by Aggie Chapman

Though online learning has almost become the new normal already, it’s still something outside of many people’s comfort zone. Is it there something to beware of, or is it simply the fear of the unknown?

I’m not going to lie to you, I was pretty apprehensive before the first lesson I taught online, too. Partly because as a teacher I felt that it was my responsibility to make things run as smoothly as possible, including all the technological issues. What I quickly realised was that there aren’t really that many technical issues to worry about. I had a quick check of what the requirements are and have put together a checklist for the students that I send before the first online lesson. It includes such things as make sure that your microphone is turned on, test your speakers, turn on your camera etc. It seems obvious, but just doing a tiny bit of preparation saves an awful lot of precious class time that we can use for learning rather than setting things up.

The biggest worry is, inevitably, the technology. Isn’t it amazing that in the 21st century, when we literally live and breathe technology, we’re still kind of scared of it? Sure, glitches happen, but not more so than in the “traditional classroom”. A few years ago, I was teaching in a very well-equipped school, you know – one with cutting edge technology, big TV screens and modern computers in every classroom, and so on. Even then, their super high-speed internet connection would have down-times which could be disastrous for the online-based activity the students were in the middle of when the connection was lost. The computer crashed while my lesson was being observed once, too. These things happen and they are a part of our job, or lives, as much as technology is. What happens if technology fails? Well, let me surprise you here – I’ve got a backup! Unless it’s the connection that makes it impossible for us to interact, in which case we reschedule the class, I’ve got traditional activities at hand for those who prefer them, and for the moments when a presentation or an interactive activity fails to work.

If you are a fan of the more traditional teaching, fine. Not everybody has to be keen on Power Point presentation and multimedia exercises. The online lessons can be based on traditional materials, you can get these to print before the lesson, or we can even pick a coursebook to follow if you feel it gives your learning more structure.

In many cases online learning is merely replacing face to face meetings with a video call. OK, it does give a few more benefits, on top of the cliché “you save the time you’d spend commuting” – which, in fact you do. It’s easy for the teacher to share the materials with you – you can get the presentations, links to the video or audio tracks so you can review them later. Using a screen instead of the whiteboard also let you keep everything that went on there – so you can organise your notes better. No more fear of missing out in class because you haven’t written something down, or struggling to read the teacher’s handwriting – now you can go back to it and check and read it easily as it’s all typed. If your worry is that despite using headphones the sound quality may be less than ideal, think back to those moments when you couldn’t hear the teacher well because of the distance, someone else speaking, or other kind of background noise – it happens, doesn’t it? Online and offline alike. What about doing a listening activity and not being able to hear is on the class stereo? Have you ever thought that language schools should provide headphones for students to use while doing listening practice? Now you can use them whenever you wish to do so.

A bonus here is also the fact that while you have 100% of my attention focused on you, your needs and what you’re saying, you have a bit more privacy. Unlike in the traditional classroom, online I cannot take a sneaky peak into your notes. I can only see what you want to show me, so anything you’re not keen on me seeing, I’m not going to. But I’m not encouraging you to start drawing caricatures of me there! 😉

Modern online teaching / learning platforms are also suitable for teaching groups. While there are no technical restrictions as to the number of participants, for regular classes, I don’t go for groups bigger than 6. I really don’t believe that students can fully benefit from teacher’s attention in a group larger than that. Small groups give the opportunity to interact, everybody can be involved in a discussion, but it’s also possibility to work in groups using private or break-out rooms in which there are only the members of your group (and the teacher can pop in from time to time). Small groups may be a good solution for those preparing for Cambridge exams, whose speaking involves quite a lot of interaction with the partner. Practising with the teacher will surely help but rehearsing with someone at your level will give you a more authentic experience. And it really makes no difference that it is done via video call.

Speaking of exams, the computer-based versions are rapidly becoming more and more popular. They offer a number of advantages for the students, one of their main attractions is getting the results quicker. However, in order to be able to benefit from them you need to practise doing exam tasks on the computer, typing accurately and to a time limit etc. It may be necessary to replace some old habits connected with pen and paper learning with new ones, applicable to learning on the computer. Don’t you think that online lessons are just perfect for that?

Quite frankly, I think that before deciding that online learning is definitely not your cup of tea, it’s good to ask yourself the question: what it is that you would miss so much from the traditional classroom? And then think whether it really cannot be done online?

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