By Leigh-Ann Hunter

EFL Teacher

You can probably hear me from the house next door. “HELLO? CAN YOU HEAR ME?” I realise that I’m raising my voice for no reason (there’s no sound) and have another one of those Homer Simpson moments that I’ve experienced, oh, about 105 times since I started teaching online.

The students are probably having similar moments of frustration, as are many other learners and teachers around the globe. In some ways, we are on a level playing field when it comes to navigating online learning.

Technological issues

There are many things that can go wrong online: no sound, poor sound, kids/ dogs/ spouses and other ambient noise, no visuals, slow internet, no internet, time delays, time differences. That said, learning IRL (in real life) is not devoid of challenges. The class environment is always too hot or cold for one of the students. There may be construction outside, just as you plan to do a listening activity. Students disrupt the class by wanting to go to the bathroom for the thousandth time.

Online, these issues are easily resolved. You can mute the student while you’re teaching (take that!). And there’s none of that stuff like establishing what page you’re on in the textbook because there is no paper and everyone is on the same virtual page.

Face to face classes also utilise technology, but there are often technical issues, as anyone who has had to call a colleague to fix something will attest. High tech gadgets such as new laptops and headsets come at a price, but are a good investment for the current learning environment. Teaching online is an opportunity to learn cool apps and get new ideas. Both teachers and students need to be tech savvy for the 21st century.

Online versus face-to-face classes - the great debate

Good rapport built through face-to-face contact and a friendly learning atmosphere expedites the learning process. Students have the opportunity to bond in their free time on a study abroad programme, not to mention the thrill of living and travelling in a new country. I’ve often had foreign students who’ve travelled to language schools in Cape Town build great friendships and get emotional about leaving. Things like gestures and facial expressions aid understanding, as we have discovered through their absence in the online environment. 

Francois, one of my online students, says he’s more focused during online lessons because he tends to “zone out” in a real classroom setting. He says this is because there are fewer students in the virtual class. Another reason is that online classes are shorter and more compact. While students may miss other aspects of an immersive learning environment, it is possible to build rapport in online classes, and these can be exciting with students in different countries sharing points of view. 

Some people argue that students miss out on pair work, peer interaction and role-play which are essential for language learning. On the other hand, the possibilities presented by the Internet allow for authentic interaction outside the classroom, for example through collaborating on school projects.

This generation of students (post 90’s and post 2000’s) are familiar with online interaction and there are creative ways to get the students working together such as on a shared google slide, emailing each other, sharing photos on social media, or conducting a survey by phone. Blended learning is suited to the new generation, despite us oldies grumbling about the good old days of postcards.

Good manners

While in a Zoom class, it occurred to me that the things that are thought to make online communication difficult, may actually work in our favour. For example, in a conversation class, I noticed that the students were extra respectful of everyone having a turn to speak. So it was a great way to practise turn-taking and polite phrases such as “Sorry, I interrupted you,” or, “Pardon me, what did you say?” They were also cognisant of getting to the point as quickly as possible and choosing the most succinct phrases. Due to the brevity of each comment, people seemed to listen harder too.

On record

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about teaching online is that it’s paperless. Not only are we saving trees, but zero paper makes teaching and learning much less cumbersome. Students no longer have to organise stacks of paper. Everything is (cue angelic chorus) in one place (if you have your digital files in order). You can also assign work to do at home, and receive their homework electronically. 

With google classroom, you can mark tests automatically. This helps students track their own progress and see how well their peers are doing (nothing like a little competition to boost performance). Students have access to all the documents to revise after their course has ended, without digging around for handouts.

Last but not least

Since the nineties, experts worried that people are losing the ability to connect in person because of virtual communication. Be that as it may, the question is how we engage with the possibilities of the Internet now that it is part of daily life. It is great to have online instruction as an option, which couldn’t be said during the 1918 flu pandemic. Online lessons can be creative and motivate students to continue to learn during difficult times.

And this coming from a self-avowed technophobe. How times do change.