TLO 11: How to Teach Online: Establishing Ground Rules II

In the previous blog (posted December 18), we looked at establishing a set of standards for behavior and interaction in a teaching and learning environment online, which are different in some important ways from the ground rules in regular, face-to-face classrooms. One important difference is that in TLO courses, most of the interaction is written and posted, via some kind of Learning Management System (LMS), to some form of discussion board or forum.

There are some benefits to this arrangement. For example, course participants (CPs) who may otherwise be relatively quiet in a regular classroom can be more “vocal” through their writing. I have seen this in many classes over the years, especially those with both native and nonnative speakers of English, when the class is conducted in English. This can make some of the nonnative speakers feel they are at something of a disadvantage, and allow the native speakers to inadvertently dominate the discussion.

However, in TLO classes, every CP can take the time to write, review, and revise before posting his or her contributions to the discussion board/forum. Most well-established TLO programs are now blended, combining asynchronous (or “non real-time”) interaction, based on written responses, with synchronous (“real-time”) at-a-distance classes via webcam, and real-time classes in which the teachers and the learners meet for relatively brief but intensive periods of traditional, in-class, face-to-face interaction.

If there is a large group of CPs in one particular country, the regular, face-to-face classes can be conducted in situ, and the teachers can go to the participants’ country, where they are living, and usually working (teaching) as well. And it’s worth noting that having the teachers go to the students is good example of the kind of “reversal of the norm” that we discussed back in TLO 3, “Blurring the Lines in Virtual Classrooms” (posted 4 September 2013).

Another important aspect of this emphasis on written responses is that once the words are out there, they are there for everyone to see. As a result of time zone differences, if an inappropriate comment is posted, it may be some time before the teacher sees it, by which time everyone else may have seen it, and some damage to the group relationships may have already been done.

When we think and talk about building relationships online, we move beyond the technology of TLO to the other “Big T,” which is trust. In all relationships, personal as well as professional, face-to-face and at-a-distance, nothing meaningful and lasting can be achieved until we have established trust. So, given the central importance of trust in TLO, these ground rules are not only about ensuring appropriate professional behaviour, but also about creating a teaching and learning environment online, in which everyone feels safe.

This is one reason for having two postings on this particular aspect of “How To Teach Online,” and why the establishing of ground rules is so important. As we discussed in Part 1, Anaheim University has been offering TESOL courses online for many years. During that time, a set of 15 guidelines for every course online has been developed over time, under the general heading of “Effective Communication in the Classroom.”

Another “universal principle” of relationship building is forgiveness, which, like trust, is essential in all meaningful, lasting relationships. One of the AU guidelines asks all CPs at all times to: “Be forgiving of others. Realize that all of us make mistakes and that it is part of the learning process.” Related to that, the next guideline asks CPs to: “Realize that it is sometimes more important to try to understand than to try to be understood,” which comes from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, in which Habit Five is: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

These “habits” are also the basis of Covey’s “Principles of Empathetic Communication,” which are also reflected in the AU guidelines. For example, the fifteenth and final guidelines states: “Take into consideration the fact that the community is made up of people from different cultural backgrounds and make an effort to explain yourself in a way that will be understandable for all members of the community.”

What do your guidelines say?

About Andy Curtis

Andy Curtis
Andy received his MA in Applied Linguistics and Language Teaching, and his PhD in International Education, both from the University of York in England, and he teaches TESOL courses online with the School of Graduate Education at Anaheim University, California. Over the years, he has written for TESOL Quarterly, TESOL Journal, TESOL Matters, and TESOL’s Essential Teacher. Andy will be installed as president-elect of the TESOL International Association in Portland, Oregon in 2014, and he will be president during TESOL’s 50th Anniversary Convention in Baltimore, Maryland in 2016.
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