Humanising Distance Teaching and Teacher Training
Marina Marinova is a teacher trainer, author, and researcher, involved in several projects on second and third language acquisition, teacher motivation, classroom dynamics and classroom management. She has more than 25 years of experience as a language teacher and a teacher trainer, both as a free-lancer and as an employee of Hamburg University. As a teacher trainer, she has worked and is still associated with Pilgrims Teacher Training and the British Council, among others.
I once saw a sign: “Teacher, you lied! My child is not a joy to have around!” This summarises the agony of many parents, battling their way through home-schooling and online teaching. But what about the teachers? Can you be a well-informed humanistic teacher in a virtual class-room?
I believe it is safe to assume that more than half of all educational institutions world-wide are closed at the moment. Where gouvernments have begun to ease lockdowns, this is done hesitantly, with the educational system often being the last to completely open up. For many students the school year 2019/20 ended in front of a computer screen, not in a real classroom, and online teaching have been resumed in October.
Teacher training courses in the summer, to the extent to which they took place, were largely virtual as well.
The notes below are based on personal experience with language teaching and teacher training in this rather challenging setting. I work with zoom, but my observations are applicable for different teaching platforms as they largely offer the same options. Although I will be referring to certain functions, this is not meant as a tutorial on using any platform. I believe that there are enough good videos available online, which can do this effectively. As with every tool, the platforms we use for online teaching offer new opportunities, but come with some in-built pitfalls.
The challenges of online teaching
If you, like me, have a strong preference for face-to-face teaching, you probably began getting acquainted with online teaching platforms after the lockdown in your country forced you and your students to do so. May be your school decided on the platform to use, or you were given a free choice. In the first case, you are probably using a paid version, which offers more options. In the second, you may feel less frustrated, when the platform doesn’t meet all your expectations. Either way, your first attempts may have resulted into soberingly teacher-centred lessons. After all, setting up a meeting as a host and talking to a gallery of participants you cannot hear is the easiest way to use a platform. What is more, many online tutorials specifically recommend muting participants on entering a meeting. This is, in fact, the default setting in many cases. Compare this ghostly quiet joining an online session to the buzz of a real classroom, when students begin streaming in.
The first step to a humanistic online classroom therefore is to unmute participants. You usually can do that when planning the meeting. Let your students communicate as freely as possible, share emotions and experience. This is even more necessary now, as their voices and 2-dimensional faces are the only way to connect. I would go even further and recommend to never mute a student. After all, if they are loud and chatty in a real classroom, you will have to persuade them to be quiet. You won’t physically shut them up. This, however, is exactly what muting them does.
If possible, I would allow even more time for an informal chat at the beginning, not only between me and students, but also among them. To make discussions even more realistic, enable your students to enter a meeting before you have. This is part of the advanced settings and, I feel, a valuable function. In most countries, students enter a classroom before the teacher. Even where rules are different, they can still communicate without a teacher’s surveillance, while waiting for a teacher outside the classroom. How much more important is this now, when they are isolated in their home and missing social contacts? Your students will know when you enter the virtual classroom. With some luck and trust, they will not stop talking immediately, but will let you have a glimpse into their emotions and worries.
Planning for some informal chatting at the beginning will help with smoothing out connectivity and technological problems. Not all your students will have the same equipment at home or the same quality of internet connection. Some will need time to “get things running”. It takes the tension off a situation, if the class hasn’t “formally” started. Depending on your and your students’ age, they may be better qualified to help with technological issues. This, too, is easier to manage in the context of informal chat.
An initial problem you may face are students, refusing to switch on their cameras. There are untidy room to hide, pyjamas, and uncombed hair. Some platforms allow you, as a host, to switch on a participant’s camera. I would strongly suggest to never use this function. You never know if you wouldn’t force a student to expose something private, they would rather keep secret from their classmates. What if the wallpaper in their room is still the one with teddy bears and balloons because the family cannot afford to renovate? What if the wardrobe is broken? And yes, most teenagers are untidy, but they may not like to share this with the world.
On the other hand, not seeing your students is extremely unnerving. You don’t even know if they are following the lesson. As a teacher, you have the right to communicate with them and to see their faces. This rule needs to be clearly communicated, so your students can prepare for a lesson with the video-camera on. Additional help may be the option to choose and change backgrounds. Most platforms offer this function. Your students’ choices may give you interesting insights into their preferences and may even become the topic of a lesson. Experiment with the function yourself, so you can advise your students on using it, but encourage them to teach each-other as well.
Humanistic online teaching is not only about finding your way around the disadvantages, though. It comes with a few perks.
The chance to share glimpses of there homes is an advantage a real classroom doesn’t offer. Consider how much students may be willing to share. They could show the class their pets, for example, plants they’re growing, games they like playing, paintings or ship-models they have made, a view from a window… Each of these can make an interesting lesson, and not only an English one. Comparing pets and their habits is a fantastic way to learn about animals. Looking into the life cycle of a plant can make a lesson in botanic. Constructing a ship model involves planning, organisation and knowledge of maths. A new TV set and its functions offers an opportunity to go through some important vocabulary of technical functions. Of course, it is vital that students share their homes with their classmates voluntarily. To encourage this, consider sharing glimpses of your home with them. In a virtual classroom, students need the reassurance that their teacher is human even more than in a real one. They can only see your face, they cannot reach to you, cannot touch you, cannot smell your perfume… All these perceptions, though seldom taken into consideration, are part of human-to-human communication. Maybe you are painfully missing them yourself, or you are missing your friends and family. Your students are going through the same pain of isolation.
Sharing a screen is another advantage of online teaching. Allow your students to create and edit documents online. Encourage them to write on a virtual shared white board. Depending on the platform you use, such a whiteboard may come with a range of additional functions, a plain whiteboard doesn’t offer. These include inserting geometrical figures and graphics, animations, sharing videos, interactive quizzes, shifting elements… If you use an interactive whiteboard in your classroom, these functions are probably nothing new to you. If not, here is a chance to get acquainted with them and allow your students to experiment. If you feel bold enough, you can even let your students search through documents on your computer (I would protect those I definitely don’t want them to see with a password, as some students can be very inquisitive). They may try to guess contents, based on names of documents, look through and choose activities they would like doing. You can even create a “treasure hunt”, with passwords to open documents being questions they have to answer and each content – a hint for the next station. Creating these may be a bit time consuming at he beginning, but the outcome in terms of cooperative learning is worth the effort. You need no additional technological knowledge for this.
Finally, use all opportunities to enable pair- and group work. Most platforms offer this option, although it is not always immediately evident. In zoom these are the breakout rooms. They are not activated by default. As with enabling participants to enter the meeting before the host, you need to go into the advanced settings to activate them. An advantage of these rooms is the chance to regroup students for different tasks. You are no longer dependent on changing sitting order. I have observed that students who are reluctant to work together in a real classroom are much more willing to cooperate in a virtual one. Use this chance to encourage new friendships. Of course, this doesn’t mean assigning students to different groups arbitrarily, especially not against their will. Once in their groups, students can work without the background noise from other students. This can be an advantage, too, not only for better concentration. Findings and results at the end of the task will be real surprise for the rest of the class. No-one could eavesdrop. If possible, enable students to communicate freely with you during group and pair work. Don’t over-monitor. Yes, they will get distracted at times, they will fall back into private conversations. They do this in a real classroom as well. Just because we can “catch them out” much faster and easier in a virtual classroom doesn’t mean we should do it.
Additional notes on teacher training.
The biggest challenge in online teacher training is the impossibility of experiencing activities. Translating the content of the course to the context a real classroom is much more difficult. Based on the topic, this may be “not an issue at all” or “almost detrimental”. The latter may particularly be the case with methodological courses.
I have found bringing in as much “real classroom context” as possible helpful. Discussing different classroom settings, with their challenges and opportunities, already central in a face-to-face course, becomes even more important online. In addition, you have the opportunity to look into coursebooks teachers actually use. Most coursebooks are available online. If not, scans and pictures can be easily made.
As with students, teachers may suffer from too much isolation and lack of personal contact. I feel that an online course, even a “purely methodological” one, should plan for an additional focus on and time for teachers’ feelings and well-being, on their professional, but also personal needs. These can be shared in the whole group, or in breakout rooms. A small advantage of online training: you can create an extra breakout room during group or pair-work. In that room, teachers can join you and share thoughts and problems, without worrying that someone may overhear them. In a face-to-face course, this will usually happen during break or after a session. This is not always an option in a online class, especially where the session may be automatically ended after the pre-set (or paid for) time-frame.
I am quite certain that online teaching and training cannot (yet?), should not and will not replace face to face teaching and teacher training in the near future. The challenges – technological, methodological, and personal, seem far too big. It is, however, what we have in a time of pandemic. Resentment is of little help. Rejecting it, because it’s “not ideal” would deprive students and participants in professional development courses of a valuable chance to learn and develop. We owe them and ourselves this chance.
Please check the Pilgrims courses at Pilgrims website.
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