Online learning: Technology, pedagogy and context

As with many schools and universities around the world, ICTE has rapidly shifted to an online mode of delivery for its English language lessons. For many years, we’ve had a teaching team dedicated to staying at the cutting edge of educational technology, and our depth of knowledge and experience has enabled us to support our teachers and students in their use of educational technology in and beyond the classroom, making the transition to online learning a more seamless experience.

Our senior teacher in educational technology, Henno Kotzé, reflects on this approach in the virtual learning environment.

Embrace the difference

It is important to keep in mind that online education not only reshapes the education landscape but also its subjects. Although face-to-face class cannot be 100% replicated in the virtual learning environment, we can instead look at redefining the learning and teaching experience from another angle. What is vitally important is that every member of the class feels valued, present and included. Being sensitive to your learners' needs and compassionate towards their circumstances goes a long way towards meeting them where they learn. This also means more frequent screen breaks, daily well-being check-ins, and not expecting or trying to complete the same amount of work that you normally would in a face-to-face class.

As Karen Benson writes, we can also “approach remote teaching through an asset-based lens. This allows us to think differently about the strengths our learners can build [in a virtual learning environment]”. This view enables a focus on the existing strengths and knowledge that our students bring to the online class, the fact that learning in this context fosters their digital literacy skills as well as building student agency and resilience. From a teaching perspective, we can reflect on which elements of online teaching we can apply to our face-to-face practice. Looking at ed-tech through this lens, it is clear that teachers can still facilitate a communicative language learning experience through the mindful and purposeful implementation of the technology and thus keep pedagogy in the lesson driving seat.

Plan to interact

Interaction and feedback is key to a successful language learning lesson and building opportunities for both of these are similarly important for an effective online class. At ICTE, Zoom is our preferred platform for synchronous online lessons. One of the main strengths of using Zoom is its breakout rooms, allowing for a range of interactions, such as pair and group work as well as individual feedback from teachers. Thus, giving careful consideration to lesson stages helps teachers enhance opportunities for interaction between classmates, feedback from teachers and peers, and also breaks from energy-depleting whole-of-class sessions.

Exploit the platform

Apart from breakout rooms, Zoom allows teachers to leverage its functionality for language learning in various other ways. Using the “share screen” function allows for more traditional lesson presentation, but, coupled with the annotation function, allows for a more interactive, shared learning experience. For example, getting students to annotate the digital whiteboard built into Zoom, or even documents, allows for an effective demonstration of learning and quick comprehension check.  Similarly, the Zoom reaction buttons and chat function facilitate quick concept and instruction checks.

For collaborative group work, using shared documents via cloud-based apps such as Office 365 (Word, PowerPoint) or G Suite (docs, slides, etc) can really elevate opportunities for cooperative learning and negotiation of meaning –  key facets of language learning.

Bring in the outside apps

While not at all essential for an effective language lesson, there are nevertheless a number of third-party ed-tech tools which teachers at ICTE use to augment, enhance and even redefine a learning activity. Depending on your context and purpose, these can be interactive presentation tools (Nearpod, Hypersay, Peardeck), student-response tools (Mentimeter, Answer Garden), quizzing tools (Quizlet Live, GimKit, Quizziz & Kahoot!) and the ever-versatile Padlet and Wordwall.

Asynchronous learning

Apart from the live online (synchronous) lessons, the second important facet of an effective online learning experience is the self-paced, asynchronous component. At ICTE we are lucky enough to have an experienced learning designer to ensure the quality and aesthetics of this learning aspect. We also have access to a range of textbook learning management systems (LMS) to link our learners’ in-class experience with their independent study to reinforce and recycle language. This strongly encourages long-term retention of language. ICTE teachers often use external tools such as Flipgrid for video responses and GooseChase for language-focussed digital scavenger hunts to further enrich the student experience and foster a sense of community in the online realm.

Teaching before tech

Whether learning and teaching are online, flipped, or blended, at the end of the day, pedagogy and our students' needs always come first at ICTE and we are fortunate to have what I firmly believe are some of the best and most passionate language teachers in Australia. Putting pedagogy at the forefront of our decision-making in the online classroom and reminding ourselves that curriculum drives the technology, not the other way around, has made the journey to online teaching just that little bit smoother.

Henno Kotzé 

Last updated:
22 May 2020