Reflecting on Teaching Groups Online

Since I became a freelancer, I haven’t had a chance to teach groups bigger than 2 people, so when I was offered an intensive summer course, I immediately accepted. I was given a group of 11 B2-level Italian teenagers aged 14-16 and we embarked on our language learning journey.

The students were really nice, and I genuinely enjoyed working with them. 99% of my students are in their late 20s or early 30s; I don’t know much about modern Russian teenagers, let alone European teens, and I must say I was impressed by how motivated and hard-working most of them were. They even did homework! I don’t think I was supposed to assign any but I did (short 10-minute tasks). Of course, not all of them were equally active, but I am totally okay with some students being less active as long as they aren’t being disruptive, and there were no discipline issues at all so all good.

I learnt 2 things from this experience:

  1. I actually like teaching teenagers, they inspire me a lot
  2. Teaching groups of 4+ people online isn’t my cup of tea

Basically, what I didn’t like was the fact that I was unable to move between the pairs/groups quickly. In a real – physical – classroom, I can do it easily and I can also hear everyone at once, so I can catch bits of speech here and there and get enough data for the feedback stage. In a virtual classroom, this becomes a challenge. A colleague of mine suggested keeping students in the same pairs/groups and visit half of the BOs during the first task and then visit the other half during the second task – this way, you can spend more time in each BO and get more data. Yet still, it felt different. The students were nice, the lesson flow was good, but something was just not there, and it felt artificial.

I’ve been thinking about it and I came to a conclusion that what felt artificial was the fact that students were separated from each other when I paired/grouped them. In an offline classroom, they’d be still there, all of them; there’d be that specific background noise that you hear when many people are talking to each other in small groups at once. And I’d walk around, behind their backs, inserting an occasional comment or asking some unplanned follow-up questions, etc. I can make comments and ask questions in BOs but I can’t hear all of them at once, I miss that buzz, that sense of unity, sense of involvement. I think this is something you can’t feel as strongly in a virtual classroom.

Distance education is more inclusive, it’s hard to deny that, but being in a physical classroom and interacting with your teacher and classmates face-to-face is an important part of a learning process that can’t be replicated in a virtual environment. Call me old-fashioned but that’s how I feel. As a learner myself, I do take short online courses but I’d never do a degree online; I’m not doing Delta Module 2 until they resume face-to-face courses because those opportunities for spontaneous communication and the sense of belonging face-to-face courses provide are invaluable to me. This is what made my undergraduate courses and CELTA so rich and memorable, and I’ve never felt anything like that on any online course I’ve taken before. Maybe just one course where we only had 5 participants including me, and this brings me back to what I said above about groups of 4+ people not being suitable for online teaching (in my opinion).

This post might be a bit muddled but I wanted this reflection to be as authentic as possible so I’ll just leave it as it is. I’d really like to know what you guys think about teaching groups online. I’ve discussed this with one of my colleagues, and we agreed on the prefect group size being 4 people (6 max), but I’ll be interested in reading various opinions, including those opposite to mine.