The Virtual Classroom Experience
Danny Singh, UK and Italy
Danny Singh, born and raised in London, but now based in Rome, gives creative English language lessons and teacher training courses all over Italy and abroad. He also offers stimulating monthly presentations on language related issues at Rome’s biggest international bookshop and is visible on web TV www.inmagicartwebtv.eu with a series of interactive English video lessons. He regularly attends Pilgrims TT summer courses as a Guest Speaker. Website: www.laughnlearn.net
The Internet in teaching
The virtual classroom lesson
It is amazing to reflect on what a difference the internet has made to our lives and in particular, to our teaching and learning opportunities. There are a multitude of websites where we can find readymade lesson plans, lists of irregular verbs, grammar exercises, listening exercises, readings of classics from English literature, video lessons, news reports and much more. Some teachers have indeed specialised in the technological sector and do most of their lessons on-line. This saves travelling time and costs, as well as being able to reduce real contact with students who one may not wish to see or hear!
For the students, it gives them unlimited possibilities and fewer excuses to avoid homework, apart from the obvious one, the whole computer system collapsed! As technology is bread and butter to most school children, it is a greater stimulation to study than the more traditional textbook system. In addition, many of the exercises are interactive, which again is a far bigger motivation than simply following a series of passive gap filling exercises, that can often be done successfully, without even understanding the concept.
Considering all these factors, it was therefore, hardly a surprise when a private language school called me and about fourteen other teachers to an emergency meeting entitled, The Virtual Classroom Project. This project was a completely new teaching experience for all of us. We were going to be working in one of Italy’s most important financial companies giving these fantastic, innovative virtual lessons.
Officially, each virtual lesson lasted an hour and a half, however, as teachers, we needed to be at our computer about half an hour before, to set everything up. Setting everything up, meant logging in to our computer, then following a series of instructions to create the classroom. We had obviously been given a brief training and the procedure was written out and fairly clear.
The lesson times were prepared and booked in advance, so once you had logged in to your own name, you could select the class you wanted from the options available. Choosing your class means the date, time and level. After this, you had to ensure that the webcam and the audio were working properly. Once past this stage, we could see names of students appear who were booked to participate in this lesson. We as teachers, had the power to invite them into the lesson by simply clicking on a button. Before the official lesson started, we needed to check that the webcam and audio of our students were up to scratch.
Finally, it was time for the lesson to begin. The teacher could see and hear all the students and naturally the participants could all see and hear each other and the teacher. I would introduce myself, welcome the participants and ask the students to introduce themselves briefly. What I found most interesting was that the participants came from all over Italy, so I was curious to hear if it was raining in Palermo and sunny in Turin.
I had a series of instruments that I could use during the lesson. The first one was a file with the subject material to be used. This had all been carefully prepared beforehand, but was essentially a series of power point slides which contained humorous cartoons, pictures, bullet points, written grammar structures and questions intended to create discussion.
I mentioned previously that I had the power to invite a student to the lesson. I also had the power to eliminate him/her from the lesson if he/she misbehaved, although thankfully this never happened. I could also remove the audio from someone who was talking too much. There was an option to send a private message to a student and similarly to receive one. If a student wanted to interrupt, they could signal by raising their hands virtually, but I always had the final say on who could intervene and when. Naturally, as in normal teaching situations, all teachers will teach the same material in different ways. Some teachers stuck rigidly to the material on the power point slides, while others like myself, enjoyed stimulating interesting discussion points.
At the end of the lesson, I gave the students a summary of what we had covered in the lesson, the grammar points, the discussion subjects and some useful links for them to further their knowledge of what we had dealt with in the lesson. I would usually get a virtual applause, which was satisfying, if nothing else. The only thing that was left to be done was to log out of the computer and give a short written report on the performance of each student.
One of the first things I noticed when I started doing these virtual classroom lessons, was the importance of the voice. I felt almost like I was a kind of DJ. My facial gestures, body language and mimicry were of little use and the voice needed to be loud and clear. I needed to drink a lot of water before the lesson and even more after. It was extremely tiring on the voice, a bit like my first experiences with large groups of primary school kids.
However, the biggest problem that occurred during these lessons was the bad quality or reception of the audio sound system. There was only a limited amount of shouting that could be done, bearing in mind you were working in an office and considering the amount of effort and I assume, money, invested into the idea of virtual courses, I would have expected fewer problems in this case. Lip reading skills became a big plus, while in other cases, you could hear the person, but not see them.
The big advantage of these lessons when the system works, is that you can get people located in various places, in this case from all over Italy to participate in the same lesson. These people might normally never meet. On the cost front, there are big savings. No need to pay for students to be transferred, nor for teachers to travel around the globe.
Before each lesson, I usually felt a sense of anticipation and excitement, as I was never sure what was going to happen; how many students would be present, whether or not my audio or webcam would be working, if there were going to be any difficult students. There were occasions, where I ended up doing a one-to-one lesson, as other students were absent. In one memorable case, the only participant was a lady working upstairs in the same office. Surely, it would have been better to have the lesson at a coffee bar down the road!
From a personal point of view, I enjoyed the applause at the end of each lesson, something I rarely get in a “real classroom” course situation, only perhaps in workshop and seminar presentations.
A majority of students expressed their appreciation of the system, when it worked, while adding that they still preferred “real classroom” lessons and the benefits of being able to see the teacher and other participants, plus the more dynamic interaction available.
Teachers in general, are not the biggest fans of new technology, although this will probably change in the future. Despite beginning this project with another fourteen teachers, at least four of them had abandoned the project by the time we got well into it. Stress, nervousness, fear of technology and never knowing quite what was going to happen made some teachers far too emotional for this kind of work.
From this enlightening experience of virtual classroom teaching, I would say it’s an option that has its positive points, notably the fact of being able to bring people together irrespective of where they are located, however, I would only suggest it, if there are no other possibilities, since it does not adequately replace the benefits and advantages of teaching in the classroom.
While you can probably adapt a classic textbook course to the virtual classroom situation, it would be extremely difficult to utilise or even adapt the majority of my techniques which involve; physical movement in many forms, laughing, mimicry, role-play, singing, dancing and the use of the senses.
Please check the ICT - Using Technology in the Classroom – Level 1 course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the ICT - Using Technology in the Classroom – Level 2 course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Using Mobile Technology course at Pilgrims website.