Having prepared and delivered online language courses for more than 10 years, one would assume that I would know what needed to be done when, in the Spring of 2020, an email from the management arrived overnight announcing ‘we move to online from Friday’! . It is one thing to plan, prepare and implement language courses online from scratch and another to organise everything in a short period of time. It took a week for the entire institution to regroup – from management, administration, teachers to – students. It was immediate, necessary, shocking, urgent, stressful. Emotions which do not lead to comfortable feelings of knowing what you are doing and how to proceed. After that initial week, I started getting messages from colleagues from my PLN (Personal Learning Network) – now what? Can you please share advice? It was only then that I realized that I was in a somewhat better position – having had experience of online language teaching before. I certainly hadn't felt that way. Why? Because – online language teaching has little in common with emergency remote language teaching. Let us consider some of the differences below.
The key to a successful online course (not only a language course) is preparation, as in time for: preparation, reflection, writing, setting up course materials, getting familiar with the platform, evaluation of course materials, rewriting them. Time for basically everything which usually involves the teaching process. Granted, some institutions allow ample time for preparation, some work with limited time frames. Still – there is time. Teachers work for hours on end during this stage, much more than when preparing for a face to face course. This stage is crucial. If done correctly, it has a profound impact on the teacher's confidence which is one of the most valued emotions among us. It is the feeling of knowing what needs to be done, even if you are seeing the elearning platform for the first time, even if you have never worked with students online before, you have had time to check everything and see how you stand, what you need to check again, reread and so on.
What happened in spring 2020 was everything but that. For the most part, colleagues who have had some experience with learning technologies were helping out colleagues who had less experience. All of them were completely taken by surprise and put under a lot of pressure to navigate around areas with many more questions than answers. So, the shock and pressure was followed , inevitably, with a lot of stress. The advantage of extended preparation time was not an option any more and that seems to be the key difference.
Time to reflect upon teachers' choices
When planning an online language course, the preparation time is used for reflecting and making choices. Here are some issues that need to be analyzed:
-Teaching methods - which teaching methods would work (at all), which would work if amended, which would work best? That would largely depend on the tools you have to work with, which again implies that you need to be familiar with the elearning environment, check and evaluate.
- Learning strategies - Which learning strategies can be employed and how to introduce students to them. I believe that one of the teachers' roles is to teach students how to learn, especially if they need to learn online. Nothing is a given. Students can be quite unfamiliar with the experience of having to learn online and we need to be fully aware of that.
- Factors of success - Which factors that contribute to successful language learning can I honestly take into account? I might want to include all of them in the equation, but time-frames and challenges of e-tools and platforms might not allow some.
- Input - is there enough/too much input? Is this input comprehensible enough to all students ? How can I make it more comprehensible, if necessary? Do I add keywords with explanations, footnotes, images?
- Instructions - Are the instructions clear enough? Would students be able to understand immediately what they need to do and how to do it?
- Motivation - Is this motivating for students?Motivation is always important, however, motivation to study online is one of the most crucial factors. Studies and experience show that one of the key challenges in online education is high drop-out rates connected to lack of persistence.
- Reactions to specific tasks - Would students feel awkward when working on this task? This would obviously depend on the age of the learners, but still – anxiety, fear, possibility of embarrassment definitely do not bring a positive atmosphere which is an important factor in language acquisition. Luckily, there are slim chances for such emotions to appear in online learning circumstances. Students have time to prepare and reflect before doing anything.
Once again, emergency remote language learning did not allow for any of this to happen.
Teachers are expected to know their job, to facilitate learning, to communicate with parents, to get their message across. And they are able to do that, of course, in their classrooms, where they are in their own territory. However, teachers are faced with a new working environment in which they are pressed for time to complete tasks and administrative duties. Many would therefore ask ourselves what students and parents will think of us if we are confused or unsure.Yes, teachers generally feel confident but in the circumstances of urgent course migration – I believe that this was one cause of stress which was not necessary. Students are understanding, parents as well. I believe society as a whole has understood that the shift was enormous and their expectations were not that we needed to be perfect. The blame for things possibly going wrong was not placed on the teachers themselves. It was possibly addressed at the school administration authorities or similar. So, not us.
Now that we have all become more confident and have adapted to the new circumstances, the key issue would be to get rid of that feeling of stress which is present in all segments of our lives. Teachers' well-being should become the focus of attention within our PLNs.
About Milena Tanasijević
Milena Tanasijević has been working in the field of ELT for more than 20 years. She has been a teacher, teacher trainer, researcher and course developer. For the past 13 years, in her role as an English Language Lecturer at Belgrade Metropolitan University, she has been developing and implementing General English and ESP blended and online language courses. Along with the challenges that teaching online brings, she has discovered that there are numerous perspectives to be further explored. She is about to finish her doctoral dissertation at Belgrade University on the topic of pedagogical aspects of teaching English by distance at higher education.
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