Directing the Online College Classroom

10 October 2020

With many students working on computers from home, teachers are learning new ways to teach their classes. I recently spoke with some English teachers about how they are meeting these demands. The teachers seemed to agree on three issues they now face: how to hold the attention of their students; persuading students to talk in English; and getting them to work with their classmates while being in different places.

Choosing students to speak

Wendy Coulson is an English language specialist with the United States Department of State. She currently lives in Mexico.

Coulson is working with English teachers in Myanmar, the country formerly called Burma. She says they tell her that some students do not speak up in class because they are thinking of their social position.

Wendy Coulson, English Language Specialist
Wendy Coulson, English Language Specialist

She advises the teachers to use a "name wheel" to overcome this. The free Wheel of Names online computer program lets a teacher add names, then move a wheel to choose which student will speak. One can also add words or pictures to the wheel.

Coulson says she sometimes adds verbs to give students a chance to make complete sentences. She finds they react well to competition, like playing games with verbs. They are more likely to speak up when she uses the wheel.

"I just found out it really worked. Otherwise they are too quiet. They are all drawn in, and ready to do it. They really responded to that, because they'll [say] 'Oh, it's me, ok I have to speak!'"

Kimberley Gamez teaches English learners at Centerville High School in the American state of Virginia. She uses Classdojo, a website teachers can use to work with younger students. It helps the teacher choose a student to speak.

Gamez says she also uses the Wheel of Names program.

"And I've learned that students find that way less threatening than you just choosing a student You didn't really call them out, or they're not being put on the spot. They get into it a little bit more..."

Teachers get tired, too

Many teachers say they get tired of being online for long hours during the school day. Lana Vikhnevich teaches Oral Communication classes in China. She learned from another teacher that she could record a video to play during her class and ask students to answer questions.

"Basically, I would record a short video again about the topic that we discussed and ...then I would send them to the students, and then I would send them the quiz related to this video.

The trick is, maybe by themselves or in groups of two or three, they have to answer that quiz correctly, like 100 percent."

I also spoke with Bita Bookman, who teaches at Santa Rosa Junior College in California. She noted it was difficult to make the change from in-person to online teaching.

"ESL classes are all about group work, right? How do I... create that online? It was a struggle... But I discovered Playposit. And it's wonderful because it's so interactive, it is just like students attending a class."

Using the Playposit program, Bookman records short videos, each less than 15 minutes. Then every one or two minutes, the video stops, and the students have time to interact with it.

"That interaction could be a question...a conversation for the students to chat with each other. They can write an essay-type answer."

Playposit is available in the Canvas learning management system (LMS).

Bita Bookman also says she uses many discussion boards in Canvas. She said her students know enough English to read directions and complete their homework online. When she puts students into groups, she teams up more experienced students with newer ones. The experienced students then help explain how to use online programs such as Google Docs.

Two online teachers are better than one

Back in Virginia, Kimberly Gamez does team teaching, a method where two teachers lead the same class. She told me that making time for planning carefully together is necessary.

"It is nice to have a second person in there for that student who's maybe having a maybe like a tech issue or can't find the microphone or can't find a link."

Gamez also uses music to fill the air while waiting for students to answer questions.

"So, I actually have used, in my slides, background audio... for me, it just makes it feel less awkward like there's just some music playing and it's okay that you're taking your time. I'm not just sitting here awkwardly waiting for you."

Speaking and listening to classmates online

Lana Vikhnevich says one of her goals is to teach students to use fewer fillers and pauses, or short halts in speaking, when they speak English. She begins each online class with a short warmup activity, such as a tongue twister – a series of words that are difficult to say quickly and correctly.

Her students record themselves on a phone to share with the class and teacher.

"I would give them the tongue twisters, and I would give them a specific prosodic feature to master, for example, pauses, and then they would record. They all record their sentences, noticing how other peers record their sentences, again focusing on those prosodic features."

By comparing their recordings with those of other students, English learners get listening training and experience looking for patterns in language.

"So basically, we kill two birds with one stone, a little bit of speaking, a little bit of listening and again focusing on prosodic features in this particular case."

I'm Jill Robbins.

Jill Robbins wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

sentence -n. a group of words that expresses a statement, question, command, or wish

draw inv. to attract

respond v. to do something as a reaction to something that has happened or been done

quiz n. a short spoken or written test that is often taken without preparation

ESLn. short for English as a Second Language

chat v. to carry on a short talk with someone using voice or written words

microphonen. device into which people speak or sing in order to record their voices or to make them sound louder

awkward adj. uneasy or uncomfortable

prosodic featureadj. part of a regular or repeated way of speaking or writing, such as pauses, volume and pace

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