Directing the Online College Classroom
With many students working on computers from home, teachers are learning
new ways to teach their classes. I recently spoke with some English
teachers about how they are meeting these demands. The teachers seemed
to agree on three issues they now face: how to hold the attention of
their students; persuading students to talk in English; and getting them
to work with their classmates while being in different places.
Choosing students to speak
Wendy Coulson is an English language specialist with the United States
Department of State. She currently lives in Mexico.
Coulson is working with English teachers in Myanmar, the country
formerly called Burma. She says they tell her that some students do not
speak up in class because they are thinking of their social position.
She advises the teachers to use a “name wheel” to overcome this. The
free Wheel of Names online computer program lets a teacher add names,
then move a wheel to choose which student will speak. One can also add
words or pictures to the wheel.
Coulson says she sometimes adds verbs to give students a chance to make
complete sentences. She finds they react well to competition, like
playing games with verbs. They are more likely to speak up when she uses
“I just found out it really worked. Otherwise they are too quiet. They
are all drawn in, and ready to do it. They really responded to that,
because they’ll [say] ’Oh, it’s me, ok I have to speak!’”
Kimberley Gamez teaches English learners at Centerville High School in
the American state of Virginia. She uses Classdojo, a website teachers
can use to work with younger students. It helps the teacher choose a
student to speak.
Gamez says she also uses the Wheel of Names program.
“And I’ve learned that students find that way less threatening than you
just choosing a student You didn’t really call them out, or they’re not
being put on the spot. They get into it a little bit more…”
Teachers get tired, too
Many teachers say they get tired of being online for long hours during
the school day. Lana Vikhnevich teaches Oral Communication classes in
China. She learned from another teacher that she could record a video to
play during her class and ask students to answer questions.
“Basically, I would record a short video again about the topic that we
discussed and …then I would send them to the students, and then I would
send them the quiz related to this video.
The trick is, maybe by themselves or in groups of two or three, they
have to answer that quiz correctly, like 100 percent.”
I also spoke with Bita Bookman, who teaches at Santa Rosa Junior College
in California. She noted it was difficult to make the change from
in-person to online teaching.
“ESL classes are all about group work, right? How do I… create that
online? It was a struggle… But I discovered Playposit. And it's
wonderful because it's so interactive, it is just like students
attending a class.”
Using the Playposit program, Bookman records short videos, each less
than 15 minutes. Then every one or two minutes, the video stops, and the
students have time to interact with it.
“That interaction could be a question...a conversation for the students
to chat with each other. They can write an essay-type answer.”
Playposit is available in the Canvas learning management system (LMS).
Bita Bookman also says she uses many discussion boards in Canvas. She
said her students know enough English to read directions and complete
their homework online. When she puts students into groups, she teams up
more experienced students with newer ones. The experienced students then
help explain how to use online programs such as Google Docs.
Two online teachers are better than one
Back in Virginia, Kimberly Gamez does team teaching, a method where two
teachers lead the same class. She told me that making time for planning
carefully together is necessary.
“It is nice to have a second person in there for that student who's
maybe having a maybe like a tech issue or can't find the microphone or
can't find a link.”
Gamez also uses music to fill the air while waiting for students to
“So, I actually have used, in my slides, background audio… for me, it
just makes it feel less awkward like there’s just some music playing and
it’s okay that you’re taking your time. I’m not just sitting here
awkwardly waiting for you.”
Speaking and listening to classmates online
Lana Vikhnevich says one of her goals is to teach students to use fewer
fillers and pauses, or short halts in speaking, when they speak English.
She begins each online class with a short warmup activity, such as a
tongue twister – a series of words that are difficult to say quickly and
Her students record themselves on a phone to share with the class and
“I would give them the tongue twisters, and I would give them a specific
prosodic feature to master, for example, pauses, and then they would
record. They all record their sentences, noticing how other peers record
their sentences, again focusing on those prosodic features.”
By comparing their recordings with those of other students, English
learners get listening training and experience looking for patterns in
“So basically, we kill two birds with one stone, a little bit of
speaking, a little bit of listening and again focusing on prosodic
features in this particular case.”