Woah, we’re half way there…

Woah…living on a prayer!

This popped into my head because we are just reaching the end of Week 6 of 12 teaching weeks this semester! 🙂 [Edit: it has become the end of Week 7 – the small matter of some coursework marking to take care of, you see…] And, what with the whole Covid situation and negotiating blended learning and the complications it entails, the “living on a prayer” bit is not entirely untrue either! About 5 weeks into the semester, I remembered I have a blog, and this week I am finally getting round to actually using it for a change. WordPress seems to have changed again since I was last here, as far as how the post drafting page looks. In particular, the font and size; not in a good way either (kind of uncomfortable on the eyes!), but here we all are. I’ve slightly mitigated by figuring out how to make the font bigger and making the background sort of orangey, which makes my eyes feel like they are straining less, though this seems to work per paragraph block rather than the background as a whole. Also not sure how it will interact with the finished product/my website “look”! Will I need to finish by getting rid of these changes? Time – and preview – will tell! [Edit: Preview suggests that things stay very big and orange if I leave as is!! Good to know!] (If anyone has any handy workarounds for making the drafting stage more visually friendly e.g. being able to choose the font/size/background, without it affecting what comes out the published end, please let me know! (Previous iterations of WordPress blog drafting have been annoying sometimes but not uncomfortable so I am not au fait with changing everything up.)

So, blended learning. Our blended delivery works as 2 x 1hr lessons delivered online and 1 x 1hr lesson + 1 x 2hr lesson delivered F2F. In terms of materials, that works out as 3hrs of core material and 2hrs of supplementary material. In practice, I tend to spread the core material over 5hrs and do 1hr of supplementary (usually listening or speaking lessons) each week. Part of the reason I have been so busy is that as well as prepping the new core materials each week and making or adapting new material for the supplementary hours, and working on the development team for the Semester 2 materials, is that I have also been going back and reworking things in previous weeks of this semester, based on this semester’s experience of what is and isn’t working. Overall, being able to spread the core materials out a bit and having more class time to work through the content is working really well and the structure of the week (1hr, 1hr [online], 1hr, 2hr [F2F]) means that the 3rd hour is usually the listening/speaking skills lesson, which breaks the week up a bit and allows a bit more time for homework tasks to be completed between core lessons. I’m really enjoying it all – the teaching and the materials development – but it is keeping me VERY busy (hence forgetting about the existence of this blog!).

Timetabling has been….interesting…this academic year (I am eternally grateful not to be in charge of it!). – Hence “living on a prayer“! We started out with part of our student population already in the UK and another part still abroad at home. So that translated into a mixture of blended and online-only groups. However, that is not static – students are drifting across to the UK in dribs and drabs continually, so it was decided that there would be entry points into the blended learning classes for students arriving in the UK. (To do it as and when would be a timetabling nightmare, apparently it is bad enough with entry points!) So, at the beginning of Week 4 and the beginning of Week 7, our classes have had the potential for change. Mine maxed out in Week 4 so I had no further changes in Week 7 but the shift in ratio of students abroad and in the UK has meant some online classes being closed, some combining and more F2F ones opening. Under 18s do have to be slotted into F2F classes straight away, but for the rest the next entry point is at the end of Week 10 (or was it the start of week 10…). Next semester, we will also have the January cohort doing something similar. By April, all students should be doing blended classes due to visa requirements changing at that point (but we shall see – we had that thought would be the case in September and it was pushed back!), so possibly less chaotic then?!

Nevertheless, being back in the classroom has been brilliant. I and my students all wear masks at all times (other than to have a drink of water from time to time), which makes it harder to hear what they are saying at times but it does push them to speak up in order to be heard! Monitoring speaking activities is particularly challenging because apart from the masks, the classroom layout is not conducive to monitoring (rows of desks) which in one of my rooms I can go to either end of the front row and one end of the remaining rows and the other only one end of any of the rows except the front row. Nevertheless, I just do my best. One thing I noticed at the start was while I could still easily learn their names and faces despite their masks being on all the time (eyebrows, hair, eyes etc.), when they first came in without a mask on (sometimes they get in the room and then put it on), it threw me because I hadn’t learned the usually masked up bit of their faces! It was grand to be able to do the name game (I am _____ and I like_____. This is ________ and they like________; I am________ and I like______ ….and keep adding on student by student) and so nice to get them to do stuff in pairs and groups without breakout rooms coming into it.

One of the things I have been able to start up again is the start of class meditation I instigated a year or so pre-pandemic. I am only doing it at the start of face to face classes, but it does have a positive effect on their focus in those. Mid-semester student feedback has also been positive. I have also brought back the Homework log I used to use with the addition of an in-class materials tab because we no longer have paper workbooks, just electronic handouts. I started out using Padlet, but while visually appealing it was limited by not being unlimited (!) – that is, I couldn’t use a different padlet each week, I had 2 in rotation, so one served odd number weeks and one served even number weeks, which meant there was no fixed point for students to come back to and find their handouts. This means that being able to refer to documents would rely on them having a sensible system of saving them to their Google drives. So, in Week 6 I switched to using the Homework log, with new added in class materials tab on Google sheets. Less visually appealing but more useful in terms of the materials links being in one place, with more added each week, and thereby building up a sort of workbook. The next problem, of course, has been getting them to use it. I’ve yet to get all 19 of them to open it in a single class. (It would have been the same with padlet but is just more immediately obvious with Googlesheets!) Which of course means they cannot participate actively. Well, less “cannot”, more “will not”. (I put the link in the chatbox, literally all they have to do is click on it!) I get it, they are in a new place, there is a lot going on, they have a lot of subjects to follow, they want to party all weekend (away from home, “post-pandemic”, no restrictions here!), and as the loooong semester wears on they become ever more tired etc, but it is still frustrating. Of course the coursework quality is very much divided along the lines of participation – that is, those who don’t participate (and by participate, I am not demanding chatbox interaction/breakout group interaction, I mean, I am, but I would settle for opening the handouts at the relevant time and following quietly if that is all they can cope with on a given day!) have done more poorly, those that do have done much better in terms of what they have produced. Yesterday, I talked to them about it at the end of our F2F class, so we shall see what happens next week. I anticipate they will have forgotten by then, so I will need to incorporate some kind of reminder slide…

Now that I have built up some experience of blended teaching and discovered some of the strengths and pitfalls, it is time to work out how to make it better, beyond what I have already tried to implement and discovered in the process. As such, I am about to embark on two recently published (April 2021, September 2021) books about teaching online:

(My teenagers are older teenagers but teenagers nevertheless! 17-18 year olds.)

My goal: make the second half of the semester better than the first half. I did my best during the first half but my best can get better! Hurrah for more learning.

What books/articles about online teaching and learning would you recommend? NB those with digital editions preferred! Also those geared towards an EAP context!

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