Online language teaching: Where do we go from here?

By Henno Kotzé

This is an adapted version of a recent post for the ICTE blog.  

As with many schools and universities around the world, we rapidly, rapidly shifted to an online mode of delivery for English language lessons at the University of Queensland’s Institute of Continuing and TESOL Education (ICTE). For many years, we’ve had a teaching team dedicated to staying at the cutting edge of educational technology, and our depth of knowledge and experience has enabled us to support our teachers and students in their use of educational technology in and beyond the classroom, making the transition to online learning a more seamless experience. It hasn’t, however, been all digital sunshine and pixel roses, but there has definitely been very good lessons learned, and looking at our situation from an asset-based lens is definitely a positive way forward.

Image Credit: Nareeta Martin on Unsplash

Embrace the Difference

Although face-to-face class cannot be 100% replicated in the virtual learning environment, we can instead look at redefining the learning and teaching experience from another angle. What is vitally important is that every member of the class feels valued, present and included. Being sensitive to your learners needs and compassionate towards their circumstances goes a long way towards meeting them where they learn.

In our language teaching context, I think it is important to keep in mind that online education not only reshapes the education landscape but also its subjects and their identities Also, there is a difference between providing ERT and a more principled sustainable online education experience. With ERT, we are basically trying to replicate what we do in the face-to-face class as much as possible, but as anyone who has spent any sufficient amount of time online, this is a sure-fire road to teacher burnout in the long run. As such, we need to consider which expectations need to shift and which elements of a face-to-face class translate well to the online format. Focusing on when the teacher adds value, whether through providing personalised feedback or counselling and consultation, is a key consideration. Students don’t log on to listen to a lecture. They want to interact, connect, and feel a part of a community (or communities). Learning in the online space needs to be active, collaborative and authentic for it to be valuable and motivating.

Image Credit: Fredrick Tendong on Unsplash

We should also be able to acknowledge that ERT and learning can be very challenging for teachers and students alike. For example, in live online classes, activities generally take longer to complete, and students need more thinking and processing time due partly to the temporal differences. This results in more silence and auditory “white space”. It can take teachers a long time to lean into, and get used to, this feedback lag, which can seem quite uncomfortable if you are used to a punchy pace in class. 

Students don’t log on to listen to a lecture.

Participants also need more frequent screen breaks and “check ins” with the teacher, to avoid an online class feeling like running a mental marathon. Despite these challenges, it is still possible to facilitate a communicative language learning experience through the mindful and purposeful implementation of technology and keeping pedagogy in the lesson driving seat.

Plan to Interact

Interaction and feedback is key to a successful language learning lesson and building opportunities for both of these are similarly important for an effective online class. One of the main strengths of using a video conference platform like Zoom for the synchronous component of an online class is the breakout room functionality. This allows for a range of interactions, such as pair and group work as well as individual feedback from teachers (both Google Meet and Microsoft Teams have cottoned on and plan on updates that include breakout rooms). Thus, giving careful consideration to lesson stages helps teachers enhance opportunities for interaction between classmates, feedback from teachers and peers, and also breaks from energy-depleting whole-of-class sessions.

Image Credit: Van Tay Media on Unsplash

Exploit the Platform

Apart from breakout rooms, Zoom (and other similar platforms) allows teachers to leverage its functionality for language learning in various other ways. Using the “share screen” function allows for more traditional lesson presentation, but, coupled with the annotation function, allows for a more interactive, shared learning experience. For example, getting students to annotate the digital whiteboard built into Zoom, or even documents, allows for an effective demonstration of learning and quick comprehension check.  Similarly, the Zoom reaction buttons and chat function facilitate quick concept and instruction checks, as well as a backchannel for communication.

For collaborative group work, using shared documents via cloud-based apps such as Office 365 (Word, PowerPoint) or G Suite (docs, slides, etc) can really elevate opportunities for cooperative learning and negotiation of meaning – key facets of language learning.

Bring in the Outside Apps (if You Like)

While not at all essential for an effective language lesson, there are nevertheless a number of third-party ed-tech tools which teachers can use to augment, enhance and even redefine a learning activity. Depending on your context and purpose, these can be interactive presentation tools (Nearpod, Hypersay, Peardeck), student-response tools (Mentimeter, Answer Garden), quizzing tools (Quizlet Live, GimKit, Quizziz & Kahoot!) and the ever-versatile Padlet and Wordwall.

Asynchronous Learning

Apart from the live online (synchronous) lessons, the second important facet of an effective online learning experience is the self-paced, asynchronous component. At ICTE, we are lucky enough to have an experienced learning designer to ensure the quality and aesthetics of this learning aspect. We also have access to a range of textbook learning management systems (LMS) to link our learners’ in-class experience with their independent study to reinforce and recycle language. Other external tools such as Flipgrid for video responses and GooseChase for language-focussed digital scavenger hunts can further enrich the student experience and foster a sense of community in the online realm. Also, don’t underestimate the power of online discussion boards for formative assessment and creating a sense of community. This series of posts on asynchronous learning by Sophia Mavridi is a great starting point (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3).

Teaching Before Tech

Whether the learning and teaching is online, flipped, or blended, at the end of the day, pedagogy and our students’ needs always come first. Luckily, I firmly believe our industry has some of the best teachers and most passionate individuals. Putting pedagogy at the forefront of our decision-making in the online classroom and reminding ourselves that curriculum drives the technology, not the other way around (or as Michael Sankey puts it, “putting the pedagogic horse in front of the technology cart”), has made the journey to online teaching just that little bit smoother. Now, as we start to move beyond emergency remote teaching (ERT), we need to ask ourselves: What is over the horizon for ELT and online teaching, and how can we make it a more-principled and sustainable mode of delivery?

Image Credit: Vas Soshnikov on Unsplash
About the Author

Henno is the Senior Teacher for Ed-Tech at the University of Queensland’s Institute of Continuing and TESOL Education and one of the current convenors of the Ed-Tech SIG. You can find him on Twitter at @hennok and on LinkedIn here.

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