- Various Articles - Teaching English in COVID times
- Near, Far, Wherever You Are: Distance English Language Teaching
Near, Far, Wherever You Are: Distance English Language Teaching
Alan Paradiž is a teacher of English and Russian at Srednja vzgojiteljska šola, gimnazija in gimnazija Ljubljana. Prior to that, he taught English at primary level for 8 years. He has participated at international language conferences from the field of foreign language teaching with talks, workshops and original papers focusing mainly on the importance of vocabulary teaching and learning in developing language skills as a whole. Email: email@example.com
The generation of “screenagers” who were born in the world of virtual needs more than just a plain text to learn. It requires digital bases to boost their learning process. With digitalisation of learning, language acquisition has become open and unlimited; it has transcended a narrow definition of learning (in a classroom) and now includes also research, self-study, double-checking of relevant and truthful information online, where a learner becomes an autonomous user, proactive in their learning process.
Despite the obstacles and dilemmas about how irreplaceable the traditional teaching is, the “new normal” has also given teachers an invaluable opportunity to allow students to become autonomous and time-wise unlimited users, while being immersed in a language bath.
The present article focuses on English (as the first foreign language) teaching during a lockdown. The ideas, advice, suggestions that are put forward are the result of my work or my students’ experience and feedback during the distance teaching period.
Teacher’s role in distance teaching
The previous school year was in terms of “the new normal” a unique one, intertwined with challenges and important lessons for the future. The unprecedented situations also urged a teacher to (finally) become ICT proficient in order to carry out (at least) equally quality classes from afar, while understanding that their role as a learning facilitator has not become smaller, but only altered. In order to help a learner to learn while not being present, a teacher also needs to, according to Šink, (1) understand a specific context of on-line (distance) learning and teaching, (2) know who their learners are; i.e. screenagers who possess high degree of ICT proficiently level, and (3) are highly motivated when surrounded by the digital world, which altogether fosters better language acquisition.
Overnight, “the new normal” brought about a situation that was not a combination of traditional teaching and distance teaching anymore, but a definite (yet temporary) shift to the latter. The absence of face-to-face communication, direct contact and immediate vicinity meant for us teachers to abruptly recalibrate our brains and accommodate to a new, unprecedented context of distance teaching, where, in order for classes to be executed with as little issues as possible, a common ICT knowledge was essential. However, to maintain a high quality learning process from afar, it was also crucial for a teacher to understand the uniqueness and complexity of the new situation. According to Levy, a quality learning process is the one that “actively involves teachers and students who, while learning, exchange experience, knowledge and ideas.” Also, Levy continues, “a teacher’s teaching style has to adjust to a different situation and a teacher needs to understand who their learners are” so as to achieve teaching objectives. A teacher is “an animator of a collective intelligence, a monitor, guide, and a facilitator of an individual learning process” online. Hence, a teacher’s role is not minimized but only redefined.
Distance learning and teaching
Distance teaching and learning means an evident shift from a traditional classroom.
A role of a teacher and student is redefined. A teacher, now absent from a classroom, yet ICT competent, organizes a virtual (open) class(room) to carry out classes. A student is in constant interaction with the organiser of a learning process and also with the content provided by their teacher. However, they becomes autonomous (and responsible) for their learning experience and often themselves decide when and how much work they put into their task.
A classroom is not a confined place but an endless space that allows a student to explore and share with others via various platforms of communication. The learning experience itself becomes acquiring, a pleasant experience (personal and intellectual), subconscious internalisation of data.
The syllabus is unlimited: textbooks and workbooks can still be used as a core part of one’s classes, but the list of possibilities of how to exploit the internet, becoming an integral part of teaching, is endless. Still, a teacher needs to carefully plan various online activities via an abundance of platforms that internet offers and skilfully incorporate them in their plans in order not to overwhelm their students yet reach the set goals and objectives.
The DO’S and DON’Ts in distance English language teaching
The challenges I was faced with during the distance teacher were countless, yet many of them were soon overcome as I always strove to find solutions and optimise the teaching experience for both myself and students, taking into consideration the context of the new normal.
After a couple of days I managed to establish one common channel via which I communicated with students. In Slovenia, most primary and secondary school use the platform e-asistent, which enables communication with students, parents, fellow teachers alike and it likewise serves as an e-register book etc. I realized that communication via a single channel is optimal, as students always know where to look for instructions or if they forget what the weekly assignment was. The common channel functioned as a chat room (opened for questions, suggestions, and students’ feedback), forum and a notice board in one.
Planning and executing a weekly lesson plan
Having a clean and focused weekly lesson plan with clearly stated goals is of a great importance, be it an online or a traditional one. Planning a weekly set, I considered several factors; namely, (1) the amount of tasks and their level of difficulty, (2) the time students might spend on completing them (mostly) independently and, (3) knowing that all students do not learn equally fast, a possibility to do the tasks in several parts.
Every Monday morning the students were informed via communication channel what the upcoming weekly tasks are (lesson plans, deadlines to hand in their work, materials, and links to audio and video content). Being informed in time and in advance about the weekly tasks is essential in order not to feel apprehensive about the work and, what is more, that the students themselves can plan their work ahead (let us not forget that secondary school students usually have up to school 10 subjects).
The Monday weekly plan notice enabled students to either do all the tasks right away or divide them in smaller manageable chucks (usually students are extremely heterogeneous in English as SL, so I took advantage of that criterion). This way, autonomy is being fostered, as they themselves decide how much they want to learn and also gave them flexibility time-wise, when they wanted to complete the tasks (within the given time frame of course).
As a clear planning, a feedback is of vital importance in the teaching process as well and it seems to be twofold.
Firstly, a students’ weekly feedback helped me evaluate whether they understand the syllabus or not. In a pool of over 200 students in 8 groups I asked up to five in each group to hand in their work by the end of each week. Here, (1) electiveness was another factor that I took advantage of: Students were asked to hand in particular tasks (e.g. test correction), but were allowed to choose from the current or previous weeks what other work they want to send in for evaluation. To attest their authenticity, students had to take a photo of their work and their student ID and send both via e-mail for the assessment. Students that were not asked to hand in their work could check the right answers in the e-classroom. (2) Another example of electiveness was a Friday remedial or a feedback lesson via the ZOOM platform. Every Friday (or the last lesson on a week’s schedule) students were invited to attend a ZOOM video conference where they could ask for any clarification, additional support or double-check their understanding of the subject matter. Electiveness allows students to independently decide how and when they want to check their comprehension, yet burdens them with responsibly to learn.
Secondly, a feedback could also be information on whether the approaches adopted by a teacher to work from afar function well (and it is, undoubtedly, intertwined with the one above). At the beginning of the distance teaching, there was a lively debate among teacher on what methods, platforms and website tools etc. seem to strike a chord best with students. I asked students on several occasions via an anonymous questionnaire on how my teaching approaches are (not) suitable for distance teaching. In a common channel students answered my questions and thus aided me to take the poll results into consideration and perfect the work.
Choosing the internet platforms and methods in distance English language teaching
It is a well-known fact that one learns best when they are internally motivated, relaxed, and calm and the learning environment is stress-free. Due to the lack of their immediate vicinity, one of the tasks a teacher had to take on during the lockdown was to meet these criteria.
One of the undisputed findings during the distance teaching period was that less is more. The endless options and various new platforms, numerous applications, links, new methods and approaches might just as well be contra-productive. One needs to understand (this brings me back to the first part of the paper, where I point out that a teacher has to adopt their teaching style and understand the new context) that not all students are ICT proficient and might without the help of a teacher get lost in the abundance data they need to process independently. Knowing that, I decided to make the best of what we had already used during classes: a text book, workbook, e-classroom, youtube, communication channel in the already existing e-asistent platform), thus not overburdening students with technology as well.
Real-time video conferences seemed to be a popular choice during the lockdown. However, considering the heterogeneousness (in terms of English proficiency of my students), internal differentiation and yet again fostering autonomy and time flexibility I took the liberty to pre-record video and audio lessons for more demanding subject matters, and using the already familiar channels and methods of teaching. Why? Because I am cognizant of the fact that each student learns differently and that each learning process is subjective. Let me highlight this idea with an actual example: To cover a topic of a discursive essay, it would normally take me up to three or four lessons since students learn at different pace in a heterogeneous group. If these lessons were to be carried out in ZOOM video conferences, all students would be “forced” to be present in on-line classes at a particular time. The more advanced students would need to wait for everyone to finish a task and only then move forward, while the weaker ones would hear the explanation once only and feel time-pressured. However, with the pre-recorded classes, the advanced students can work at a faster pace and complete the set tasks at one go and proceed to synthesis – writing their own essay, while the weaker ones can replay the classes, work at a slower pace and still get an additional support at the end of the week via ZOOM, should they have more questions.
Written examination and assessment during the distance teaching period
Undoubtedly the issue on how to objectively assess student via online platforms and obtain relevant results stirred up a lot of commotion and concerns among teachers.
After much thought and comparison, I decided to use the Swedish examination platform exam.net, which boats enough features to carry out objective examination. The assessment proved to be successful in term of obtaining relevant and (hopefully) as objective results as possible (I should add that the results were comparable with the ones students had achieved at the first two thirds of the previous school year). A teacher does not have to have a high level of ICT proficiency to manage the platform (one simply uploads a test in a pdf format which then covers a half of a screen, whereas the second half serves as an answer sheet in a word format). When the exam begins, the full-screen option opens and students cannot consult any other sources (i.e. websites, chatrooms etc.). In addition, while student take an on-line exam, a teacher can supervise students via the ZOOM video conference and thus minimise any possibility to cheat. Another option is also to set a limited time, so students need to consider that factor and stay focused, again limiting possibilities of any cheating.
Conclusion: Distance teaching – Yes or No go?
“The new normal” meant a temporary, yet swift turn also in the field of (language) teaching and learning. A successfulness of a distance teaching depended on a teacher’s attitude toward their student, difficulty of syllabus and the new context as well as students’ willingness to work alike. The aspects of distance teaching put forward above might help to further investigate the possibilities the new normal allows. Distance teaching proved to be a success up to a point as students were allowed to be autonomous and time-wise flexible, yet compelled take responsibility for their learning, which some failed to do. However, because teaching-learning is a reciprocal, two-way process, a feedback is essential, as it helps to optimise the process.
Should online, distance teaching completely substitute a face-to-face traditional in-class teaching? Even though I see many advantages in distance teaching, the answer is “probably not”, as school as an institution possesses other crucial functions apart from the one of educating the today’s youth.
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Paradiž, A. (2012) Vloga učitelja v digitalni dobi. (347-353) Available 5 September 2020 on https://vivid.fov.um.si/zbornik/arhiv-zbornikov/
Tinga, Kerry. Three keys to education the new normal. Available on 27 August 2020 on https://mb.com.ph/2020/08/09/three-keys-to-education-in-the-new-normal
Please check the Practical Methodology and English Language Development for Secondary Teachers course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Practical Ideas for Teaching Advanced (C1-C2) Students course at Pilgrims website.
Near, Far, Wherever You Are: Distance English Language Teaching
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