Anyway, it’s interesting to see how a set of questions you want to ask in class tells so much about what’s going on – internally as well as externally, so to speak.

What about you? How personal do you get in class these days?

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. 🙂