Putting the human touch into the online world - Creating a learning community in our online Pre-sessional
Hear from the tutors in the Department of Languages as they tell us their experience of creating a learning community due to Covid-19.
March 23rd 2020 was the last day that many of us in the Department of Languages taught our students face-to-face. The following week all our teaching shifted online using whatever devices we had to hand at home and a makeshift combination of Skype for Business, and in some cases WhatsApp for group interaction. This was not online or distance learning in the conventional sense but “emergency remote teaching” (Hodges et al., 2020). It actually worked surprisingly well because the students were familiar with their courses and relationships had already been established. This meant that students participated pretty much as they had done in the face-to-face classes.
Our next challenge was to adapt our Pre-sessional courses for web-based presentation on a new platform, Microsoft Teams, to start at the beginning of July 2020. The Pre-Sessional programme is an academic preparation course for international students wishing to start an undergraduate, or predominantly postgraduate programme, at Leeds Beckett for either a September or January start, but whose level of English is lower than that required for their chosen course. Students can study for twenty, ten, or five weeks depending on their level, typically starting the relevant course with a minimum entry level of The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) 4.5, 5.0 or 5.5 and finish with the equivalent of IELTS 6.0 or 6.5 overall as required. The course focusses on helping them develop their Academic English in all four skills, as well as helping them to adapt to the British university system and develop the relevant study and research skills they will need to organise and manage their learning here. For example, students learn how to search Library Online to find reliable sources to support their studies and their learning, to use those sources effectively in their reading and writing and reference them accurately. The need for considerable improvement in their language level and academic skills over such a short period of time represents a serious challenge for students despite the very intensive nature of the course (20 hours class time per week). Also, the majority of the students come from the Middle East and parts of Asia, where the Higher Education system that they may have experienced is very different.
Our previous online course provision, such as the MA English Language Teaching, has followed a typical online format, with students following self-paced learning packages on My Beckett, taking part in asynchronous collaboration through discussion forums as well as some synchronous interaction in the shape of regular webinars, with technical support from the Distance Learning Unit. For the Pre-sessional, however, we did not have an existing online course.
When we started planning how to move the Pre-sessional online, our main thoughts were that this would be a new group of students who did not know each other. Most of the students would be studying in their home countries, which meant that they would not have the immersion in the language they get when studying in Leeds. Our main consideration, therefore, was how we could create a ‘learning community’ of tutors and students learning with and from each other (Blaj-Ward al., 2021). We were lucky in that we were a small experienced teaching team, who had all worked together for a long time, so we had in-built support and knowledge of the Pre-sessional. This meant that we did not have the issue of having to build up a “Teaching Community or Community of Practice” (Heath, 2021).
We decided to deliver the whole course synchronously. In English Language Teaching, we use a lot of group work and pair work so that students can practise their language in class. The synchronous delivery meant that we could keep this focus and we also thought that it would help to build up relationships between us and the students. In addition to the 20 hours of class time, we had Academic Advisor sessions to help support the students on the course. We also worked with colleagues in the International Recruitment Team and set up weekly one-hour social events with the international student ambassadors. These were more informal get-togethers where the students could ask questions about studying in the UK or find out more about life as a student in Leeds.
Apart from two students who were based in the UK, the students were studying in their home countries, so we had to think about the time of the classes. We had students studying as far afield as Japan, so the 8-hour time difference meant that we had to start classes at 8am UK time. This made for some interesting greetings at the start of class when we would say a bright and breezy “Good morning”, sometimes to hear back “Good evening”. Our focus on creating a learning community seemed to pay off right from the start of the course although not in ways we had anticipated. The students tended not to attend the social event with the student ambassadors mainly because they said that after 4 hours of class, they were getting tired and our 1pm start, for this event, was quite late in their home countries. What we saw unfolding was the creation of a learning community coming from peer-to-peer support. In this online environment, attendance and punctuality were excellent. We joined our classes to find students chatting to each other about their lives and, of course, amongst other things the global pandemic. These conversations carried on in the breaks between classes and tutors often had a sense of feeling bad about interrupting them to start the class! This was the early days of using Microsoft Teams for teaching when breakout rooms were still a bit ‘clunky’, and some students often got lost between the whole class sessions and the breakout rooms. This situation though also added to the support network with students helping each other into the rooms and not wanting to leave the others out. This notion of the learning community, which we and most importantly the students created, was captured in some of their feedback at the end of the course. “I can experience friendly education system”; “I have made so many friends and came to know how international teachers teach. It will help me a lot in my further studies”; “Staff is very supportive, co-operative as well as polite. This is my first time studying online. Moreover, overall excellent experience”; “I am grateful to whole the staff to cooperate with us in our hard time” and hopefully the essence of what we did is in here “Surprisingly, I got more that what I bargained for”.
The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is probably the most used test of academic English as a second language for international students wishing to study at a UK university. The British Council describes IELTS 6.0 as a competent user with “an effective command of the language despite some inaccuracies, inappropriate usage and misunderstandings. You can use and understand fairly complex language, particularly in familiar situations”. 5.0 is described as a modest user with “a partial command of the language” who can “cope with overall meaning in most situations, although you are likely to make many mistakes. You should be able to handle basic communication in your own field.
Blaj-Ward, L., Hultgren, K., Arnold, R. and Reichard, B. (2021) Narratives of innovation and resilience: Introduction. In: Blaj-Ward, L., Hultgren, K., Arnold, R. and Reichard, B. Narratives of innovation and resilience: Supporting student learning experiences in challenging times. BALEAP: The Global Forum for EAP Professionals: Renfrew, pp. 1 – 5.
Heath, J. (2021) Supporting student learning in an emergency remote teaching situation through the provision of support and sharing of good practices across a large teaching team. In: Blaj-Ward, L., Hultgren, K., Arnold, R. and Reichard, B. Narratives of innovation and resilience: Supporting student learning experiences in challenging times. BALEAP: The Global Forum for EAP Professionals: Renfrew, pp. 75 – 85.
Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T. and Bond, A. (2020) The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning. Educause Review. [online] available from: https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/3/the-difference-between-emergency-remote-teaching-and-online-learning [Accessed 22.02.21]
Suzanne is a senior lecturer in English Language Teaching and is the course leader of the Pre-Sessional. She has been teaching in higher education for over 20 years and has taught on undergraduate programmes, where she has supervised level 6 dissertations. She has been the course leader of the undergraduate language degree and university preparation courses, which focus on English for Academic Purposes.