'I want to thrive, not just survive' by Dr Steven Graham

7th September 2020

It is March 16th in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and having completed two classes in the morning, I am told that the university is closed because of Corona Virus. Looks like my afternoon class is going to be a bit different from what I had planned. Take a deep breath, pour myself another coffee and think about how to deliver the afternoon class.

I am sure many of you have had similar experiences where you have had to adapt and overcome problems at work, but this pandemic has hit every country around the world to different degrees. How we react to these situations can be the difference in thriving rather than just surviving.

Our university had made plans for this day, but I do not think any of us really thought that we would close our doors to students and that we would be teaching completely online. The faculty had undergone some training in the event of closure, but with most things like this, we are confronted with a myriad of apps, platforms, and conferencing tools. I certainly felt pressured to use all of them, as I want to do a good job and I do not want to let down my students.

Of course, just because the tools are there, does not mean that you have to use them. For example, there is Zoom and Skype, not to mention Facebook and Canvas, our learning platform. The decision as to which tools to use should not be the teacher’s decision alone. I left this decision to my students. They told me what they liked and how they wanted to contact me, so I used an eclectic approach, and used what the students wanted, within reason of course. This allowed students to complete assignments as normal and made it possible for me to record their progress using our learning platform and give timely feedback too.

Most of us have had some kind of experience with online teaching or some of the tools that assist with distance learning. I suppose I was one of the lucky ones as our university partners with universities from the US, and I have taught courses as a Global Professor for the University of Arizona. This had given me an insight as to how other universities conducted their online learning before the pandemic started and had given me ideas as to how to incorporate online learning tools with my teaching of face to face classes previously.

When the university closed, I was teaching an oral communication course. I had three sections of students with approximately thirty students in each section. This is a really good number when debating in class, but a problem when teaching online. Having listened to how the students wanted to learn, I was able to use Facebook and Zoom to complete the assignments.

Facebook was used for group discussions and then the posting of videos showing portions of debates. Students were able to review the videos before making their replies and posting their videos. At the same time I was a member of the group and I could facilitate the procedure and give feedback as the students practised the process and became more comfortable with their roles. Once confident, students were able to use Zoom to conduct their debates live. This was recorded and uploaded to our learning platform as evidence of completion of the assignment. I could not participate in all their debates at the same time, but the uploaded videos allowed me to grade and offer feedback that evening.

Presentations were not an obstacle, with students finding it easy to record themselves giving physical presentations as well as recording slideshows with audio in PowerPoint. YouTube has many self-help videos and most importantly, the students know this and know where to find them.

It is interesting to reflect on this process and recall how the students were very tentative at the beginning; however, the more they practiced, the better they became, and confidence levels grew. There was a feeling that we were all in this together and we were battling to survive and get to the end of the semester. As the course progressed and students became more confident, they began to flourish, and the course became less about survival and more about improving performances and ultimately grades.

The business correspondence course which followed was another story. A different class with different students presented different problems. Writing and researching for a case study caused the students difficulties and so I had to change the way I taught. Instructions were posted in the learning platform as usual, but the students wanted more than that. I ended up making my normal videos and uploading them so the students can watch in their own time, with the instructions once more. In addition, I also conducted live conference meetings where I could explain once again what was required for the assignment. This meant that I presented three times in three different ways for each assignment. Some students had weak internet connections, so having videos proved useful.

I have always encouraged questions in my classes. This could be completed in many ways depending on what the students wanted. Some would want to use email, others wanted to chat on Facebook. Some wanted face-to-face contact on Facebook or Zoom, it did not really matter as far as I was concerned, but it did matter to the students. They wanted to thrive as well as me, and what I learned was that if the students thrived, then so did I.

Now the university is looking forward to opening soon, but we do not know exactly when that will be. When I look at our journey that we have completed together, I have learned a lot and so have my students. Some of the lessons were not in the schema of work, but now they are. Digital literacy, critical thinking and time management have never been so important, for both students and their teachers.

About Dr Steven Graham

Dr Steven Graham is an Assistant Professor and English Preparatory Program Director at the American University of Phnom Penh (AUPP), Cambodia and a founding member of Udon Education Foundation (UEF) in Udon Thani, Thailand. His main interests are in English for Specific Purposes (ESP), English for Academic Purposes (EAP), teacher training, primary school teaching and learning materials, and speech recognition development and implementation. Steven has published extensively and is a frequent presenter at national seminars and international conferences. He reviews books and has also been a regular contributor to the Bangkok Post in Thailand.

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