Back in February of this year, I was interviewed at the English Language Teaching Centre, which is part of the University of Sheffield. It runs both the pre-sessional and in-sessional courses for the University, ranked by some measurements as 13th in the UK and one of the top 100 institutions in the world to study. It was not the first time I had been interviewed by at the ELTC. Six years ago, I successfully landed what would have been my second EAP (English for Academic Purposes), pre-sessional teaching role. I was all set to live in Sheffield’s Endcliffe Village for the summer and teach full-time on the transitional course for international students wanting to start a Masters. But I got cold feet and pulled out with a week to go. Why? It was a crisis of confidence I was going through at that time. I had an unpleasant EAP experience in Leicester the previous year – not because of the course or the location, but because I was mentally unwell and not cut out for the demands of the course. 2013, which included a short stay in a secure unit, had generally been a terrible year for my state of mind. 2014 was not much better.
Roll on to 2017 / 2018 – with two very successful and enjoyable summers teaching at INTO University of East Anglia. However, in 2019 I had a number of panic attacks during induction and the anxiety would not go away. A similar thing happened at the University of Warwick, where I got my own Masters degree in 2012, a few weeks later. I stayed on as an IELTS invigilator in Norwich until Covid-19 brought a premature end to that role in March of this year. Sheffield was my plan B, in case I was not hired for the summer at the UEA. A drop in student numbers and the switch to a completely online programme, also because of the ongoing global pandemic, resulted in the UEA not being an option for 2020. So my plan B became my only plan. I believed in the team at Sheffield and looked forward positively.
Those hired already were told in April that the pre-sessional would be delivered 100% online this summer, which came as no surprise, given the pandemic. I knew I had the skills and experience to cope with this. I am web manager for the Learning technologies SIG. I read a lot about online teaching, attended a lot of webinars about it and worked two hours a day for Russell Stannard as his Teacher Training Videos YouTube channel took off and the comments flooded in. I became a proficient user of Zoom (around C1) , a lower-intermediate user of MS Teams (B1) and refreshed my knowledge of using Skype (B2), which I have only ever used for private teaching. I trained fellow council employees on using Zoom, but knew that this was not the platform being used at Sheffield. Despite knowing that I could do all this from home – my place of residence had shifted, my rented flat had been sold, so there was no other option than to physically come to Sheffield, as I had planned to do six years previously, and be around other teachers on the course. All the students remained at home, with 95% of them being in China – of course.
The Virtual Learning Environment we used was Blackboard (the same as at INTO UEA but with a different interface). A lot of the interactive content was created using Rise Articulate by the TEL team, led by director of technology, David Read. A thorough orientation week took new and returning teachers through all the technology required to teach on this fully online, flipped learning EAP pre-sessional course. Blackboard Collaborate was used to handle the live ‘synchronous’ sessions, two hours per day, plus tutorials. Around 1,000 students were enrolled on the summer PS10 (ten week) course, with a few of them transferring from longer courses. Numbers were down on 2019, but about the same as 2018, before my time. Not at all bad, considering the global situation. I had one experienced teaching partner all summer, Susan, and we complemented each other with different levels of experience and technical proficiency. She taught from her home in Hillsborough. I taught from my bedroom at Endcliffe Village – the accommodation block can be the seen in the top photograph. I shared a ‘flat’ with 4 other teachers – 3 guys on the PS10 and one, Katy, who taught on a different, USIC course.
Sheffield introduced a flipped learning approach before this year. So, when it came to having a to deliver a fully online pre-sessional course, this methodology worked well. There was a lot of hard work that went into making the course fully online, but I feel that Sheffield was already in a great position to do this. There was a significant amount of the course being ‘Interactive content‘, which the students worked through, before the ‘live’ classes. This was an essential part of the programme, not optional ‘homework’. Through a grade centre, teachers could monitor progress with the material and, if necessary, refer back to it in classroom time or when setting other asynchronous tasks.
All the live sessions were conducted in Collaborate. I found this to be versatile, user-friendly and fairly straightforward to manage. I liked the ability to share files with groups and how to navigate and change the settings. At times I found it unresponsive, but with team teaching, your partner could always step in and move the slides along, or set up breakout groups or take over the delivery. So for the most part, it worked well. Considering the challenges of a fully online pre-sessional course and the connectivity issues at the other end, I found it to be a success. I cannot speak for other teachers or their experience, but it worked well for myself and my teaching partner. A fundamental part of using Collaborate was including breakout group sessions. There was six regular breakout groups for the two, combined classes, while an alternative set of seven groupings for seminars and presentation practice. I learned a lot about effectively managing these over the course and presented about this at the end of week 9, as you can read below.
Many of the live lessons were geared around academic writing and the final essay of 1500 words contributed to 60% of the students’ overall marks. A draft version was submitted by the end of week 6, with quick marks and digital feedback in TurnItIn, while the final essays were submitted by the end of week 8 and graded, before a sample were second marked in the final week. Once a week tutorials with individual students often focused on this part of the course, although some time was given to mock presentation feedback and general queries about the course. Students were also marked on completing the interactive content through a grade centre in Blackboard and their engagement.
I am a huge fan of screen capture software, but I was not previously familiar with the Kaltura tool that integrates seamlessly with Blackboard. Students were invited to research and record two practice presentations, followed by an assessed one focusing on an article related to their chosen field of study and linking it with one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The best way to learn about a tool and give instructions to students is try to the tool for yourself and upload it in the class discussion forum, which I did a few times. An example, showing some tips for recording a PowerPoint presentation, can be seen below. It is a great example of unintentional ASMR! (according to Tom Rogers).
The presentation contributed 20% of the total mark. I also used Kaltura to demonstrate and model pronunciation activities which I personally found pointless in the synchronous session with students mics turned off, although it apparently still has benefits. At least, with a recording, my students could see, hear and replay my modelling of stress and intonation.
Seminars were conducted every Wednesday, based on lectures released on the Monday of that week. Students needed to watch the lectures in advance, take notes and prepare some questions for other seminar group members during the live lesson. They had a mock seminar in week 8 and a final, assessed one at the beginning of week 9. This also contributed 20% of the total mark. Lectures included ones on fake news, gender pay and urban planning.
At the end of the penultimate week, I presented a Learning Technologies SIG webinar, given on 29 August, which was attended by around 90 participants, along with 5 committee members who acted as moderators. It was about the use of breakout rooms (groups), using a sandbox course classroom offered by David Read specifically for this workshop. I drew on theories of constructivism, flipped learning and connectivism, before leading a practical session where participants went into breakout rooms to discuss how to exploit them. Although I drew mostly on my use of breakout sessions over the pre-sessional using Collaborate, some of it could be taken into other platforms, such as Zoom. There were a few technical glitches from my end as the system got overloaded. Collaborate does not handle large groups and transitions and sharing files well all of the time. It is not designed for webinars and can be unreliable. Only 4 videos can be allowed at any one time, while poor audio feedback is commonplace. I was even kicked out twice during the session, once during the second breakout session, where I ended up in a breakout room with Joe Dale and it took me a full three minutes to load the correct breakout slide from the main room. I still allowed ten minutes for a second task – discussing four questions. However, reports from moderators and others informed me that some great discussions were had in those breakout rooms, even if some remained ‘muted’ and overall a lot of people got something positive out of it, even if it was just networking. As one of my fellow colleagues, Esther Szyszkowski told me via email:
It was actually really interesting for me to be back in a break out room as a participant after teaching the pre-sessional. It’s amazing how quickly the time goes in the break out rooms – it seems to take ages when I’m a teacher. In my first break out room, I had a woman who wouldn’t stop talking – nobody else got a word in! I tried to steer the conversation over to other people, but no easy task! It reminded me of a student I have in my class – she likes to hold monologues too. In the second break out room, there were maybe five people, but only one guy who actually spoke to me – Scott, I think his name was. Everyone else was on mute and didn’t participate even in the chat box, but Scott and I had a good chat anyway. I think you’re right – it takes training, and maybe even just a bit of familiarisation to be comfortable with it – and you know what they say about teachers being the worst students!
Finally, I recreated my EAP parody, this time as a full pop video, recorded on location outside the Octagon Centre, Student Union Building and at Endcliffe Village. I did not go into the summer planning to do this, but when I discovered that I had been given a class full of MA music performance and music management students, I could not resist. This was an update to the two live performances previously given at the University of Warwick (June 2012) and a the Coachmakers’ Arms, Norwich, when I worked at the University of East Anglia (July 2018). I shared it with my students first, then later a few colleagues, via Blackboard and publicly on LinkedIN. I know it was subsequently shared by team leader, Jonathan, with the other PS10 team leaders. I’m not sure how well it went down, although a couple commented that they enjoyed it! It was mentioned as the ‘Plagiarism’ video in the final, informal ‘tea, banter and chat’ on Friday 28 August. You can watch it below or on YouTube:
In conclusion, it was a great summer of teaching and learning. My confidence is great, and unlike how I felt in June 2014, when I got ‘cold feet’ about coming. But it has taken some effort and lots of mindfulness to get through. I feel very confident about being a teacher on a fully online pre-sessional course in the future. I am very likely to return to Sheffield in 2021. By then it might return to a more blended, but still ‘flipped’ delivery. Or the ELTC might offer a choice for students. Whatever happens, online group teaching is here to stay. There is no ‘putting the genie back in the bottle’ !