Remote Teaching Communities: Lessons from British Council Blended Learning Courses in India
by Neenaz Ichaporia & Beth Caldwell
How do you create a cohesive team of teachers, across a country the size of India? How do you keep them motivated, without a traditional bricks-and-mortar teaching centre, meeting them face-to-face only a few times a year? This article discusses makes practical suggestions for managing the challenges, based on our experiences in India.
Over 20,000 learners engage annually with the British Council’s English Language Centres in Chennai, Kolkata and New Delhi. However, the demand for English courses is high in the other metropolises of Mumbai, Bengaluru and beyond. A suite of blended learning courses was developed to offer quality language learning opportunities in such cities.
When we started delivering myEnglish courses in May 2015, the team was small; an Academic Manager and two teachers. Since then, the team has grown rapidly to 16 teachers (and counting)! The teachers are based in and around course cities, while academic management functions are carried out from Delhi and Chennai (north and south India respectively). Therefore, we adopted several teacher support resources to remotely manage and build our geographically dispersed teaching team. The varied modes of delivery outlined below were aimed at building a community, motivating staff in a relatively isolated teaching environment and promoting their professional development.
Online teacher support community
One of the first support resources we set up was the ‘myEnglish Teachers’ Café’, originally a Moodle discussion forum where teachers exchanged views on professional beliefs and experiences. Though this is moderated by management, anyone can start a discussion including teachers and operations staff. Typically for an online forum, while some members are very active and engage in detailed discussion, others are either ‘lurkers’ or do not engage. To boost participation and, as increasingly, teachers use ‘online social-networking tools to break the traditional isolation of the classroom’ (Menon & Varughese, 2013:80), we recently moved the Teachers’ Café to a closed Facebook group. This is also borne out by our finding that teachers make significantly more frequent use of an informal messaging platform than the Moodle forum (see below).
To ensure that relevant resources are available to our teachers no matter where they are based, we set up an e-library containing resources and reference material. It also contains links to videos and websites. To ensure that copyright is respected, only managers add resources to the library after careful screening. We send out regular email updates as new publications are added and teachers have made use of it, particularly when doing reading/research for their annual learning and development plans.
This helps us deliver bite-sized news and development items on a bi-monthly basis. The ‘Blend-o-meter’ gives teachers a picture of the business and keeps them up-to-date with developments. A ‘Trending Topic’ directs teachers to discussions in the Teachers’ Café and invites them to share their views, while the ‘Development Dispatch’ section contains a link to a relevant development resource, e.g. a webinar, blog or article. Using Campaign Monitor (an email marketing application) to deliver the newsletter enables us to track engagement, including the number of teachers who view the newsletter and on which links they click.
Phone catch ups
We regularly call individual teachers to discuss course progress, admin-related questions and other issues. We aim to keep the tone friendly and approachable; appreciation of teachers’ work and support is given, as well as action points. We have found these are a valuable way of troubleshooting day-to-day issues that teachers face.
Synchronous online sessions
We hold monthly INSETT sessions on topics relevant to classroom/online learning pedagogy. We also host mandatory quarterly all-teachers meetings to share important news and celebrate milestones. Both management and teachers are involved in deciding on topics so it is not all top-down; teachers suggest topics through training needs analyses and individual learning plans. Where the management team perceive a critical need or skills gap, attendance is mandatory, while other sessions are optional. While attendance at mandatory and paid sessions is slightly higher, all sessions are very well-attended, probably as they have immediate practical relevance to teachers and they are involved in the planning themselves (Bolitho, 2014).
INSETT sessions are attended via video-conference (Adobe Connect and Zoom). We can share screens, links and documents and meetings are accessible via smartphone. We encourage teachers to use webcams when logging in to make the sessions as personal as possible. Adding a positive, personalised dimension to these meetings has helped to grow the team identity and foster a positive culture. As many teachers never meet face-to-face, the ability to see and speak to each other in these sessions also builds community.
Informal support group
In our experience, many important developmental and community-building conversations happen informally in the staffroom. Being able to talk to colleagues real-time is invaluable. This need led to the creation of a WhatsApp messaging group for teachers. Interestingly, this was a teacher-led initiative and we had not foreseen the preference for instant messaging over phone, email and the Moodle-based community. Teachers use this group to clarify points related to administrative and technical aspects of the course. By crowdsourcing ideas and tips, teachers have been able to resolve issues more quickly, and it has also enabled the academic management team to get a better understanding of the everyday issues teachers face. We have also found this group useful for signposting important news, emails and updates on other platforms, which improves the likelihood of them being attended to. Teachers also frequently share teaching- and technology-related links. This technology has an important informal, peer learning and community building function.
Peer observation and team-teaching
In training, new teachers are encouraged to do shadowing, peer observation and team teaching with more experienced teachers of both online and face-to-face lessons. This is underpinned by the principle that observation isn’t a ‘stand-alone activity’ and encourages sharing within a community of practice (AITSL). Teachers generally record their reflections on each stage of the lesson for later discussion, with the more experienced teacher providing support and developmental feedback. These have served to cement the peer support network. Given the success of this system, we plan to develop a peer observation network, so that all teachers can continue to develop through productive observation.
Scheduled city visits
We believe that face-to-face interactions still have a vital role in building interpersonal relationships, with both teachers and management finding these valuable. We have instated a programme of quarterly visits to cities where our teachers work. This has both formal and informal dimensions. On the formal side, we carry out observations of face-to-face lessons, feeding into the individual teacher’s learning and development programme. We also catch up with teachers over a coffee for a social, relaxed meeting. This enables us to further build relationships and community.
All teachers have a corporate email address through which we share official news, updates, course changes, documents and so on. Teachers are expected to check email regularly. However, as accessing corporate email requires several steps, we have found that some teachers do so less frequently and may miss important announcements. By signposting these on other platforms (e.g. WhatsApp, see above) we have managed to improve the access rate. We have also joined the mailing lists of teacher development sites (e.g. ELT publishers or British Council Teaching English) and share relevant sites, blogs and articles we come across with the team. Accompanied by a short note to focus attention on useful content, these serve as informal development tools.
To sum up, using a range of tools and platforms facilitated our building of a remote teaching team. The various solutions we use have helped us exchange important information in response to institutional or individual need and have facilitated learning and development and community building. We adopted varied channels for information to meet different needs and preferences. Mixing synchronous and asynchronous modes has ensured flexibility and immediacy of access. Smartphone-compatible solutions have also achieved success with our teachers, who value ease of access to resources. Making provision for face-to-face meetings (whether online or in person) was also vital. We have found that all modes contribute to socialisation, as long as they are not all top-down and that teachers are encouraged to respond to each other and share. Varying the interaction between informal and formal, mandatory and voluntary, individual- and management-led has allowed our community to build organically and in response to both personal and institutional need.
Author’s Bio: Neenaz Ichaporia, Academic Manager Blended Learning, British Council India
Neenaz is a teacher, content creator, teacher trainer and e-moderator. Currently she is Academic Manager for the British Council’s blended learning courses and is closely involved in their design, development and delivery. As a believer in lifelong learning, she often finds herself trying something new, like the Cambridge Diploma in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, which she completed with a distinction in 2014. In 2015, she got her e-moderating qualification and in 2016, she completed the Certificate in Academic Management course from International House, London with Distinction.
Beth Caldwell, Head of Blended Learning and Quality Standards, British Council India. She has been working in the field of English language teaching in various countries around the world since 1999. She’s always been passionate about the role of technology in education and is a trained-e-moderator. She has also been involved in designing, developing and delivering the British Council’s myEnglish blended learning English courses which launched in 2015 and which are currently running in Pune, Mumbai and Bengaluru.
AITSL, How-to’ Guide INTRODUCING CLASSROOM OBSERVATION, Australian Institute for teaching and school of Leadership Limited
aitsl aitsl.edu.au (28.01.2016)
Bolitho, R. The Dimensions of Continuing Professional Development Plenary talk.
Menon, M & Varughese, S. CPD through Social Networking amongst Indian School Teachers: An Action Research, in Bolitho, R and Padwad, A. eds. Continuing Professional Development Lessons from India, 2013, British Council, New Delhi