Online class observation insights

Throughout my teaching career, I have been formally observed or have observed my colleagues on many occasions. However, during the online teaching period, I only had one formal observation. In this post, I’d like to describe the experience and explore the question of whether online class observation is different from the ‘real thing’, i.e. face-to-face observation, at least from the point of view of the observee.

Now, the observer (the principal of our school) told me far in advance that I could choose the lesson I wanted her to see. It was not a hard choice; my only selection criterion was this: do the students voluntarily turn on their cameras? There were only two groups where I knew for sure that this wouldn’t be an issue so I chose the older students – simply because it was more convenient time-wise.

I should say that in my online lessons, I typically experimented a lot; I would try out new apps, websites, approaches to presenting content and materials, etc. The question I asked myself before the observed lesson was Do I want to experiment or do I want to play it safe this time? I opted for the latter because a) I didn’t want things to go wrong (they always do when technology is involved) and b) I didn’t want to give an impression of someone who is trying too hard to impress. Technology was intrinsically embedded in the lesson anyway (it was a Zoom lesson after all), so I didn’t want to impose more unnecessary pressure on me and the students just to prove that I’m tech-savvy.

Of course, I didn’t go completely conservative, either. I used breakout rooms, for example, because that’s what I would always do in my Zoom lessons and that’s what my students were used to. However, right from the start, I was aware of one potential problem: what do you do with the extra member – the observer? When dividing the participants into groups, anyone, including the extra member, is automatically or manually sent to one breakout room and unlike the host, they can’t just wander about popping into the other rooms. Obviously, it would have made no sense for the observer to linger in the main room where nothing was happening in the meantime. To deal with this, as soon as I sent her to a particular room, I joined the group myself and stayed there for the whole activity. Yes, the other students were left to their own devices, but it was the better option; it would feel strange to leave the group while the principal was still present. Obviously, I could have moved her manually each time I wanted to join a different group. But it didn’t occur to me back then since I had a lot on my plate already. So it was after a new activity was introduced when she was asked to join another group. In the end, she had seen four different groups, which was perfectly fine for the sake of demonstration. Also, I should stress that prior to this, she had not been particularly experienced in using breakout rooms, so she seemed genuinely pleased to see how the whole thing actually worked.

What I appreciated most was the fact that after a short pep talk at the beginning of the lesson she switched off her camera and stayed invisible and muted for the rest of the lesson (except for a few minutes at the end of the class when she said s few nice words and a goodbye). So, we were all aware that she was there all along, but her presence wasn’t disruptive in any way. This may seem quite surprising because normally, muted microphones and switched off cameras are a nightmare and such a type of ‘silent participation’ is usually pretty maddening. But now that I think about it, being invisible and inaudible is not a problem at all once you are the observer. On the contrary, I believe it would have been awkward for her to be ‘displayed’ on the screen all the time. It might have also been unpleasant for the students (don’t forget, she is the principal!).

Anyway, I was pleased that the students behaved quite naturally and participated actively although I hadn’t told them in advance that the lesson will be observed. Actually, I only told them a few seconds before I invited the principal into the main room. The reason why I had deliberately withheld the information from my students until the very last minute was that I didn’t want them to feel nervous long before the actual thing, plus I suspected some of them might choose to skip the lesson. It wouldn’t be too surprising; as we all know, back then, it was perfectly feasible to stay away from school with all the potentially plausible excuses at hand that simply had to be accepted. Ultimately, what can you do if a student’s internet connection isn’t working that day? Not much really.

In the end, I got some really nice feedback from the principal, which was truly satisfying, especially under the given circumstances.

In conclusion, online observation doesn’t necessarily have to feel very different from face-to-face formal observation. In fact, it can even be less daunting in some regards. First of all, your 3d presence has shrunk into a 2d space, so to speak. This may pose some disadvantages but eventually, all you have to worry about is your voice, facial expressions and a few classroom management skills. Also, you can’t control what’s happening in your students’ homes but you have some unique options for how to discipline them, for example. All in all, once you have got the knack of how things work in a specific online environment, you can become more confident and feel less nervous than you normally would when observed traditionally, i.e. in the classroom.

If I ever have to teach via Zoom again, what will I do differently?

The first thing that comes to mind here is the workspace. It may seem superficial and quite unimportant given the seriousness of the circumstances we found ourselves in, but to me, it was one of the crucial aspects. At the beginning of the whole lockdown situation, I delivered my classes from my office at school. Later on, we were obviously advised to stay at home. The latter scenario felt more comfortable at first (and definitely safer at that time), but it had a few drawbacks too – there was a fine line between work and my personal life (not that there was much of it). In other words, this situation invaded my and my family’s privacy and eventually ended up feeling incredibly confining. So, next time, if possible, I’d definitely like to stick to going to my office and delivering the lessons from there.

One of the most controversial and generally highly debated topics would probably be the use of web cameras (or rather the lack thereof). There were groups where it was not an issue at all. However, some students were hesitant or absolutely reluctant to turn on their cameras, which caused a bit of friction between us, especially in the beginning. But I finally surrendered (especially after some personal experience of reluctance on my part) and even though sometimes I was the only one visible on the screen, I didn’t mind. What would I do differently next time? Well, I’d probably try to set some clear rules regarding cameras right from the start.  

Now, I should say that there were some things that worked quite well, so I’d like to keep them up next time around. First and foremost, I’d definitely like to keep the flipped learning format. Let me explain what I mean here. Flipped learning was born out of general education long before Covid-19. The key principle is that the learners do the input part of the lesson at home, on their own. Flipped learning takes advantage of technology and lets learners use their own time and technology for lesson input. Class time is then used to do further exercises or controlled practice, to revise main ideas and key points and to work on a project in groups or as a whole class. In practice, this means that I wouldn’t teach 4 out of 4 lessons a week synchronously but 2 asynchronously and 1 or 2 synchronously, for example. In other words, my students would study the content on their own, through materials such as videos and texts I would create for them, and then we would go over the content together in a Zoom lesson. In some schools, the teachers had to deliver all the lessons synchronously. This must have been exhausting for all parties involved (the teachers, the students and the parents) as well as ineffective, in my opinion. The Ministry of Education advised against this layout anyway.

As far as asynchronous lessons are concerned, I think I went out of my way to create interesting and engaging materials. This was the part I enjoyed most. I learned a lot in the course of time and I believe my students truly appreciated my zeal. Still, I realize one needs to be really careful and not overdo it. Too much of a good thing may sometimes be overwhelming. Balance is important here. For instance, escape games may be fun if you include them occasionally but a bit of drill has its place in an online lesson too. Anyway, another tip I’d like to share with my future self is to prepare all the materials in advance (which I basically did) so that I can publish them right in the morning. This brings me to the next point…

The Zoom (synchronous) lessons always had to overlap with the actual timetable, which, in my opinion, was a sensible requirement from the administrators. However, the asynchronous lessons could literally span over the course of the whole day (or longer). It means that I published homework at 8:00 am and the submission deadline was 8:00 am the following day before the next English lesson. If the next lesson was two days later, the students actually had 48 hours to complete the task. This is how I liked to do it. Some students did the assignment as soon as they could while others did it at the last minute. This was not a big deal once they did submit the homework on time. Nevertheless, it made things complicated for me; in the attempt to make sure that each and every student received immediate feedback, I ended up peeking at the submission table all day long. My bad. You get what you ask for. Anyway, next time, I guess it would be wiser to set a strict time limit and get students to do the assignments within the frame of the actual lesson, e.g. from 8:45-9:30. I’m aware that it would be quite restrictive for some (the night owls would not be over the moon) but it may prevent procrastination and make things easier for the teacher. However, all teachers would have to make sure that their assignments don’t take longer than 45 minutes (the length of a typical lesson in the Czech Republic). This might actually prove quite tricky.

Well, if this generally dreaded scenario is ever to materialize again, I would like to be well prepared – mentally as well as physically. That’s why I’ve drafted this post anyway. 🙂