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Online Teaching Is Still Teaching

As most schools continue to hold classes online because of the coronavirus pandemic, there’s one question that needs to be answered – “Which is the MORE APPROPRIATE AND BETTER way to teach online – upload a class video for the students to watch or meet the students online via WEBEX, ZOOM, GOOGLE MEET, or any other virtual learning platforms?

Instead of answering the question directly, let me just share my views about online learning.

Teachers like me should understand this – online teaching is still teaching. It’s not a magic trick that we are using to keep the students entertained or preoccupied while we are waiting for the COVID-19 crisis to dissipate. It should not be treated as a band-aid solution to the problem of not being able to meet the students face-to-face.

Online or otherwise, when you are a teacher, you should teach. You ought to find a way to achieve the objectives of the course/s you are teaching, cover the topics enumerated in the syllabus, motivate your students, discuss the lessons, give assignments, and evaluate learning. This is the time to use your creativity and resourcefulness.

Be reminded of the three major activities teachers do – planning, instruction, and assessment. Pedagogy – the art, science, or profession of teaching – remains the same, with or without COVID-19. The virus is not an excuse for you not to perform to the fullest your duties and responsibilities as a teacher.

The most important part of the planning process is the setting of learning objectives. Whatever you do as a teacher, online or otherwise, should be grounded on the objectives of the course. There are course objectives and there are unit objectives (or goals). You should know this if you are really trained to be a teacher (and was not just plucked from certain geographical locations of the world to pose as a teacher). Supposedly, you should also know that for every topic you present to the students you also have objectives (or goals), right?

It is only when you are well-grounded on the objectives (course-unit-topic) that you should begin teaching – online or otherwise. You’d better not teach if not  because you will become the embodiment of “the blind leading the blind.”

So, online or otherwise, you should be guided by the objectives of the course and of the specific units listed in the syllabus. There are times that even the objectives (goals) for each topic under specific units are provided by the school where you are teaching. If not, then it is your duty as a teacher to create them. Don’t whine, it’s part of your job. You signed up for it. And come on, creating learning objectives (goals) is not rocket science.

After setting the learning objectives (and planning other teaching-learning activities), what should you do? I know that you know (hopefully) what comes next after the planning – instruction. Simply put – after the setting of objectives – you TEACH.

In case you have forgotten let me remind you of the definition of instruction – “the purposeful direction of the learning process.” The main aim of instruction, online or otherwise, is learning. Don’t forget that. So, whether your meet your students “face-to-face” or through any of the different platforms online, you have to teach them purposefully. We have different views. Rest assured that I respect yours. But for me, just uploading videos is not teaching, no matter how sophisticated are the videos you create. Videos cannot carry out the multi-faceted role of the teacher. Videos, at best, are just supplementary learning materials.

Don’t tell me that students prefer just watching videos over attending actual online classes. Of course, they would prefer that because it’s convenient for them. But teaching is not a matter of choosing which strategies the students consider comfortable for them. Teaching is choosing which methods are best for them. It’s choosing which ones could maximize learning, which ones would lead to the attainment of the objectives of the course.

Now, let me continue.

After setting the objectives, you teach. After that, what comes next?

Answer – assessment. Call it testing to make it simple.

After teaching, online or otherwise, you need to determine whether or not your students learned through quizzes, exercises, assignments, tests, and other methods of assessment. But don’t forget that like instructionassessment should also be purposeful. You don’t dump in the laps of your students all those academic works for the purpose of making them busy and simply to comply with course requirements. Education doesn’t work that way.  You will use their scores in whatever you require them to do or submit to measure the extent of their learning, to evaluate how efficient are your teaching methods and strategies, and to determine if the course/unit/topic objectives are met.

There are two more important reminders for those who are teaching online. Firstly, don’t forget that you are not supposed to give your students assignments and tests on topics you did not discuss and thoroughly explained.  And secondly, make sure to mark/grade each of your students’ tests and assignments. All marked/graded course requirements should be returned to the students. They need to be given feedback on their performance.

So, online or otherwise, when you are a teacher, be a teacher. Set your objectives, teach, and assess. Even if you’re holding the class online, you still need to motivate your students and elicit their participation. Do all those things purposefully.

Now, what do you think is my answer to the question I asked at the beginning of this article?

Wishing Classes Would Still Be Online

For the next semester, I would still prefer that classes are held online instead of face-to-face. Why?

Not because  online classes result in better learning. There is no conclusive evidence as to which of the two is more efficient when it comes to delivering education.  Research findings of comparative studies made between online and face-to-face classes are inconclusive  with some saying one benefits students better than the other while others claim that there’s no significant difference at all on their effects on learning.

Not also because online classes are more convenient for teachers. On the contrary, I consider teaching online more challenging than the traditional method. I am a teacher and whether online or otherwise  it is my obligation to perform the following: set objectives and ensure that they are achieved; cover each topic enumerated in the syllabus; motivate students and elicit their participation; give assignments, check them, and show the students the results;  and assess and measure learning.

Doing anything less than the foregoing, either in the traditional classroom or in the virtual set-up,  is short-changing the students. It’s a disservice to the teaching profession. But doing them all online is easier said than done. Performing those pedagogical functions online tested to the hilt my creativity and resourcefulness. I had to dig deeper into my bag of tricks. My patience was truly tested.

The truth is I really want to go back to the classroom to teach. But why do  I wish we could have our classes still online next semester?

Simple – the coronavirus is still like Damocles sword hanging over our heads. You’ll never know when it would drop and deliver a deadly infection. In short, it’s still risky to hold face-to-face classes especially with the current Covid-19 variants proving to be more transmissible and with full vaccination still yet to be achieved.

So,  should classes be held online again next semester, I don’t mind having my creativity and resourcefulness getting tested further if that would mean ensuring that all stakeholders in the academe, especially the students, are safe and sound.

In preparation for the possibility of virtual learning again for the autumn semester, I have replenished my bag with new tricks over the summer and  I think my patience would no longer be tested. In the past three semesters, I have gained the needed experience and insights about online teaching and learning that I think there’s nothing more that would surprise me. 

By now, I am aware of the behavior of students when attending classes virtually.  I know how to deal with them. I know what to expect from the students and what not to.

Additionally, through self-study and the generosity of a techie friend,  I came to learn what I needed to learn, technology-wise,  to make my first venture into  online teaching easier. I don’t mean that I embraced the use of technology for teaching for the first time during the pandemic. Ever since I  have been trying to learn as best as I could how to apply information and communication technologies in my classes. But when the university (where I am currently teaching now) switched to virtual learning, they provided platforms (Cisco Webex and the university’s E-class) for online teaching which I was unfamiliar with then. That I had to learn. And I did.

During the spring semester last year (2020), the time online classes in our university  started, the biggest challenge I faced  was the marking/grading of assignments, projects, quizzes, and tests and ensure the reliability and validity of the results. I overcame that dilemma  by learning to use the Google form together with an app that allows the setting of time limits.  The setting of time limits is necessary in order to avoid cheating in any form.  And to avoid the possibility of cheating, I targeted higher-order thinking skills (evaluating, analyzing, and creating) in my tests and other graded activities.  It may not be 100% foolproof, thus, at the beginning of the semester, I always explain to my students the importance of intellectual honesty.

I also used the Google drive folder to create an electronic portfolio for each of my students. In their individual Google drive folders  is where they upload their assignments and course requirements. That is also where I give them feedback and show them the results of tests and other graded activities.  

I think I am now more equipped to do online teaching. So, if ever our university decides to not conduct face-to-face classes yet, I am ready.

A Difficult Challenge

elThis is about the most difficult challenge I faced when our university switched to online teaching due to the COVID-19 crisis. I had not much trouble with the technical aspects and logistics. I may not be a digital native but I know that the ability to create, evaluate, and effectively utilize information, media and technology are required 21st century skills that teachers are expected to possess. So, I tried my best to acquire them.

What’s the difficult challenge then?

Online teaching is still teaching. This is what I reiterated in a previous essay that I wrote. Teachers should find a way to achieve the objectives of the course/s they are teaching, cover the topics enumerated in the syllabus, discuss the lessons, give assignments, and assess learning. They should find a way to motivate the students and elicit their participation even if it is through online that they are teaching. Of all these things that teachers need to do when teaching using the online platform, what I found most difficult to do  is assessment. Determining whether or not students learn and measuring the extent of the learning they had is very challenging.

And here is how I navigated around that difficult challenge…

The university where I am teaching now provided us with two platforms to use for online teaching – Cisco Webex and E~Class.

We meet our students online through  Cisco Webex.  In addition,  the E~Class, a part of the university’s portal, allows professors to upload course materials in whatever electronic format, give assignments and tests, and communicate with students. It has functions that allow the submission of students’ assignments and other graded course requirements and the corresponding marking/grading of the same.

During the first week of (online) classes, I tried to check an assignment submitted by one of my students through E~Class. Going through the many steps to open, mark/check, and grade the assignment took time. With me handling more than 140 students and if each of them, in a particular week, will have an assignment or two, the checking/marking would be time-consuming. I figured it would be better and easier if the students write whatever course requirements I assign using MS Word  for the reason that the said word-processing application has an “Insert-Comment” function that would allow me to directly mark/check  the students’ paperwork without clicking on too many buttons.

So, I asked my students to use MS Word when doing their assignments instead of doing them directly in the assignment section of the E~Class.

After that, I directed the students to send their assignments to me through email and not through E~Class anymore.

Then I discovered that such was not a wise move.

During the first week, my G-mail account was flooded with emails from students and I found it too difficult to organize their assignments and sort them per class. A few of my students  even used HWP and PDF. I had to tell them to use MS Word only for I could no longer find time to find out if HWP and PDF have that “Insert-Comment” function that MS Word has.  I got worried that I probably made the process of marking/checking course requirements and returning them to students more difficult than just doing everything through E~Class.

I summoned the gods and goddesses  of creativity and resourcefulness.

They responded.

I recalled that a friend sent to me some documents before through Google Drive. That was the first time I used Google Drive. I called that friend and asked if it is possible to share with a person a Google Drive folder/subfolder  and both of us (only) could access that folder/subfolder. The answer was yes. My problem was solved.

I created a Google Drive folder for each of the classes assigned to me this (spring) semester. After that, I created individual subfolders for each member of the class. It was tedious but it is the best way I could organize the assignments (and other requirements) of my students.

Individual Class Folders

Individual Class Folders

In the process, I had to require them to create Gmail accounts  so creating (and accessing) the Google Drive folder would be easier. As a result, starting the second week of the semester, they were not sending their assignments to my email anymore. The flood of e-mails in my G-mail account subsided. All they need to do is to open their Google Drive folder and drag and drop to the subfolder we are sharing whatever I require them to submit.

If they want to know their scores and whatever feedback I had for them regarding their assignments, all they need to do is to open the subfolder (we are sharing) in their Google Drive folder. I realized then that I just created something similar to a digital student portfolio.

Capture

Individual Student Subfolders Inside a Class Folder

In the past, I require students to maintain a portfolio. I asked them to submit to me a folder (South Korean students call it “file”), with their name, student number and class code. In those folders, they keep the results of their quizzes, exercises, tests, and other graded activities. I keep in my office those folders and bring them to class when we meet so they could check their own scores and see how are they performing. It enables them to track their own progress. They can literally determine weekly how many of the 100 grade points they need for the course they already have. That’s possible  because at the beginning of the semester I give my students a grade checklist/guide  and transmutation tables and teach them how to manually compute their own grades. So, I make sure that I mark/check  their quizzes, exercises, and whatever I require them to submit before our next meeting. If I also need to communicate something (related to our course) to specific students, I would insert notes in their individual folders.

With the Google Drive folder/subfolder, my portfolio system just turned digital.

Capture

Contents of an Individual Student Subfolder

I next tried to figure out how to give those quizzes and tests online.  The challenge was how to make the results of such quizzes and tests valid and reliable given the fact that it would be very easy for the students to open their notes while taking quizzes and tests because I am not there beside them to watch what they are doing.

It’s easy (and difficult at the same time) – create test items that require comprehension and analysis. Avoid creating questions or test items they could easily answer by simply glancing at their review guides. The items I created should make their higher order thinking skills work. The quizzes and tests should prompt the students to apply what they learned and not simply write down in their answer sheets things they have memorized.

I initially thought of giving the quizzes and tests through the Survey Monkey, the online survey tool that I am using when I conduct  online surveys for my research works. The tool (Survey Monkey) would do the checking and all I need to do is generate a summary report for the scores – the same things I did when I want to get the summary results of the surveys I conducted in the past. But during the 2nd week of classes I had an epiphany that I could actually give quizzes and tests through Cisco Webex but had to require the students to immediately drag and drop their answer sheets to their Google Drive folder/subfolder in order to maintain the integrity of the testing. It’s a process simpler and more practical than what I thought doing through Survey Monkey.

I tried it. I gave my first quiz through Cisco Webex. Through the “shared screen” of the application’s environment, I opened the PowerPoint file that contains the items for my first quiz. I jokingly told myself then that it was something historical – it was my first quiz in the COVID-19 era. I gave them 10 minutes to finish the 10-item vocabulary quiz. That’s the same amount of time we give our students for their quizzes during face to face  classes. That’s a very long time for my “advance” students but just enough for the “not-so-advance” among them. For the dragging and dropping of the answer sheets to their Google Drive folder, I gave them an additional 3 minutes, although I know that the process of dragging and dropping files to a Google Drive folder could be done in a minute or less. It was a trial of sort,  so I was a little bit generous with the time allotment. And yes,  it was a success.

What if they attempt to change their answers anytime after the quiz? They can do that easily because they have access to their own folders. But my students know that if they change anything on the answer sheets they drag/drop to the folders we are  sharing, the Google Drive folder has features that would allow me to see the exact date and time changes were made. No changes are allowed after the time allotment I gave for dragging and dropping. I told them that changing anything in their quizzes and tests beyond the designated time of submission will be considered cheating. And they know the consequences for cheating.

To prevent my students from sharing with their friends in my other classes the information about the quizzes and tests I am giving them, I made sure that I prepare different sets of quizzes and tests for every class. In addition, I am not using quiz/test items from the item bank  that the department where I belong created for the quizzes and tests of expat ESL teachers like me. I created my own quizzes and tests.

Now, all of my students have their own Google Drive folders where all of their assignments, short and long tests, and their projects are put together. There they can check their scores and read my feedback anytime they want.

Which is easier to check/mark, the digital copies or the hard copies of  students’ assignments, exercises, quizzes, and tests? The answer is – the hard copies. The digital copies take longer to check/mark. I go an extra mile doing it. This is the other reason I consider assessment as the most challenging part of online teaching.

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