Moving Online: Challenges and Lessons Learned by Lily Lewis and Nairi Issagholian
As two ESL instructors teaching adults in a university Intensive English Program (IEP), we decided to conduct timely action research early on in this transition process. We collected data by keeping a teaching journal, recording all online courses we taught, comparing course syllabi/learning outcomes with actual instruction that took place online, and gathering informal input from our students regarding their perspectives on online instructional practices. Next, we analyzed the data to identify patterns of obstacles we faced and specific ways we overcame them. In the following sections, we will share the challenges we encountered and the practical strategies we found useful in five relevant areas: technology, students, teachers, program
requirements and support, and pedagogy.
Several months ago, many educational institutions suspended face-to-face courses and quickly transitioned to online synchronous instruction in the midst of an academic session, in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.
As two ESL instructors teaching adults in a university Intensive English Program (IEP), we decided to conduct timely action research early on in this transition process. We collected data by keeping a teaching journal, recording all online courses we taught, comparing course syllabi/learning outcomes with actual instruction that took place online, and gathering informal input from our students regarding their perspectives on online instructional practices. Next, we
analyzed the data to identify patterns of obstacles we faced and specific ways we overcame them. In the following sections, we will share the challenges we encountered and the practical strategies we found useful in five relevant areas: technology, students, teachers, program
requirements and support, and pedagogy.
Our initial challenges were more technical than pedagogical. To transition to online synchronous instruction, we used Zoom and a web-based learning management system (LMS). At first, not all students could get into the Zoom room, and it was difficult to determine the best way to share
computer sound. In addition, file sharing in Zoom was erratic, and we realized students could not see the instructor’s materials (such as the shared screen or chat box messages) while in separate breakout rooms. The LMS was unreliable since occasionally certain pages (i.e. assignments
containing online instructor feedback) would temporarily be unavailable and work submitted by students would not appear on the teacher’s end, leading students to distrust submissions on the LMS.
Some strategies that worked for us were:
- Demonstrating each step when introducing new tech instead of only providing verbal/written instructions (i.e. how to get into Zoom)
- Taking advantage of tech training (i.e. watching videos on Linkedin Learning/Youtube, participating in CATESOL training sessions, taking workshops organized by the university) and sharing ideas with colleagues
- Leveraging the functions of Google Drive
- Creating a shared folder students could access either through Google Drive or the LMS, as it eliminated the need to resend links or files through Zoom every day
- Using Google Docs in class, which gave students the opportunity to independently open and view a document containing the teacher’s materials andinstructions while working in break-out rooms, and gave the instructor the ability to modify the assignment in real time if needed to add instructions, comments, or images
- Using breakout rooms in Zoom, which actually allowed for more frequent shuffling of groups than in the face-to-face classroom
- Verifying all major submissions on the LMS immediately after the due date and contacting students with missing assignments
- Providing alternative ways for assignment submission (i.e. via Google Docs or email)
Obstacles that our students faced were mainly due to non-academic matters, such as a lack of
experience in soft skills (time management, self-motivation, and self-directed learning), having to adapt to a new format, and being distracted as a result of concerns regarding returning home to their countries and health/safety related to COVID-19 (both for themselves and their
What helped our students was:
- Providing clear instructions regarding where to find assignments, what criteria to include, and where to turn them in
- Being understanding and giving students more time to adjust to the new setting (i.e. making class recordings available for students who had connection issues)
- Creating a sense of community by starting the class with some small talk and providing ample opportunities for group work
- Being flexible about class structure, deadlines, and assignment details (i.e. giving make-up opportunities to students who missed assignments due to travelling home)
- Attending to individual student needs in a timely manner (i.e. inviting students to virtual “office hours” to discuss personal and academic issues, connecting them withexperienced advisors, and referring them to staff who could provide assistance with tech issues)
As teachers, the initial challenges we faced were finding an appropriate and comfortable place to teach in the home environment, feeling physically and emotionally exhausted from sitting and teaching for several hours, and having to attend to students’ varying needs arising from the new situation while maintaining our own work-life balance.
Adaptations that helped us were:
Program Requirements & Support
- Purchasing a WiFi extender to teach in a location away from pets and other distractions
- Implementing self-care in our teaching routines (i.e. taking breaks from screen time that involved standing up and doing something different, such as stretching or playing with our pets)
- Being more flexible and understanding with ourselves (i.e. having a sense of humor by laughing at our own mistakes instead of beating ourselves up over them)
- Implementing strategies to build confidence over time (i.e. designing more detailed lesson plans to feel a sense of control)
In the online setting, we found, not surprisingly, that some of our program requirements were not appropriate for the new mode of instruction. For example, the student learning outcomes designed for face-to-face classrooms were too ambitious, as it took more time to complete and
reinforce course objectives in the online setting. Teaching only synchronously (a requirement at that time) with no option for asynchronous instruction was also a limiting factor, given the short amount of class time we had to cover all course content. Additionally, having to use Zoom raised security issues such as the class session getting compromised by hackers.
We benefited from:
- Receiving near-immediate replies and assistance from staff and supervisors
- Taking the training offered to instructors through the department and the university’s Center for Excellence in Teaching (CET)
- Having the opportunity to borrow equipment from the university or get reimbursed for it if needed (i.e. monitors, cables, etc.)
- Department staff providing additional support to students in the form of tutoring, tech support, and conversation groups after class hours
- Receiving guidance from the program regarding Zoom security features such as enabling waiting rooms and limiting screen/file sharing abilities by participants to prevent hackers from compromising a session
- Attending happy hours on Zoom to relieve stress and feel connected to our colleagues
One of the biggest pedagogical challenges was “translating” our instruction to the virtual
environment, which meant adapting materials, interactions, activities, and assignments for the
fully online environment while also maintaining student engagement. For instance, we found that the teaching felt less interactive, as some students turned off their video and audio and did not participate in the class. Other difficulties were pacing (the class moved much more slowly online), monitoring all students at the same time when in breakout rooms, making sudden modifications to lessons due to technological issues, and conducting formative and summative assessments.
What worked in this area was:
- Adopting a new mindset for the online setting and realizing that not everything translates to online learning in the exact same manner
- Reconceptualizing assessments by instituting an honor code, changing question formats, and/or giving open-book assignments
- Designing “live” poster presentations in the virtual space using digital posters and creating breakout rooms for each presenter
- Using a variety of online tools and applications to create a learner-centered, engaging environment
- Utilizing the polling and chat box features in Zoom to elicit student responses and the breakout room feature for pair/group work to maximize student engagement
- Sharing a digital Padlet board where students could post text, photos, and videos
- Assigning quizzes on Kahoot and Quizziz for formative assessment
- Requiring students to post recordings on Flipgrid and Marco Polo to practice speaking outside the classroom
- Asking students to turn on their video and audio in Zoom (in fact, this eventually became university policy)
- Ensuring participation by calling on different students to read assignment instructions in order to elicit verbal responses (instead of simply waiting for answers to be volunteered), giving them the option to pass
While further discussion regarding best practices in online ESL instruction will continue, for now, we hope that sharing our initial experience of moving online will benefit others in similar situations. Making the sudden switch to online instruction was an unprecedented challenge; however, we were able to make a successful transition by adapting quickly, being flexible, and attending to the changes we experienced in the five areas noted above.