Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Apr 05, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version
When Dr. Beata Webb and Alicia Vallero joined forces in 2013, as part of the team developing an online Master of Arts in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) program at Bond University, they faced concerns about the efficacy of online learning, both personally and from their educational community. Although the team possessed ample experience assembling TESOL programs and in blended learning, they had limited experience with online education. And so, they were in for a big surprise. So much so, that it has completely transformed and revitalized the way they think about education and teaching. With the help of Blackboard Collaborate, they embarked on a journey that would completely redefine them professionally and the way they envision the future of education.
Redefining Traditional Concepts of Education
Four years ago, at Bond University in Australia’s Gold Coast, Dr. Beata Webb, assistant professor and TESOL Programs coordinator, and Alicia Vallero, senior teaching fellow in the Faculty of Society and Design, began their journey in online learning, and soon realized that they needed to redefine some traditional concepts in education.
“We ventured into the world of online education assuming that the online experience was not as effective as ‘face-to-face’ teaching and learning. We had heard from many experts and institutions delivering online education that ‘online learning cannot offer human interaction,’ and that online education offers ‘limited opportunities to interact face-to-face with professors and other students,’” points out Alicia.
Their first experience teaching online was challenging but very positive. “We realized that there are many misconceptions about online delivery, and that they mainly referred to old online delivery methods and distance education,” says Beata. They both agree that their positive experience was hard to describe and explain to colleagues, as many of these concepts have changed their meaning.
For example, ‘what is face-to face’? In the traditional sense, face-to-face education is usually thought of as an on-campus process of learning and teaching. Through Bond’s online platform (Blackboard Collaborate), however, all the students can gather online to follow lectures, chat, see each other via web cams, and interact with one another. In such environment, the principle of ‘face-to-face’ certainly applies as well. Therefore, Alicia and Beata proposed that the concept itself had to be extended to both modes of delivery.
Another term that they struggled with was the term ‘on-campus.’ When you think of ‘on-campus students,’ traditionally, you would imagine a classroom full of students somewhere on campus. “However, if you say ‘on-campus,’ well, students can be on-campus virtually,” notes Alicia. Beata adds: “These days, I actually have an online student residing outside my office every Wednesday; the internet is good, she has a quiet spot, her children are not running around. So, the difference between ‘on-campus’ students versus ‘online students’ has also lost its traditional meaning because ‘online students’ are often doing the online subjects while physically sitting on campus.” That’s why Beata and Alicia felt that the only way to refer to what is traditionally thought of as face-to-face education could only be defined as ‘brick-and- mortar.’ “It’s the only expression that we are happy to use, because if you say ‘on-campus’ you can be on campus both physically or virtually,” says Alicia.
When tackling the traditional notion of human interaction in education, both lecturers also believe that it is a myth to say that online education doesn’t offer a high level of interaction, and will go as far to say that, in fact, online delivery may offer a higher level of human connection and interaction than brick-and-mortar classes.
“We found that an online course delivered using Blackboard Collaborate can offer a deep level of human interaction. Our students interact ‘face-to-face’ with us and with one another. They can also interact in the Blackboard Collaborate session in ways that are not possible when physically sharing a classroom,” says Alicia.
“If you say ‘online’ people often think ‘isolation.’ In our online courses, students form strong relationships that last beyond the course,” points out Beata. In fact, their students will often look forward to meeting their instructors offline and beyond the classroom, due to the strong connections formed through their interactions during the online class experience.
It’s All About Pedagogy
One of Bond University’s strategic goals is to offer high-quality lectures and interactive tutorials in small classes. “I think one of our greatest achievements is that we’ve been able to address this goal in online teaching,”says Beata. Both lecturers agree that, regardless of the type of setting you use – brick-and-mortar or online – it is all about the pedagogy.
“Many people still attach a stigma to online teaching and learning as, ‘it’s not as good as…etc.,’” both lecturers agree. “But many years of teaching experience show us that the dichotomy of ‘good and bad teaching’ does not align with the dichotomy of ‘online and brick-and-mortar.’ It should really be replaced with ‘good and bad pedagogy,’ no matter what mode of delivery you choose. You can have a bad class both online and, in the brick,-and-mortar classroom, or you can have a great class in both.”
“It always depends on the environment you work in. Both modes of delivery will call for different tools to achieve your teaching objectives. Current virtual platforms such as Blackboard Collaborate, allow us to interact, collaborate, develop social communities, and do it all ‘face-to-face’ just like brick-and-mortar classrooms do. But, the tools we use in each case will be different,” share the lecturers.
Challenges of Online Learning
When speaking about the challenges of online learning, Beata and Alicia talk about the importance of effective teacher training. “On the one hand, the usual teacher education involves theories of teaching and learning and their classroom applications. On the other hand, online teachers need to be trained in the use of technology and how to teach in the virtual classroom,” Alicia and Beata stress. “The beginnings were hard when we had to learn the IT and Blackboard troubleshooting skills. I am a linguist but my students across the world assumed I could help them with their IT problems,” says Beata. “You can’t do it on your own. You need a team that includes IT and Blackboard support staff. We have been very lucky to have great colleagues on board. Without this collaboration, we would have never been able to develop the program that we are so proud to have now,” concludes Beata.
Beata and Alicia are still in awe of the power of online education and the tools available. “We are still impressed with the concept of virtual classrooms such as Blackboard Collaborate, as they offer so much more than we ever really expected.”
For students, online learning not only offers the flexibility they need, but also provides a level of personalization that makes their course sessions so enjoyable. Blackboard Collaborate not only enables the delivery of program content, but also supports the development of dynamic learning communities. Here are some of the comments from the students in the Master of Arts in TESOL program.
Photos by: AFP – Patrick Hamilton