When the Mixed Classroom is Online

A Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC as they are called, is a powerful tool to make education accessible to everyone, especially those restricted by borders. Here, I write borders mindfully, being aware that there are artificial ones to demarcate the limits of a country, and then there are those governed by economic status, physical and mental challenges, paucity of time, etc. Albeit, you need an internet connection and device to use an online educational platform, still, it remains a tremendous comprehensive tool at least trying to provide learning across borders. 

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I have been a mentor on the MOOC English Pronunciation in a Global World (EPGW) for two runs now. We have this week successfully completed the second run. This particular MOOC was developed and produced by Dr. Laura Rupp at the Vrije Universiteit, along with educational platform partners FutureLearn.

My experiences on EPGW has taught me a lot more about the mixed classroom. I have seen how matters of a mixed classroom come to the fore in an online environment in which participants feel significantly freer to express their views. So, how do we then maintain a safe environment to make learning happen? And, how do we nurture an online classroom where everyone feels their experience with language is valid? Here are some of my learnings:

We are ALL a Team: We have two defined roles in the MOOC. Laura is the educator. She is the knowledge expert. I am the mentor. I listen (or in the MOOC read, but I am tempted to use the word “listen” because you need to “hear” the students, I will elaborate on this further). I am more of a trusted advisor. With defined roles it becomes easy to follow through with tasks. I have noticed that it makes it simple for the students as well. It nicely sets the tone for them from early on in the course. 

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Additionally, when students know that you are working as a team to help them, it creates an atmosphere of being a learning community. They start to share with each other and help one another. This, I have learnt, has to be a top down approach. The people in the position of authority need to establish these preferred behaviors. Laura and I took out time to align with these requirements, and we have seen it translate into a growth oriented attitude, such as: understanding each other’s accent requirements, encouraging fellow students, kindness especially during feedback, focus on practice rather than inability, sharing knowledge such as a YouTube video or a website link that can help with clarity, etc. 

I Hear You, Your Experience is Valid: On a daily basis I pay attention to what the students want to communicate. I actively respond to their comments. I ask them questions to get to know more – sometimes about the topic, but often about them as people. I keep notes to follow-up. When I do check with them, I notice that they always respond favorably with a thank you, or are sometimes surprised that I remembered. I think this reaching-out is imperative to an online classroom. In a physical classroom there is room for non-verbal gestures of communication, quick hellos, and impromptu chats, which we have to work towards in the online class. I try to also reply to comments with gestures that indicate they are not alone in this process. For example, “Peter, I can understand that, did you notice Andre has also been struggling with it” or, “Indeed Helen, Eduardo also noticed this funny quirk”. 

Housekeeping Scaffold: Will there be students who are rude? Or, use a language you are not aware of? How do you then ensure safety? Yes, there can be situations, but they are rare. An online environment is 24*7 open and chances of an unsavoury comment being present for some hours before getting noticed is high. FutureLearn has crystal clear rules and regulations on such matters, which also include cases of plagiarism, asking for personal information, bullying, language use – there is an extensive list. As authorized personnel we can flag such comments, and students too can do this. Thus, we do not need to engage if matters have escalated to such levels. In my experience, FutureLearn has always been quick to respond. It is important for these checks to be in place to maintain an online safe environment. Therefore, it is crucial to investigate these aspects before you sign up for an educational partnership. 

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Let’s Look at our Tool Box: To make the most of an online environment particular care has to be taken towards the applications and extensions we provide. As EPGW is a pronunciation course we have a Padlet wall in which students can upload their accent with an exercise. We also have more and different ways in which student hand in their exercises. So, if one tool does not work in a particular geographical region there are other methods through which students can complete assignments.

Laura took special care about this when developing the learning module. For example, it is impossible to respond individually to thousands of recordings so she designed a peer feedback tool with guidelines in which each student becomes a subject matter expert. They do say the best way to learn a subject is to each it. Furthermore, it is a wonderful, constructive, and efficient manner to make the most of the mixed environment. 

Laura and I also take out time for a YouTube Live session. The preparation work is massive, and the technical matters drive us crazy, but the end result is always so gratifying. Most importantly, our students love it – they feel seen and heard, and they learn so much more. Also, I think this is so vital, they see us – the names on the webpage come to life – and this contact makes it worthwhile! Please do watch the video below. It our YouTube Live from our recent run and Laura provides insight into the making of the MOOC – its challenges and learnings.

Take Time to Celebrate: I try to make our diversity explicit – and how we are all learning from this international mixed classroom – when students share their weather updates or digress to complain about their local traffic – I make my curiosity evident. For learning is never only about the content in the course or the tools or the communication – it is about a larger picture. Remember, the student is not an isolated object floating in vacuum. They have lives beyond the classroom and often including and acknowledging that part plays an important role in learning. It also augments the complete picture when they share their accents, as well as provide feedback to their peers.

There is so much more I want to share especially in regards to teacher safety and emotional well-being in the classroom. However, I will save it for another day. I would like to invite you to share your thoughts on the topic. The mixed classroom is such a dynamic and unique environment that we must keep our conversations active.  

Connected post: Joining EPGW

Come Join our Course at FutureLearn – next session will be Spring 2020. Please feel free to share this link.

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