Issue 28 – Rethinking Education in the New Normal: Zoom Teaching amid COVID-19 

By Kristy Kung (ELED Year 4 student 2020-21) and Kailey Yu (ELED Year 2 student 2020-21)

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted the education system all over the world. Due to the closures of schools, there are huge changes in the learning environment, resources and the mode of delivery. Teachers and students have been adapting the way to teach or learn under the new normal. Today, we have Kristy and Kailey to share their recent online teaching experiences. 

[Background information of the teaching experience]

Duration: Weekly class between October to December 2020 — 1 to 1.5 hour for each session 

Kristy’s classes: 

Class A: 4 students from F.4 (reading and writing) 

Class B: 22 students from F.5 (writing)

Kailey’s class: 13 students from F.5 (reading and listening) 

  • How do you feel to have your first lesson on Zoom?

Kailey: Well… haha that was quite scary and frustrating because no one turned his or her camera on. I felt like I was talking to myself the whole time. That was the first time I taught online and I was puzzled looking at those black boxes. I constantly asked myself,  “Do they dislike me?”, “Are they there?”, “WHO IS THERE?”. Anyway, things turned better afterward. 

Kristy: The desperation is real… It’s indeed no fun staring at a full screen of blank avatars. My first lesson on Zoom, however, actually went pretty well. Perhaps it’s because that was an English class for Primary 5 students, the kids turned their cameras on and were rather excited to try out this new mode of teaching and learning. Besides, since most of them weren’t ‘proficient’ at typing, they would just verbally voice out their opinions and answers in class. The interaction was generally smooth and effective!

  • What do you like about online teaching and learning/teaching via Zoom?

Kristy: The first thing that came to my mind was Zoom’s in-meeting private chat function. With students being generally passive and reticent about speaking up in face-to-face classes, I expected student response to be worse in the virtual classroom. To my surprise, it’s actually not that bad! Obviously, whenever I ask a question, it would usually be followed by a period of awkward silence, and I would just stare at the screen ‘desperately’ waiting for someone to give me a verbal response. However—oh, this is a tip to all the teachers out there—you have got to wait for a few more seconds. 

Kailey: Even after the awkward silence? Why? 

Kristy: Because your students are probably typing something and deciding if he or she should send it for everyone to see, or just as a private message to you. In my experience teaching upper form students, they usually prefer sending private messages which are only visible to me. At first, I found this quite inconvenient. I couldn’t address the students by their names because the whole point of private messages is to keep their answers just between me and them. Therefore, I have no choice but to address them as ‘someone’, which sounds so weird to me because it feels like I’m interacting with some unknown or unspecified people even when I do know them in real life. Second, I bet other students must feel rather confused as I suddenly mention a random answer from their peers without seeing it in the chat box. In face-to-face classes, everyone can hear the answers and follow along, but now, the only way for everyone to learn from one another is through me repeating their messages. Despite these drawbacks, as I continue experimenting with the private chat function, I actually am starting to like it because I can see that students become more willing to try. I often receive private messages that end with a question mark—you know, probably because they’re not sure whether or not their answers are correct—and that’s perfectly fine! I’d make sure to respond to each message and provide detailed feedback in hopes of creating conversations which are as close to real life interactions as possible. Gradually, my students become much more active in class and some even start to turn their microphones on and answer my questions verbally! 

  • What was the most challenging part when you taught?

Kailey: Teaching LISTENING for sure! In a normal lesson, I will walk around the classroom and observe students’ performance. By that, I get a picture of what they successfully attempt and what they find difficult. Then, I can immediately address some of the common mistakes right after the recording. In contrast, I could only sit in front of my laptop during online lessons and I have no idea what my students are doing. They have to be very disciplined to attentively listen to the recording and complete the tasks on their own. When it comes to the answer checking part, it is more difficult to predict what students know and what they have missed. Should I go through the entire task, or should I selectively explain certain questions? Obviously, I chose to go through them all and gave a more detailed explanation. To make sure students don’t just sit there and wait for my answers without actually engaging in the tasks, they were required to put their answers on a shared Google document by the end of the recording. So far, that’s the best way for me to check the answers and to spot out their mistakes like the missing plurals, spelling problems and more. Yet, that was quite time-consuming. But I guess it’s better than going through the listening task hurriedly and briefly without students participating or understanding it, isn’t it? 

Kristy: Yes I totally feel you! Teaching listening online is definitely a tough job, given that teachers have absolutely no idea if the students are doing their part, or they’ve already wandered off! But let me tell you, learning listening is just as difficult as teaching it. Since I am staying at home most of the time, I’ve got the chance to observe my brother, who is a secondary 4 student, have online English lessons via Zoom. Learning grammar and the skills required for reading has generally been fine, but when it comes to listening, things can get pretty tricky. I remember one time when he was listening to a soundtrack, there was frequent sound lag and the audio got glitchy from time to time (probably due to unstable wi-fi connection). My brother had a hard time trying to figure out what the speakers were saying and the audio issues totally affected his performance. Seeing the puzzled and frustrated look on his face made me realize how both language teaching and learning can be negatively affected when it’s switched to an online mode. In face-to-face classes, teachers can recognize any audio problems right away and make necessary adjustments, but it’s much more difficult to do so in online lessons because the audio quality may vary from device to device.

  • Can you tell us more about the lesson preparation? How does it differ from face-to-face classes?

Kailey: It definitely takes more time for me to prepare an online lesson than a normal class. In the face-to-face mode, I could improvise and make prompt responses according to students’ reactions; whereas, in my experience teaching online, some barely spoke and most refused to turn their cameras on, which made it difficult to observe their reactions. Therefore, prior to the lessons, to reduce students’ confusion, more time was used to brainstorm possible difficulties that students might encounter. Without face-to-face communication, more preparation is needed to make sure the delivery is effective. 

Kristy: Just curious, what tools or software do you usually use to facilitate your teaching?

Kailey: I rely a lot on PowerPoint since that is a useful tool to present ideas in an organised way. However, it is also a challenge to create one that is clear, concise and informative. You know, students will get bored if the PowerPoint slides are too wordy. In my classes, I don’t usually squeeze everything in one slide. What I do is to empty spaces in between in which students can make use of the “annotation” function on Zoom to put down their answers. I bet this is also a good way to create interaction. Additionally, during the preparation stage, I did explore some other online tools to assist my teaching including Kahoot!, Mentimeter, shared Google documents and also the polling function on Zoom. Students were generally more active when I invited them to express ideas on these platforms rather than purely asking them to contribute thoughts by typing in the chat box or unmuting themselves. What’s more, I could observe students’ performance through their answers and replies on those platforms. Based on their performance, I can reflect, improve and decide what more practices, elaborations or recaps are needed in the coming classes. 

  • Any funny Zoom ‘accidents’ you could share?

Kristy: Oh well, one time when I was having a small-group tutorial session with three P6 students, the battery indicator on my MacBook turned red and there was a low power warning. I tried to grab my charger right away, but I just couldn’t find it anywhere in my room! Therefore, I muted my microphone on Zoom and asked my brother to help me look for my charger in the living room… in CANTONESE. Little did I know, instead of clicking the ‘turn off audio’ button, I clicked the ‘turn off video’ button next to it. And yes, my students all heard me shouting in Cantonese anxiously looking for my charger. The worst part was that I was totally unaware of this until one of my students said, “Haha Miss Kung spoke Cantonese! Miss Kung spoke Cantonese in an English lesson!” Other students started laughing and one even asked me to show my brother’s face on camera. I was so embarrassed and had to keep explaining to them that it was just a mishap…

Kailey: That’s a funny one. I guess we have to spend more time getting used to using Zoom. Well… of course, we have to learn from our experiences and deliver better quality lessons online. There is a lot for us to learn as teachers!

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