Embracing the technology?
With so many courses switched to online delivery, how do we engage students online without overwhelming them (and ourselves)? Experiences with international students on the Pre-sessional course.
We have already discussed some of the issues involved in moving our Pre-Sessional course online during the Covid emergency (read here). Here we would like to look at some of the online resources available which could be used to support this learning, and discuss what worked and what didn't, why and why not.
From March 2020 the academic community responded to the global situation with a plethora of webinars in which colleagues shared their experiences of online teaching, so that others could benefit from that experience as they made the sudden transition. Different institutions were using different platforms for delivery of classes: Zoom, Teams, Collaborate and others; but in addition many tutors were employing a wide range of other, mostly free, sites to enhance their students' experience. The argument was that young people today are accustomed to flipping from one window to another, to following links, and generally multi-tasking, so to do this in the virtual classroom would be unproblematic and motivating (Kelly, 2020).
Among the online sites described in one webinar (Kelly, 2020) were Slack (for collaboration among peers); Notion (where students can build up a personal profile potentially useful for future employers as well as keeping track of agendas and reading lists); Canva (graphic design for non-experts); and Flipgrid (where tutors can set up a discussion task and students and tutors can both post videos). This sounded exciting and stimulating, and we duly signed up to all of these and attempted to get to grips with them.
When attending a webinar where new activities are demonstrated with skill, it is easy to be swept away by the presenter's enthusiasm. However, in addition to the very real problem that if as tutors we are less than confident with the technology, the class can struggle and falter (and in the summer of 2020 we were most of us getting to grips with Teams for the first time, never mind any optional extras): what about the students?
Hodges et al. (2020) drew a clear distinction between online learning, which "results from careful instructional design" (p.4) and "emergency remote teaching", which is what most of us were and are doing. This is not just a matter of the instructional design; it is also about the students. Our students, unlike those who sign up to a normal online course, have not actually chosen that mode of instruction. They may not be particularly technologically adept, and some of them certainly, in our experience, suffered from inadequate internet connections, and in some cases lacked appropriate devices. This is in line with similar if more localised emergency online or blended learning situations in the past, such as in Indonesia after an earthquake and tsunami damaged university buildings (Manurung et al., 2020).
(Note the University could not offer to lend them laptops; the Pre-Sessional students were mostly scattered around the world, in Japan, Viet Nam, India and the Middle East.)
Certainly we want to motivate and engage our students, but if they are struggling to stay in the virtual classroom and sometimes disappear when moved to breakout rooms, or cannot share their screens for groupwork, if their voices are largely incomprehensible due to signal breakup or in some cases the horrendous background noise of inner-city traffic (or occasionally cows!), if their whole region suddenly loses power on the day of an assessment, possibly it is placing too much of a burden on them to ask them to flip to this or that website in the course of the class.
That is not to advocate the avoidance of all external links and logins. Some of the resources we have used successfully include:
• Kahoot! quizzes
• MyBeckett Tests
• online dictionaries
• Youtube / Ted talks
Kahoot! quizzes require students to log on on their phones (usually) in addition to being able to see the tutor's screen in Teams, but this did not generally present a problem and could provide a quick, stimulating review activity, for example a module handbook quiz or test of concepts studied the previous week. These are activities we would wish to perform in some medium, and this takes no more time to set up than a shared document with questions to be worked on in breakout groups, which would mimic more closely a face-to-face activity (though it must be said that some of us have been using Kahoot! for this purpose on campus also). Even if one student cannot manage to log on, they will be able to see the questions and hear the feedback to the answers, so all that is lacking for them is the competitive element.
The MyBeckett (Blackboard) test function came in very useful for assessment. Written assessments were being submitted through MyBeckett as usual, but we faced problems with the listening tests which are a key part of our courses for international students. In addition to having to experiment to determine timing for digital documents (as opposed to handwritten test papers on campus) we also tried various means of submission including email, the normal MyBeckett assignment function being better designed for an essay due on a certain date than a 30-minute test. A timed 'test' which auto-submitted 30 minutes after being started proved a successful option, and this could be expanded for formative tasks in future.
Again, we have for several years been exploring online dictionaries in week one of the course and encouraging students to create a short cut to their favourite; students would thereafter be advised in class when they should have their phones out and be ready to use a dictionary. It was a natural step to do this in our online teaching. Our students need to have several classes on effective dictionary use, learning to understand the information given about register, collocation and synonyms, in order to develop their academic writing skills. It was notable that these students quickly began to use online dictionaries as resources in their breakout groups, without prompting from the tutor, anecdotally more frequently than in a physical classroom, perhaps because they were already online.
We have used Youtube clips of debates and Ted talks (mini lectures) for listening assessments for some years, and it is an obvious step then to encourage students (sometimes by means of 'homework' tasks) to explore these sites independently as a means of developing their listening skills, one of the goals of the course. Without guidance, students do not always find suitable reading and listening texts and may waste their time working on things in the wrong genre, for instance. It is therefore always necessary to spend some time looking at what (and how) to study independently.
A further resource we have not used in the classroom yet as it has only just been made widely available is ColloCaid (Frankenburg-Garcia, 2021), an online tool based on corpora of academic texts in which students can type or paste their own text (e.g. essay) and be provided with possible collocations. Most international students tend to focus on single vocabulary items and frequently produce written assignments with 'unnatural' collocations, yet they struggle to use collocation dictionaries effectively, so this tool is very welcome and will certainly be introduced to the next cohort of Pre-Sessional students.
Most of the above are not new: we have been using them to some extent on campus. They are perhaps easier and quicker to demonstrate online, and students can easily be put into groups or sent off individually to work on an example task and then brought back for feedback. However, their virtue is that they were already familiar to us, and they all offer something very clearly necessary to the course (review, assessment, skills development), rather than something extra we are putting in to 'keep students motivated'. There is always a balance to be kept; yes, students need a range of activities to stimulate them and to appeal to as wide a range of learning styles as possible, but to present students who did not choose to study online with a huge variety of online resources when they are struggling with their internet connection may actually be demotivating. As with any educational activities, the students' needs and expectations must be carefully considered, and it may be that when we return to face-to-face teaching, we have a better understanding of how to employ tools we were already playing with.
In the end, as we reported in our previous blog post, in this online world and with all the technology available, what students seemed to value most was personal contact.
Frankenburg-Garcia, A. (2021) Using ColloCaid for Academic Writing [webinar] 29.01.21
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]
Kelly, N. (2020) Strategies for Successful Online Engagement [webinar] EAP in Ireland Workshops/ Webinars, 24.08.20
Manurung, G.N., Manurung, K., Mertosono, S.R. and Kamaruddin, A. (2020) Perceptions of EFL Learners in the Implementation of Blended Learning Post-natural Disaster at a University in Indonesia. Theory and Practice in Language Studies 10 (8): 959-68, August 2020
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.