Why I’ll Miss the Digital Classroom
Kit Flemons is a freelance English teacher and journal co-editor at ELTABB (English-Language Teachers’ Association Berlin-Brandenburg). Their current professional interests are business and children’s English – they enjoy working with people of all ages and backgrounds, and love the variety that these two extremes offer. After all, whether you’re 6 or 60, communication is key! Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
About six months ago, with lockdown stretching to distant horizons both ahead and behind, I wrote an article for the ELTABB (English Language Teachers' Association Berlin-Brandenburg) Journal on "One Year of Teaching English Online - The Good, the Bad and the Not-So-Ugly"
(https://eltabbjournal.com/an-intercultural-survey-on-teachers-satisfaction-with-online-teaching). With lockdown slowly lifting, it seemed a fitting moment to revisit and re-examine this article in light of an imminent return to the classroom.
An informal survey for ELTABB recently found that 52% of respondents wanted a total return to offline work, leaving the world of Zoom and Skype far behind - online teaching was obviously regarded as a hurdle that had to be be overcome, rather than a powerful set of tools to open new avenues in English teaching; as you might have guessed, I align myself with the 48%
In the last year-and-a-half, as ESL professionals, we've all had to go through something of a baptism of fire. Whether we liked it or not, we suddenly found ourselves whisked out of the classroom and locked up at home, teaching all of our courses with an often-unfamiliar set of online tools. Gone were the paper printouts. Gone was the whiteboard. Gone were body language, mingle activities and textbooks.
And in their place, only one thing remained (for most of us, anyway).
But today I come to praise online teaching, not to bury it.
When I return to the classroom, I won't just be mourning the extra hour-and-a-half each day I lose to commuting, but I'll be missing a whole suit of fantastic tools we all have at our disposal - let's examine why online teaching is something to be celebrated!
I'm going to start with the whiteboard... Zoom's whiteboard isn't great, but I prefer it to its physical counterpart! If you run out of room, you can easily move and edit components, or flick over to a second page (the small '+' at the bottom-right). If you're using Windows 10, Microsoft Whiteboard has unlimited canvas space and the ability to post pictures and videos.
You can share links; your students can add their own content and use the board for homework. There are also browser-based alternatives such as WBO (https://wbo.ophir.dev/) and Mural (https://www.mural.co/).
Virtual whiteboards don't just replace the features of their physical counterparts - they offer many more:
- Your students can write simultaneously.
- You can paste videos and websites.
- You can prepare whiteboards in advance, and later edit and organise in-lesson notes into something worth keeping, then email the results to your students - or they can continue working on the whiteboard for homework.
With screen-sharing, it's easier than ever to give presentations - no more relying on a smartboard or projector! Microsoft Sway allows you to quickly make snazzy presentations, whilst PowerPoint gives you more control. Google Slides (http://www.slides.google.com/) gives you more control over design and can be supplemented with the Pear Deck addon. With this you can ask multiple-choice questions, or ask (anonymously) if anybody is struggling. Students can even draw their responses, for more fun engagement. For something more swish, many teachers use Prezi (https://prezi.com/) - and once again, these presentations can be shared with pupils afterwards, so they don't need to frantically scribble notes the whole time.
Even tests are now easier - and more fun! Kids (and many adults too) groan and delay when you give them a paper test. But the same test online using Kahoot (www.kahoot.com/) or Quizizz (www.quizizz.com/)? They will yell out their answers, dance when they win and demand to play again! These websites will also mark the tests and present you with statistics. No more printing or marking! You can even integrate photos and videos to supplement written English with spoken.
Yay for "Ctrl+Z"!
Similarly, LearningApps (www.learningapps.org/) offers dozens of different types of activities, including pelmanism, gap-fill, crosswords and wordsearches. It takes a few minutes to make your own, but then you can save them and reuse them, see completed statistics, give them as homework and edit them. Again - no more printing, cutting-out and laminating. No more carrying round and losing packs of cards!
OK, I'll admit a little defeat here... The internet doesn't replicate meeting each other in an actual, physical room. However, that is changing! Spatial.io (https://www.spatial.io/) is geared towards education and business, and tries to replicate the sensation of sharing a room. If you want something less overwhelming, CozyRoom (http://www.cozyroom.xyz/) offers a simple cartoon world.
You can place furniture, point things out and move around - volume is based on distance to the person speaking. Mingle activities are possible again! If you fancy something a touch more powerful and professional, there's Spatial.Chat (https://spatial.chat/) - this even allows you to post pictures and videos, so you can replicate your favourite 'art gallery' activities.
Of Mice or Men?
I've adopted a technique that one student nicknamed 'Mouse Teacher' (after the rodent, not the gadget). I keep my camera and microphone off at first, giving new students only a few pictures that describe me. They then have to guess as much as possible about me before properly 'meeting' me for the first time.
I can still communicate through on-screen annotations, but this way they talk more, I talk less, and we have a thought-provoking introduction:
"He is under 40 and creative, by the way he types."
"He doesn't speak, he's a mouse!"
With some of my classes I'm now a mouse for most of the lesson, noting errors in a separate window before pasting them onto the whiteboard for correction. Students have said they really enjoy the opportunity this gives them to talk together, and they don't look to me for constant guidance
Conclusion: I, for one, welcome our New Robot Overlords
Of course, teaching online has its disadvantages - but so does any medium. For me, the advantages still outweigh the disadvantages - and some of my students have been pleasantly surprised with both the convenience and extra functionality of their online lessons. Although we may not be stuck online for much longer, let's stop seeing screens as an obstacle, and consider them for what they are - a fantastic extra tool that offers convenience as well as new ways to teach and learn. I've already told my own German teacher that I want to continue with an online-offline mixed course, and it's giving me the flexibility and variety we were always promised from the 21st Century - let's not forget about the future in our rush to return to the everyday.
This text offers a variety of suggestions for within-lesson tools. If you want something to help with a 'macro' approach, check out Slobodan Kelecevic's article (https://eltabbjournal.com/go-digital-like-its-2020-here-are-5-essential-online-tools-you-will-love-this-year) on digital tools from the very early days of lockdown.
Please check the Pilgrims f2f courses at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Pilgrims online courses at Pilgrims website.
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