Week 1: The Fundamentals of Online teaching: Teaching by doing

This is my second post on a Coursera course I’m currently doing on online course design and teaching. This week the focus is on teaching theories and in particular the importance of having students learn in a hands-on way. Our first assignment was to reflect on some excellent articles and videos provided to us on teaching with technology.

When I first began reflecting on ‘learning by doing’ I thought of baby cheetahs learning to hunt. They learn by hunting themselves and if they don’t do it correctly there won’t be anything to eat. Perhaps this can be applied to business language learning: if you can’t communicate effectively it can be very difficult to do your job!

 

Here are my reflections:

The first article ‘The Trans-classroom Teacher (Lowes 2008)’ had me thinking very deeply about the process of adapting a course from a face-to-face format to an online one. It reminded me of ESL veteran Thomas SC Farrell’s plenary session at last year’s TESOL France conference ‘Reflecting on Reflective Practice’ when he encouraged us to consider very closely why we do what we do in the classroom. This is equally as important for the big things as the small things (the words we say, the gestures we make and the order of activities). I was unsurprised at the teachers’ reports that this reflection led them to make changes that significantly improved their face-to-face classes too. ‘Brain-based learning’ (Clemons 2005) reiterated the importance of structuring materials into ‘chunks’ in order for students to integrate these into their spatial memory. My attention was drawn in particular to the importance of emotions in learning and students’ tendency to close-up when they sense anxiety, threat etc. As a language teacher, it can be challenge to teach in a way that is sufficiently intense and varied enough to peak students’ attention while being careful not to make students feel anxious or threatened. This is something that varies between students, so teachers’ adaptability is paramount. I wonder if a one-size-fits-all online system will be able to address this for all students?

‘What we learn when we learn by doing’ (Schank 1995) was a scathing criticism of rote-learning and teaching for the sake of teaching and reminded me of the importance of teaching what is immediately useful and in a meaningful way. For me, this is particularly relevant in the context of adult learning and English for business. Motivation is natural when the student needs a particular language to do their job and when the motivation wanes the first question to be asked is ‘Is this material immediately relevant?’ The students at Carnegie Mellon West seem extremely motivated and can see straight away how the skills they are learning are applicable to the work environment they will soon enter.

Overall, I really appreciated having the opportunity to reflect on the question of doing vs reading/listening in learning. While it isn’t something new for me (as teacher-training has been centred on ‘doing’ for some time now), these resources are a fresh reminder of the importance of taking a step back and really putting this into our courses.

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