Going live: What we did and how we did it

As intensive English programs like ours are shifting from face-to-face to remote and online classes around the world, I thought it would be useful (if only for posterity!) to document what we have done at the University of Delaware English Language Institute.

My view is largely of the academic side. There is a whole complex layer of administration and student support going on as well, where my colleagues have moved mountains to recreate advising, tutoring, registrar services, and extracurricular activities for the coronavirus universe. But in terms of teaching and learning, these have been our steps so far, forming a rough timeline of a very rough time.

Monday March 9 (over 1000 emails ago!)

  • AAAL conference is canceled.
  • The headline in Delaware’s News Journal is about parking in Newark.
  • Err, that’s about it, really.

Tuesday March 10

  • Chair of our professional development task force sends an email early in the morning “Does anyone among us have knowledge of how to use Zoom?”
  • Academic Continuity Committee convenes at the ELI. We start to talk about Zoom (the first time some of my colleagues have heard of it). I’ve been teaching classes in various online and remote configurations for 4 years, so I join the committee.
  • We plan an initial “just in case” training session for Friday March 13 with further training on Friday March 20
  • 3:30pm: No-one in Delaware has tested positive for coronavirus, but there is one confirmed case in Philadelphia.
  • 7pm: Provost’s office advises “faculty who are ready to do so to move their courses online at this time.”
  • I write to my director, “I’m concerned that we are going to be rapidly overtaken by events.”

Wednesday March 11

  • We survey all instructors for their technological needs (internet access, laptop, headset, webcam).
  • At the start of the day, we are still planning our initial training session for Friday. Word is that we have until Spring Break at the end of March before we are fully shut down.
  • Late in the work day, we learn that the first case of coronavirus has been confirmed in Delaware, and it’s a person “connected with the University of Delaware” — news reports quickly that the patient is a UD professor.
  •  In response, at 4:30pm, the University cancels all in-person classes for the rest of the semester, cancels classes entirely for Thursday and Friday, and moves Spring break to start on Monday (March 16), with classes resuming remotely March 23.
  • We secure permission to bring ELI students to classes on Thursday and Friday morning to be trained in using Zoom (few will actually come on Friday).
  • Lots and lots of emails as we cobble together a plan for the next two days.

Thursday March 12

  • ELI faculty meets at 8:30am, and I lead a quick introduction to Zoom — what it is, why we’re using it, how to set up their personal room ID, and how to help students download the app and access their teachers’ “rooms.” By presenting only very simple steps accompanied by screenshots on printed handouts — and because everyone knows that a British accent has a calming influence — I try to communicate the message that the technology is sound and easy to learn.
  • Students meet with teachers for a short class in which they install the Zoom app and say goodbye in person.
  • Why are we moving to a synchronous model? After considering the pros and cons (quickly — everything’s happening quickly!), we decide that this mode of instruction is consistent with our interpretation of SEVP visa regulations (at this point, students who return home would have their I-20s terminated, a position that changes within 24 hours), is structured and therefore comforting to students, and fits everyone’s schedule since we’re already running that schedule. We also expect almost all students to stay locally — most ultimately will not be able to leave the US — and to have internet access. Plus, it’s pedagogically consistent: we don’t have the time or resources to develop good online classes, so we’re going to recreate our face-to-face classes as closely as possible in the “remote” environment, where we can continue our interactive teaching methods that we are comfortable with and confident in. It won’t be great; it might not even be good; but it will be adequate.
  • Lots and lots more emails as we cobble together a plan for Friday.
  • Meanwhile, three new cases connected to the first patient have been confirmed in Delaware, and Governor Carney declares a state of emergency.
  • Oh yeah, and TESOL is canceled.

Friday March 13

  • Some students come to one last listening/speaking class at 8:15am, but many join us by Zoom — so, hey, it works!
  • For faculty training today, we stage a short demo lesson, with colleagues stationed around the building. We use the key features of Zoom to demonstrate common teaching tasks: whole-class discussion, pair/group discussion, textbook exercises, speaking activities, and writing tasks. We also simulate some of the technical problems we expect. Then, I walk the faculty through Zoom — slowly and with lots of screenshots on their handouts! We also talk about recording classes and embedding the videos in Canvas because we know students will miss classes (due to illness, family obligations, and technical problems).
  • I share a document I created with the help of the now-renamed remote instruction team setting out lower- and higher- tech alternatives to every common teaching activity we could think of.
  • After lunch, we break into small groups by level of experience with Canvas, our learning-management system. Some are learning to use it for the first time; others are exploring assignments and quizzes; yet others are playing with more advanced video features. Tech team members provide training at teachers’ comfort level.
  • Meanwhile, the coronavirus is spreading in Delaware, and at 5pm, all school districts announce a two-week hiatus while they decide how to proceed. So now many of us also have kids at home. Over the weekend, the University will close its buildings to non-essential personnel (that’s us!), so our planned final day of in-person training on using online tools is moving … online.
  • The University also extends Spring Break by another week, but we are given permission to start as planned on March 23. University housing is closed, with exceptions for international students.
  • Lots more emails, handouts, and trouble-shooting …

Monday March 16

  • I host a meeting for our entire faculty and many of our administrative staff …. 67 people on Zoom. And they all connect! So, again, it works. The faculty votes to cancel all final tests for this session. We discuss assessment options, following another document I wrote with the help of colleagues showing what we can and cannot do with assessment this session. Our sessions are 8 weeks long, and this week of canceled classes is week 3.
  • We also demonstrate breakout rooms and some more tricks with Canvas.
  • Teachers meet in their level groups to start planning instruction and assessment.
  • Meanwhile, we are also running training sessions for MA TESL practicum candidates and disciplinary faculty in our pathways Academic Transition program — many, many moving pieces. And I’m redesigning the rest of the practicum!
  • There are now 7 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Delaware, and life in the state is slowing downs: bars and restaurants close for dining in.

Tuesday March 17 & Wednesday March 18

  • Teachers continue to meet virtually in level groups to plan instruction and assessment, while the tech support team provides online help.
  • We create a webpage to archive all the training materials and make it more easily accessible to teachers who have been drinking from a firehose.
  • We also start work on student-facing materials: a directory of Zoom rooms, a quick start guide to Zoom, and a trouble-shooting handout with common audio/video problems, which we will eventually translate into the languages spoken by our lower-proficiency students.
  • The Delaware General Assembly is postponed indefinitely, and a Wilmington city council worker tests positive for coronavirus.

Thursday March 19

  • Members of the remote instruction team (the “Zoom Squad” [TM]) host 30-minute bite-sized PD workshops on commonly requested topics (using the doc cam, Canvas grade book, Zoom breakout rooms, etc.).
  • In the afternoon, we meet online in groups of 4-6 teachers of similar levels to take turns practicing playing the teacher and using the technology tools to demonstrate a piece of a lesson.
  • We start collecting common issues and sharing solutions.
  • In the evening, I host a Zoom happy hour, a fun way to relax and see an often hidden side of some of our colleagues!

Friday March 20 — a breather for recuperation and individual planning. Behind the scenes, administrators and advisors are working hard to keep in touch with students, answer their questions, host town halls, and prepare them for the start of classes. Communication with students and planning for online teaching continue throughout the weekend. There are 39 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Delaware on Friday, 56 by the end of the weekend. The virus has affected people in all three counties; six people are hospitalized with three in critical condition.

Monday March 23

  • ELI remote classes go live at 8:15 am!
  • We have a tech team providing live support (accessible by email and Zoom chat). The team is able to ensure that all classes run relatively smoothly — and the fact that all classes ran at all is a remarkable success.
  • We send out a survey collecting experiences. Almost everyone reports that the first classes went “swimmingly.” The registrar’s office solicits and collate issues and questions, and the tech team answers them in a shared Google Doc.
  • The number of coronavirus cases in Delaware jumps to 87.

Tuesday March 24 (today)

  • Governor Carney’s emergency order to close all non-essential businesses takes effect at 8am. Delawareans are asked to stay at home. Schools will remain closed at least until May 15.
  • ELI classes continue with minor issues that are addressed by our live support team. Attendance is strong. Other issues are reported later and addressed through the shared Google doc. Some students are having connection issues, but most can be solved by reducing bandwidth or moving closer to the router. Some of the apartment complexes that house large numbers of our students are voluntarily increasing their internet capacity.
  • The number of COVID-19 cases in Delaware passes 100, with patients aged one to 90.

And that brings us up to date. It’s not perfect by any means, and it does feel as though we’re held together by the skin of our fingernails, with a large number of band-aids (to mix a few metaphors).

But we are teaching, and students are learning English.

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ESL and materials developer in Delaware, in the United States.

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