Keeping our distance: What we did next

In my last post, about a century and a half ago (OK, two and a half weeks), I described how we took the English Language Institute at the University of Delaware online in ten days. Now we’ve finished three weeks of remote instruction, how’s it going?

Not bad.

Which, all in all, is pretty good.

We decided to use an all-synchronous instruction model, with classes resuming at their regular times on Zoom, and overall, we’ve been satisfied. Nobody would design an online program in which teachers and students are on Zoom from 8:15 to 12:10 every day, but in the circumstances (emergency remote teaching), it works. The platform is stable and — despite media reports — secure, even while apparently serving every educational institution in the western world. Its core features effectively replicate the key characteristics of a language classroom: social presence, teacher-student interaction, white board, screen sharing (presentations, handouts, videos, etc.), and breakout rooms for group and pair work. Yes, some connections are dropped. Yes, it’s harder for students who’ve returned to their home countries. But no, we couldn’t do better.

Zoom even has affordances we don’t have in the classroom. Some colleagues have reported that they use the one-to-one chat channel to check in on students who are quiet or struggling in class. Others have used the chat as well as tools like Kahoot and Quill to conduct more formative assessment so they can see when students are falling behind. I’ve recorded all my classes, a huge benefit to students who can’t attend every day because of childcare responsibilities, technological problems, or simply state of mind. Students can easily give presentations, and we can record them in Zoom so students can watch them back for self-review and self-correction (second draft!). Students can even go into their own Zoom room, practice presentations, and record themselves if they can’t or don’t want to present in front of the virtual class. Group discussions can be recorded for assessment, feedback, or accountability. And I have to say I like my new commute.

Many teachers are reporting that students are more engaged in the remote environment, and they have certainly demonstrated remarkable patience and resilience. Most are grateful that we have the technology to keep teaching now, through the summer, and into the next academic year: we won’t stop! Many are telling us that they are surprised how much they are learning from the online classes. Some students are certainly frustrated, disengaged, and looking for shortcuts (the student who changed his profile picture to make it look like he was still sitting as his desk), but I don’t get the sense that the numbers are any greater than in the regular classroom. I am more concerned about students who would never choose to take online classes because of preference, lack of self-regulation, or individual differences such as ADHD. We’re reaching out to those students and providing all the support we can. Our student life team is also offering daily activities via Zoom, including cooking classes (next week: ramen noodle hacks!), work outs, and meet-ups with US students. And we’re holding a lot of Zoom office hours.

We’re exploiting Google Docs for collaborative writing, textbook exercises, assessments, and discussions. Combined with the breakout rooms, you can do great jigsaws, information gaps, and spot-the-difference tasks! I appreciate Zoom’s automatic breakout room assignment because it ensures that students work with different peers every time. The chat box works well for a quick language focus, and we all have document cameras, a technology I would strongly recommend to other language teachers in this situation.

Assessment is a tricky area. Personally, I’ve enjoyed the freedom to ease up on the number of assessments I give, allowing us all to focus more on teaching and learning. And cancelling final exams has freed up a full week of instructional time. However, we can still assess just about everything, just differently, assuming that all tests are open book. And honestly, why not let students use resources just like in the, gasp, real world? But between Zoom chat, Canvas assignments/quizzes/discussion boards, and Google docs, we’re able to measure student progress a bit less accurately but reasonably reliably. It’s good enough.

My department has followed the University in recording all failing grades as “no grade” (we don’t give credit, but it’s the equivalent of “no credit”). I would prefer not to give letter grades at all (ever), but I lobbied for the no-credit option because I strongly believe that no student should fail this session. They may have to repeat the level, but at least the stigma of a failing grade won’t be stamped on their transcript. We’ve also made course evaluations optional, although we will solicit feedback from students on their experience with remote learning.

So, where next? As of today (4/10/20), we seem to be nearing the peak of coronavirus infections in Delaware – 1200 confirmed cases, 181 hospitalizations, and sadly 23 deaths. But fewer infections were confirmed today than any day this week, so there’s some hope. Still, our next session (we teach 7-8 week sessions, not semesters) will be fully remote, and we hope to gradually return to the classroom over the following sessions. However, we don’t expect new international students before January at the earliest.

Since we only have a week between sessions, we are going to continue with a modified version of this session’s remote instruction in May/June. One of the biggest challenges is textbooks. Why continue to use the same textbooks? Because we can’t keep up a full course load and then redesign 40+ courses in week to use all new materials! Between ebooks*, Amazon (which is still delivering), publishers (Pearson, for example, is shipping its own books at a discount), and students’ own resourcefulness, we expect students in the US to be OK.  Those who go home we’re encouraging to procure books before they leave, and the handful who are already out of the US will be placed in courses where the books are accessible online, we hope. We just surveyed all courses to find out which classes can be taught without textbook and which books are essential, so we can prioritize our search. Classroom presentation tools (like Oxford’s iTools) are also very useful. Of course, students in China won’t be able to access YouTube videos and US news websites, so we have to be careful which classes they take, and for all students out of the country, we’ll have to be sensitive to cultural restrictions and privacy.

* Shameless self-publicity, but several of my textbooks are available in ebook formats if you’re teaching online: Grammar Choices for Graduate and Professional Writers , 2nd edition (University of Michigan Press, Amazon e-textbook), Q: Skills for Success RW 5, 3rd edition (contact Oxford), Inside Writing 2, and Inside Writing 4

We’re also going to start introducing an asynchronous element into courses where it’s applicable and the teacher is comfortable. This will reduce the number of synchronous instructional hours, improve the quality of the pedagogy, and build the foundation for a slate of properly designed online courses that we’re planning for the Fall and beyond.

So, it’s an exciting time as well as an alarming one. We’ve been dealt a bushel of lemons, and although we don’t love the taste, we’re going to make some sort of lemonade. And of course we’re grateful to be employed, proud to keep providing English education to our students, and privileged to be able to work from the relative safety of our own homes. We do not take this for granted.

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institution, as well as a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. Nigel holds a PhD from the University of Delaware, a master's in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor's degree from Cambridge University. He is currently director of Project DELITE, a federal grant providing ESL certification to Delaware teachers. He also brews beer.

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