Since COVID19 disrupted the world as we knew it, we have all had to adapt to what is being called ‘the new normal’. But man has proven time and time again that he is nothing if not resourceful. Shakespeare wrote ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players’; and so despite this real life tragedy, as they say in theatre: ‘The show must go on’. And so it has; sort of.
Although 2020 has been a difficult year for us all as we learn to adapt to this new crisis, technology has thrown us a lifeline of sorts that has allowed us to get back to doing rather than just being. For many of us, that has meant adapting to working remotely. For those of us in the teaching profession, it has meant getting used to delivering our lessons online. And the weapon of choice amongst teachers to fight against the challenges of this new viral threat has most certainly been Zoom (the company’s stock price has risen by 300% since March), the video conferencing software that we have all by now become familiar with.
Pre-COVID19, teaching online was a minor thread in the tapestry of an English teacher’s repertoire of skills. Some of us may have had a few conversation classes via Skype in our timetables, but these were very much the exception rather than the norm. Yet in less than six months, that has all changed, as schools, colleges and universities all over the world have had to scramble to develop ways to deliver their courses using online platforms and tools. Cambridge English have been very quick to respond with a whole range of resources and tools, and even a free Teaching English Online course to help those with no experience in this area get started. Online resources like Google Classroom and G Suite for Education, Flipgrid, Quizlet, Sketchpad and Kahoot have been added to the teacher’s lexicon as we have tried to find the best way to continue delivering education to our learners during lockdown. The learning curve for many has been steep, and some educators are still to come to terms with the changes. Yet, whilst no full substitute for face-to-face lessons, I myself have found that there are a lot of positives to be taken from online teaching.
Since April, I have been fortunate enough to have maintained a steady stream of students. Those students have included a group of teenagers doing CAE preparation classes, a company class doing general English lessons, one-to-one lessons with corporate clients, and most recently, an elaborate pre-sessional EAP (English for Academic Purposes) course with postgraduate students at the University of Manchester. This range of online teaching experiences has served as a valuable induction into the new world of the digital classroom and has thrown up some surprises in teacher/student/classroom dynamics.
Classroom management is often one of the greatest challenges for teachers, particularly with young learners. And perhaps one of the major challenges when faced with disruptions and distractions in a classroom of students, no matter what their age, is keeping students on task. Classroom tasks are the bricks and mortar of our lessons; so, whether teaching a whole group or smaller groups, peripheral distractions in the live learning environment can be a problem. But not so much so in the Zoom classroom.
One of the benefits of having your learners atomized into a grid of individual faces on screen is that they each have one point of focus, and you are it. This means that when instructions are given for tasks, your students are less inclined to be distracted by the other students in the room. The less outgoing students, working from their own home in their isolated digital frame, are less distracted by their feelings of self-consciousness. This atomization of learners is very clearly defined, as are the aims of the tasks at hand, and I have found that the Zoom classroom really helps my students focus on what they need to do in each stage of a lesson.
Another great benefit of teaching via Zoom is the mute feature. We’ve all had students who interrupt and speak out of turn in lessons, and we’ve all wished we had a remote control to turn them off. Now we do! It’s true that the controlled nature of discussions and debates can lack some of their energy on Zoom, but the dynamics of conducting discussions this way can also help students focus on practicing discussion phrases. This in some ways can be beneficial as each student has clear opportunities to engage and say their piece, and you the teacher can also monitor silently and invisibly as Zoom gives you the opportunity to mute yourself and switch off your camera.
To complement the mute feature on Zoom, you also have the raised hand feature. Students can click this button and a little blue hand will appear in their viewing box for the host. It is much subtler and anonymous than the physical action is in real life. Also, for the teacher, having the ability to control who speaks and when is really cool. It not only stops the more outgoing students from dominating lessons, it also takes the spotlight off the less confident students who want to speak, but are uncomfortable about interrupting.
The private chat feature on Zoom allows you to send instructions or corrections directly to your students, which is often better than using a whiteboard. It also allows you to give your students individual praise anonymously, which is great for motivation. You can also use this to give feedback or grammar notes to individual students in real time, during lessons, which I think is a great feature. Much better than stopping the whole class and putting the spotlight on one student’s grammar error. Also, fortunately, this private messaging can be disabled for student-to-student chats in your Zoom settings.
One of the features that doesn’t work so well in Zoom is the whiteboard. You can use it to draw or type, but it lacks fluidity, and in general, it’s a just a little bit clunky to use. But, if you’re a teacher who loves using a whiteboard, all is not lost. Zoom allows you or a co-host to share your screen with students (students can also share their screens in breakout rooms), so you have the option of using free online whiteboards such as Sketchpad or Jamboard (you will need a Google account to use the free version). Both of these resources have cool features such as changing the colour and shape of the pen, creating shapes, creating multiple boards that you can toggle between, saving the board as an image file, and uploading files to your board. Also, students have the freedom to work collaboratively in real time on one board. This means that they can be set group activity tasks in breakout rooms, like brainstorming activities for example, and they can use their board like a flipchart, save it, and then share it with the whole group for feedback. This is possibly something that you would not be able to do in a live classroom with limited space.
The final benefit of the Zoom classroom I’m going to highlight is the sheer immediacy of use. By that I mean the instantaneous way you can disseminate information you hold on file to your students. Normally, you would plan your lesson and bring your materials along to class and hand them out as needed. However, usually, there will be something that will come up that you might not have brought with you but you have on file on your computer. Now you’re not going to stop your lesson to go and find the document, print, photocopy and distribute it around the class. But, with Zoom, you can do just that… sort of. If there is a vocabulary list or grammar point that is highlighted as lacking amongst your students during a class and you have a useful study sheet or resource on your computer, you can simply do a quick search for it and then upload it to the chat box for all the students to download. Such a simple and immediate way of addressing student needs in the classroom.
The new normal we find ourselves living is certainly not ideal. However, it’s important to take the positives out of negative situations, especially when you have no recourse to change the situation itself. As they say, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, and being forced into adapting to this new situation has highlighted some ways that teaching can actually be done more effectively. Blended learning courses and the flipped classroom have been suddenly thrust into the spotlight as viable models of learning. Teaching online with platforms like Zoom has suddenly highlighted ways in which freelance teachers can work remotely and provide a great service to their students without the financial anchor of a physical building. I’ve highlighted just a few of the positives that I have taken from delivering lessons on Zoom, but the range of resources on offer now gives teachers the opportunity to use all kinds of presentation materials, video, audio and even a whiteboard in their digital classroom. This could just be the opportunity that English language teachers have been waiting for.
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