By: Jim Weaver, ADS Instructor
The sudden move to online learning has created unprecedented challenges for ESL professionals. One such challenge has been creating an environment where learners can enjoy the same kind of meaningful interaction and engaging classes that they would get in an American classroom while being online in their home countries. For a variety of reasons, online classes often feel less organic than a regular classroom, and there’s an overall sense of disconnect. Is this just something we have to put up with until the pandemic is over? The new normal?
Many may think so, but we here at the University of Delaware’s English Language Institute (ELI) have, through extensive training and collaboration, found strategies and techniques that reclaim some of the normalcy of face-to-face classes while leveraging the unique advantages of online learning to help students make the most of their virtual experience.
Productive language and interaction
Students taking classes online from their home countries have significantly fewer opportunities to interact in English. As such, we have been hard at work rethinking lessons and materials to facilitate interaction, particularly in the course “Advanced Listening and Communication Skills” (ALCS). For instance, instead of explaining the present perfect in class, we’ve created short engaging videos and activities that students can do at their own pace and then check themselves in order to review the basics. After a short check-in, students then spend the majority of the synchronous Zoom time engaging in a communicative activity using the present perfect and a conversation skeleton to interview classmates about their experiences in a series of breakout room sessions. After a short amount of time, students return to the main room for a check-in before being heading back into breakout rooms with new partners, thus ensuring multiple opportunities to practice meaningful communication.
Active lessons, active learners
We’re also using a variety of online tools to enhance the ALCS online learning environment. From basic mainstays like collaborating in Google Docs, to interactive vocabulary and pronunciation games with Kahoot, learners rarely find themselves sitting idle and staring at a talking head. Instead, they might head over to a colorful Padlet where they work in a group to organize the events from a listening passage into a timeline. Outside of class, learners can engage with vocabulary games through Quizlet and even check leader boards to see who’s making the most progress. By leveraging all of these tools, we’re creating a more vibrant and engaging virtual environment.
Timely, meaningful feedback
Feedback is a crucial element of language learning, and we offer many opportunities for both instructor and peer feedback in ALCS. Using Padlet, teachers can give star ratings and make comments to students in real time while they collaborate to find the main ideas of a listening passage in breakout rooms. There are also Canvas discussion boards, where students can make a short audio or video recording, respond to each other with another recording, and get feedback from their instructor. Of course, this is a great opportunity for students to peer-review and learn language connected to the pragmatic skills of discussion, such as hedging, disagreeing, and asking for clarification.
While the transition to online learning has not been an easy one, we’re using every available resource to make sure students have a meaningful and engaging experience in ALCS. Although we’re far from finished, the smiling faces and encouraging feedback from students have shown us we’re on the right path to a better virtual environment.