Vivify Your E-Classroom with ViVEXELT
Ask any English language teacher what they prefer, either face to face (F2F) or online classes and it is certain they will answer with the former (possibly even before the question is out of your mouth!) Despite virtual classes having become a staple during the pandemic, (wanted or not), many of us are still at loggerheads with the e-classroom environment.
However, it looks like the need for the virtual classroom isn’t going anywhere and in order to adapt to this change, teachers will have to accept this new way of delivering lessons and seek ways to improve themselves as online teachers.
The ViVEXELT (Vietnam Virtual Exchange for English Language Teaching) project is a collaboration between Coventry University in the UK and Hanoi University of Science and Technology in Vietnam. The course is an opportunity for English teachers based in both Vietnam and the UK to come together and embrace this virtual teaching life and explore its challenges and benefits. Unlike F2F, virtual exchanges and e-classrooms are without the restrictions of geographical locations and can unite people where they may not have been able to in the past. ViVEXELT really uses this idea to its advantage. The four-week course created an engaging community space where we shared our experiences and learned how to improve our skills as online teachers to make more meaningful online experiences for students of all ages. The following elements of the course really stood out to us:
1. Online versus Face to Face (F2F)
When F2F classes moved online at the start of the pandemic, it soon became apparent that we weren’t always able to adapt what we would normally do in the physical classroom. Online teaching required a different skill set yet it wasn’t always easy to identify what exactly we needed to change. Reading Moorhouse, Li and Walsh’s (2021) article about online interactional competencies in week one was a great start to the course because not only did it highlight challenges in the e-classroom, but it also offered a new perspective and a greater analysis of the online teaching mode. For many of us, it was also comforting to see our own beliefs and experiences with online teaching being reflected in print for probably the first time. The article articulated the components of the e-classroom, helped break down some of the differences and allowed us to reflect on our current practices. It also gave us the chance to re-evaluate any expectations that we may have carried over from a F2F environment to the e-classroom.
2. Participation and Collaboration
ViVEXELT provides its participants with a fantastic opportunity to practice their interactional and intercultural online skills. The project creates a safe online space for each participant to express their ideas and the benefit of a virtual classroom is being able to do so in a variety of ways. Having your video on so other participants can see your face and body language and unmuting yourself to speak are the main ways of participating online but you can also type in the chat in place of speaking or use emojis instead of having your camera on. If you ever feel unsure of what to say in the moment of discussion, you can write down your ideas and then post-session you can add them to the ViVEXELT forum.
To complement the synchronous sessions, we were also asked to collaborate asynchronously by developing a lesson plan on speaking using one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) as a topic. Everyone knows that group work can be challenging even in a F2F environment so how would this transpire online with a group of eight? If we’re being honest, the time zone difference coupled with scheduling conflicts certainly made collaboration more difficult. The optional nature of the task may have also led to varying levels of participation, but fortunately, we found the time to work on the lesson plan. We proceeded to set up a meeting on Google Meet, created a Google Docs and exchanged ideas about learners, which SDG to draw inspiration from, what our lesson objectives would be and what activities to include. Throughout the decision-making process, past experiences with certain activities, learners and platforms along with our own teaching beliefs and contexts were taken into account.
There was this funny moment the day before the due date. We were trying to add the finishing touches to the lesson plan and everyone was editing the document at the same time and leaving notes for each other. You would see so many funny nicknames and colours all over the Google Docs. It was a blast and showed the potential for future collaborative projects.
3. Digital Tools
In the project, we had the opportunity to utilize a wide range of digital tools that would benefit future lessons. After all, the T in ViVEXELT stands for Technology (just kidding!)
- Zoom (https://zoom.us/): The project’s sessions took place on Zoom. It’s a rather familiar platform since the start of the pandemic, so most of the participants had no problem using it. Aside from the usual camera and mic, it has useful features such as chat, subtitles, raise hand, annotation and so on, and of course, who could forget the Breakout Room where memories were made.
- Padlet (https://padlet.com/): Padlet was the second most commonly used tool after Zoom and the place where our thoughts and answers were recorded. Easy to use and aesthetically pleasing. It’s a great platform if you want to upload documents for your students, hold Q&A sessions and group tasks as well.
- IdeaBoardz (https://ideaboardz.com/): It’s quite similar to Padlet but offers more format choices, which makes it perfect for brainstorming and comparing ideas. The search bar used to filter idea stickies is also a practical feature.
- AnswerGarden (https://answergarden.ch/): Like its name suggests, AnswerGarden is one of the best tools for hosting Q&A sessions and collecting classroom feedback.
- Adobe Spark (https://www.adobe.com/express/): AdobeSpark was introduced to us in Session 3 and while it seems complex at first, once you get the hang of it, you can use it for numerous activities. For instance, you can create web pages, add stunning graphics and videos, and since it can be edited by multiple people (but not synchronously, more like a tag team), it’s ideal for group projects.
4. A Sense of Community
Probably the most rewarding part of the ViVEXELT experience was how in such a short time, many participants felt connected (despite the obvious distance between some!) and an online community was formed.
This community grew each week through the synchronous Wednesday sessions The highlight of each session was the discussions that we would have. We were randomly placed in Zoom Breakout Rooms to discuss an activity or answer a set of questions given by the host. The random placement meant we got to meet new people every time, which was a delight since everyone brings something unique to the table. Time flew as we talked about our teaching experience, educational settings and shared tips for online class management.
What allowed us to bond most were probably the difficulties along the online teaching journey despite our different countries and contexts, from students not actively engaging in the lesson to us ourselves feeling unprepared. It felt great to interact with international colleagues and to feel like the challenges we faced when online teaching resonated with them.
After each session, we had the chance to share what we gained and reflect on past teaching experiences on the Open Moodle forums. People would discuss their problems and others would follow up with solutions and suggestions. Some would express their teaching beliefs and find that others had the same ideas. Wherever we looked, we would find companions. This created a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a sense that we were not alone.
A Final Word (or Two)
We wish to extend our gratitude to the ViVEXELT team for their hard work and dedication in putting this project together. They did an excellent job in delivering the sessions, responding to queries as well as thinking on their feet. We thank you for allowing us to reflect on our experiences during this uncertain time and connect with a community of other teachers and students. This course has allowed us to feel more confident with teaching online and better equipped in terms of how to manage the e-classroom and interactive tools. With more phases of ViVEXELT in the future, we hope that the Vietnam-UK community of ELT practice will continue to flourish and be of help to teachers all over the world.
To future participants, we hope that you will gain a wealth of knowledge, skills and confidence from your time with ViVEXELT. Join the discussions, get to know everyone, work with those hundreds of miles away and reflect on the journey. It’s a fun-filled ride just waiting for you!
Moorhouse, B. & Li, Y. & Walsh, S. (2021). E-Classroom Interactional Competencies: Mediating and Assisting Language Learning During Synchronous Online Lessons. RELC Journal. 10.1177/0033688220985274.