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.

5 thoughts on “Reflecting on Teaching Groups Online

  1. I’ve been teaching groups of up to 12 online for about a year now. Primary, secondary and adults. With adults, it’s not a huge problem, because they’ve chosen to be there and are paying, so they’re not going to go into the breakout rooms and do nothing. But with kids, there are major problems.

    For secondary, as you point out, not being able to hear everyone at the same time is a problem, but for me, it’s more about keeping everyone on task rather than actually hearing things for feedback. I actually find it’s better online to give good quality individual feedback because you have a direct microphone into your ear, so you’re not only hearing the loudest students. But the number of times you’ll go into a breakout room only to find that no-one is speaking or doing whatever task you’ve set is ridiculous. And the other issue is just getting people to answer. In the classroom if you look at someone and ask a question, they can’t really ignore that and have to answer, even if it’s to just say they don’t know. Whereas online, even if you nominate, it can sometimes be 10 seconds before they’ve put their microphone on, given a one-word answer and then immediately turned it off again. Everything just takes ages.

    With primaries, the main issues for me are monitoring and sending resources. They naturally need more support, so when you can’t see what they’re writing or can’t keep an eye on all of them at once because they’re in breakout rooms, it’s a real pain. And because you can’t see what they’re doing on the computer, you can’t help them if they download a file and don’t know where it went, or something like that.

    And it doesn’t help that my school, because they’re desperate for money, won’t allow us to remove students who refuse to put their camera on, which some other schools have been doing.

    I’m actually in the interesting position of teaching the same lessons two days in a row, once in the classroom, and once online. And it really is no contest which is better. I actually had a lesson in the classroom where I could do a whole extra 30 minute activity in a 90 minute lesson because they completed it so much quicker than online.

    1. Hi Joe!

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment; I’m sure many teachers will find it highly informative and relevant.
      I don’t have that much to add because I have no experience of teaching YLs online, but I can imagine how challenging it is to manage an online classroom full of let’s say 8-years-olds!

      I’ve also observed that the same lesson taught online takes longer than taught offline, probably due to all those extra actions, e.g. sending students to BOs, dealing with technical issues, etc.

  2. Hi Lina,

    I’ve taught various groups of tertiary students (undergrads & graduate students) in a synchronous environment, which is the kind of online working with groups I surmise you’re asking about. It might be the age difference – unlike Joe, I haven’t had any discipline issues – but for me it’s not a question of what’s better. It’s just different.

    I don’t miss the classroom, which could simply be a consequence of teaching asynchronously for years now, nor do I miss the background noise. In a traditional classroom, whenever I have the students pair up or work in groups I find the noise level usually prevents me from hearing anything useful (for feedback) that other groups are saying while I’m paying attention to one particular group. Besides, I find it hard to concentrate on more than one group at the same time. But I don’t think anyone is old-fashioned if they prefer teaching face-to-face (groups or 121).

    Ideally, I’d love to have more blended learning. The best semester ever was when I taught my normally entirely asynchronous course in blended format and we met on campus once a week, while the rest of the time the students worked online. I did a post on this here https://afteroctopus.wordpress.com/2016/12/06/some-observations-on-blended-learning/. It was with that group that I felt we didn’t spend too much time together but just enough to make the classes genuinely interesting. My students are usually B2 or above and many of them have been having English classes for a long time, which means motivation sometimes suffers as a result.

    I understand what you mean about teaching teenagers if you’ve mostly been teaching adults. I’ve often said that even though undergrads are technically adults, when they’re in their first year they’re basically still in high school. And I remember how enthusiastic I was when I first moved on to a group like that after years of teaching adults – they did anything I asked them to! Writing tasks, for instance. And homework. 🙂

    Anyway, best of luck with groups in the future, regardless of the delivery mode!

    1. Hi Vedrana,

      It’s lovely to see you here 🙂

      You know, I totally agree with you: I think blended learning will become more popular in the near future. Some things can be done in a flipped way for sure, and classroom hours can be freed for more important things such as group discussions.

      Oh yes, freshmen are totally high-schoolers 😀 Teaching freshmen in Japan felt like being a high-school teacher, just without students wearing a uniform.

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