ELI Insights: Online Learning is an Opportunity, Not a Substitute

By: Michael Fields, Assistant Professor

In March 2020, I was teaching a classroom full of ambitious students in our Academic Transitions program when the message came that we would be going into quarantine. With a complete campus shutdown looming, ELI teachers were given a hasty presentation of the fundamentals of using Zoom, and we continued from the safety of home, teaching as we had in the classroom. It felt temporary and hit-and-miss, but at the time it was the best we could do. I imagined we would be at home for a few weeks before being back in the classroom. Teachers and students alike did their best to make the most of this awkward situation. It later became clear that we would not be going back into the classroom anytime soon. We would have to do better than what we were doing in terms of online teaching. I took a course offered by UD’s Department of Education in online course design, and then spent the summer designing two new online courses for the AT program.
Of course, we miss our students, our classrooms, and the wonderful face to face interaction that makes language teaching exciting and dynamic. Of course students want to experience life in another culture, going out after class for lunch on Main Street, seeing friendly faces, making new friends from America and around the world. That’s the best part of being an international student. We all wish to return to campus, but not until we can ensure the safety of every one of our students, teachers, and administrators.

New online courses offer new possibilities that we have never had in face to face classes. Students can take classes from Newark, Delaware. Students who have relatives in Philadelphia, Boston or San Francisco can take the same courses, and they are joined by students still at home in China or the Middle East. Students who cannot buy the books in their home countries can purchase e-books and follow along. What is perhaps most exciting is that these new courses are not just copies of the face to face courses, but designed to work online, with new and interesting online components. Students now have a lot more freedom and control over their study materials. While we meet in class every day at the appointed times, our web-based instruction also allows students to work independently on new and different kinds of assignments. Even halfway around the world, students can find the times that fit their schedule to work through readings, vocabulary and grammar exercises, and take quizzes when it best suits them. Students can do presentations and post them to our class website, for all to see and comment on.

I’ll be very happy to see the day when we will all be able to leave our houses and come back to campus, and I will again be able to see my students face to face. But I also think that the online models of instruction that we have designed will be here to stay, because for many, it will be a better alternative. It is not so much a substitute as a new choice in how to study that can suit the needs of every kind of student.

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