Mizuka Tsukamoto, Ritsumeikan University, Osaka, Japan
Tsukamoto, M. (2020). Encouraging learners interactions in an emergency remote environment. Relay Journal 3(2), 201-208. https://doi.org/10.37237/relay/030205
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This paper provides reflections on my first semester of teaching emergency remote teaching (ERT), due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. After describing the context, I have described the choices I made in order to create and maintain an online learning environment, where student interaction is maximised, and enables the instructor to focus on the role of being a facilitator. Though it was not without a few challenges, overall, it could be considered a successful first attempt with possibly more teacher-student and student-student interaction achieved by the end of the semester.
Keywords: Emergency Remote Teaching, Role of Teachers, Learner Centred Approach
The COVID-19 pandemic forced universities to transfer their courses to an online environment. This paper provides a reflection of my first semester of managing and teaching courses online. The reflection will focus on my attempts on creating and maintaining an online learning environment where student interaction is maximised, and which enables the instructor to focus on the role of being a facilitator.
We had already begun preparing for regular face-to-face teaching when the university administration office notified the teachers that the spring semester 2020 would begin with temporary online teaching and that we would start the semester as originally scheduled without being pushed back. A few days later, at a pre-semester meeting that was held on campus, with a few teachers opting to attend from off-campus, it was announced that the temporary online teaching would only be until Golden Week unless the situation gets worse.
Around this time, community groups were being created on social networks, and information exchange regarding various online platforms became very active. Faced with the short preparation period, and for the reasons that are described in the following section, I decided to use Manaba, the Learning Management System (LMS) that my university had been using. Some of its main features include spaces for students to submit their assignments, and to have online discussions using threads. Teachers can conduct surveys and quizzes, and they can also set up group forums so that the students can work in groups.
Though this is my second year teaching at this university, I was dispatched to a different campus last year. Therefore, all my courses except one were new to me, as well as the teaching materials. I needed to proceed with the course preparation without knowing what the students were like or what the student interactions may be like in the pre-online situation. However, as I prepared for online teaching, I realised that designing an online course is more than simply converting from a face-to-face course design, and that it is more like designing a completely new course. Previous experience in teaching those specific courses may not have made any difference.
The first day of the semester, I could not access the LMS and my web browser screen showed that the server was busy and to access it at a different time. Though my course materials were all uploaded the prior day, I wished to be logged on to attend to any questions that the students might have. In the very early morning the next day, I accessed the LMS to see the students’ access log to see if they were able to reach the course syllabus and materials. It turned out that fewer than half of the students in a class had accessed the course syllabus and materials. That evening, the Japanese government declared a state of emergency. In less than an hour, the university announced that all online courses were to be cancelled until the declaration was to be lifted about a month later, and also that the campuses would be closed. The reason for the class cancellation was not indicated. However, possible reasons may include that the students without computers or reliable internet connection, especially the first-year students, would not be able to attend the online courses without using the computer rooms on campus. Also, the technology support may have required more time to prepare considering that the LMS was not accessible.
The Roles of Teachers
Martin, Budhrami, Kumar, and Ritzhaupt (2019) identified five roles that instructors have in online courses; facilitator, course designer, course manager, subject matter expert and mentor. Martin, Wang, and Sadaf (2020), in their study, emphasised the importance of facilitation in online courses. The following two sections detail my attempts to make the courses learner-centred by choosing an online platform that could be used more easily by both the students and the teacher, and by designing courses that are consistent throughout the semester.
Choosing the Learning Platform
Having a learning platform that is unified across the university curriculum would be critical in allowing the students to focus on the content of the courses rather than the learning environment, especially the technological aspect. One of the major differences between courses that were originally designed to be online and Emergency remote teaching (ERT) is that the university does not have a particular single learning platform for the students to study. As explained above, the ERT situation that I encountered had two beginnings; first when the semester started, as originally scheduled and with the ERT considered to be temporary, and then second when the semester resumed, or began for some days of the week, after the four weeks’ break. Because the university was forced to make decisions on restricting face-to-face teaching in such a short time, they let the teachers choose how to teach their classes, including which platforms to use, whether to have the classes synchronously or asynchronously, and whether or not to use videos.
From the teachers’ perspective, having the freedom to choose what platform to use probably saved time, especially for those that were working at more than one institution. On the other hand, students may have needed to struggle with using different platforms for the courses that they were taking. The struggle may have been overwhelming for the first-year students in particular as it is likely that many of them do not have the experience typing on a computer keyboard or have a computer that they can work on.
I chose to use Manaba, the university LMS for all the courses I teach. I have never been tech-savvy, and for me to be able to facilitate and to attend to my students as much as possible, it was crucial for me to be comfortable with the platform. It was also fortunate that we could choose to do courses text-based and asynchronously, both institutionally and specifically for me and the kinds of courses I taught. Being in my second year of teaching at the university, I was not very familiar with Manaba, but I considered that one of the advantages of using the university LMS was that most of the students would be able to refer to the written manual if their first language is Japanese, and that the university has a support desk that students could send their inquiries to. This way, both the students and I could focus more on the content of the course and minimise the concerns of how to use the learning platform.
Setting Consistent Tasks
As previously mentioned, there were two beginnings to the online remote teaching in the case of my university, and there were approximately four weeks in between them. It was not announced, at that point in time, whether the entire semester would consist of remote teaching or not. However, I decided to go ahead and begin designing and planning courses that would be remote teaching for the entire semester. These were the third versions of the course syllabi for the semester. The students had already seen two versions of their course syllabi; one that the university put online, and a second that I had prepared with class procedures and assignment deadlines for the first four weeks of the semester that was originally to be the temporary online teaching period. I was reluctant to make drastic changes from the second version that I had prepared in order to reduce students’ confusion. In thinking about the course design, I also referred to the syllabi of courses that I attended for my own distance learning. Weekly tasks were consistent throughout the module unless otherwise noted, and the requirements for the whole module were provided at the beginning, including the deadline and content of the final assignment. As a student, I found this to be helpful because I could plan ahead, and I felt that I could build on tasks I had completed in prior weeks. Aside from the strictly coordinated courses that I had taught, I have never been expected to provide students with a detailed course schedule. The course syllabi that I prepared for all my courses were around eight A4 pages each.
Four weeks later, when the university announced that the entire semester would consist of remote teaching, and the teachers were required to upload course materials at least three days before the semester resumed, I uploaded the course syllabus and assignment requirements for each of my courses. This was all the information that the students needed. Their weekly tasks were kept consistent so that the students will not be confused every week, and LMS was set so that the students could submit their assignments any time without having to wait until close to a deadline. Students were able to read through and to ask me questions on the course requirements before the actual semester resumed and became busy with all the other courses that they were taking. With the schedule for the semester set and course materials shared with the students, I could concentrate on my role as facilitator for the course without having to worry about the logistics. The students also appeared thankful as several of them sent me e-mails stating that they appreciated that the course requirements were all laid out at the beginning.
Constructing Peer Connection
An LMS is a teacher-centred environment as it is the teachers that decide what is presented on the course website, as well as how it is presented and how the students are to progress through the course (Godwin-Jones, 2011). Godwin-Jones also states the importance of maintaining a peer network in order to develop effective learner autonomy. Treon (2018), in her review of studies that looked into successful online student social interaction, found that the learners’ motivational factors were the key. Citing Liu’s (2008) study, Treon (2018) mentions that the students’ motivation level increases when everyone involved cooperates in creating a good environment for promoting social interaction. For all the courses that I taught, I attempted to include group work. The group work took the form of either discussions using the thread function on the LMS or having groups work together on small tasks. This was intended not only to develop learner autonomy, but also to enable students to feel comfortable in asking each other questions and to provide them with an opportunity to interact with each other. The first-year students fresh out from high schools, especially, may not feel comfortable in asking teachers questions; and I had hoped that students would gain a feeling of connectedness. I was, at the same time, taking a risk in that students may not be able to work well in groups. It is also often explained that Japanese and English conversation are different, and this could affect how students interact in small groups. Sakamoto and Sakamoto (2004) write that English interaction is like tennis, while Japanese interaction is like bowling (p.53). When individuals are not familiar with each other, the conversation could be like bowling, in which a person will say something at length and the others wait. In general English conversation, participants in the discussion will often add comments or ask questions. With this in mind, I provided the students with samples of how they could interact with each other in discussions. The sample included additional questions to ask, as well as how they could agree or disagree with their group members’ responses to the discussion question that I prepared weekly for some courses and biweekly for others.
It was not until the final three weeks that the discussion threads became active and students interacted with each other in the way that I had originally expected. Some students sent me an e-mail saying, “I don’t know how to respond to others.” To those, I replied that they could ask a question for more detail, or they could respond with their opinion on whether they agree or disagree with the posts on the discussion threads. After each discussion was closed, I sent each student feedback on what they did well, and what they could do to improve. Most of my feedback encouraged the students to try and interact with the other students. It was due to the fact that the weekly tasks were kept consistent that the students were able to make improvements and were able to reach a point that they could interact with each other.
In the courses that students worked on tasks in small groups, I assigned each group a group forum (thread) on the LMS that only the group members had access to. They were also given an option to work on other platforms of the group members’ choice if they found working on the LMS thread to be challenging. However, this was on condition that they would inform me of the process of their group’s work so that I can see the progress as well as who is participating in the work. I considered my role as a facilitator in group work, as I would act in classroom settings. I did not intervene in the group work on the thread; however, I responded to questions that I received by e-mails, or if I saw that the groups were having issues in moving forward or seemed to be getting off track. I would identify the issues that some groups were facing and responded to them on the course news so that all the students in the course would be able to see and benefit from them.
As I monitored the group threads, all the groups seemed to be working together well, except for one. No one posted on the group thread in the first week, and I sent the group members an e-mail to remind them of the group work and urging them to contact me if they were having any problem, to which I received no response. A few weeks later, the students started to post on the thread. However, I also received e-mails from the students in the group insisting that they felt that it was not fair that the participation among the group members was uneven. Indeed, it was evident that in the group thread, some students frequently contributed while others hardly ever posted anything. I had made it clear in the course syllabus provided to the students before the semester started that there are separate grades for participation and the final product. These students seemed to understand when I directed them to look at the course syllabus with the specific weight of how much each course activities and assignment entailed. I also reminded them that it was for this reason that if the students opted to use another platform for the group work, they were required to inform me of the process of the group work as well as evidence of some sort so that I can keep track of the student participation.
The sudden transition to online remote teaching was a big challenge for both the teachers and the students. Redesigning courses that were prepared for a face-to-face classroom setting to fit a remote teaching environment was probably as much work for the teachers as to design an entirely new course. This made me realise the amount of student-student interaction that I expect of learners and the difficulty in transferring that to an online environment. While some of the second-year students may have known each other from the courses that they attended last year, for others, including all the first-year students, they would know each other only by reading the self-introductions that they shared with their classmates at the beginning of the semester. The remote learning environment was not something that they had chosen when they enrolled in university.
Facilitating online discussions was certainly a huge workload for me, as it entailed keeping track of many discussions in all the courses I taught and also required me to provide feedback to the students. As discussed in the earlier section, it was only the last three weeks that the sorts of discussions I had expected actually took place. However, the students and I worked together to get things ‘right’, and the students could realise that they were able to improve their work. Of all the courses that I taught this semester, just one group had a visible issue. The imbalanced participation in group work is a common issue that occurs in face-to-face classroom settings, too, and is not specific to the online environment.
Looking back on the semester and considering the number of the individual student emails I responded to, this semester may have been the first that students asked me so many questions, both on procedural matters and the content of the course. These interactions enabled the students to improve their discussion skills, albeit in written format. Students’ interactions with each other were active, except for those that did not participate in any of the class activities.
Effective teacher-student interaction and student-student interaction may have been achieved because in part because of the online environment. The students were aware that their taking initiative and responsibility was crucial in connecting with their classmates as well as the key to succeed in the semester. This awareness may have encouraged those students who are usually shy and quiet and find it difficult to talk in front of the others to become more active because they became less nervous, or not nervous at all as they were not facing the others.
Notes on the Contributor
Mizuka Tsukamoto has been involved in teaching at Japanese higher education institutions for more than ten years. Her research interest includes teacher & learner development, teacher beliefs & practices, and issues related to EFL classrooms.
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