The magic of communication face-to-face
I started teaching online a couple of years ago, and, I must admit, I was quite apprehensive to give it a try. When you teach in a classroom, and especially groups, there is a certain magic of personal communication, and most importantly the non-verbal side of it, that drives the lesson forward. Establishing the right eye contact, not too short, but long enough to show your interest in students, your own presence as a teacher, gestures, how you keep distance, and what gestures you use – everything matters.
Not to forget that the place itself and its feel are also important. I usually get a very distinct atmospheric impression of the building and room I teach. And for me it varies from formal, unwelcoming, unfriendly, strict and cold banking offices to warm, inviting and stimulating IT ones. I guess it plays its role as to how relaxed and participating the students and the teacher can be. Some teachers also pay a lot of attention to the furniture arrangement in the classroom using it as a way of organising a certain type of communication.
Finally, and most importantly, different people bring in different energy. The teacher will often be like a conductor who sets the tone, the atmosphere and the pace for the lesson. In the end, we get a unique melting pot of moods, feelings, emotions. and relationships. Here the teacher has to deal with multiple processes at the same time. First, monitor group dynamics that change all the time depending on who’s present, which makes it quite challenging to stick to plans. Then, control the group, rebalance, and redirect the energy to help ease the learning process and communication. Finally, it’s important to avoid conflicts or personality clashes within the group.
When it is a one-to-one class, interpersonal skills, personal charm and the ability to ‘read’ people can be even more important, especially with adults. Many of such students are line or middle managers who feel quite confident and in control at work. And quite often they will be older and of a higher social status than the teacher (at least it’s always my case). So when they find themselves in a situation where the teacher tells them what to do and corrects their mistakes, they get nervous and defensive, sometimes even uncooperative. I’d say it’s a thin line one treads trying not to hurt their self-esteem and still do one’s job. Obviously, it’s much easier to establish such communication in person, using all the advantages of non-verbal things, like mirroring and eye contact.
It is true not only for languages. It will be the same for other learning environments or training sessions. It is the energy that motivates people to be there that makes them excited about learning, makes them work harder and progress towards their goal. Or, depending on the teacher, the opposite – can lead them to believe they are talentless losers who’ll never be able to get there.
So, with all this in mind, the question is – what is left of language learning when we move it online? Personally, I’d say a lot, because language learning is about verbal communication after all.
The other side of the coin
Let’s look at the flipside of offline courses. First of all, groups are not for everybody. At least it’s quite a difficult environment for introverts (might be too overwhelming for them), for those who are logical and need to analyse information to deal with it (there’s not enough time for it), for quiet and insecure people (they will be dominated in communication by other, more active and confident students). In my experience, it was pretty difficult to manage a group with three introverts and one extravert, for example, because they need and want different things. Where an introvert needs time and silence to look at the task and understand it, an extravert wants active communication and may not care so much about the accuracy, so they will start a communicative task well before everyone else is ready.
When it comes to teaching individuals, there’s a danger of substituting teaching with chatting about everything and nothing for the sake of emotional exchange or getting to know each other. Simply talking is not bad in itself, but it is usually not an option for lower levels who need to study grammar and the structure of the language. Higher levels also need a constant input of new language and encouragement to make their language more complex and detailed, which is difficult to do if you just talk.
So here we finally come to the benefits of learning and teaching English online. I will write for one-to-one classes as I haven’t taught groups online and not planning to in the nearest time. I’m sure some of them apply to teaching groups as well, though.
- Yes, it saves time and money. It’s easier to find a convenient time or rearrange lessons. And in today’s world, it’s a lot. Students also get an opportunity to try several teachers at once. When they don’t commit to one school, it’s easier to explore what’s on offer.
- You’re in your comfort zone. I’m sure it doesn’t work for everyone, especially if it’s difficult to find a quiet place for the lesson. Or some people need a change of scene to simply motivate themselves. On the other hand, there’re lots of insecurities that distract people from learning. Body issues, anxiety or mood issues, shyness, uncomfortable furniture, sounds, smells and light, you name it. It may seem insignificant, but it takes a while for people to get used to each other and to the environment. When they are online, lots of these things disappear on their own, so everyone’s more focused on the learning process. It’s a big thing for people who are not good with change and need their routine to function well.
- Because there’s less room for non-verbal communication and there may be connection issues, students are forced to use language more thoughtfully and express their ideas more clearly – just showing what they mean won’t work so well. In my opinion, that is a really important point as this is exactly what I want from my students. Any corrections from my side would interfere more with their ideas (because of network delay), so they start to check for their mistakes better.
- Students have to develop their listening skills as well as, for example, speaking at the same time doesn’t work online. So they may learn not to interrupt and to formulate their questions better.
- Because there’s less non-verbal communication in general, there’s more time for language work. No fuss over coffee, or rearranging the furniture, or dealing with booking rooms in the office. Fewer distractions, better concentration. The lesson becomes more intensive and fast-paced. It’s just talking, talking, talking. I’ve noticed that students get less distracted by their work or phones. After all, it is easy to see if they do something else, and, at the same time, they feel that they are being watched al the time. Makes them work harder.
- It’s easier to use the Internet and dictionaries to clarify whatever information you need and explore it together by sharing the screen or a link. It can give students more confidence because they can quickly find the word they need. I think it also teaches them to be more exact in what they say.
- It’s really quick to give feedback on error correction or help students with unknown words. I type all the words/ expressions the student needs in the chat, which gives them a great opportunity to go over them again later. I can do it without interrupting the student. And I type faster than I would write something on a whiteboard. Plus (and I find it one of the most fascinating things about online classes) I can check all I need online and in a matter of seconds – a word, a phrase, a collocation, a rule, a preposition, or a fact – and share it with the student immediately right there on the screen or in the chat. Incredibly convenient. After all, no-one’s perfect, and few have a prodigious memory. And those questions students ask sometimes… can’t do without dictionaries and Wikipedia!
- As a teacher, you become more flexible with a lesson plan and any changes to it as long as you’ve found enough resources/ websites/ channels to use and have several techniques up your sleeve. For example, you’ve prepared a nice lesson on grammar revision, but the student is greatly upset about something happening in her life, and revision is the last thing she wants and can do in such a state. But there she is for the lesson telling her story. Then, having the Internet right in front of you, it’s easy to find a video related to those events in the student’s life (but, say, looking on the bright side of it) and work with it. The student gets to talk about something that really matters for her life, the teacher can still exploit or highlight some language structures with her. Everyone’s content.
So many points… Looks good, doesn’t it? Not that there are no downsides, though.
- It might be really difficult for lower levels, from Beginner to Pre-intermediate if we use the communicative approach (no first language involved). They need slower explanations and a lot of drills (which can be boring at Skype/ Zoom lessons). They need to see words ‘in action’, where the teacher demonstrates what she says and exaggerated gestures to make it clearer. All non-verbal communication is really important here. While with offline teaching you can use different cards, realia and handouts for drills, where students can touch and feel the materials, which makes it easier to memorise new words, when online, it is all on the screen, so the sensory input is not so rich. Students may also overuse translators instead of trying to construct phrases by themselves and become dependent on them. The teacher has less control over what students do.
- With lessons online, the focus is more on using digital resources while it’s still incredibly useful to write by hand to engage mechanical memory, especially spelling, which is a big issue for beginners.
- Online lessons can be boring for extraverts and people people who like and need active games and group communication, for those who need the above-mentioned energy of emotional exchange to interiorise it as knowledge or skills. And those who like old school and don’t get online learning at all.
- It’s more difficult to acquire good pronunciation and some cultural things when learning online. This is where it comes down to the magic of real communication when students mimic some things without knowing it and implement them into their language. Especially if these are classes with native speakers. It’s like armchair travelling – fun, but uncomparable to the real experience. Again, it’ll depend on a particular person. Those reliant on sensing things need to experience them to learn them, those happy with abstract notions may be relieved by the absence of external stimuli that distract them. It is that different.
Teaching and learning languages online is a personal choice depending on personal needs and goals. However banal it may sound. It’s a relatively new form of learning and, I guess, is only starting to gain popularity. It can be effective, or the opposite. Can be fun. Or boring. But it’s definitely worth a try. It’s probably our future (with so many learning platforms available out there).
Now that I’ve been teaching online over the last four months I do feel that I miss face-to-face communication. I miss looking people in the eyes and seeing more than they say. I miss that energy you get from an exciting exchange of ideas and the positive atmosphere of learning and discovering new things. I miss going to places in the summer and enjoying the city around. On the other hand, I’ve done my fair share of commuting in all weather and I hope that travelling to several places in a day has become a thing of the past. And it does save tons of time for life outside teaching. Don’t know yet, how I’ll strike the balance here, but it seems online teaching is not a bad option after all.
Let me know what you think in the comments! Have I missed anything?