Wednesday, 16 November 2011

This is Madness! This is Distance Learning?

 

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Image from FreeWallpapersHD

Several weeks ago, I was asked if I would be interested in taking part in a pilot distance learning project organised by the foundation I work for. We have schools in over 20 different cities in Turkey and, while the college I work at is very large, others are quite small by comparison. I was told the project would aim to make up for a shortfall in English teaching staff in some of the smaller schools by having online lessons a couple of hours a week with a teacher located at another school. After a few days of constantly changing news, it was finally decided that I would work with a school in the city of Isparta (hence the title of this post and the silly image! :))

As I have taken courses about teaching online as part of my MA, I was naturally interested. I was told that my knowledge gained from my studies was one of the reasons I had been approached in the first place and my input would be appreciated. And so, even though I will be busy with the final phase of my studies this year, I agreed to do it. I promptly revisited my notes, re-read articles and got thinking about the best way to go about things. I started to envisage a blended learning approach, supplementing the regular English programme with a combination of synchronous and asynchronous activities, utilising different web and conferencing tools.

However, it seems I got a bit ahead of myself. I was then told all the online lessons would be given synchronously but not with Adobe Connect or Elluminate. Instead, I would be simply using Skype. Essentially, I would just be ‘beamed in’ to their regular classroom with my webcam feed appearing on their projection screen. This immediately set alarm bells ringing about effective interaction, how to monitor, how to offer assistance to individual students and how to avoid completely teacher-fronted lessons…

The alarm bells rang louder when I was informed that a special room was being set up at my school with a webcam aimed at a board/projection screen. When I asked why, an “isn’t it obvious?” kind of answer came back - “how else are you going to do board work?” Luckily, at this point the voice of experience I was supposed to bring to the project was finally heard as I pointed out that I could make-do with Google docs as a virtual whiteboard instead - in fact, it would be much more effective.

I should point out at this stage that I am not in any way criticising the teaching staff or students I am working with. I had the pleasure of visiting Isparta ahead of setting these classes up and I was very impressed with the English department and the school in general. The kids, as ever, were lovely and full of energy and enthusiasm and the teachers were very willing to help and contribute ideas as to how to make the situation work best. It’s just that this is not what I expected at all when I was first told about the pilot project - rather than distance learning I feel that this is distance teaching (started to sound like Tony Gurr now!) as the students are in their normal environment and I am the one who is joining the class from a distance!

Anyway, we have to make the most of the situation and so today, I taught two classes like this:

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It was a strange experience - not being able to move around affected the level of interaction I was able to achieve a great deal and, of course, monitoring was impossible (luckily, teachers were on hand in the classroom and they were a great help with such matters). There were also a few technical issues - every so often the sound quality would drop and getting kids up to the mike to speak directly to me took some time…

On the bright side, my Google doc idea worked well as they could see what I was typing and I could see what they were typing. It was also very useful for some error correction after one of our speaking activities was completed (done in the style of ‘Six of one’ from Teaching Unplugged, pp.64). In future sessions, I’ll be inviting the students to write and edit on it more.

I also had the advantage of being able to work from home - great for quick coffee refills and also for staged cameo appearances by my cat, who drew out a whole stream of unsolicited questions and real ‘want-to-know’ interactions. I did also notice that, while I was relaxed and comfortable at home, some of the students were very nervous about speaking in front of the camera! I tried my best to put them at ease with encouraging words and by mentioning a few things I remembered from when I met them face-to-face last month. I’m sure they will get used to it in time.

I hope two things will happen as a result of this pilot project: first, I hope that my employers will be open to suggestions for improving the programme either during the year or in the future - having the kids in a computer lab and using some dedicated conferencing software would be a start; and secondly, I hope the kids get a lot out of the experience. After all, it’s always all about them.

10 comments:

  1. What a peculiar (or maybe traditional, can we say this already?) way to teach a class from afar. I haven't yet had any experience with facilitating an online class and the experience so far with distance learning online hasn't quite met my expectations yet. I'll be interested to hear how this format progresses and adapts for you based on what you've learnt through our MA program.

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  2. Hi Dave,

    I truly hope your employers become more open to your opnions and experience in the area. It really seems they need some reflecting about what distance learning is.

    Good luck! :)

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  3. Thanks for sharing, Dave. V useful and informative.

    A query, if I may. I teach a couple of 1-2-1 classes over Skype. What app would you suggest for whiteboarding?

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  4. Tyson - I also find it perculiar. A big issue is convincing the decision-makers that there are far more effective ways to go about a project such as this. Another is the concept that you are not 'teaching' unless you are in action 'live'. A mix of synchronous and asynchronous activities would do wonders for the kids' ability to think and act autonomously. It's just a matter of getting them to see that. In many ways, my knowledge from the MA is part of the probelm - had I never done the course, I probably would have been more accepting of the situation as is.

    Ceci - Can I quote you on that? :)

    Alan - Google docs is nice and straightforward. If you share the link, both you and your student can type on it at the same time. I've also looked at http://www.scriblink.com/ which resembles a whiteboard more closely. :)

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  5. What would be the perfect distance learning classroom, if there were no limitations on technology? How would it work?

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  6. Tee-Hee - yeah sounding like that Gurr-fella would be an issue ;-)

    Yes, the problem you note is pretty common on many "similar" projects - the challenge is that they are defined from a TEACHing perspective (but with virtual contact hours). The Google doc idea is cool.

    I'm interested in what the kids (and teachers) thought after the fact - what type of feedback did you get from them?

    Take care - keep on LEARNing (LOL)

    T..

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  7. Remember, when the first car was invented it was just a carriage without horses. It can take people time to adjust to the new and innovative.

    I can understand the folks who organized this trying to make you a virtual person at the front of the classroom with a virtual board. Don't worry, they'll get used to the idea eventually. I hope you're given enough leeway to show what can be achieved with what's readily available

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  8. David - great question and one I've been pondering all weekend. The answer will come in the form of a future blog post. ;)

    Tony - The kids seemed to be enthralled by a mixture of awe and nervousness! Feedback only focused on the technical side of things so next time I need to direct the questions more carefully. Some reflective questions in the last 10 minutes perhaps...

    Adam - I hope your right! If they seek my feedback, I'll have plenty to say. ;)

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  9. Oh, and Adam - of course I do NOT remember when the first car was invented despite what my students might think. :p

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  10. Wow, and I thought normal teaching could be tough. This is impressive stuff. I can't imagine doing something like this, in fact I wouldn't even know where to start. Your students are very lucky to have you, as is the school you work for.

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