by Shabnam Jafarova

I am an English teacher at the Western Caspian University in Baku, Azerbaijan. As I’m sure has been the case for many of my fellow teachers around the world, I have had to learn about using technology for delivering my lessons, either because of the pandemic restrictions during Covid, or because online is where the market has gone.

It goes without saying that online teaching and learning is used in all fields, including engineering, computer science, medicine, nursing, business, music, and the social sciences. Even in corporate enterprises, online teaching and learning is becoming increasingly common. Higher education institutions are increasingly adopting online education, and the number of students enrolled in distance learning programs is rapidly increasing at colleges and universities across the world. It is necessary for teachers to be aware of how online teaching works because an online lesson will not be the same as a face-to-face lesson in several important ways; and when we are thinking of online teaching, we must further draw a distinction between synchronous and asynchronous lesson delivery. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot for the modern teacher to consider. I will look at some of these aspects in this article, and offer a kind of personal perspective on online teaching.

Online education provides great opportunities and great challenges - both for students and for teachers. It offers the conveniences of time and space, cost-effectiveness, and flexibility. Online learning allows students to pursue an internationally recognized degree without the need to attend classes on campus; it also makes it possible for students to have lessons with teachers anywhere in the world, meaning that a student who wants to learn about Australia, for example, can arrange for a lesson with somebody in Australia almost as easily as they can arrange one with somebody in California or Canada.

Online education is preferred by students who cannot participate in traditional classroom settings. It is convenient since it allows one to study anywhere that has Internet access - in fact, you don’t even have to have permanent access to the Internet if the course you are studying is asynchronous, and there are more and more courses like this, where students are sent work (like with a traditional correspondence school) and are invited to participate in online forums, where they discuss the topic with other students. If the student can only access the Internet a few times a week, they can still study, and this is a great advantage for students who would otherwise not be able to take part in higher education.

Asynchronous lessons or lesson segments can also be very useful for developing our students’ abilities. I often use this form of e-learning, by communicating with my students via email and through discussion boards. I often send my students some material to look at, perhaps before the lesson if I want them to read something (which might make my class look ‘flipped’ in a way), or after the lesson if I feel that they need more practice with the new language.

This might seem like I am doing a lot of additional work with my students, but it doesn’t really feel like that. When I prepare material on my computer, everything I do goes towards a kind of archive or tool chest, and I reuse everything I make. I can also make improvements to my material later when I see how well it works with my students. In the old days of purely face-to-face teaching, I would never be able to make changes to my materials - I would simply have to make them again from scratch.

There are many other benefits for teachers with online technology. As well as storing their own materials, they can use all of the free stuff that’s out there - hopefully written with Sandy Millin’s advice in mind!

Furthermore, many ready-made resources and study modules may be obtained through a number of internet databases created expressly to assist teachers in preparing for various teaching topics. Study materials can be easily provided to students via a variety of methods, including e-mail, web publishing sites, video-conferencing services, social networks, and so on. Recently, teachers have started to benefit from various forms of learning analytics and student monitoring.  Communication between all course participants, including lecturers and students, is facilitated by online technologies, and if you are worried about sharing personal data, there are always solutions to that - Google Classroom is only one of many online classroom managers that help here, and you get a lot of data and statistics through these platforms so that you can see how well your students have been doing with their learning.

One thing that has always been difficult in traditional teaching is bringing new students on board. Not everyone starts the course at the beginning. But when technology is used as the foundation of the class itself, there is usually a better record of what has been done than you would find in a face-to-face classroom. If some interactions have been recorded online, new students can read these as a way of catching up with their peers. In a traditional classroom, it’s unlikely that such records will exist.

It’s not just students who can learn online. Online resources are available for instructors to use for their own professional development in addition to supporting effective teaching methods. Teachers can now actively participate in a variety of open online courses that are available on the Internet, expanding their subject-matter expertise and pedagogical skills in the process (see, for instance, the wide range of teacher training courses offered by IH World). Teachers may also gain by participating in a variety of online expert communities, by following experts on social media, and by attending online workshops and conferences. That said, as with all learning, you get out of something only what you put in - so if you attend an online conference on your phone while you’re out driving in your car, you probably won’t learn as much from it as you would if you give it all of your attention. It’s also important to be the kind of learners we want in our own classrooms - it’s very easy for online students to ‘disappear’ behind an allegedly broken camera or microphone, but when we attend a conference online we should be careful not to adopt the same practices! We want our students to interact with us, and so we should interact with the other participants at online conferences too.

We might assume that our students are all so-called digital natives - they tend to be younger than their teachers, and they tend to have grown up with technology. But that doesn’t mean that they know everything they need to know about using technology - young people can have problems with Zoom or MS Teams just like the rest of us. Add to this the fact that much of the support that is available for using these platforms is in English - we must remember that our students are learning that language and that Google Translate is not perfect! - and we can see that there are going to be problems with online lessons. I have learnt this myself over the past few years, and while the problems my students face are difficult to overcome, it always makes sense to show patience and sensitivity. What happens outside of the lesson can have an impact on what happens inside that online lesson.

Student motivation might also be affected by the switch to online technology. Chris Richards wrote about motivation in Issue 51 of the IH Journal and I definitely agree with what he said there. With online teaching, I would say that motivation becomes even more important, and it is essential that the teacher considers how the students feel during every part of the lesson. Teachers have always had to worry about focus and distraction, and online teaching makes both even more important - it is harder to focus in an online lesson, and it is also easier to be distracted. I have found that I can’t plan and deliver my lessons the same way online as I might face-to-face because of this - my lesson segments need to be shorter, and there cannot be long periods of inactivity for the students. If I need to tell them something, I need to do it quickly and then give the students something to do before I lose them.

This brings me to some of the negative sides of online teaching.

Online technologies cannot be used in every learning environment in the same way, despite being widely used in recent years. Utilizing internet resources can occasionally be detrimental to learning itself. These are the situations where face-to-face training is preferable or where learning is inextricably linked to a professional setting. E-learning technologies, such as models and simulations, may only be of limited benefit if practical skills are the primary emphasis of training (using specialized instruments, different industrial processes, etc.), and so if our students want to learn how to do something specific (presumably in English, as we’re mostly English teachers here!), we need to be sure that they can do that online. Tour guides won’t get as much out of an online lesson as they might in a face-to-face setting. Using Google Street View and letting the guide take you around their city will help, but it is not a perfect substitute, as gestures and body language will be missing. It is possible to practice delivering talks and presentations online, but again, the skillset is slightly different and there will be things missing.

Online courses might involve more students than face-to-face courses. If I am teaching in a small room, there is a physical limit to how many students I can accept, but if I am online that limit is removed - and it isn’t always up to the teacher how many students they will get! From my experience, you really have to be careful with delivering a course to a large number of students. If during a face-to-face lesson one of my students started preparing their dinner, I would probably notice - but if it happens online and their camera and microphone are off, I will be oblivious. The lesson will, in that case, be a waste of time for that student - and the situation will be even worse if I send my students off into Breakout Rooms to work in smaller groups. I’m sure it has happened that only one student out of the four in the Breakout Room is actually present - and then they can’t do what I have instructed, because they have nobody to do it with.

As groups grow in size, communication becomes more difficult. If you are running an asynchronous course using discussion forums or email correspondence, you might find that the amount of correspondence increases exponentially - if you have two students and there are eight forum posts in a typical week, that doesn’t mean you’ll get eighty posts for a group of twenty students - you might get two hundred posts with a group that size, as everyone will be replying to everyone else (even if all they say is ‘Thanks’ or ‘Good point’).

Another significant barrier to the successful deployment of e-learning is inadequate teacher training and expertise in using educational technologies. A lot of us had to learn how to use Zoom or MS Teams all at the same time because of the pandemic, but how many of us have developed our skills further in the time since? Or, to ask it another way, how many of us know how to mail merge a Word and an Excel document? I’m sure we’ve all been using MS Office or something like it for years and years - and yet we probably only ever learnt how to do the basics and nothing more. That’s fine - we’re all busy - but sometimes it is worth the extra effort to learn tips and tricks with these online platforms. Our students will benefit, but so will we, as we deliver more engaging lessons and do a better job of holding our students’ attention.

In conclusion, it would appear that the best approach to implementing educational technology would be to take a broad, open-minded perspective while studying the general social practices of using internet resources in real-life circumstances and reflecting the best practices in the learning environment. Online learning is here, and it is here to stay - we need to make the most of it!

Author Biography

Shabnam has been working as an ESL teacher for 9 years, with the last three spent teaching General English at Western Caspian University in Baku. She has had the pleasure of working closely with individuals and groups from beginners through to high-level fluency. Her students come from diverse business backgrounds, from small start-ups to global corporations. Prior to this, she was an English Teacher in several education centres in Baku for 6 years, where she taught General English to adults, teens, and children.

In addition to her professional experience, she holds a Bachelor’s degree in Teaching English, a Master’s degree in the Methods and Methodology of Teaching English, and a TEFL/TESOL qualification.