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Teaching Languages Online: Individual Feedback and Clearing One’s Head

In March, HSE University fully transitioned to online learning. How can we teach a foreign language remotely? What platforms are available and which of them are the most convenient? And finally, how can we maintain contact with our students, which is a vital element of teaching a foreign language? Teachers of the School of Foreign Languages share their tips.

Individual Feedback to Each Student

Maria Kirsanova

There are many opportunities to work with students both synchronously and asynchronously, in groups and individually, says Maria A. Kirsanova, SFL English teacher, Ph.D.

‘Currently, I use two platforms for interacting with students: Zoom and Google classroom. For online classes I prefer Zoom, since you can divide students into groups there, demonstrate and share your screen. For out-of-class communication I use Google Classroom, where I set homework, individual tasks, writing activities and quizzes. This platform is very convenient, because you can specify deadlines, upload video, audio, etc. Students can also ask questions or leave comments.  You can send messages to both the entire group and individual students. Google classroom also makes it possible to send individual feedback to each student.

In addition, I use various apps to create online surveys and subsequent discussions. For example, to make interactive presentations I use Mentimeter. With this site you can create polls, quizzes, wordclouds, etc. in real time and later discuss the results. I also believe that the Kahoot app, which I use to practice and repeat vocabulary, is invaluable.’

The only inconvenience of working via Zoom is the 40 min limit [in the free account], but Maria says that this has its benefit as well. ‘If you divide the lesson into 2 parts with a five-minute break, you allow students to “clear their head”, which students welcome.’

‘I try to send all the material that may be needed before the start of the lesson: audio, links to the videos, handouts. That saves time. For example, if I cannot open the video which we will be discussing, students can watch it themselves by turning off their microphones.’

As Maria (and the other teachers surveyed) notes, the main benefit of distance learning is, of course, saving time as there is no need to go anywhere. Attendance of distance learning classes is better than for in-person classes, and fewer students are late.

No Hiding from the Teacher behind the Backs of Your Classmates

Karina Kochinyan

Five-minute breaks and distribution of the necessary files in advance—other teachers of the SFL also follow this practice. Karina A. Kochinyan, an SFL teacher of the Chinese language says:

‘During previous lessons we analyzed quite voluminous and difficult new material. I prepared and sent to the class a Google document with a detailed exposition. I structured it with bullet points, but also gave a detailed and complete presentation of each lexical and grammatical issue with examples. I also added small tasks to practice new knowledge.

Students had the opportunity to study the file in advance, and complete the task on their own. Subsequent online discussion helped process the new information fully. At the same time, students could open documents on any convenient gadget separately from the Zoom video.  It is also possible to alter the shared Google document online, with students seeing all the changes right there and then.

 If possible, I introduce new material by using the principles of the “inverted class”: students study new material on their own at home, and during the online session we discuss and analyse it together'.

Of course, both teachers and students need to get used to this new way of working. According to Karina A. Kochinyan, it seems that online learning has a number of advantages: many students have become more attentive as it is easier for them to learn.

‘At first, it was unusual for them. During the first online lesson students noted that it is more difficult to concentrate at home, especially if there are technical problems, and there remains a need for a live presence. But during the second or third lesson, some began to remark that did not feel any different—everything was the same as in the ordinary classroom. Some people, as it turned out, are even more involved, because they stopped being distracted by classmates or other things.

There are students who are more comfortable sitting at the very back of the class, hiding behind the others. And the further away the student sits, the easier it is to get distracted, and the more difficult it is for them to maintain contact with the teacher. In an online lesson, all students share an equal position, there is no one to “hide” behind'.

It Is Important to Look As Professional As Possible

Natalya Putilina

And here is a useful tip from Natalya A. Putilina, who teaches  Development of Academic Discourse Skills and Literary Analysis and Interpretation courses.

One must treat distance learning the same as offline teaching: prepare carefully for the lesson and have several different tasks (it’s always better to have “a bit more than is needed”).  Different groups can go through the same task at different speeds. In addition, the tasks for different groups in the same subject should also vary. Remember to use headphones: sometimes they produce better sound. Here is another tip from Natalya: look as professional as possible. Dressing smartly and wearing makeup [for female teachers] will help a teacher feel more confident and their group to take the lesson seriously.

An important part of the teacher’s job is the ability to control.

‘Students post presentations in MS Teams and present them later in the virtual classroom. MS Teams is convenient for creating and using channels for pair and group work. Students are given a task, and after a predetermined time, I connect and check them. I check any written work for plagiarism. If I find it, the work should be redone. Students know this well and do not take the risk.’