Stephen Louw

Covid and teaching online

Overcoming your personal online teaching crisis

In one way, we have been lucky in Thailand to have had our schools closed during a time when schools were, well, closed. 

While teachers elsewhere in the world had to scramble about in mad confusion for ways to keep their lessons going, we have been able to relax in our sunny tropical paradise and watch how online teaching goes down. It might even be possible that the whole thing will go away and we won’t need to do it at all! 

Let’s say that there are two broad ways of dealing with a crisis. 

One is commonly portrayed in movies: the character standing in rooted inaction while danger roars towards them. I have any number of examples, but I’ve chosen one from the movie 2012. 

Now these are stressful times, and it’s time to be serious, so I may risk upsetting some readers with trite references to dystopian end-of-days tropes in which the world is blasted by some disastrous bug (or tsunami, or something). Stay with me though.

2012 (2009)

Watch how Lilly Curtis, at around the 1:35 mark, stands staring at her falling house while safety is only a matter of getting into the car.

While some stand in bewildered terror and do nothing as the world crumbles around them, you must also have heard the much-told story of people assuming almost super-human powers during times of crisis. Like that famous Florida mom who lifted a Chevy Impala off her neighbor’s son back in 1960. No clip of that, I’m afraid.

I bring up these somewhat dramatic analogies as a context for how teachers may be reacting to the demands that are part of the massive changes we are facing. I’ll start with myself. I’m pretty old, and not particularly tech-savvy. I’ve been teaching since 1992, so I have some pretty entrenched beliefs about teaching, learning, and classrooms. 

A call to suddenly move everything online seems like an almost overwhelmingly daunting task. Will I stare the incoming tsunami with gobsmacked confusion, or charge fearlessly forward to lift the Chevy Impala?

The Stand (1994)

We Thailand-based teachers may have missed the brunt of the online teaching hysteria, but even the sunniest optimists among us must be jittery about what we will do if teaching online does become a reality for us.

Whatever happens in the next few weeks or months, the global response to Covid-19 marks some sort of change in how we understand classroom practice. Teaching online is suddenly not only for Chinese conglomerates with odd names – we all have a stake in it and the problems that go along with it. 

How exactly do you teach kindergarten children through a computer camera? What do you do with 6 classes of 45 high-school students? How do you remotely motivate students who were never really interested in learning English under the best of conditions? Where is the help and training for how this can be done? 

Lucky we might have been so far, but for teachers in Thailand it’s not all sunshine and beaches. How can our highly conservative, teacher-centred, exam-oriented schooling system suddenly switch to an autonomous, student-driven, online one? 

For instance, in the 2019 IMD word digital competitiveness ranking, Thailand came 40th out of the 63 countries that were scored. Are our schools, students and their parents really ready to deal with home-based remote education? Am I ready?

The Road (2009)

If we do move to online teaching, we have some interesting challenges ahead. 

The first, perhaps, is to untangle the incredibly confusing array of platforms and options. Will it be Zoom, Teams, Classroom, Jitsi, Edmodo, Lark, or some other that I don’t know about yet? Should lessons include Kahoot!, Quizlet, Edpuzzle and Flipgrid, or should we just stick to the basics? How do I record a lesson so the students can watch it later? How the hell does Mentimeter work? 

With those tech decisions out the way, how does one convert a textbook based lesson into an online equivalent? How do we know how much is ‘enough’ work for our students? How do I send students an assignment? How do we know when a student is looking at the camera because the lesson is interesting rather than because they are busy on game-ded with their microphone muted? How do you run a test without fear of students cheating?

The questions go on and on. Should all my students be live on the screen in front of me, or should I video a short tutorial and let the students watch it in their own time, or should I video myself doing the work and let the students follow from the video, or should I voice over a PowerPoint and let the students follow along, or should I visit small groups of students in rotation?

These are just the problems we face as teachers. Schools face a fantastically complex set of challenges. So do parents: multiple children on different platforms, issues of sharing devices, confusion over what is ‘on-task’ device use and what is not. It was only a few weeks ago when some parents were trying to reduce their children’s online time, and now they have to suddenly encourage it.

I Am Legend (2007)

In spite of the crisis, and all these questions, queries, complaints and insecurities, something amazing has happened over the last few weeks. Teachers haven’t stood staring, immobilized in fear. 

Online teaching has started, teachers have found unique ways of overcoming the challenges, resources that would usually have gone ignored are being freely shared among teaching groups, and some teachers seem to have embraced a re-examination of what it means to have a classroom.

Among my friends, I’ve seen teachers run online spelling tests with young learners, conduct jigsaw reading activities with teens, and get university students making presentations. Without specific guidelines, we have each found our own little way. 

One friend, for instance, swears the solution is Google Sites. To prove it, he proudly showed me how he can set up a lesson which includes YouTube clips, blogs, google docs and google forms, and then he just checks in on individual students using Meet as they work through the material. This is a 60-year-old veteran of the classroom, excited by all these new toys. To me, that’s Chevy Impala lifting.

On the Chichester College TESOL course, even before the 2012-style-disaster-movie stuff, we were lucky enough to be joined by a new trainer, Pam, who has been teaching online for years with those awkwardly named Chinese conglomerates. She has been an amazing resource. 

Things she was talking about in her sessions included how to set up a classroom space at home with a student-friendly background, and how to use realia with the camera when teaching young learners. Good stuff to know really, and now suddenly so much more important than anyone could have predicted. 

What is increasingly clear is that there are a large number of people like Pam out there who know how this works, and who are giving away their knowledge freely. 

28 Days Later (2002)

If Facebook doesn’t know you are a teacher, you might now know about the tsunami of free resources suddenly available everywhere. It’s actually a little overwhelming in itself. 

Thanks to Covid-19, you can wander digitally around the Guggenheim, get access to the National Theatre, or access live feeds from an Aquarium, all for free. If you don’t have one of your own already, check out this awesome list of free resources

If you need even more classroom advice, Jennifer Gonzales, of the Cult of Pedagogy podcast, has carefully curated list of apps and resources for teachers on lockdown teaching duty. Perhaps you need help on how all these teaching platforms work, then visit Russell Stannard for his really teacher-friendly introductions to the tech, like this one on how to use Breakout Rooms in Zoom. 

For ideas on how to put an online lesson together, sign up and watch one of National Geographic Webinars – I recommend Alex Warren’s presentations. He is great. 

If you’d asked me a few months ago if it was possible to teach language or PE or music online, I would have smirked. Now, Joe Wicks’ online PE lessons smirk right back at me. 

Old entrenched teacher or not, if online teaching feels like an advancing tsunami, it’s time to lift the Chevy Impala because there is actually no better time to learn how to do it than now.

Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.


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