Earlier today, I was honored to be invited by Alireza Qadiri Hedeshi, Dean of Foreign Languages Department at Mehryar Institution of Higher Education, for an Instagram Live conversation. Here are some of the questions that he and his colleagues shared, as well as some brief responses that I wrote to prepare for our conversation.
1. You have titled one of your scholarly works “Because Digital Writing Matters”. What do you mean with digital writing? Is it different from ordinary or academic writing?
As we argue in the book, digital writing can be defined as “compositions created with, and oftentimes for reading or viewing on, a computer of other device connected to the Internet.” While that definition was written just as the iPhone and touchscreen devices were being introduced to the consumer market, it still holds up today. Digital writing, in this sense, is writing that can be composed, stylistically/rhetorically as well as technically, for the screen. Hyperlinks, embedded media, and interactivity are hallmarks of digital writing.
And, yes, while traditional academic writing is typically seen as thesis-driven essays with outside citations from reputable, peer-reviewed sources, we are coming to new understandings — as scholars and educators — about what “counts” as a thoughtful, rigorous argument. Intellectuals can present their work in critical and creative ways, employing the tools of digital writing like alphabetic text, of course, as well as photos, graphs, maps, timelines, videos, and other “born digital” artifacts. These artifacts are created for others to engage with them, and can be effective uses of digital writing tools/skills to support academic goals.
At the International Literacy Association Conference last fall, I shared some more ideas about how digital writing and best practices in writing instruction intersect, and here is the handout for that session.
2. How can we improve interaction over online methods of teaching language?
13. In respect with real classroom environments, how can we make effective use of technology in providing learners with feedback?
There are ways that we interact with individual writers, as well as our entire classrooms.
First, with individual writers, there are strategies we can use. In a recent blog post, I argue that, even in times of remote learning, “we can teach writers. And, we can teach them online. To paraphrase Lucy Calkins’ oft-cited advice, we teach the writer first, then we teach the writing.” I offer, in that post, three main practices that we want to continue doing: connecting, conferring, and responding. In another recent webinar, for CCCC/TYCA, I went into more detail and offered a list of tools that could be helpful in that process.
With entire classes, we need to make sure that we are using synchronous video sessions with our students to their full effect. To do that, we need to think about what happens before, during, and after a video class session. When I consider that I might only have an hour of focused time with all my students — and what I want them to do with one another during that time — I think through the types of collaborative activities they might do to talk about their own writing, give one another feedback, and grow their knowledge about language. I may model a writing process for them, using sentence templates and engaging in effective web search and evaluation strategies, then invite them to do the same.
Finally, as we interact from session-to-session, we can think about tools to build continuity and collegiality amongst our students, outside of the normal learning management systems. This is not just a “discussion forum” in the classic sense, but a space for students to engage around course content in an informal manner. For my adult learners, Voxer has been effective for this, however there are many other options that exist.
3. How can we encourage learners to take online medium as serious as real classroom environment?
4. How can teachers keep their authority over online classroom environment?
6. Many ESL teachers find speaking the most challenging skill to teach online as learners tend to be passive listeners in online classes. What can we do to cope with this issue?
When we remain consistent in our approach — regular announcements, effectively run class sessions, brief and engaging instructional screencasts as needed, timely and goal-oriented feedback — students will know that we are taking our teaching seriously, and this will raise their level of expectations. We model the kinds of behavior that we would expect of them by staying organized and efficient, since we can’t rely on regular, face-to-face class sessions for informal conversation and last-minute reminders.
From our webinar the other day, Jessie Borgman (Arizona State University), and Casey McArdle (Michigan State University) shared their Online Writing Instruction Community with many ideas, including their “PARS” approach (Personal, Accessible, Responsive, and Strategic). Another great set of resources for effective online instruction is Global Society of Online Literacy Educators (GSOLE), and their “Online Literacy Instruction Principles and Tenets.” By thinking through these principles, we can design our own online philosophy for teaching, and make it clear to students.
For our actual online sessions, we need to learn how to be strategic in our use of time, as well as become familiar with controls in our video conferencing software. While designed for business people in training sessions, this guide for facilitating remote workshops has some helpful ideas for helping move online meetings along in productive ways. Also, we can use tools like Flippity to share an on-screen tool that will randomly pick student names, so we can let them know that they will be called on soon to take the microphone and turn on the camera. In a worst case, we can mute them, turn off their camera, or kick them out of the remote room.
We can also invite students to use tools like Voxer, mentioned above, or Vocaroo to record their voice and share with one another or the teacher. Also, they could use Flipgrid to have one-to-one, or small group, conversations. This can be done at their own pace, and if they make a mistake, they can rerecord themselves, avoiding embarrassment that would happen in class.
5. How do you suggest learners/teachers to use social networks effectively as means of language acquisition?
7. A big problem is that during online classes, some learners confuse the learning process with chatting language. For example, they use the language developed for chatting (e.g. Thx for thanks or L8 for late). Do you think we should worry about the way they are using the language or regard it as a way of enriching the language?
8. Some learners are unwilling to take part in online classes, as they believe this deprives them of socialization opportunities provided in real classroom environment. Is this claim true? Is there any way through which online world improves their social skills?
We can ask students to think about the tone and style that they might use in social networks and how they need to code switch as they move across different online/social media spaces, as well as communicate in more academic settings. Helping them see that they use a different register of language in these different spaces — and to reflect on why they do so — is one step to making these spaces useful.
Also, we can have them think about how they might use these tools and what they offer (like “streaks” in Snapchat) to stay in touch with another person trying to learn the language. They can communicate with one another each day, and try to maintain their “streaks” in the process.
We could also ask them to think about how they would “translate” a message from one social media form to another. For instance, what would a tweet (without an accompanying image, and using hashtags) look like in Facebook (with use of fonts and colors) or on Instagram (an image with a caption). How would you have to change the style (and amount) of words? What about fonts and colors? These conversations can be helpful for them as they think about the audience, purpose, and media being used.
9. How can we reduce distraction while learning English online?
Teaching our students — and ourselves — to self-regulate is a challenge, no doubt. And, different people have different tolerances for working at their own pace (or in a way other than traditional face-to-face schedules), so we all need to figure out ways to manage our time and attention. I think that it can be done, yes, though there is no single answer that works for everyone.
To that end, I would encourage students to adjust some of their web browser settings and install extensions, turning on ad blockers and using tools to block distracting sites. On their mobile devices, they can turn on “do not disturb” settings (or simply put their devices in another room) while studying. Also, they can set up times to study with classmates, holding one another accountable for getting work done and sharing their progress, as well as more intensive studying. They can also use apps like Duolingo, which “gamifies” the process of learning, if that is motivating for them.
Ultimately, our students need to self-regulate. While we would like to think that they are 100% focused and on-task when they are in our classrooms, we know that is not true. The same is true when they are at home, on their devices. They will not be 100% focused for an entire learning session, whether looking at asynchronous material or in a synchronous video class. We need to acknowledge that, plan for interactive and useful lessons (as noted above), and encourage them to self-regulate and stay motivated in the ways that work best for them.
11. Is it effective to devise a mixed/combinatory method with some skills being taught online and some others in real classroom? (If so, what skills do you suggest to work online?
10. Generally do you think it is possible to learn English via online tools without the help of a tutor?
As I have noted throughout, I think that there are times and places, ebbs and flows, in the learning process. Sometimes, we can accomplish a lot by having our entire class work together, sometimes we meet with them individually or in small groups. Sometimes, we provide a video lesson for them to watch ahead of time, and then we work on something together during class time. Sometimes we set up individual conferences with writers. Whether we are partially or fully online, we need to consider the many ways in which we move back and forth between realtime communication with students and other tasks that can happen over time.
To put this in more concrete terms, and from a student perspective, my writing/language class might look like this over the course of a week:
- Day 1: My instructor sends me a 10 minute video lesson and the assignment for the week; I start my writing and speaking tasks and communicate with my study parter via Skype for 30 minutes.
- Day 2: My instructor hosts a one-hour video chat, and has us working in small groups to share our writing. I give feedback to three classmates as we work together for about 15 minutes in a breakout room, then we come back together and my instructor points out good examples of writing from a few classmates. We ask questions in the last few minutes to clarify our assignment for the week.
- Day 3: Today is an independent work day. My instructor asks us to send a screenshot of what we have accomplished on Duolingo, and I share a voice message on Voxer. I work on my paper, and add comments to my partner’s paper.
- Day 4: We have our second, one-hour video chat of the week, and our instructor demonstrates how to revise our thesis statements. We watch as he shares his word processing screen, and talks about how he is making revision decisions. We then go into breakout rooms to rework our thesis statements with our small groups, and give one another feedback.
- Day 5: My instructor has asked us to sign up for 20 minute video conferences, and I shared my draft with him the day before. On the video chat, I tell him about what I am doing with my thesis, and he recommends a few changes. I leave with a good idea of how to revise, and spend the rest of my study time making changes.
As you can see, the student is moving back and forth between synchronous and asynchronous learning, with the whole class and a partner, as well as independently. Having the consistency — yet flexibility — is powerful, and keeps students connected, motivated, and on track to complete their work with support and feedback.
12. Except for saving time and energy, does online teaching/learning have any privileges over real classroom environment?
Well, honestly, I don’t know that teaching online saves time!
As you can see from the example above, my week as an instructor would be spent planning the two, one-hour synchronous class sessions so they are highly engaging and useful. I am also creating a weekly video lesson, and pointing my students to other resources. I am providing written and audio (and, perhaps, video) feedback, and meeting with students in brief video chats. So, I am spending quite a bit of time being intentional about making connections and supporting students.
We can rely on the thousands of things that are already out there to help our students understand grammar and engage in basic writing skills, including websites, videos, online games, flashcards, AI built into word processors, and other resources. They can use those resources, if we guide them in smart ways.
What they need from us is our time and encouragement. That is what we provide when we teach in a manner like the one that I described above. Students have consistent schedules and expectations, and are accountable to us, as teachers, as well as their classmates. They feel connected and valued, and are likely to stay engaged.
This is about more than just pointing them to pre-recorded lessons, online quizzes, and correcting their papers. This is about building relationships, and making their voices heard as writers. It is difficult work, but it is possible if we rethink what it means to be an online teacher of English and to invite our students into meaningful language learning.
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