Still teaching and learning in uncertain times – maintaining momentum in an online environment – Tanya Kempston
Having grown up in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s and 1980’s at the time of what we called ‘The Troubles’ with violence as a constant type of ‘noise’ in everyday life most of the time, you could say that I am no stranger to uncertain times. During times such as those and such as the ones we are now going through in Hong Kong, it is very challenging to keep going as regards teaching and learning, but I feel that Michelle Obama’s words in a recent interview on the Today show (2019) speak plainly to the responsibilities of a teacher these days. She asks, ‘What’s our choice – to ball up in a corner and call it a day?’
Balling up in a corner and calling it a day as regards teaching and learning is just not an option, as teaching and learning is part of the core mission of HKU. When our University announced we would be moving to online classes, my initial response was one that included a degree of panic, as up to this point, I hadn’t really included online teaching as part of my courses. However, Goldstein and Harmer remind us that, ‘digital tools and technologies have made the once hermetically sealed walls of the classroom quite permeable’ (2015, p.6) so using the Zoom and Skype for Business platforms for online class is now something I am learning to use more effectively for teaching and learning.
Any sudden or forced migration to a radically different situation involves a process analogous to traumatic times when a type of loss is suffered. I felt so sad at the thought of no more face-to-face sessions with my students, especially my PGDE Pedagogy class, who I meet three times per week and whose Semester 1 classes don’t finish till the third week of December every year! I particularly value the range of lively responses and thoughtful questions from this group that make each session productive and useful. At the beginning of the move to online class, I also experienced a little panic in respect to the capabilities of the Zoom and Skype for Business platforms, then acceptance that this is how it is going to be for the time being at least, whilst learning about the affordances of the online tools I could use and now (I hope!) becoming more proficient in using these tools to keep momentum going in teaching and learning.
One of my main concerns has been in respect to interaction and how to include as much interaction as possible in these online sessions to ensure students are contributing to the class and articulating their own knowledge, experience and understanding. Both Skype for Business and Zoom have different capabilities and I find Zoom is much more functional and versatile in terms of my students and I all talking to each other via webcam and also on the Chat function. I find it essential to create a plan for online sessions, with outcomes, times allocated for different activities and roles of the students in the session. I upload these plans in advance onto Moodle and include the Zoom URL and password for the session on the plan, so that the students can scan the readings and powerpoint in advance and see how the session will map to the materials they have been reading and annotating.
Having uploaded the plan, it is important to try to stick to it when online class commences so that objectives for the session are realized as far as possible. It is important to give ownership of the class to students so it is not simply a teacher monologue, so I have been ambitious in setting tasks in advance of class during which students have to respond to one another ‘live’ on Zoom. For instance, in one recent PGDE Pedagogy online class, this included ‘nano-teaching’ during which students teach something (for example, a grammatical or vocabulary item) to one another and give peer feedback. This nano teaching is an important part of the development of student teachers’ persona and skill set. During our Zoom class, one sub-group ‘nano taught’ members of another sub-group food item quantifiers such as ‘a bunch of bananas’ using whatever resources they had to hand at home and members of a third sub-group responded to the first group’s nano-teaching via Chat. This had a somewhat artificial feel, as it was all via webcam – but I was so proud of my students for rising to the challenge and doing their best to demonstrate their developing teaching skills online using nothing more than what was in the fridge at home, a mini-whiteboard and some coloured markers!
Dyadic pairs are an important resource for online class – I upload questions about an activity or task in advance to Moodle, assign students to a pair to prepare an answer, with one person giving a main and the other giving a subsidiary point in response. Other can respond all the while via Chat, allowing for threads of discussion to be picked up later in the session so students’ contributions are helping shape the session. I have also been assigning roles to students so they share the responsibility for the success of the session. One person acts as ‘chat provocateur’ and poses a relevant question to the group if the chat thread goes silent for too long, another is a ‘breaker’ of the audio silence that can sometimes happen when open-ended questions are asked, and yet another is the ‘catcher’ who sends key points to a classmate who might temporarily drop out of the online class if their wifi falters. A different person helps out as the ‘sweeper’ who shares the Zoom recording and chats with the whole class shortly after the session concludes to keep what occurred fresh in our minds. Preview questions can be set for the next session from these recordings and notes to sustain threads of connection between classes, topics and concepts.
Using students’ names as often as possible to acknowledge their presence in the class and asking them to nominate others to speak help increase the level of involvement and interaction in online class. Also, I have learned to toggle often between the PPT, readings and webcam using the Share function for the teacher-led part of the session so as to add variety and interest to the session as two hours on a webcam can seem long at times. One very pragmatic consideration in terms of everyone’s comfort is to schedule a quick break half-way through to enable everyone in online class to stand up, stretch their legs and move around. I try to build one in to every class – although sometimes I have to be reminded by my students to make sure to adhere to these breaks!
Online classes are not and cannot be an exact substitute for face-to-face teaching and learning. They can feel clunky and a little awkward at times. However, what I am finding is that in teaching and learning via Zoom, we are only limited by what we perceive to be limitations. Interaction and learning most certainly continue for my PGDE class and although we are all looking forward to being face-to-face again, we are learning to learn in another way that tests our capabilities, generosity and imagination. So far, no one in the class is ‘balling up in a corner and calling it a day’ and I have been impressed that students are, despite all the challenges of a new modality, still coming to class – albeit very different to that which we are all used to.
- Goldstein, B., & Driver, P. (2015). Language Learning with Digital Video. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Today (producer) (2019, December 11). Michelle Obama Interview Jenna Hager on TODAY SHOW . Retrieved from https://www.broadwayworld.com/videoplay/VIDEO-Watch-Michelle-Obama-Interview-Jenna-Hager-on-TODAY-SHOW-20191211