Mahmoud Arani, Christine Bauer-Ramazani, and Elizabeth O’Dowd highlight the challenges and rewards associated with taking a teacher education program online
Saint Michael’s College, Vermont (SMCVT), is not an obvious home for an online program — the Master’s program in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (MATESOL) is housed on an attractive residential campus in a small northern New England liberal arts college with a reputation built over the last 50 years on personal interaction between faculty and students, a close supportive community, and a lively international population. Every year, a contingent of Fulbright and other scholarship students from developing countries live on or close to campus for the two years of their program. With a full-time graduate TESOL population somewhere around the 40 mark each semester, it is quite possible — and very rewarding — for faculty to interact almost daily with all of them.
What “Saint Mike’s” is not known for is its distance-course delivery. Yet in the last five years, reasons to move in this direction have become increasingly compelling. First, the circumstances of prospective students have changed. Until recently, Saint Michael’s regularly attracted a large cohort of international students from cooperating universities, as well as Americans who were teaching in colleges and language schools worldwide. Since 2008, the global economic crisis has made it more difficult for overseas-based students to spend a year or two studying in the U.S. Second, we recognize the growing need for today’s teachers to master current technologies and understand their pedagogical applications. Distance courses force student teachers to engage in online learning communities, manipulate learning platforms, and work with computer-assisted learning tools, thus aligning their technological skills with those of their young, digitally-savvy English learners. Finally, the proliferation of online MATESOL programs, including many from respected peer institutions, clearly calls for a competitive presence in the digital world without sacrificing the residential, community-oriented niche that our program has claimed for so many years.
With the decision made to move toward online delivery, the first challenge facing our program was the need for faculty training. Among eight full-time faculty member, only one had been teaching fully distant TESOL classes. The others were certainly familiar with technology in language learning, but usually in a hands-on lab with much younger students present to help out with inevitable glitches. Some professors had taught blended courses, but they always had the fallback of touching base with students every two weeks in the classroom. It would be a different matter to build a community of learners who were not physically present.
Another major consideration was the local and residential population — the mainstay of the MATESOL program. In this relatively small college, resources prohibit running double sections of most courses. To insist that campus-based students participate in distance courses, when they or their sponsors have invested considerable funds to bring them to the U.S. for two years, is to risk losing the very advantages that attracted them to the college in the first place. The task was then to design a distance option within the current program that would not diminish the face-to-face experience of the on-campus students but would still serve the needs of students studying at a distance and make them feel included as members of the learning community.
But which courses to include? As a track within the larger program, the new curriculum would have to meet all required competencies and standards for the traditional MATESOL. Furthermore, since it could not access the full range of electives available to the larger, on-campus population, its online offerings would have to be central yet general enough in their content to provide a well-rounded and satisfying program.
With all these constraints in mind, the MATESOL faculty developed a two-stage plan to launch an “OnCampus plus Online” track in 2012.
With the benefit of a faculty development grant offered by the college, the MATESOL program contracted a leader in the field of computer-assisted language learning with more than 13 years’ experience in distance delivery to teach a professional development course in online delivery.
A six-week online training course was developed for three colleagues who had expressed interest in teaching in the online track, and they were prepared with some pre-training workshops on Web 2.0 tools, including Skype, wikis, and Google Docs — in particular, spreadsheets and Google forms, exploring asynchronous as well as synchronous uses.
The course itself utilized the college’s in-house learning management system, eCollege. Each week had a particular focus, with a clearly posted agenda including readings, discussions, hands-on tasks, and other assignments.
Major topics for the course included
• Establishing an online community
• Setting up the course on eCollege
• Delivering and organizing content
• Using eCollege and Web 2.0 tools for teaching, interaction, and collaboration
• Assessment in distance courses
• Wrap-up: Managing an online course
Introductions also included a welcome video and a screen-capture-plus-audio recording of a tutorial on how to set up the eCollege course.
Readings consisted of short articles, primarily from Faculty Focus: Online Education, an excellent resource offering tips and useful information on major topics of the course. Each week, moderators were assigned as “starters” or “wrappers” to lead and conclude threaded discussions about the readings and the participants’ reflections on their practice with new delivery tools.
At the conclusion of the six weeks, instructor and students turned their attention to the design of the MATESOL distance track.
OnCampus Plus Online Curriculum
To address the issue of accommodating both campus and distant populations within the same MATESOL community, the decision was made to keep two-thirds of the program on campus. Accordingly, a “two plus two” semester combination was planned: an entrance and exit six-week summer residency, with fall and spring online. In their first summer, distance students share required introductory courses with their Vermont-based cohort, an experience that anchors them throughout the intervening year until they meet again the next summer for their capstone courses and the graduating ceremony. During the fall and spring, they take four online courses. Of these, only one — Teaching Reading and Writing — is a core MATESOL requirement, with a face-to-face section available in another semester so that campus students are not obliged to take it online. The three other distance courses are all electives, not obligatory for campus students, but important enough to attract them. They include Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL), Curriculum and Syllabus Design, and Strategies That Work in TESOL.
The OnCampus + Online track was launched in summer 2012, and the first cohort of three students graduated in summer 2013. This fledgling program on a residential campus faced several challenges.
Curriculum and Syllabus Design
This new fall course was the first of the online series, and the first major challenge was that only on-campus students signed up initially. To accommodate them, the course was redesigned face to face — only to receive three last-minute registrations from distant applicants. The response was a combination of well-proven strategies from CALL courses and some innovative features, including:
• bi-weekly face-to-face seminars with slide-supported lectures and group activities;
• webcasts of these seminars with a video-capture tool, Tegrity. Distant students were invited to join the class in real time to see and hear the slide show with elicited responses recorded on the SMART Board and to interact with the class via Skype audio;
• online-only delivery of content and discussions every other week;
• use of the same learning management system (LMS) for tasks, assignments, readings, discussions, handouts, links, and projects.
All students received weekly grades on their interaction and projects in the eCollege Gradebook.
In this way, the course was made available to distant students while integrating them into the on-campus group. However, it became clear that this would not be a sustainable delivery option. First, while the real-time outreach worked for one student in California, it was unrealistic for those who were situated in such widespread time zones as France and Korea. These students were required to watch the webcasts and to post their questions and feedback on the topics raised in the class, but they were inevitably removed from the immediacy of real-time attendance. Furthermore, creating course materials for both face-to-face and online delivery, and fielding both face-to-face and online interactions, meant double duty for the instructor.
Teaching Reading and Writing
Having learned from the Curriculum and Syllabus Design course, a decision was made not to mix both campus and distant populations in one class. So the class was divided into two sections, adapting the face-to-face version of the class for the distant cohort but making sure that this cohort was integrated with the larger group in an inclusive learning community.
To ensure that the online students could see and hear the campus students, many of whom they had befriended the previous summer, the same syllabus was used for both sections of the course. The face-to-face weekly lectures were captured so that the online students could hear the comments and questions of their campus-based peers. Reading summaries and discussion wrap-ups were shared by both groups in the eCollege Dropbox. Similarly, extra tasks such as lesson plans and individual presentations, also captured by Tegrity, required responses from both groups. To get everyone on the same page, each group was asked to propose ten questions for the exam and then to negotiate the final list with each other.
Skype Premium was used to see students’ reactions, especially nonverbal, to instruction, which allowed for conferences with more than one distant student at a time. During the weekly Skype meetings, conducted after the students had viewed classroom lectures, there was time for questions and group or paired activities.
Despite the advantages of Skype Premium, time zone challenges necessitated scheduling at least two separate conference times each week. Successful interaction depended on this flexibility in meeting the students at their convenience, which sometimes meant Sunday mornings.
At the end of its pilot run, the OnCampus + Online track was evaluated by its first cohort of students. The major objective — to preserve the qualities of our residential culture in the online experience — was accomplished. As one student confirmed: “Each student has the chance to form personal relationships with the faculty and other students… The St. Mike’s faculty members have been so generous with their time and invested in making sure that I’m doing well, even though I’m 3,000 miles away.” On their return to campus for the second summer, the distant students greeted their campus-based classmates as old friends. They had a seamless transition into the capstone courses, and the graduation ceremony was marked with the same hugs, tears, and promises of lifelong connection that we have experienced for decades with the fully residential program.
Beyond this direct reassurance, we are encouraged by a discernible improvement in the reading and writing of the campus-based students that participated in online activities. The constructivist emphasis on synthesis, negotiation, and critical thinking in written online interaction seems to have produced a new confidence and sophistication of expression that spills over into other written assignments and even into spontaneous classroom discussions. We are convinced that the online track has taken us in a worthwhile direction.
However, the experience of the pilot year inspires us to explore new and better strategies for asynchronous interaction. For example, the “flipped classroom” model, most famously advocated by Jonathon Bergmann and Aaron Sams (2012), promises effective strategies for balancing prerecorded lectures with engaging classroom instruction. As we continue to develop our skills in teaching with technology, we will be able to make good instructional use of the many “smart” mobile devices increasingly used by our students, even in developing countries. Outreach and collaboration through consortiums with other colleges may provide opportunities for sharing pedagogical insights and broadening the variety of online offerings. Our vision for the future is a MATESOL program where distant and campus students, as one community, can enjoy the best that technology-enhanced education has to offer.
Bergmann, J., and Sams, A. Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day. International Society for Technology in Education, Faculty Focus: Higher Ed Teaching Strategies from Magna Publications. facultyfocus.com/topic/articles/online-education/
Mahmoud Arani is professor of TESOL and chair of the Applied Linguistics Department at Saint Michael’s College. His research focus is on the pedagogy of reading and discourse analysis.
Christine Bauer-Ramazani is an instructor of English and teacher trainer at Saint Michael’s College. She is past chair of TESOL’s CALL Interest Section and specializes in designing and teaching online courses.
Elizabeth O’Dowd is a professor of TESOL and directs the MATESOL program at Saint Michael’s College. Her research focus is on pedagogical grammar and writing.