When we were embarking on the online journey, everyone in British Council – teachers, parents, students – were asking ‘Is online teaching effective?’, ‘Will teenagers like it?’, ‘Is it the same as face to face learning?’. Seven weeks down the road we have some answers – and we are still working out some things. Is online teaching effective? – Yes. Do teenagers like it? – A lot! Is it the same as face to face classes? – No, it is not, and the important thing is that it doesn’t have to be the same to bring results.
Nothing in the world is able to replace human contact and the relationship the teachers and students have built in the classrooms. However, if we move away from the idea that online teaching has to be a complete replacement of the face to face lessons, and we start looking at it at as a different way of achieving the same goal, we will realize that yes, you can learn English – and pretty much any other subject – online effectively. The key is to, when you start online lessons, imagine that it is September, you have just met your students, and you have to do what you always do at the beginning of the course – build new classroom routines, teach the kids how to learn in the new environment and keep sharing your experience with your colleagues to find the best ways to make it work.
What are they doing there and is time simply disappearing?
One of the hardest things in online teaching is not knowing if a student is actually doing the task, especially when they work in groups in breakout rooms. One way to overcome this is using collaborative documents (e.g. ZOOM’s whiteboard with the annotate function) to get students to write down their answers for everyone to see – one student shares their screen and others can write, draw, find pictures etc. Another option is to ask students to write their answers in the chat – rather than in their notebook (where they can be doing a million other things other than what you have asked them to!).
Time management is another challenge. Will the task and activities take as long as they normally would? Generally, it takes some time to adapt to the online rhythms – some things will take longer, some will go faster. Talk to your colleagues about the activities they have done and get as much feedback as possible. Also, always have a backup plan in the form of a few extra tasks in case the lesson progressed faster than you had expected. And a piece of advice I got from all the teachers – give yourself time to learn – in a few weeks you will have developed an instinct for things digital.
This is all fine, but what about technical issues?
You can count on some technical glitches happening in online classes as much as you can be sure teenagers will misbehave in your classroom. It is simply a part of the process, so – be prepared and remember most things can be fixed.
Give yourself a basic troubleshooting course – learn all you can about the platform you use, remember to check for updates, talk to colleagues about their experiences. Check your internet connection, check your computer’s audio and video settings, learn to reset the router or make a mobile hot spot on your phone as an internet backup and, very importantly, teach your students to do those things as well. Explain that things will go wrong – somebody’s internet will crash, someone will get logged out, someone’s screen will freeze – and tell them how to handle that (restart the router, log in again, restart your computer).
Also, it is useful to have another way to communicate with students (in British Council we use https://new.edmodo.com/, which is accessible through phones as well) so that you can stay in contact if something goes wrong on your side, and give them instructions if they are having issues. In British Council the teachers are lucky in this respect – we have an admin team on standby to help with bigger technical difficulties.
What about the zombie syndrome?
Teachers in British Council are generally reporting that online teaching – and learning – is much more intense than in the face to face classrooms, as there is a need on both sides to interact continuously as silence feels somehow uncomfortable. With teenagers having to do all their schoolwork online at the moment as well, they might find being in front of the screen overbearing. They – and you – will get tired after a while. One way to fight it is give everyone short breaks every 30 minutes or so: ask everyone to turn off the mics, get up, walk around the room, bring a cup of tea/ soda / coffee, and come back in five minutes. Also, consider if some individual tasks (e.g. reading) might be done with mics off, to give everyone a break from each other.
What about interaction patterns, attention span and getting everyone involved?
Although most teenagers are, to an extent, digital natives, it is vital not to assume that they are all familiar with the technology you are using. To ensure someone isn’t left out simply because they don’t know what you actually need them to do, always, always demonstrate how to use an online tool before asking them to operate it.
Students tend to look forward to the opportunity to interact with friends after a whole day at home, but still, there are many distractions – phones being the main ones, followed by disruptive siblings, external noises, other family members, TVs, etc. You might want to establish the rules in the first lesson – and reinforce them a few times – just as you would with a new class in September. If possible, students should be alone in the room, with closed windows, and all the electronics turned off. Phones will remain the main temptation – as in class, insist on putting them on the silent mode and keeping them away. In extreme cases, it might be worth talking to the parents.
As in the normal classroom, it might happen that the strongest – or in this case more digitally literate students – will dominate the class, or that you will unconsciously focus on the keenest or most advanced one. Also, some will try to rely on their friends for task completion and will try to avoid doing the activities. To manage that, think carefully about how you set up activities to ensure that everyone has a tangible task. As we mentioned before, one thing might be asking them to put answers in the chat – then everyone has to think and write. If you do group project, give everyone a specific role rather than leaving it to the students to work it out who does what. If you send them to breakout rooms to prepare something, afterwards every student should be asked to present a part of the answer. Consider carefully who the strongest and the weakest students are when setting up pair or group work tasks to avoid grouping all the strongest, and presumably fastest ones, together as that will mean the others might not have enough time to finish.
Article contributed by Monika Zaczek – Academic Manager în cadrul British Council
- This analysis is part of a series provided by British Council educational experts who share their own experience related to teaching in digital environment with the whole community of teachers, parents and students in Romania.