Connecting with people these days may seem easy because after all almost everyone uses social media and has a cell phone, right? Making new friends, then, and interacting with people should be a breeze, since we have different ways to meet lots of people at the same time, and from all parts of the world, you’d think?
Now let’s go one step further. Consider connecting over the internet with a total stranger who is hiring you to teach them a language for a period of time that may take months or years. How do we do it? How do we truly connect? Is that an easy thing to do?
In this post, I want to share with you a bit about my talk “Overcoming the Distance and Delivering a Successful Online Lesson”, which I had the chance to present at BRAZTESOL International Conference, and later this year, at another event dearest to my heart: BrELT on the Road.
I’ve been teaching online since 2014, but before that, I had taken online courses and MOOCs , so I am quite familiar with both synchronous and asynchronous learning environments. One thing that has always been clear to me, is that the learning experience is not about the apps, platforms, or whichever technology we use. It’s about the teacher, the learner(s) and how we connect. Technology is, ultimately, a means to an end.
While I was doing the research for my talk, I came across this book: Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Teaching _ How to “Be there” for Distance Learners, by Rosemary M. Lehman and Simone C. O. Conceição, (Jossey-Bass, 2010). In it the authors discuss this connection between teacher and learner(s) and where technology stands. Their ideas resonated with me and how I see online learning, both as a teacher and as a learner myself.
Below is a visual representation I made that shows the authors’ thoughts behind the concept of ‘presence in online learning’.
In this graphic, you can see that Technology is all around, permeating the spaces, but not interfering. It’s simply there — connecting Teacher and Learner(s). That “magic space” where you want to be with your learners is called ‘Presence’.
The longer I spend teaching online, the more I realize the importance of building this special space to connect with my learners, what Lehman and Conceição refer to as ‘presence’.
Establishing rapport is vital to build a good relationship, promote trust and lower your students’ affective filters. Unlike in a face-to-face setting, where you can directly interact with your learners, in any online environment you need to find ways to break this barrier and involve your students in the process.
How do I create ‘Presence’ in my (synchronous) classes?
- Google Classroom
I’ve been using Google Classroom to centralize my students’ materials. I personalize each space. Then, I add texts, links, videos, assign homework, tests, and send notifications. They can add materials and post too. It’s a simple and organized way for them to participate and collaborate towards their learning. (I use it with my face-to-face students as well)
- Establish Aims (face-to-face students as well)
I add a Google Doc page with ‘monthly aims’ to give my adult learners more control over their learning. There they can see what we will cover in that month, and we both assess if such goals have been met or not. It’s really simple. You can design your own progress checker doc. Think in simple terms like language, (grammar & vocabulary), skills, pronunciation, and special requests if necessary (i.e. preparing for a job interview may involve specific tasks and goals). It’s a month-long list so it’ll be easy to create and to follow. I also like to add any emerging language that comes up, or pronunciation problem/feature we need to work on. It’s about creating an opportunity for them to exercise agency.
When learners keep track of their own progress and give the teacher their feedback, a partnership is established. Presence is reinforced and the learners feel more motivated to go on.
- Active Listen & Watch
This should be in any teacher’s routine, but essential in online classrooms. We must listen to our learner’s actively to understand their real needs. Many times teachers assume they know what students need. It’s a humbling exercise if you came from a teaching background where you used to be in control of everything, but in the end, “it’s not about you. It’s about your learner”, as author and teacher educator Luiz Otávio Barros reminded us in his plenary at BRAZTESOL 2018.
Another aspect of online teaching that may go unnoticed, is monitoring. It’s as important to monitor your students carefully in an online environment as in a face-to-face setting. You should pay close attention to their facial and physical expressions. Does it look like they comprehend you and know what they’re supposed to do? The same way that a student can shy away from asking a question in person, it won’t be different in an online lesson.
Only when really listen to our learners can we truly connect and help them achieve their goals.
- Needs Analysis
When teaching online, I recommend during the need analysis process, to go beyond their learning needs. Talk to your students about how comfortable they are with technology. This way you can predict problems they may have and be prepared to provide solutions and make them more comfortable in this environment.
Reassure your learners that the technical challenges they experience are NOT a reflection of their linguistic skills.
Your Body talks too
You’re not tied to your chair.
Move your chair away from the desk from time to time.
I like to do that sometimes as if I were giving them some physical space to think and work. It breaks that same old static image of me staring at them throughout the lesson. Just think of moments when you would take a step back in a face-to-face lesson and move your chair away a bit.
Don’t sit in the same position the entire lesson.
If you have the space, stand up and make use of the room. I like to use what’s around me and ask the student to do the same. For instance, when teaching an A1 lesson about there is/are, or this/that I asked the students to tell me where things were in my room and then theirs. Another time a student had his lesson at a cafe in a shopping mall and we talked about what was around him as a warm-up. He moved the camera so I could see it. Those are simple and effective things that we can easily do which will narrow the distance between your learners and you. You become part of their environment and vice-versa.
That’s the gist of my talk. I hope my tips will help you. Please share your thoughts if you try any of them.
And how do you connect with your learners in an online setting?
Thanks for reading. Till next time!