Online learning: The new normal

By Diego Ojeda
www.srojeda.com
@DiegoOjeda66

Just a little over a week ago I was saying goodbye to my students without knowing when I would see them again. This was a rather strange, and above all, sad experience, as I described it in a blog post.

By now I have already met a couple of times online with each one of my classes and to be honest, it has been one of the longest weeks of my life. In addition to the idea of having to be confined at home, the pressure of preparing classes in a format that we are not used to can be a very big challenge.

Teachers are professionals who are used to preparing almost every minute of what happens in class and over time we manage to master this art as long as we do it under the conditions we are used to.

Teaching online is a different animal and in this post I would like to share my observations and my advice so that this new way of teaching for many of us does not become a headache, no matter how long we have to do it.

As language teachers we know that there is no substitute for live and direct teaching. Our classes are based on activities that aim at real, interesting, and close communication with our students. We depend on both the blackboard and the questions, the smiles, the surprises, and everything that makes such an impression on our students that they feel the need to understand and communicate in a second language. Each of the aforementioned aspects are almost inherent in real interaction, having to be physically in front of our students.

Distance and online learning is a format that sometimes can be very invasive as the spaces from which both students and teachers connect, are personal,  intimate places that suddenly become classrooms. This unconsciously can result in resistance against the pedagogical act.  Ultimately, they end up displacing both the free routines of the students and the teachers to an imposed space in which we all end up feeling very strange and that will end up influencing teaching.

And it is precisely because of the above that we cannot claim that our online classes are an exact copy, with exact results to those of the face-to-face classes. We cannot set ourselves the goal of designing the same lessons that we are used to creating.

After having had the experience of moving my face-to-face class to the online format this week, it is clear to me that we have to consider the following:

That our class is not the only class that our students must take online and that is why we must make it clear that in the language class the most important thing is them. Unlike other classes where the most important material comes from different sources, in the language class the most important materials are the students themselves.

I know that each school requires a different schedule, but less is more and more than forty minutes for an online language class (under the particular circumstances we are experiencing at the moment) can be excessive and counterproductive.

Let’s remember that the main objective of a language class is to make the input understandable, that our students listen with the intention of understanding. It doesn’t matter if it’s the teacher or another student they listen to and we know how difficult it is to keep students’ attention for prolonged periods of time. Now to this we add that they are in a personal space, perhaps in their room that is generally associated with rest and recreation.

The truth is that we must teach online for at least six to eight weeks and that is why it is very important to maintain an adequate rhythm according to the situation. I have seen teachers who in the first week alone have already exhausted all their strategies and tricks. We cannot do that because we run the risk of burning out in two or three weeks. We have to help schools and parents see that both teachers and students are adapting to a different format and that trying to do exactly what we do online in non-virtual classes can exhaust  students quickly and as a consequence be less effective.

Today, seeing the information published in many groups of teachers, especially on Facebook, is almost as overwhelming as watching the news at all times. These groups share lessons, tools, websites, resources, and applications that can be used while teaching online. And although the intention of each of these groups is laudable and very good, it ends up making us very nervous because we believe that if we do not use everything suggested, we will fail in our attempt to teach online. After a week, it is clear to me that it is important that we do not work with more than two or three tools at the same time. If the teacher wants to experiment with a larger number of tools, they can do it but changing every two weeks, not before. Let us remember once again that ours is not the only class that students have online and that they are surely exposed to many more tools and websites.

At this time we are experiencing a disruption, an interruption of what we consider normal and that is why our instruction must follow that same guidelines. Let’s not try to do the same thing that we have been doing in face-to-face classes, much less assign worksheet packages! Disruption brings along great opportunities to be creative. Let’s take those opportunities in our hands.

Let’s see this situation as an opportunity to connect with our students in a way that will make them excited about learning. Remember, we have been invited to their house, let’s make them feel comfortable with our presence. Let’s push them to be creators, let’s incorporate some PBL, let’s encourage them to USE not PRACTICE their second language skills. What if they teach a younger sibling or a parent? What if they connect with native speakers via social media and show evidence of it? How about encouraging them to create a blog to connect with the TL community in their area?

Here some guidelines I came up with for my students when taking a live online class:

  1. Please keep your microphone off while listening to me, another student or a video.
  2. Please use the “raise hand” action whenever you need or want to participate.
  3. Please do not use distracting backgrounds or manipulate them during our class time. I will contact you individually if I have a concern regarding this.
  4. Please do not take pictures or screenshots during class.
  5. Please always use the video feature so we can see each other unless I disable that function for some meetings.
  6. Please be on time. 
  7. Please do not distract or try to distract others while we are in class, make sure you are focused on what we are doing as a class.
  8. I believe in live instruction for language learning. It’s important for you to receive and give quality input.  Please be sensitive to everyone’s needs and willingness to learn.

Diego is a passionate Spanish teacher and an accomplished world language presenter. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, with many years of experience teaching in his native country and in the United States, Diego brings a refreshing, cultural awareness and innovative perspective to the teaching of the Spanish language. Diego is co-founder of #langchat, a Twitter chat that has supported many world language educators in the US since 2011. He also is co-founder of #CharlaELE1 a Twitter chat where Spanish teachers around the world share and collaborate.  Diego is currently the World Languages department chair at Louisville Collegiate School in Louisville, KY.

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