Some of the many teachers who attended our recent webinars on Blended Learning (BL) were already in enforced lockdown, having had their face-to-face classes cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. This made the topic of BL especially relevant, in particular the concept of ‘face-to-face online’ classes. The webinars were given at a time when thousands in the UK were just starting to work from home which caused a huge spike in online use. Here are some of the questions that were raised:
1) Which platform would you recommend for us who must start now untrained?
There is no single answer to this question. Everything depends on your teaching context and what you wish to do. As mentioned in the webinar, there are thousands of platforms. Making informed choices is important. Here are some typical contexts:
- If you use a coursebook like English File, start with the digital materials on the learner platform; students are already familiar with the methodology.
- A freelance teacher could investigate Google Classroom. It is free and relatively easy to use. Other options here are easyclass and Classmill.
- In order to teach synchronous classes online, many teachers are now using Zoom. It makes sense to start out using a platform you are familiar with, such as Skype.
If you wish to set up a virtual classroom, expert Nik Peachey has suggested iTeach.world. There is plenty of online help and support available, whichever platform you choose.
2) How can we make the online as interesting as the F2F?
This question implies that classroom practice is dynamic and exciting. Many classroom teachers new to online teaching start off trying replicate these practices in an online environment. Teaching online can be every bit as exciting, but it is different.
Before starting, first make a list of the similarities between classroom and online. Many conventional classroom skills and practices transfer easily to teaching online, such as the teacher’s role in motivating and encouraging participants; using the participants’ own professional materials or using a coursebook and setting up classroom tasks. Then make a list of what is different online. Communication involves facial expressions and gestures; in an online lesson, these can be hard to pick up on when viewing your students in the video window. Learners can physically move around in the classroom; in online teaching, they are static, communicating through the screen and keyboard.
Some skills are transferable but need to be done differently. Pair and small group work can be done online using ‘breakout rooms’. One key tip for teaching on-line classes is to make tasks interactive. Participants can enter text in the chatbox, for instance. Another is to move quite briskly from task to task: preparation is key.
3) How much per cent face to face is appropriate for blended learning?
There is no single, recommended percentage. Imagining a ‘hybrid’ course, 50-50 classroom and online, is a good starting point. However, thinking in terms of percentages can sometimes be counter-productive, as it encourages the equation of classroom work and online study. Rather, think of the online element as ‘elastic’, with students proceeding at their own pace. The Webinar explored this concept of ‘differentiation’ as being a feature of BL.
4) Isn’t the real distinction between synchronous and asynchronous, not classroom vs online?
When considering BL, the classroom – online distinction is important. When it comes to online learning, the distinction between synchronous and asynchronous is vital (Clandfield and Hadfield). So, both distinctions are helpful. One model which I find very helpful is the well-known consideration of the dimensions of ‘time’ and ‘place’, as follows:
- Same time, same place: teaching in the classroom.
- Same time, different place: teaching an online class using Zoom, Skype; communicating through WhatsApp.
- Different time, different place: emails: posting a message on a forum and replying.
- We need not be too concerned about the final part of this model – Different time, same place.
5) What about those platforms in which you just click the correct answer with very little production or interaction?
Interactive exercises such as the ones you describe divide opinion. They provide 24/7 guided practice and include tracking tools which show how many attempts students have had at a particular exercise. They have also been criticised for skewing language by ensuring each example fits clear ‘yes/no’ answers which are easy to code. What I love about BL is that such exercises can be incorporated into a course. They serve a specific purpose, provide some useful repetitive practice and are appreciated by many analytical learners. The teacher can ensure language production, free discussion, communication and interaction occur in other parts of the blend.
6) Do materials need to be specially designed or adapted for the blended learning environment?
Again, context is all. Some publisher-produced digital materials may already be absolutely perfect for your situation. They are written by experienced authors and built by a professional team. In business English, you may be using client-specific material and so choose to create and design your own content.
Changing the approach to how materials are used is part of a BL approach. An activity may start in the classroom, continue online and then students receive feedback once again in the classroom. Here, the material remains the same but how the material is used is different.
While the webinar looked at BL, many participants were under huge pressure, considering how to suddenly switch to teaching online. One memorable comment in the chat was:
“Let’s think positive; the closed schools and empty classrooms will help us start online learning as we have no other option”.
This comment, like the webinar, is a perfect lead-in to other webinars specifically about teaching online. I cannot help wondering what will happen when schools and campuses re-open. Will classroom teaching and blended learning once more be options, or will the face of education be changed forever?
Pete Sharma is a Director of Pete Sharma Associates Ltd, a consultancy and training organisation: www.psa.eu.com He works as a pre-sessional lecturer in EAP (English for Academic purposes) at Warwick University, UK. Pete has co-written many books on educational technology in ELT www.petesharma.com
Interaction Online (2017) Lindsay Clandfield and Jill Hadfield Cambridge University Press