In light of the COVID-19 emergency, almost the entire planet has been forced to use remote instruction in one way or another. Ecuador was not an exception; in the second week of March, students were sent home to continue with their education with whatever resources schools could come up with—within hours.
Throughout this process, we have seen a great deal of creativity and experimentation. Teachers have produced a variety of activities, from synchronous video conferences to asynchronous home videos to explain lessons; students have started chats and forums; publishers have freed up materials; and even administrators have rolled up their sleeves to reach everyone in the school. Every actor in education has participated with their two cents.
Metacognition and Online Learning
Despite the adversity, I find hope for better days in the learning process. About 4 years ago, I was part of a research project with a colleague to understand the viewpoint of Ecuadorian EFL students toward online English classes. We discovered students did not believe in the effectiveness of learning a foreign language online. Upon further study, we determined that one of the reasons for their suspicion of online learning was the lack of metacognitive skills in the average Ecuadorian student.
As students lack the proper skills and resources to solve academic challenges independently, the most common feeling associated with online learning has been frustration. This, in some cases, is escalated to students’ lack of desire to self-monitor their own learning process. In other words, some students do not care whether they learn and believe acquisition can only happen under the supervision of a “real” teacher and not by their own efforts.
Autonomous learning has yet to be incorporated fully in daily lesson planning in Ecuador. Despite the many hours of professional development, new syllabi, and curricula implemented by authorities and teacher trainers, many classes are still unidirectional and teacher-centered. Consequently, students rely heavily on what was said and decided on by the teacher in the classroom. However, the COVID-19 emergency arose and gave us all a second chance to think—to literally sit down at home and rethink the way we approach teaching and learning.
Learning Online: Learners in Control
The beauty of what is happening right now in countries like Ecuador is that educators are being forced to let the students decide what and how to learn. For example, teachers are now choosing the channels of communication based on their students’ needs. Many teachers have had to use or learn how to use resources, such as WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, and others, to reach their students more effectively.
Another example is that students have been asked by their teachers to review and prepare subject material outside of the class and then present it in the next session, which has given the students the opportunity to exercise their own strategies to understand the subject before the teacher presents the material to them. Remote instruction has provided the artillery for the learners to take further control of their learning:
Uncurated content: Students are using resources such as apps, learning management systems, and video conferencing to access uncurated content that otherwise would have been already digested by their instructors.
Self-directed learning: Students are being given the power to manipulate their own learning material. For one of the first times in the students’ learning process, they have the chance to navigate multidirectionally throughout the class. Learners are hopscotching from exercise to exercise, rewatching videos as needed, asking their teachers for help in private chats, and creating digital content, which is migrating their learning from the four walls of the classroom to the outside world.
Increased critical and creative thinking: There has been an explosion of critical thinking and creativity from the learners’ side. Suddenly, students have discovered that learning is not limited to “school” activities, but that it can be created through one’s own effort.
Without realizing, students are slowly becoming autonomous learners.
How We Can Continue Encouraging Autonomous Online Learning
As teachers are becoming more proficient in the use of distance learning technology, their perspective toward innovation as a source of engagement is changing in a positive way. For example, polls in video conference platforms like Webex, Google Meet, or Zoom have given a fresh alternative to collecting students’ feedback in real time. I don’t doubt that in the future we will see more digital surveys in the classroom even if the class is no longer remote.
Learners still have a long way before they can be considered sufficiently autonomous, but some steps have been taken in the right direction. Students have found their own language apps, such as Duolingo or Tinycards, and video tutorials, like the BBC Learning English Channel, to support their at-home learning tasks. If teachers become aware of what has been achieved and continue handing over portions of the learning process to their students, more independent learners will emerge.
There has been a great deal of upheaval in the lives of students and teachers all over the world as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, I like to think that my students’ futures will be more analytical, and better, thanks to the fact that we are being tested right now with this crisis.