Due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, college has been closed for nearly two weeks, and I’m still adjusting to the new way of working – meeting, sharing, and, of course, teaching online. It’s been an interesting learning curve, indeed, quite a steep one at times, even for someone who’s pretty comfy with the technology.
Because this is the time for technology: cometh the hour, cometh the gadget. We have now got a reasonably stringent lockdown in place, meaning that any kind of face to face teaching is going to be impossible for some weeks ahead. So I thought I’d try and organise my feelings and reflections so far.
Or rather “singleplatforming is awesome”. A few years ago, had I been where I am now, I’d have had the students emailing me via Microsoft, or their own email, accessing online resources via Moodle, engaging with interactive stuff via Linoit or Padlet or one of the various online versions of etherpad, perhaps sharing links through Delicious, images on Pinterest, using some form of messenger app for text based messaging, and so on, all with either no log in (and therefore potential data & safeguarding risks) or with separate passwords and usernams. All well and good, in its way, but you have to hand it to the big boys of tech, Microsoft, Google & Apple, as they have (no doubt through some fairly aggressive acquisitions and recruitment) pretty much managed to tie these things up into one place. Where I work we are all paid up to Microsoft, so I have been using Teams for online classrooms, and for collaborating with colleagues. This ties (as you would expect) with Office 365, easily the most well known and therefore most familiar set of office software, with the advantage that cloud based sharing means i can see and work with students on specific tasks. There are also other elements and tools. I’ve used Forms to develop quizzes and surveys, as well as noticing tools like Stream, which offers an integrated video option, rather than using links to YouTube. Add to this the ability within PowerPoint to do videos of presentations with a voiceover, something I want to try shortly, and there’s a lot to explore.
Now, I should add at this point that other services are available – and I’m pretty agnostic about which is which; I use Apple for mobile devices, Google for home based work, and Microsoft at work, all of which is absolutely fine. For me, personally, the change of platform makes for a useful change of location, so to speak, especially when working from home – I’m on Google, I must be at home, etc.
However, the single big benefit of the single platform is the ease of access. My technical agnosticism is pretty easy going and I honestly don’t mind overmuch which platform, because I don’t care how it works as much as how easy it is for students to access. The main issue is reducing the barriers to access for students, and this is where single platform wins hands down – I know it probably doesn’t sound like much but really it does make all the difference for engagement. I’d rather have 90% of students engaging with a more limited range of stuff, than 10% of students engaging with a wider range of bells and whistles.
So, anyway, I’m using Teams, because, simply, students can download the app, log in once using their normal college log in, and that’s it. Now, I know I’ll have Moodle fans shouting one thing, Google fans shouting another, and even Apple fans shouting from the other side of their beautiful yet expensive screens, that their platform is the best. However, we’re a Microsoft college, all paid up, so I’m not going to faff around with other stuff because I can’t be bothered. And if I’m honest, I am genuinely quite impressed so far. Documents open in the Teams app, with limited functionality, the Office apps are largely free to download to mobile devices and if they have a full laptop or desktop, then they can also download time restricted (i.e. while they are students) copies of Office 365, as well as use the online version. Again, once that’s all set up, they can indeed access everything without fannying about with passwords and usernames.
Single platforming is also easier for me. I can post and upload and share stuff knowing that students can access it more easily, and I don’t have to worry about interoperability or formats – stuff just works, mostly. Plus, like most of us, I have used Word since the hazy days of typing “winword” into MS-DOS, and my digital literacy has grown up speaking Microsoft since my first home PC running Windows 3.1 in the 1990s. Sure, as a language teacher, I understand the richness and value of being multilingual, but it’s sure as hell easier to work in a digital language you know. Again, this is about ease, not the best tools for the job. So what if Google has feature X, or Apple has feature Y? I don’t care, and never have, that you can do interactive quizzes that track student performance in Moodle because they were, and still are, an non-intuitive mess that I hated from day one and was replacing with Google Forms from a very early stage.
I know attendance is rarely the sexiest of subjects, but with any online learning, it is really useful as a teacher (never mind from an administrative perspective) to know that the work you are putting in is for a purpose. Now, it’s a funny thing, because obviously with a lot of VLE systems (like moodle) you can track who is accessing what and when, which is a really helpful system, but when your VLE is hard to access for students, and, crucially, hard to set up (Moodle quizzes, I mean you), then your student engagement is likely to drop off, and in which case, you end up tracking little or nothing.
In Teams there is a broad strokes analysis- for example, on Monday morning, 16 out of 22 users accessed the Team; pretty good by any measure, but even better when you consider that 4 of those people have completed and left, and that two of them were pending withdrawal for non attendance anyway, but I can’t see who. However, it gives me a sense of how many people are logging in and what they are doing. You can also hover everyone’s name in your class, and see when they were last online, which is as low, perhaps, but at least it gives you a more expanded sense of who hasn’t engaged at all.
The other thing I have been trying to do is to ask everyone who logs in to “like” the first post I put, so that I can use this to give me a clue as to who is and isn’t checking in. Obviously I can’t force people to do the work, although I have used task completion as evidence of attendance, for example, when college has been closed temporarily, but this will at least tell me who is looking in.
The What and the How
This is the other tricky one, what to teach and how to teach it. I’m trying to sort of follow my course plan for the year, although that’s been disrupted quite a lot of late. However, I have a plan, and a list of things to cover for the foreseeable future. So that’s not too bad, although the question of how makes things more complex.
I’ve done two types of lesson so far. The first one was an attempt at being more interactive. We started with a quiz about technology use, based on Forms. I gave the students access to the feedback as well, so they could compare their answers, much as they would in a speaking warmer. Then, using MS forms again, I did a matching activity for vocabulary, which led into a reading and listening based on a video. Then we had a follow up based on the topic, which was to collaborate on a document, listing the pros and cons of mobile phones, before then setting them a writing task.
The second lesson was simpler. Based on a reading task from the LearnEnglish business website, I simply set that, then devised a follow up using a simple PowerPoint exported as a video, and links to work on discourse markers, along with the reminder to try and use these in the writing task. In one class, I followed this with a sentence stems activity, where I posted starters like “I went to the cinema even though….” This task worked well, and had a few students clicking and responding.
I liked both and I think there is room to improve. I’d like to experiment with audio in the video, and maybe even a series of short explainer videos on key language areas. I have a thing about other people’s videos, just as I do with published materials, in that they never quite fit with what I want to say or do – it might be a video covering, say, two uses of the present perfect, but not really any of the others, and I want a video which covers them all. The other difficulty is the interactivity. Because they have other commitments (of which more later), they can’t all access at the same time. This makes live speaking tricky, for example, because this will exclude those who can’t “attend.” That’s not to say I won’t try it, at some point, and I realise that those students can watch a video of the lesson, but that’s still not getting the speaking practice, necessarily. I think as well, I need to consider a different way round, so for example, setting a reading task outside of this class time, but then having the discussion and analysis in the class session.
There are also technological challenges. The Teams structure is pleasantly chronological, but with a flaw: when someone posts a reply to a post, that post is immediately promoted to the “most recent” position. I’ve got round this by listing the key tasks with numbers as a reference point, but that’s not ideal. This is something to address, I think, because it’s making it hard to follow some things. I do wonder if there is a feature where you can turn this off, perhaps, which is something to explore. I’m considering using the files, rather than the posts to structure the “input” element, labelling each document as Task 1, Task 2, etc. There are some flaws to this, however, in particular that students are very likely to access materials via their phones or a tablet, and not all of them will be equipped with the appropriate software. So I’m thinking pdfs rather than Word documents, and streamed videos of slideshows, not PowerPoint.
The how is also influenced by the next question, which, for me, is probably the biggest challenge of all….
When & How Long?
There is a trite answer to this – you teach online, or supply materials for independent study which will take roughly the same amount of time as it would if they came to class. You expect your students to be online when their normal class starts, and for all, or at least a significant part of their normal taught day.
This is, of course, bollocks. This would be true, perhaps, if you were teaching a course which was advertised as an online course, requiring X number of hours per week, and attendance at “live” sessions as a mandatory element of the course. But we’re not. We’re using online learning to compensate for the fact that we can’t do physical, face to face teaching, and that as well as trying to keep up with their work, for a large proportion, in fact nearly all, of my students are juggling childcare and home-schooling themselves. And believe me when I say that I get that. Because juggling is the word, especially if you have younger, up to early primary age children, for whom interaction with others is more or less essential (unlike say, teenage children who are likely to be overjoyed that they are now legally required not to leave the house, or indeed their room). My own children, at the time of writing, are 9 and 12, and therefore fairly capable of working on their own school work independently, although my youngest gets fed up after a bit, or needs some support now and then, meaning that I can’t predict how long I might have. I’ve been lucky as hell so far, as my other half had annual leave booked for significant chunks of this week and next, meaning I can take a bit of a back seat, but yesterday (day 4) I purposefully designed the day so I could balance working from home around my children and their needs by having “interruptible” tasks. All well and good, though; I still get paid, after all.
For my students with families, then, things are going to be tricky. I can’t, and won’t, expect them to do the equivalent number of hours self study each week. I am enabling it, if they want it, by supplying general links for undirected self study (grammar websites, and so on), but I am planning roughly the equivalent of two lessons a week for each class. I’m also designing things with minimal live interaction, and designing things to allow for asynchronous engagement; students can access at their own leisure. I am going online live at the beginning time of every lesson for at least thirty minutes, often more, and have made this clear to the students, so that we have a short informal time at the start of each lesson.
The other interesting thing, however, is that if you remove the live element, this strips the lesson back to activities. Sure, students can post a comment, but the response to that comment may or may not come, and if it does, it may be some time before it is seen or replied to. As a result, while a typical pre-teach vocab > read/listen for gist > read/listen for detail > follow up activity structure may work quite well in an online setting, in a live class, you also have the giving instructions, peer checking & sharing of ideas, discussions and so on, which expand the 40 minutes or so of core activities into an hour or more of fairly vigorous class work. It’s something you see a lot in CELTA lessons – trainees think about how long the activity itself will take, but not about the added time of setting it up, managing it, supporting students and checking answers, or indeed dealing with tangents. Plus you don’t have the surprise interactions and the tangents, or at least not as much, because there are time gaps between these interactions.
As I say, I’ve yet to explore a live video lesson, and many of my students haven’t been enthusiastic about this because they know that they are likely to have distractions, Asynchronous works for these students, and, as I said above, ease and comfort of access is of paramount importance. I guess, though, that what we are looking at here is the way in which
Let’s be clear, an ESOL classroom is not just a learning space, but also a social space. In a classroom, students interact with one another, and with the teacher. So, like I do when I’m in class, I share stuff with my students which I think might be interesting or useful. They’ve had links to the PE with Joe (Wicks) YouTube channel, because I know they have an interest in health and looking after their children, as well as some resources on maintain good mental health. The English teacher in me knows that these things are all in English, so it’s useful in that way too. Win win. And these things have gone down well, so far, as they do when we share these things in class.
The social space has been interesting to watch and be part of as well because the online class space has already developed and expanded to include the sense of community which has developed in the lessons – offers of help, of support, and a general sharing of loveliness, which wouldn’t have happened otherwise. So the online space, just like the offline classroom, is a place for community and sharing as much as it is for learning, and that’s a lovely lovely feeling.
This is an opportunity to spend time doing new things online, of course it is, and I will start exploring those things, bit by bit. After all, I will literally never have the luxury of time and energy to dedicate to developing these things every again, because no college in the country would ever allow their teachers this much openness and freedom to explore under any other circumstances.
But let’s not go bananas, shall we? As I have said already, this is not an online course, advertised and delivered as such. This is a sticking plaster of a process, trying to hold together some semblance of a course in an emergency situation, and therefore it’s not going to go smoothly. I can try stuff out, but first I have to get students engaged in their comfort zones: text chat based classes, for example, sharing links, and prompting. Of my three classes, the group I have had best engagement with is the group that I managed to see before we shut down, and so give fair warning to about my plans to be online at the start of the lesson time. Where this hasn’t happened, engagement has been lower, and will take time to grow more.
But let me also be clear, I don’t do my job because I like sitting behind a screen. I haven’t made my career out of online, tech-based learning. To be honest, it’s far more draining than face to face, and infinitely less satisfying. And while I do this job because I want to improve students’ lives and enrich their experiences, all that, I also do it because I enjoy the human, face to face, spontaneous interactions. I do it because I get to meet and talk to all sorts of interesting people, listen to their stories, and even get to play a small part in those stories. While the online learning we are doing now satisfies the opportunity to support students and develop their learning, I still profoundly, horribly, miss the face to face human contact. I’m doing my best with the online learning, taking the opportunity to do some different things, to experiment, but, like most of us, I can’t wait for this all to be over.