The Virtual Challenge

Here’s the thing…pretty much everyone in the modern world has years of experience of learning successfully in a classroom. Even if I think back to my worst teachers (and there were numerous):

  • Tommy “the dog”, my Leaving Certificate Maths teacher who decided we didn’t need to cover the entire curriculum before our life-changing exam date.
  • Miss Kennedy, my French teacher whose approach to teaching could be summed up by the sentence “there’s a page, do it!”
  • Mr Highland, poor Mr Highland, who carried on teaching us business studies while we bounced a tennis ball off the blackboard

But again, here’s the thing, even in those classes, I learnt. I was successful. I passed those exams because at the end of the day, learners for the most part are gonna learn if they want to. It’s hard to actually stop them.

So when it comes to choosing an English language course many prospective students arrive at their decision safe in the knowledge that they can learn in a classroom as they have previously done so. In general, they didn’t really investigate online learning options and so learning English online (outside of 1:1 lessons and gamified learning apps like DuoLingo) never really took off. That was until April 2020 when the old world ended and a brave new technological age of learning began.

With the arrival of COVID, students and teachers all over the world were forced to move online almost over night and experienced teachers had to learn entirely new skills. The internet was awash with blogs, training sessions and videos on the importance of keeping cameras on, which platform to choose, what online whiteboard apps were the best. Suddenly words like synchronous and asynchronous became part of our everyday vernacular. I watched in our schools as students and teachers grew in confidence in online platforms but also in their own ability to learn and teach online.

So what now? Well, now a whole new world has been opened up for both teachers and students. Many of the major English language schools like mine now offer online lessons as a product in its own right. It’s not a stopgap until the world rights itself, it’s a viable English language product. It is now entirely possible to learn online and thanks to COVID (not a sentence I often say, I promise you), thousands of students have first-hand evidence of learning successfully in an online classroom. When it comes time for them to choose their next English language course, it might not be in a physical classroom, it might very well be a flatscreen school they choose.

But where does that leave Virtual Reality?

Well, the challenge here is that not as many people have any real experience of learning successfully in Virtual Reality and so are more likely to avoid it. They don’t currently have that prior knowledge that makes VR a viable option for them. But will that always be the case? Will online and face-to-face lessons remain the only options for our students?

For me, the answer is a firm no. Apps like Immerse, Engage and Remio are already quite advanced, providing teachers with a range of classroom management tools that mirror and in some cases expand on the classroom experience. There has already been a lot of research carried out into how VR can lower the affective filter and provide a more immersive classroom. There is a lot more research being done into retention on VR versus flatscreen and in the classroom. 2021 has seen a rise in the sales of Oculus headsets and everywhere we turn we hear about Meta and the future. Accenture, a Fortune Global 500 company, recently purchased 60,000 Oculus headsets to help train their employees. It feels like this might be the beginning of a move to VR and with a number of English language schools already flirting with the technology, including EC launching an entirely VR course in January 2022, we may soon have more and more students with first-hand evidence of learning successfully in a truly virtual classroom…let’s hope so.

Help I’m in a breakout room! Using success criteria to enable peer to peer feedback

For the foreseeable future it seems we’ll be teaching online and apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams are going to be our classrooms. But is this just a stopgap while we wait for our schools to reopen? Maybe…but I personally think that online teaching is here to stay. That’s not to say it was never here before but by the end of Covid, I would say online English language teaching will have carved out its own space and will sit side by side with full immersion.

Assuming that’s the case, it’s not about weathering the online storm, it has to be about doing it as best we can. It can’t be just replicating what we did in the classroom and making it work, we have to adapt to this new environment.

One of the first issues I came up against was pairwork. How do we make it work? Well, the answer came quickly: we use breakout rooms of course. Fantastic, problem solved. Or was it?

Feedback from teachers:

Breakout rooms are great but you can’t monitor effectively. The students are chatting away, or not chatting at all and you have no idea because you’re in another room.

Feedback from students:

We just chat but we don’t get feedback. I don’t know what I am saying wrong.

Both valid issues but both issues we had in physical classrooms, but now in the harsh glow of the computer screen it is much more glaringly obvious.

So what can we do? Students have to practise. We don’t want to be the conduit for all communication in the classroom.

The students must become the masters!

We have to accept the situation and adapt. We cannot be in every room at once listening and giving feedback so we have to ensure someone is

But our students aren’t equipped to give feedback! And they don’t want to hear it from another student

Well then let’s equip them.

Success criteria:

By giving clear success criteria for a speaking task, learners can give each other meaningful feedback and, it’s not as subjective because it’s been laid out clearly beforehand.

But what are success criteria and where do we find them?

Essentially it is what you have taught your students that day. If you want them to discuss their careers and you’ve taught them:

  • To use the present perfect to describe their current situation
  • To use past simple to describe past jobs
  • X,Y,Z vocabulary related to careers
  • The natural pronunciation of present perfect

Then successfully discussing your career means doing the things above.

Some tips:

  1. Negotiate the criteria with your students to increase engagement
  2. Ensure they have a written record of them during the task
  3. Allow students to choose which of the criteria they will focus on and therefore which they want feedback on
  4. Repeat the activity again, giving them the chance to upgrade.

Our learners can take a more active part in the learning process…we just need to give them the tools to do so.

Language in Isolation

These are interesting times we live in. Interesting in that the entire world has been turned upside down but also interesting in terms of how quickly we have all adapted. One thing I’ve found interesting is all of the new lexis that has just snuck into daily use. I don’t think I’ve ever said the word “furlough” before and suddenly the UK government used it one and now I say it 10 to 15 times a day.

This lesson aims to look at some of the new lexis we’ve adopted as well as what I’ve been calling “checking in”. In this Covid era, the words “how are you?” as a greeting are a bit redundant. We know people are not great. Instead we’re seeing questions like “How are you doing?”and “How are you coping?”, meaning “I know it’s gone to crap but how are you surviving?”. With everyone stuck in their homes, online communication is our key form of communication so this lesson uses chatting.

As most of us are teaching online, I’ve chosen to use PowerPoint instead of a handout and  I’ve put some notes on the slides instead of a standard procedure.

  • Level: Intermediate / Upper Intermediate
  • Time: 60-90 minutes (depending on what activities are done outside lesson time)

Materials: