Teaching online - digital bridges between worlds

12 October 2021
Posted by Study Group

Teacher Perspectives Blog Series from Study Group

The latest blog in the series is introduced by Dr Mark Cunnington, Chief Operating Officer for the UK and Europe at Study Group.

To continue our appreciation of ‘teachers at the heart of education recovery,’ the theme for World Teachers’ Day 2021, I am thrilled to share the next article in our ‘Teacher Perspectives’ blog series from Alex Coombes, Head of English at Study Group's Bellerbys College in London.

In this blog, Alex expresses his views on how to create a productive and stimulating learning environment and community for international students online. He describes how the virtual classroom evolved from a temporary measure to a place where “we laughed and shared as well as learned”.

Alex's full blog is available below. 

Teaching online - digital bridges between worlds

By Alex Coombes, Head of English at Study Group’s Bellerbys College in London, UK.

“Although we were unable to travel, we connected across space and time with people on the other side of the world and - to my relief and pride - the educational magic still happened. Cohorts came together. Communities formed. Students again said what our discussions had meant to them personally, as fervently online as they had done in person.”

If you had told me in January 2020 that I would spend quite so much time over the next two years grappling with Zoom and encouraging students through a screen I would have thought you had the wrong person.

I’d always enjoyed in-person interaction with students and some of my favourite moments in teaching were possible because we were together, either in a classroom or exploring a powerful topic through a visit to a museum and discussing what we had seen.

Students told me what these occasions meant to them. They described how they had grasped an idea in a way that had challenged them, but which would stay with them. As a teacher, attempting to do this virtually was unthinkable.

Then came COVID-19.

Teachers in my experience are motivated in their work by two things. Love of their subject and the desire to help students to learn, to understand and to incorporate this learning into how they see the world. But faced with a pandemic in which the pleasure of being together itself became a risk; necessity became the mother of invention. And so it was that this teacher went online…

It shouldn’t happen to a teacher

I’d like to say everything went perfectly from the beginning but, of course, nobody would believe that. In fact, there were many teething troubles. Some were technical. Others were human - ‘you’re on mute!’ And we struggled to work around our young children or frustrated teenagers, in rooms never designed to be classroom backdrops.

Our students had to adjust too. I remember the student who didn’t want to turn on her camera because she hasn’t done her makeup. The student whose astonishing backdrop turned out to be the view from the 56th floor of a hotel in Burj Al Arab. And perhaps best of all, the student I asked about a noise like a motorbike before he admitted he was running late so currently attending class while heading home in the back of a Tuk Tuk!

Typically, though, teachers and students met from their homes. Zoom had entered our lives as the new medium of communication to replace actually being with someone, engaging via a small box on a slightly bigger box that sat on our table in our kitchen as the cat ambled past.

Strangely this emergency contact as we each did our best to survive COVID-19 became a lifeline and the place we laughed and shared as well as learned. Sometimes the cat wandered into shot, the front doorbell rang with, yet another delivery and children walked up to demand feeding as it rained and rained. We made virtual meeting rooms and adapted the essence of learning into a new environment.

Camera’s on or off took some adjustment too. Imagine a student attending a meeting with a blanket over their head. At other times I glimpsed their world far away and yet suddenly near. There was often a certain artistic and beautiful dimension to the pictorial vignette presented to us by the connection.

What we learned

Although we were unable to travel, we connected across space and time with people on the other side of the world and - to my relief and pride - the educational magic still happened. Cohorts came together. Communities formed. Students again said what our discussions had meant to them personally, as fervently online as they had done in person.

The little boxed picture, while sometimes flat and distorted by inadequate tech, had still allowed us to connect. Students offered a window into their lives. To peer behind them and glimpse for a brief moment a little bit of the world they inhabited was an honour.

A classroom is a rather sterile environment in many ways, a black canvas. A room with four walls and controlled seating that positions the individuals in an occasion in which the dynamics are predetermined, and the actions relatively predictable. A student can sit quietly, occasionally answer a question and remain opaque and while in real three dimension - simply present a two-dimensional perspective of their reality.

By contrast, Zoom is a flat screen but provides a direct link to another place. Each strange new diorama opened a window into the lives of others. Every day, Zoom gave us wonderful, amazing, aesthetically beautiful tableaus of the lives of our students.

While we often struggled with the medium and wished we could do more with the technology, the gift of a real time connection with another person thousands of miles away was precious. The inadvertent mute, the washed-out colours of old screens were transcended by the realisation that connection is still possible in a worldwide situation of containment and restriction.

There could still be honesty and insight in our teaching and learning. An opportunity to share a background and a cultural dimension. To build a digital bridge to a world inhabited by a student. In doing so we have recalibrated our teacher-student relationships based on the diversity and difference we encounter in a world we have generously been invited to enter.

Our students have learned. We have taught, inspired, listened to and supported them. In that sense, although everything was different, what mattered stayed the same.

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