As Eva Hoffman quipped, “We live forward, but we understand backwards.” Hence, I’ve done a recount of my experience as a LINC instructor of advanced online classes during the pandemic and a student myself of different online courses from Additional Basic Qualification courses at OISE, to my own French lessons, transformed during the pandemic into Zoom meetings. An issue that captured my special attention was the rationale for the hybrid mode of the remote ESL teaching.
My platform of choice for online teaching was Google Classroom, which I had used occasionally prior to the abrupt pandemic-induced online switch. I supplemented it heavily with What’s App, email, and phone communication to initiate the online transition and kept using these external channels (more familiar to many learners) throughout our online collaboration.
Since I had a choice, my course was a hybrid, combining asynchronous and synchronous forms. Materials and assignments (as well as the chat option of sorts in the Stream section of the site) were studied in an asynchronous mode, and also face-to-face (although remote) synchronous communication three times a week for over an hour via Zoom and Google Hangouts. It seems that in the new academic year there will be an option to maintain in-person sessions in the hybrid model.
One of the great advantages of online learning is that learners have a chance to acquire skills and knowledge at their own pace. However, the majority of the online interactions are inflected by the abilities to express oneself in writing and to comprehend texts. These skills, as we know, are very often not synchronized with oral ones: efficient readers sometimes experience difficulty with writing, great speakers have trouble comprehending complex readings, etc. Consequently, in a virtual class a learner is only present if they write. Lack of posts or written responses means “invisibility.” While in the physical classroom an instructor can see an attentive listener and can gauge the learners’ response by observing their body language, asynchronous online communication can be ensured only through text, which is why students at lower levels (probably below CLB 4) will be unlikely enthusiasts of this mode of learning since “reading to learn” in the second language has not yet been developed at this stage.
My anecdotal experience indicates that even some advanced students who quite diligently worked on the posted materials were very hesitant about less controlled assignments requiring – obviously – writing. Some took quite a long time before using Stream in Google Classroom to ask questions, exchange friendly remarks, comment on the posted materials, etc. What probably would have been an easy verbal interaction characteristic of unscripted moments typical of physical classroom dynamics became a considerable challenge in the written format. (Noticeably, learners with some exposure to social media participated in the online class a little more freely.)
In this context, synchronous learning, despite its inherent degree of artificiality, seems crucial. The reality of online teaching changed with different options of videoconferencing. However, turning my three-hour-a-day course into a Zoom session would have been quite exhausting and less productive.
Face-to-face time in the online language class has to be carefully curated to maximize learning benefits. Even during the pandemic, when reconnecting with friends was critically important, “just chatting” was not sustainable as a motivation to join the class. The importance of having a plan for a video conference cannot be overstated.
I tended to divide my conferences into a few segments: moderated free-style chat (with an appropriate “muting etiquette”), a teaching component (e.g. a grammar lesson, reading practice with a short text to discuss through a shared screen option, etc.), and some form of prepared students’ “production”: from more formalized presentations to less scripted discussions based on studied materials available through Google Classroom, such as a TED talk watched prior to a meeting. Bill Gate’s 2015 presentation on pandemics was great.
Let me add that only after finishing my own recount did I read a very instructive book by Emma Pass, The Hybrid Teacher – Survival Guide, which addresses similar problems in the elementary school setting with great competence and in detail.
The hybrid model really works.
Post written by Dr. Kasia Kasztenna
Dr. Kasztenna is an active ESL/LINC instructor and PBLA Lead Teacher with the Durham District School Board. She is also an independent researcher and author of multiple publications in her original field of expertise – literary studies and discourse theory. Most recently she contributed a chapter to the book Being Poland…, published by UofT Press.