Emergency Remote Teaching: Teacher Reflections and Teaching Ideas
Faezeh Mehrang is a Senior English Language Teacher at Massey University, New Zealand. Her teaching experience includes teaching general and academic English in language school and tertiary settings in Iran, China and New Zealand. Her interests are online teaching, supporting students online, developing online courses, and teaching academic writing. Her doctoral research through the University of Auckland investigated the impact of task structure and task implementation on English as a foreign language learner’s academic writing. Email: email@example.com
“Act now or risk the virus taking hold”. These were the words of the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, when she announced on 23rd March 2020 that New Zealand would move to a complete lockdown in 48 hours for at least four weeks.
What that meant to me and my colleagues at Professional and Continuing Education, Massey University was to be prepared to teach fully online, not for 4 weeks but until the borders open again for international students.
We had only two days to prepare for the online teaching or to better put, ‘emergency remote teaching’. We were lucky in that we had been teaching blended classes for about 6 years. However, there were challenges to overcome, lessons to learn, and new teaching methods to discover and develop.
It is September now and I have been teaching academic reading and writing online for two semesters. My students were all in New Zealand during the first semester but mostly in China during the second and I have experienced different challenges with each.
Teaching reading and writing online
When I started to teach online in March, I had been teaching my class face to face for five weeks, so I had already built relationships with my students. This made the transition easy and smooth, but my goal was to create the same collaborative environment in my Zoom classes as in my face to face classes. These students had not registered for online study and as their teacher, I was responsible to ensure they had similar, if not the same, experiences as in a face to face class. I, therefore, started to make connections with other teachers through professional networking groups and on social media. I believed this would be the best way to share and exchange ideas and experiences. I also started to discover the available online educational tools that would help me achieve my purposes of conducting a collaborative and engaging online class.
Since I value collaborative writing and believe it is one of the best practices in an academic writing class, my first mission was to find a way to be able to implement it in my Zoom classes. Google Docs and Zoom breakout rooms came to save me. I created a Google doc for every three students in my class and shared it with them. The trick was to make sure I shared the documents with the students through their Gmail accounts rather than a shareable link. The shareable link would not allow me to see who was working on the document and when, whereas the Gmail login would. During Zoom classes, I would group students into breakout rooms and ask them to open their Google docs and work on the activity that I had assigned. When they were in their rooms, I could observe their performance in two ways; one was to join their rooms and watch and listen to see how they collaborated and gave them guidance or answered questions. I could also open their documents to see who was typing and engaging with the activity. This allowed me to monitor how each student performed and whether they needed support and in which area.
Examples of the writing activities that I did in this way are collaborative summary writing, paraphrasing, and synthesising. For synthesising, I would give students two or more extracts to read and discuss in groups in breakout rooms to find their main theme and outline similar as well as different main points. We would check student answers to this as a whole class and students would then be directed back to their breakout rooms to work collaboratively on their Google docs and write a paragraph synthesising information from the extracts. I joined their breakout rooms while they worked together and monitored their engagement through their involvement and collaboration on their Google docs. Student feedback later revealed that they found the activity interactive, collaborative and engaging.
I also created an individual Google doc for each student and shared it with them as their e-notebook. Any homework that I assigned to them was completed on this document and I could easily access their documents and give them feedback. This saved me time and confusion downloading student work from separate emails and benefited students in that they had all their work in one document and could always refer to it when they needed it.
To give feedback, I took two different approaches. One was to use the writing error codes and leave comments on their Google docs. The other was to provide audio-visual feedback. For this purpose, I used Screencastify which is a Chrome extension and recorded my screen and voice while explaining errors on student work on the screen.
Keeping reading journals is another task I encourage in my classes. I encourage my students to read an article online from a website I introduce to them and then write a short summary of that article in their journals; an entry a day. Each entry has a date, title, summary, and two new words from the article. We have group or class discussions every Friday about the articles that students have read; students briefly summarise their most favourite article of the week and explain why they liked it. In most cases, this generates useful in-depth discussions which later help students with content and vocabulary for their writing. I also had to find a way to achieve this in my online classes and again, I used Google docs and Zoom breakout rooms. I created a Google doc for each student and shared it with them as their reading journals. They completed these every day after they had read an article and I could check them on daily basis to provide feedback. The Friday group and class discussions were held on Zoom creating opportunities for idea-sharing, and student feedback proved that students enjoyed it as an interactive activity.
Advantages of teaching online
The first semester of online teaching went well and problem-free. Not only this but also, I found online teaching more rewarding than face to face teaching. The online environment and the flexibility it offered allowed me to have regular one on one short tutorials with students, especially the ones that struggled and needed more support. This resulted in student satisfaction and success. Furthermore, I was able to practise activities that are either impossible in the face to face classes or not as efficient. I am a strong proponent of teaching critical thinking skills to prepare my students for the 21st century and one way I do so is through encouraging peer feedback. In a face to face class, I can either ask students to read their answers or write them on the board. The former is not very efficient as students sometimes do not listen carefully when other students read their answers and the latter takes too much class time. However, in the online classes, I asked students to share their answers (screens) with the whole class and we would immediately have the answers on our screens and they would stay there for us to read, think, comment on and discuss. This saved us time in class and led to student engagement.
In addition, I was able to learn more about my students, their life challenges, and learning difficulties. One day when we were learning to write the end of text references, one of my students who had an eye for the smallest details noticed a small mistake I had made. I was happy to see she was able to spot the mistake and correct it and said: “If we were in class, I would give you some chocolate for this”. A couple of minutes later, I noticed another student who had a little son had disappeared from class and it took a while before he came back on and apologised. The story was his son had heard the word ‘chocolate’ and started crying and asking for chocolate, so he had to leave the class to calm him. This helped me realise I had a student with a small child who could be distracting and that was the reason why that student used to skip classes and submit most of his assignments after the due date and so I granted him the extension he had requested.
Challenges of teaching online
On reflection, I believe two factors contributed to challenge-free online teaching during the first semester. My students were in New Zealand and had access to high-speed internet which allowed them to access any website and have their cameras on during our Zoom classes. More importantly, these students had had four weeks of instruction in New Zealand prior to shifting to online learning and they were well familiar with the Western academic culture, the New Zealand culture, and my teaching style and class culture.
However, my experience was the opposite during the second semester. I had a mixed class of students located in either New Zealand or China and it was only then that I realised how stressful online teaching could be. This time, I had answers for most of my ‘how to teach’ questions in the online setting but I needed to discover ways to build relationships with my students and familiarise them with the Western academic culture which I believe to be crucial to successful teaching and learning.
The first relationship-building activity I tried was to ask students to make a two to three-minute video of their daily routine, their hobbies, and their homes, and share it on the WeChat group that we had created for our class. I chose this activity for a few reasons; it well suited the online environment, and multimedia design is another 21st-century skill that the young generation should be equipped with. To help students understand the activity and the expectations, I was the first to make and post my video. Once everyone posted their videos, the task was to watch all the videos and find one interesting thing about each student in their videos. The next day we had a class discussion about the videos and what everyone thought was interesting about each. It was not only fun but also, we learned a lot about each other. It was especially useful for me, as I discovered a lot about the students and their circumstances and the challenges that they faced learning online and from home.
Another challenge during the second semester was that the students in China did not have access to most of the websites and online tools that I used for teaching purposes. Among them were all the Google products that I used. Thus, I had to discover new tools, familiarise myself with their features, and learn how to use them. My investigations resulted in the move from Google docs to Microsoft OneDrive which I found less user-friendlier, and from Screencastify to Screencast-O-Matic which was not as easy to use. For collaborative writing purposes, I later switched from Microsoft OneDrive to Zoom breakout rooms and asked one student in each room to share a document on their screen with their group. The groups then discussed and suggested ideas but only one person typed. That document was then emailed to me for feedback. One might wonder why I did not use the Zoom whiteboard which all students could type on. The disadvantage of the whiteboard is that it can only be saved as an image, so it is not possible to type or comment on it later.
Conducting assessments online has been the biggest challenge during both the first and the second semester for me. I have no intention to blame or criticise students, as academic dishonesty is a natural student response and reaction, especially with less mature students when an opportunity arises, and online assessments have proven to be the best trigger. The situation was worse during the second semester as my students did not have a clear understanding of Western academic culture and plagiarism.
Again, in search for an answer to this problem, I attended a lot of webinars and read a lot about online assessments, but what I found was against my beliefs and values as a teacher and educator. In one of the webinars which was on ‘how to use Zoom for assessment proctoring’, one of the speakers who was explaining that students should turn their cameras on and place their devices to allow for a full view of their desk while completing their assessments did not have her own camera on during the webinar due to a bad connection. The question in my head while I was listening was why I should then expect my students to have access to a high-speed internet connection, and even if they did, I wonder what they would think if we asked them to turn their cameras on and allow for a full view of their private room. If I were a student myself, I would find this lack of trust offensive. The same applies to the online proctoring software which is now available, and most universities are implementing. I, therefore, had to approach this my own way.
To deal with this issue, I decided to openly speak with my students about academic integrity and its importance. I was confident if students became familiar with the Western academic culture and if they realised that I cared about their learning, progress, and success, they would understand why I discouraged copying or using translation tools, and they would therefore, avoid it. I was sure I was on the right path when I later heard in a short talk on ‘Academic Integrity with regards to online assessments’ that establishing a good rapport with students would minimise the possibility of cheating or plagiarism. Although it is not easy to build relationships with students in the online environment, especially if you have a large class, in my experience, students study hard, do their best, and avoid cheating when they have a good relationship with their teacher, probably in an attempt to prove themselves and their capabilities.
Another strategy I implemented was to introduce students to a few ed-tech tools for writing and teach them how to use those tools for their benefit and learn from using them. This way I made sure they used the tools I showed to them rather than any random tool and that they also learned from using them. I taught them how to use online dictionaries, dictionaries of collocations, grammar check tools, such as Grammarly, and Microsoft Word grammar and spell-check. Later, when they mastered using these tools, I was confident all the essays they were producing were their own work and they were learning from writing them.
Advice for teachers
The sudden shift to online teaching came with its advantages and challenges but what is important is to embrace this change, see it as an opportunity and create new ways of teaching to overcome the challenges. Although this is not easy and I have had days when frustration took over, I have enjoyed the opportunity to be creative and autonomous as have most of the students as I heard them comment on ‘learning from home’ in a short video.
It is yet to be discovered whether online education is here to stay, or it is just the product of the COVID19 pandemic and will vanish in the post-COVID world. Regardless of what the future holds, we, teachers, should try to find ways to work smarter rather than harder and enjoy the experience.
We are currently at the discovery stage which involves exploring all the available ed-tech tools to decide which would work best for our sector and students. However, we have only limited brain capacity and the amount of learning which has been required over the last few months is tremendous and beyond what a human being can tolerate. We need that energy for our students more than anything else so we should not exhaust it learning to work with every available tool. If we have found a platform that works for us, we do not need to learn all the others. Let the businesses develop a tool a day; they are just doing their jobs, so we should do yours, too. However, if we are curious and do not feel exhausted learning all that is, or becomes available, we should not involve our students in this discovery which is a professional requirement for us. Using multiple tools in our online classes and holding a class with a new platform every session does not make our classes or online teaching look fancy but confuses and frustrates our students. We should keep all that curious discovery to ourselves and let our students focus on their learning rather than figuring out how to use thousands of tools. This is our journey, not theirs.
We should give our students clear guidelines about online class rules and regulations, including how and when we expect them to contact us. If one student chooses to email us while the other sends questions on WeChat or the learning management system or other applications, we will need to have excellent multitasking skills to handle this and respond to every student. We should also make it clear that we do not work at nights or on the weekends, especially if we have students from different time zones.
Finally, the reality of online education is that the teacher cannot stand over students’ shoulders behind their computers or in every breakout room to monitor learners and their performance or to stop them from cheating. What I have been observing is that, we, teachers, have been trying to change this reality and look for ways to create the face-to-face class and assessment atmosphere in our online classes. However, instead, we need to start training independent and autonomous learners. Online education needs students and learners who take responsibility for their own learning and do not need their teachers to constantly observe their performance. At the same time, we should trust students and stop monitoring their every move. The onus is on us to develop online tasks and assessments that enable us to test skill acquisition and learning progress to support learning, and trust that students are there to learn and achieve.
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