How I Create Online Classes — The Pitfalls and Problems
by Jeffrey D. Shaffer
Hello and welcome to the final article in this short series on how I create and manage my online classes. In this article I will look at the problems involved with my approach and ponder some possible means to address these problems. I hope it will be of benefit to someone considering the same approach in the future.
I have been able to identify four main problem areas, many of which stem from the online-format, itself: Little teacher-student interaction, no student-student interaction, confusing schedules, and limits to homework and tests styles. Let’s look at each in turn.
Little Teacher-Student Interaction
The first problem with teaching online classes is that there is little true interaction between teacher and student. In a typical classroom, everyone shares the same space, speaks with one another, and reacts to one another. In a language-learning environment it’s even more important for the students to see the teacher’s facial expressions and lips in order to understand what is being said and learn to correct pronunciation. Because of this, I make sure my students can see my face in the videos I create, and I even have them send me a self-introduction video for the first homework assignment. However, outside of seeing my face in videos and me seeing each of them once in their video, there is very little interaction between us. To address this deficiency, during my first semester of online classes I tried creating a Skype link so that students could call me anytime they had a question or needed to talk, however no one ever used it, nor even seemed interested in it.
No Student-Student Interaction
The next problem with online classes is that it’s very difficult to generate any kind of interaction between students. It is possible to have zoom classes where students can break off into small rooms, but for a “video-on-demand” class such as mine that is impossible. To address this, for my initial online classes I created online forums where students could write to each other and share their thoughts and experiences, something like a closed type of social network. However, only one student of hundreds showed any interest in joining. Asking students to join a class-based Line group is possible, but it would be an major invasion of privacy as there is no way to hide your personal information on Line if you so desire, so this was not a viable option either.
Confusing Creation-vs-Feedback Schedule
The third problem I noticed with creating online classes is that the creation-distribution-feedback schedule becomes extremely complex and confusing. Videos are created a week early (in case something happens to prevent me from creating a class on time, such as illness or technical problem). The videos are then sent out a week after they’re created. A week after the videos are sent out, the homework comes back. Thus, homework assignments are received two weeks after the class was created, and one week after the next class is already created. This is extremely confusing to the teacher as the creation-feedback loop is majorly out of sync. I have yet to find a way to make this less confusing, though I minimize mistakes by writing lots of notes for myself and keeping close track of the creation, submission, feedback schedules.
Online Format Limits Assessment Types
The fourth and last problem I have identified with online classes is that the online format, itself, limits the type of assessment that can be used. Listening is possible, but the teacher must remember that students can listen over and over, and they can also complete listening tasks together with their friends if they so desire. One-time quizzes are possible using a tool like Google Forms, but not only are they extremely difficult to make, they still do not prevent students from completing the tasks together via social media or video chat. The fairest type of assessment is obviously short answers and essays. Writing tests the students understanding, productive abilities, and is easier to identify cases of cheating. My own means at assessing my students has been to rely heavily on weekly homework that is based on the weekly lessons, but also to include short-answer questions with the normal weekly assignments, short essays for some classes, and written sections on each final exam. I still include listening and other types of questions in my final exams, but these are weighted less than the written portions in order to provide a more accurate assessment of each students personal ability.
Thus, while teaching video on-demand classes can be a very positive learning experience for students, especially in that it provides students with great opportunities to improve their listening and writing abilities, there are still many problems that are not easily solved and it is far from an ideal teaching situation — It is this author’s opinion that in-class instruction, at least for language learning, will always give the learner a better learning environment and learning experiment than any type of online format.
But when there is no choice, such as our current global situation with COVID-19, we press on and search to find new ways and new tools to help our students engage, enjoy, and improve. Which is what we aim to do in-class as well. So, let us continue to try our best and make the most of whatever situation we and our students find ourselves in.
I wish each and every one of you the best of luck.
Jeffrey D. Shaffer