Reflections on Online Teaching from 2019

Even though it’s only… October, I’m at a point of reflecting on the year gone past. This year I took the initiative to move from only doing individual tutoring, to offering online classes. I’d experienced enough of them myself, knew what other people and groups were doing, and had grown in my competence and confidence in speaking Greek and Latin that I was ready to take that step.

For the most part, it’s gone quite well. It’s opened up possibilities in terms of groups and teaching that I simply didn’t have before, as well as made some spoken Latin/Greek available to people who wouldn’t otherwise have had the financial ability.

It has also not been without significant challenges. Perhaps most difficult is the tension between communicative practices, and mediated teaching. Across the higher education sector there has been an ongoing, and mostly irreversible, shift to flexible delivery options – recorded lectures, online materials, asynchronous content delivery. This occurs in almost every context, except where students need to be explicitly there in person to learn to do something. And even then, students who have the benefit of distance/flexible options in other areas, will tend to pursue those options even for things that they might benefit from being in-person for. In short, it’s very hard to get students to turn up to things.

And, when we talk about language education, it is true that we now live in an age where technology has made possible communicative teaching in a way that was simply never possible before. A very large portion of my own education in Latin, Greek, and Gaelic as living spoken languages has taken place through online voice/video/text chats and courses.

However… there remains a big caveat. And the more I have shifted to a position of Communicative Language teaching based on Comprehensible Input in communicatively-embedded contexts, the greater the need for actual interaction between human beings. Yes, you can do reading/listening work, but live actual communication seems to me essential to optimally develop real-time competency in a language.

This works best, in my experience, in a physical shared space. There’s a whole raft of things I can do when meeting and dealing with people that are constrained, or impossible, online. Even online video chats limit me to working with a small class of people, and without sharing realia to interact with. Also, I’ve found that people’s ability (and mind) to stay focused and engaged on a video chat is rather limited compared to live shared-space communication.

This seems rather intractable – you can’t upscale to teach 20 students in a class, 50, 100, 200, whatever, without replicating the conversational dimensions of the 3-5 person group. And that is time and labour intensive.

Anyway, to cycle back around, what this year has taught me, is that this is worth it. Perhaps not entirely financially – it’s honestly hard to generate enough income from online teaching. For a variety of reasons – it’s a niche market; nonetheless it’s a competitive market; a key demographic (college aged students) don’t have the funds to pursue non-college education options (e.g. there’s no scholarships at SeumasU); preparation time is largely unfunded; there’s a limit to how much I can teach (4hrs straight is pretty much my limit on any given day, though it’s not common that I have that much work).

But it’s worth it, because seeing students actually acquire language, and see/hear/feel Latin and Greek as living languages, and process language in real time, and realise, “hey, I can do this”, is amazing. I get a thrill out of spending 60 minutes talking 95-100% in the target language, at a level that students can understand, and seeing them develop over time. And bringing Latin and Greek alive, for learners who wouldn’t have this experience anywhere else, is a privilege I’m honoured and delighted to be involved in.

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