Change. Some fear it. Some embrace it, and others just roll with it. When I first made the change to teaching online, I thought that I wouldn’t like it, but, as is usually the case, I was wrong.
Before I made the move online, I taught ESL for 7 years at various schools in Korea, Taiwan, and China. I was never an amazing teacher, but I had gotten the hang of it. I learned how to read the room, to watch the faces and make the adjustments subtle or otherwise to keep the class marching forward. So, when I began teaching online two years ago, I realized that things had changed. The feel was different; I was in a new space. Many basic teaching skills carried over well enough, but I had to learn to embrace the medium in order to be a better teacher.
In a physical classroom, it’s easy enough to rearrange desks and chairs however you want. Different configurations of the classroom allow for different kinds of activities: board races, table-based group activities, find someone who [blank], turn to your neighbor and [blank], and so forth. Many of these movement-based activities are difficult or impossible to pull off online because students and teachers are tethered to their computer screens and confined to their seats. This can especially be a challenge for younger students, who shouldn’t be sitting down for long periods of time.
At first, I can admit that I was at a bit of a loss. I worried that my classes would be boring. I feared that my students would sleep, or, even worse, just stand up and walk away from their computers. So, what did I do? Well, I did all that I could think to do: I leaned in to the visual nature of the medium.
If the classroom is limited to a screen, then that screen better be the most interesting thing in the room.
I did this in a number of ways. Some of them might be helpful to you as well:
I chose images that were striking and resonated with students.
I used short video clips to demonstrate concepts that are difficult to express over a webcam.
I made activities where students could move things on the screen with their mouse, so they could experience a virtual sensation of movement.
I made practice activities into games with visual rewards.
I took breaks and encouraged students to get up and move around during them
It surprised me how well these simple adjustments worked, but I suppose it shouldn’t have. I taught a younger crowd (5–10 years old) who had grown up being entertained by screens. It wasn’t a leap for them to go from playing games to having class on their iPads. It helped that the teaching platform I used, ClassIn, has interactive features. As long as students have a way to collaborate with their teacher and classmates, you can make engaging classes.
Me and the girls playing some Tic Tac Toez!
While these actions certainly helped, I must admit that I ran into some other issues. One such issue was privacy. Any comment that a student or teacher makes online is public. I once had a new student join my class halfway through a semester. He was the only boy in a class full of girls, and his speaking ability was well behind the rest of the class. The girls, well, they were less welcoming than they should have been, to the point where they would groan whenever he did or said anything. So, I had to talk to them as a class and explain the need to be kind to and accepting of our new students. I couldn’t ignore the problem, but the new student had to sit and listen to me protect him. Needless to say, he was embarrassed, and the girls were ashamed. He asked his mom to leave the class shortly after that.
In a physical classroom, it’s simple to have private conversations with students and avoid unnecessarily embarrassing your students. It can still be done online, but you need to add a step or two. To begin with, as soon as a new class starts, you need to make sure everyone recognizes the need to be respectful. You should take time out of the first few classes to preach tolerance and acceptance, then you should enforce it as a rule. If you still have a problem with a student or students, you should try to discuss it with them either after class or in a different, private method to avoid shaming them in front of everyone.
I continued to learn as I went, and I continued to be surprised by my students. When I began teaching online, I worried about establishing rapport with my students. I didn’t care for the distance separating me and the students. I missed the high fives and fist bumps, and I worried that my face alone couldn’t deliver the nonverbal cues needed to establish a fun, healthy classroom environment.
Despite these limitations, I was surprised at how quickly we began to build tiny communities. Perhaps I underestimated the ease with which digital natives can establish relationships online, or perhaps I underestimated the human need for community.
Whatever the case, I realized that my small classes turned into small learning families. This is something that I think is missing in asynchronous classes. I’ve taken a few online college courses before and am currently working towards a new degree completely online. I have not made a single lasting relationship after several years of classes. Live, face-to-face classes make a huge difference here. Discussion boards are good for sharing ideas, but it is much more difficult to establish connections and friendships with others. If you want to build an online learning community and not just disseminate information, live online classes are hard to beat.
I will admit that in some ways I was fortunate. I taught small classes (4–6 students). Had I taught twenty or fifty or a hundred or more, I doubt that we could have formed as tight of a community as we did. One particularly interesting thing came out of establishing little learning families. A handful of my shy students became bold and outspoken (This is especially important as I was teaching ESL). Their online personas were different than their offline selves.
I had the opportunity to meet many of my students at a party our school held at our office. When meeting me in person, some of my younger students were intimidated by me (I’m a fairly large dude), and they were too embarrassed to speak to me in English. However, they would communicate with me openly online. We are all the same size online. Students were much more outspoken and friendlier in the relative safety of their own homes. While I think that they would have eventually come around if we met regularly in a physical classroom, some of them may have had more difficulty coming out of their shells. Since my students usually had class from home, they were more comfortable and more willing to share things about themselves. As a language teacher, there are few better feelings than walking in, or signing in, to a class full of students eager to communicate with you in a target language.
Online education is much more engaging when you can interact directly with your peers.
I don’t think online classrooms will ever completely replace traditional ones for the same reason that I don’t think AI will ever completely replace actual teachers. There is still a tribal need for people to gather physically that isn’t going anywhere. However, education is changing and will continue to change as technology improves. The convenience and cost-effectiveness of online education and the potential of blended learning are truths that we can’t ignore. But, maybe we need to adjust our thinking a bit.
Asynchronicity in online education works great in some circumstances, but we shouldn’t forget the impact of community on education. We don’t just learn from well-crafted modules and video lectures; we also learn from each other. That is why I think tools like ClassIn are so important. ClassIn provides an online space where students can meet face-to-face to not only learn but also build lasting relationships with their teachers and classmates.
If we don’t design online tools that help learning communities form naturally, then we are limiting the potential of online education.
Paul Chatham has been an ESL teacher for 9 years. For the last two years, he has been teaching online. He also works as a product marketer for ClassIn, an online teaching platform. For more information about ClassIn, check out our YouTube page here.