As teachers, the COVID-19 crisis has forced a great many changes in the way we do our jobs. Not all of these have been easy or comfortable. Personally, I’ve had to transition from blended learning to being completely online. Although my classes have always featured a lot of online tasks and activities, the change has brought significant challenges. Truth be told, it’s been exhausting.
With all the effort of preparing my online lessons, it was only recently that I found the time to wonder how the learners were being affected by all of this? For students whom I’ve never met face-to-face, it’s hard to know. However, I was able to reach out to some of my former students who are still studying to ask them how they’re making out.
All learning is a social experience, and language learning is no exception. Imagine the challenge of learning to speak a language when there is no one around to talk to! That’s the challenge facing students right now. Grammar and vocabulary work can fill the time, as can reading and listening tasks. But in my classroom at least, all of these are (or were) just preparation for speaking. Developing speaking skills is what turns language learners into language users.
My classroom has always been a space where students engaged in extended, unrehearsed conversation with each other. However, the current circumstances have made that very difficult. Even with tools like Zoom or Big Blue Button, there are still significant barriers to interaction. This interaction is what learners truly miss. When I asked my former students to choose one word to describe their current online classes, the most common response (by far) was “lonely”.
Video Forums and Feedback
The feeling of loneliness is not limited to the students. As a teacher, I’ve felt it too. I miss the casual interaction of the classroom. Now that we’re beginning to adjust to the “new normal” of online teaching, I realized that it was time to search for tools to increase interactivity in my courses.
For the first time in my career, I’m teaching students who have never met or shared a classroom with each other. Even if they were to pass one another on the street, they wouldn’t know that they’re classmates! That’s unusual, and I decided that the first order of business should be to help the students to get to know each other. Forums are great for this, but a video forum is a significant enhancement.
Over the years I’ve often used video forums with my learners, and they’ve always been well-received, but nothing I’d experienced before prepared me for the level of enthusiasm they showed for the self-introduction forum. Each post received dozens of replies and the interaction continued for nearly a week without any encouragement from me. Clearly watching video of their classmates tapped into something that’s missing from the current online learning provisions.
Another thing that I noticed was missing from my online courses was personalized feedback. Of course it’s possible to send students email or make comments on their online work, but I wanted something to replace the oral feedback that is a feature of classroom interaction. The video recording capability that served me so well in the self-introduction forum has also allowed me to add a unique personal touch to feedback on work submitted by the students. The option to record feedback from right inside the grading area has been a blessing in the current circumstances, when students may feel that they hardly know their teacher.
At this unique point in history, teachers must increase their efforts to find the best tools to ensure that engagement in online learning remains high. The grim statistics available about the completion rates of MOOCs should serve as a warning that online learning has sometimes struggled to deliver positive outcomes for the learners. Video recording can be one of the tools that helps students (and teachers) overcome some of the loneliness of the “new normal”.