Hubertus Weyer, M.A.
Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaft und Kunst, Germany
In online language teaching, making students build communities for collaboration on assignments is particularly challenging because students take online courses from home and do not see their peers very often. I am going to showcase how I have been teaching so far as an online instructor (mostly direct verbal communication between instructor and students in online meetings) and how a collaborative online video project helped create more interaction between students. Subsequently, I am going to present online resources as for instance online dictionaries, online translation machines, online resources about grammar as well as self-study techniques that have figured centrally in my online teaching approach. My approach, I would like to argue, is suitable for university students and working professionals wishing to improve their English skills and in that way, I am trying to contribute to life-long language learning.
Key words: online community building, online interaction, oral synchronous online courses
Having taught five English online courses before, I taught a 6th English online course at Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaft und Kunst in the winter semester 2018 to 2019. The course is part of an online program in business studies that seeks to attract working professionals who wish to acquire an academic degree. The skill level of the participants at universities of applied sciences in Germany tends to be very heterogeneous ranging between A2 and C1 (Weyer 2017). The course consisted of one weekly 60-minute online meeting as well as three personal meetings on selected Saturdays. Moodle was used to provide materials, and Adobe Connect was used to conduct online meetings. Besides course objectives as for instance self-study skills, reading and writing skills, the most emphasized course objective in all six courses was to enable participants to speak actively in realistic situations at their future workplaces. Although the online meetings were held on weekdays between 6 pm and 7 pm, the course objective of developing active speaking skills focussing on business studies motivated participants to actively contribute more frequently and more energetically than in other online courses of the program as became evident when teaching experiences among instructors were shared. The significance of psychological buy-in or the relevance of the course design to the interests of the participants in online teaching has been recognized in previous research (Hewson & Hughes 2005). Learning and teaching languages online is a growing field and focussing on oral skills appears to be one of the most promising approaches (Meskill & Anthony 2015). The final grade was based on at least one written assignment and an oral exam at the end of the semester. Occasionally, students asked for longer personal meetings with their peers and more time to practice for the oral exam. Although all six courses were designed as hybrid versions of up to 15 online meetings and three personal meetings, the lack of the physicality of the participants and the instructor in the online meetings may have been noticed by some participants as a shortcoming (Dreyfus 2001). From this point of view, the interaction between the participants and the materials, the interaction between the instructor and participants and interaction between participants themselves as described by Moore (Moore 1989) is a crucial factor in synchronous online language learning.
Online Community Building, Pathic Processes and Trust
As the course objectives comprised active speaking skills, self-study skills as well as writing and reading skills, online meetings tended to be mixtures of tasks relating to the respective course goals as for instance discussions about controversial TV advertisements, selected scenes from current TV series that refer to business studies (Weyer 2017), lexical exercises or writing exercises. Overall, these meetings were conducted as „educational conversations” (Hewson & Hughes 2005) with specific educational goals in mind. Participants mostly enjoyed voicing their viewpoints because the suggested tasks were provocative and motivating.
An excellent example of a provocative and motivating task is a lexical exercise about chocolate in which participants are first introduced to words that collocate with chocolate so that they can later voice their preference about different kinds of chocolate. The objective of this task is to introduce participants to online dictionaries about collocations and to motivate them to talk about chocolate as a sensual topic. By extension, financial aspects of high-priced chocolate can be weaved into the discussion as well. Recordings of online meetings when this task was used show that multiple participants wished to respond to the task at the same time. After one participant expressed an opinion, there was turn-taking, and another participant continued and so on. With very few exceptions, the interaction occurred predominantly between a single participant and the instructor while the other participants were listening.
Therefore, I have been considering changes in the setup of some tasks in the 6th course to promote more direct interaction between participants. Since one option for the oral exam at the end of the course asked participants to orally present their CV, which they had turned in as a written assignment, I motivated participants to practice the oral presentation by recording a mock exam at home on Flipgrid in a virtual room that I had set up for this purpose beforehand. Flipgrid allows users to record videos in a closed room to which only registered users have access. The members of the closed group were then able to watch videos that other members had recorded and were able to respond by recording a video comment. The basis for this task is a series of videos in which a career expert and I talk about how to write CVs in English and the linguistic difficulties that need to be overcome when CVs from German nationals are expressed in English. Since an overwhelming number of course participants expressed a heightened interest in the idea of seriously presenting their CV in English, the psychological buy-in was achieved. This task as well as many other educational conversations during all six courses in which participants were asked to express their own opinion can be considered as „pathic processes” (Hewson & Hughes 2005). Since pathic processes progressively reveal the identity of an individual participant to the group, the process of making the individual participants become an online community went on throughout the semester and culminated in the oral exam and the CV presentation.
Another major factor in building the online community was establishing trust between the instructor and participants (Hewson & Hughes 2005). Naturally, almost all participants were afraid of being criticized for making mistakes in front of the group either by other participants or by the instructor. Besides an open and motivating atmosphere during the online meetings, one exercise that I modified for the 6th course largely contributed to the establishment of trust: as a response to an email writing task I recorded individual video responses discussing linguistic aspects of each assignment. The course evaluation demonstrated how positively the feedback to this task was received and how it contributed to fostering interest on the part of the participants. While the main course objective was developing active speaking skills in a synchronous, learner-centred, active learning environment, this email writing task and the respective video responses as elements of an asynchronous online course design contributed significantly to the establishment of an online community in the 6th course.
Conclusion and Outlook
While the first 5 English online courses were very well received in a student vote of 13 different universities of applied sciences in Germany and Switzerland in 2017 and the spring of 2018, the course design continued to evolve with regard to pedagogical changes in the 6th course. Similarly, the 6th course included online resources as for instance the translation machine DeepL that did not figure in the other courses. Innovations in computer linguistics will increase the importance of the internet as a resource in online language learning and life-long learning.
The growing popularity of online language courses raises questions about the role of the course instructor. Is the instructor a mere guide that participants turn to if they run into difficulties with the provided material as in some commercial online language courses or is the instructor instrumental to the various types of interaction during the coursework? Ongoing technical advances will certainly facilitate better quality when videos are streamed during online meetings and improve audio quality during group discussions, but the role of the instructor will remain essential as a personality in whom the course design and the online community is centred especially in synchronous, online courses with a focus on active speaking skills.
Dreyfus, Hubert L., 2001. On the Internet: Thinking In Action. London: Routledge.
Hewson, L. & Hughes, C. 2005. Social Processes and Pedagogy in Online Learning. Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education Journal, 13(2). 99-125.
Meskill, C. & Anthony, N. 2015. Teaching Languages Online. Bristol: Multilingual Matters. Moore, M.G. 1989. Three Types of Interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2). 1-7.
Weyer, H. 2017. Self-Study Tasks for Mixed CEFR Levels. Language Teaching Tomorrow. Available at: http://urn.fi/urn:nbn:fi:jamk-issn-2343-0281-32