TLO 9: How to Teach Online: Get to Know Your Course Participants

Finally! The “how to” stuff! Some readers have e-mailed me to say that, although they are finding these TLO blogs interesting, they thought it was going to be more of a “how to” type blog, which some of the other TESOL Blogs are, and which are very popular. Then why wait til now? One of the reasons is that there are already a number of websites and courses on “how to teach online.” So, I wanted to be sure (as sure as I can be) that these TESOL TLO blogs would add to, and not just duplicate, what’s already available out there.

Another, more substantial, reason is that many of the “how to teach online” sites get straight into the “what,” “how,” and “when” without first fully considering the key question: Why TLO? Not spending enough time on that question—which is what the first eight blogs in this series have been about—is analogous to the commonest mistake in problem-solving: going too quickly from the problem to possible solutions without first fully defining exactly what the problem is! As noted in TLO Part 4 (posted August 28): If TLO is the answer, then what’s the question?

So, having spent the last few months, since the first of these blogs in mid-August, considering the all-important Why, we’re now ready to start on the Who, What, Where, and When of TLO. First, the course participants. Calling the learners or students “course participants” is more than just language teachers playing with words. As discussed in TLO Part 3 (posted September 11), in TLO environments, the hierarchical distance between professors and students, teachers and learners in traditional face-to-face classrooms is reduced, making us all course participants (CPs). That has important implications for how the professors/teachers and students/learners interact with each other.

Connecting Who and Where is different in TLO courses, because we are not able to walk into a physical space on the first day of class and see each other, talk together, and sit together. Consequently, the usual “getting to know you” icebreakers often do not apply. So, one of the precourse activities I ask the (other) CPs to do is to post responses to a series of questions, one of which is about where they are as they are writing their responses. To ask the learners in a physical face-to-face classroom to “describe where are you now” would seem strange! But in a TLO situation, such a question makes perfect sense. My online teaching buddy Professor Kathi Bailey, at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS), asks her students (and I’ve started asking mine now) to go to a window, take a digital photo (usually with their cellphone) of where they are during the online class, and post it for the rest of the group to see.

I have had some CPs post what looks like a completely black square, which at first looked like a mistake. But the CPs explained that their “blackshots” were taken to show that it was the middle of the night (or the very early hours of the morning) where they were at the time of the class. Though posted humorously, those “blackshots” proved to be a useful reminder of the fact that for some of the CPs, the face-to-face classes were taking place at very challenging times for them to attend.

Asking the CPs to write about, and post photos of, where they are, where they live and work, etc., can help create a classroom community of the kind we might take for granted in physical, face-to-face classrooms. Related to that idea, a small but important part of the introductions on the courses I teach online has been to ensure that all CPs post a recent photo of themselves, preferably a headshot that shows their face clearly. Without such images, it is very difficult for the CPs to visualize each other, and we don’t usually connect well (if at all) to someone we’re working with if we can’t see them.

If you’re teaching courses online, how do you help to create classroom communities online?

About Andy Curtis

Andy Curtis
From 2015–2016, Andy Curtis served as the 50th president of TESOL International Association. He has coauthored and coedited around 200 publications and worked with more than 50,000 language educators in more than 100 countries. His current research is focused on the New Peace Linguistics. He is an online professor in the Graduate School of Education at Anaheim University, and he is based in Ontario, Canada, from where he works as an independent language education consultant for organizations worldwide.
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2 Responses to TLO 9: How to Teach Online: Get to Know Your Course Participants

  1. Sara Yuen says:

    That’s a great idea. I have a ‘water cooler forum’ in my courses, and I always start the term asking CPs to post an introduction. I post a video introduction of myself, and invite others to do the same; most of the time they don’t but they will post an interesting photo of themselves instead. It’s a really great way to put a face to the names in our online courses.

  2. Andy that is a great idea and I will definately be using it in my ESL sessions. It encompasses many of the usual questions like where are you from, your hometown, neighborhood, etc but does so with a sense of real time immediacy.

    I also enjoy starting off shooting for rapport as soon as I can and I find the quickest way to do that is to breakdown social uncertainty by encouraging my students to talk about themselves – asking basic questions until I can subtly move the direction of the conversation to an area in which the student shows avid interest.

    This requires using active listening techniques – paraphrasing and/or repeating back in question form. I am both leading the conversation and following where my student will take me. It is a gentle process that cannot be intrusive but must appear to happen naturally. At the same time I may share my own experiences but it is mostly demonstrating interest and understanding until a basic level of comfortability is reached.

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