By Patrice Palmer
To say that the education field often undergoes change is an understatement. Many of the recent changes relate to technology in teaching and learning. Initially, I felt that ESL could only be taught face to face, however now I have a different view based on my own personal experience. I think teachers can be open-minded to any change when we see the benefits for our students. This was key for me.
A few years ago, the college that I was working at announced in May that it would transition to becoming a “blended learning” institute the following September. This meant that students would have both face-to-face classes and online activities. At the time, I was very skeptical about teaching English for Academic Purposes in this format, and also overwhelmed with the thought of adapting both my teaching approach and materials to a blended format. I also wondered how students could possibly learn and improve their language skills without all of us physically being in the same room.
The fall semester was rocky in that many of my international students were unfamiliar with logging in to the college platform to find course outlines, email their instructors, and locate information related to assignments and assessments. So much class time was spent helping students to navigate a absolutely new learning environment. Instead of us teachers providing handouts for students, they were asked to read and sometimes print off learning plans, readings, and other handouts before classes. As a result, many came to class without the required materials so it was often impossible to teach what was planned on that day. The photocopying allotment for each teacher per semester was cut to less than 500 sheets. In classes with 40-50 students, teachers would quickly exceed their limit. It was a stressful time for both instructors and students.
You would think that this experience would make me shy away from teaching online courses, but it did not. Slowly, I began to see the benefits for both instructors and students. For example, the online assignments helped to reinforce material. Content was covered in class for each 2-hour lesson, and then materials were uploaded for reference. For example, if I were teaching essay writing, I would provide a sample after class. Writing that was completed outside of class could be checked for common errors using Spellcheck and Grammarcheck. For quiet students, the chance to interact online was a perfect alternative. Lively discussion ensued online which I believe would not have happened in a classroom setting. Discussion boards provided students with an opportunity to ask questions, help each other out, practice their writing and communication skills, and gain more comfort navigating the course platform.
Once I felt comfortable with teaching online, I started to look for other opportunities. As a result, I now teach two TESL courses for a college located in another city. If the courses were only offered face to face, I would be unable to travel to that city and students from all over the province would be unable to obtain a TESL credential. Since we can’t meet face to face for practice teaching, students record their teaching at home and upload their videos to the course platform. Having a video of one’s teaching also helps new teachers reflect on their skills. It is also beneficial for me because there is always an odd student who challenges me on their grade, and then I have a chance to go back and review a particular part of the lesson if necessary.
Learning to be an ESL teacher online presents some challenges but there are more and more technology tools available to create an interactive environment. For instance, I frequently record videos using Vimeo and post them to provide clarity or general feedback on assignments, and like to use voice recording software available inside the course platforms to leave comments on assessments.
In addition to teaching the TESL course, I have also had experience teaching a well-designed university-level academic writing course online. Each week students were introduced to a writing technique and submitted an assignment to practice and demonstrate their learning. Overall, students did very well in the course, and I could see the importance of developing essay writing skills over a 12-week period. For example, students submitted a draft and then a final piece of writing after receiving feedback which facilitated their learning. I also appreciated having all of the course materials including rubrics prepared by the Department and uploaded before I started teaching. This gave me more time to grade assignments and provide robust feedback which is so important to improve one’s writing.
Despite the benefits outlined, I do believe that teaching online requires much more time for both students and teachers. It should not be seen as an “easy way” to either take a class or teach one. Online courses are not for everyone but before you say “no”, keep an open mind. I am glad that I did because it has opened many new teaching opportunities, including an online course that I will be teaching for iTDi.pro in January 2017!