The affordances of online teaching

EFL (English as a foreign language) teaching is driven by feedback loops.

Quite how we should structure lessons is up for debate – is it about presenting some language and then providing more to less supported practice, or is it about setting up a task you want students to get better at and then working with them until they do? Who should do more of the work of analysing performance or language, the teacher or the students? Even, what language do students need to be able to handle? Grammar structures? Words? Set phrases? Combinations of words? Combinations of words which have some kind of pattern underlying them?

But generally speaking, however lessons are frameworked, they are going to be organised around an activity, exercise, task or question the teacher asks, and students will get fairly immediate feedback on their responses. And then there will be another activity, exercise, task or question. With more feedback. It may vary in type or content, but it’s there, over and over throughout the lesson. The idea is that each round of feedback refines understanding or skills, and that students can keep putting into practice the lessons learnt when they do the next step.

So one of the things I found quite hard to get my head round when teaching teenagers in a state school context in the UK was this isn’t how it’s done there.

Now, I can see why. School is really quite tiring. The concentration needed to focus intensely on something individually or in pairs and then snap yourself back to work as a class, get your head down, drag your focus to the teacher, thinking, then talking, then listening, multiple times back and forth in one lesson… Well, doing that for a couple of hours twice a week is very different to sustaining it over what is quite a lengthy school day, every day, for five days, for months at a time.

Plus, given that school groups are really quite wide ranging and large, being able to manage the lesson so that each student is ready to have their work checked at more or less the same time as everyone else for a series of short exercises is probably wildly optimistic.

So lessons tend to work in thirds. There’s a whole class presentation type stage. Then comes a stage where students are working on things on their own, which if you are really feeling your oats as a teacher will be chosen according to each individual student’s level, needs, or preferences. And then there’s a plenary, where whatever they are supposed to have learned is checked, but in a sort of broad ‘what overarching principle have we learned this lesson’ sort of way. Specific outcomes for the exercises students have been working on will only be looked at when the teacher has time to take in books and mark them, assuming they were that kind of task in the first place.

And this will not be every lesson.

As you can imagine, this gives a very different pace to lessons, and a very different way of learning., and a very different idea of what makes a lesson work. It should, in theory, make a teacher think a lot more about what outcome for the lesson they want to achieve, rather than measuring success by a series of correctly answered exercises for a start.

I’ve been thinking about this because teaching online, it turns out, needs to be run a bit differently to teaching face to face.

A teachers stands in a forest surrounded by her pupils. The affordances of this environment will shape how she teaches.
Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

The main issue is that everything takes longer. Particularly pairwork. Mainly pairwork, even. I mean, don’t get me wrong I love how intimate the space of breakout rooms can be. No longer are you trapped in a large echoing room with the buzz of voices all around – there you are, just you and your partner, together, preferably on a sofa with a cup of coffee.

Different sofas, I’ll grant you. But a sofa none the less.

And as a teacher I can hear the students (in that room) a lot better than when my attention is fighting to tune out everybody else. Online pairwork is great! But every time you use pairwork online it comes at a time cost. And so you cannot use it for all the stages of the lesson that a face to face teacher might.

Now this in itself is a good way of figuring out when pairwork is truly important, not just for maximising students’ opportunity to speak, but for the purposes of collaboration, peer teaching and so on. It cannot just be the default.

Then the challenge is deciding how to monitor. Because if you cannot listen in to everybody at the same time, or you cannot listen in to anyone because you have not got the time for breakout rooms, then you have to figure out ways to get feedback on what students are doing or what outcomes they have reached that is inclusive of as many of the class as possible.

Which brings me to the point that online teaching may be a bit more teacher led in places, but it can also be more inclusive. It’s very easy to throw out a general question to a face to face class and let yourself fly with the fastest because you think you have some idea of how everyone got on.

This is not something you can let yourself do when you are working with a group online.

Luckily, not only are there online tools that help with remote monitoring, like Google Docs, but features on the teaching platforms themselves, like the chatbox in Zoom, allow you to do this. You just need to figure out what to use and when.

(Just. Ahahahahahahaha).

What has all this to do with discourse analysis and online communication, you may be asking yourself?

Not much. ‘S my blog. I can write what I like.

Oh go on then. It’s a nice example of what is known as affordance, a term coined back on the 60s* to describe what the environment allows someone to do, the way that humans shape the world around them to facilitate their lives, and that learning to use what is around them appropriately, natural or not, is a crucial aspect of learning how to fit in.

Affordances don’t need to be physical objects. They can also be someone’s talent, skills or a desire for something to happen.

But affordance became associated, in the fullness of the 80s, with product development and programming and similar, connected with designing things to be used in a particular way, preferably so that people would understand and be able to use them in the way intended without intensive instructions. The form would fit the function, sort of thing, that reading the manual would be superfluous.

Why yes, in case you are wondering, a man most certainly did come up with that idea**.

The term affordances also comes up when people talk about online communication and the ways that different platforms shape language and language use in ways that are different to we are used to, or think are normal. Some of which is an intended design feature, and some of which is users adapting in novel and interesting ways to their environment. More of a bug, in fact. Think of the rise of the emoji as a solution to the problem of not being able to use a quirk of an eyebrow or intonation and so on to indicate when you were trying to be a bit tongue in cheek.

To be honest I think ‘allowances’ is a better word, but then a) its inventor wanted a totally new word for his concept and b) it does connect to the phrase ‘afford someone an opportunity’ which puts the whole idea on a resolutely positive footing.

Which definitely brings us squarely back to the topic of this blog. Online communication’s affordances are different, sure, but that just changes the way you go about it, and what you might get out of it. It isn’t necessarily a debased form of real communication, just as online teaching isn’t necessarily an imperfect copy of ‘real’ face to face teaching.

Now excuse me while I just get back to stripping out all the unnecessary bits from my next lesson plan in order to focus on the essentials.

*By, if you must know, a psychologist called James J Gibson.

**Donald Norman.