To explore how teachers at HKU SPACE address students with different language capabilities in traditional classroom learning, our E-learning colleague Norris Lau interviewed Community College teacher, Dr Sylvia Hon on 30 March 2017. She shared her valuable teaching practices of flipped classroom and blended learning experiences in an English language course. Below are the questions and her answers.
How do you use E-learning in your course?
In my course entitled College Writing, I use the online platform mainly for two aspects: pre-class activities and the use of Wiki and Blog. There are many very useful writing resources on the Internet and some are of very high quality. I don’t see the need to rewrite the same thing myself. On the online platform, I just guide students to the relevant Websites and ask them to read relevant pages. When they come back to class, we conduct some interactive activities during the lesson based on what they learnt from those Websites.
The other use of the online platform is students’ written work on SOUL through Wiki and Blog, which encourages them to write more because not many of them actually do their homework, particularly if it is not a formal piece of assessment. But with the use of the platform, they would be more likely to complete the writing at home and use their time in a more efficient manner. Students told me that they found it easier to type their essays on the computer rather than using pen and paper. Therefore, I think it helps both them and me tremendously.
When all students’ writing can be read on the platform, they do learn a lot from each other. In the traditional classroom setting, when we conduct peer review and ask them to share their writings, they can read the writings of a very few classmates. But with the use of the Blog, they can read more or all other classmates’ writings.
What are the benefits to teachers like yourself and to students?
I think the major benefit to myself is to force me to really structure my lesson. Usually, in a traditional classroom, teachers have an idea of what we do, like task A being followed by task B, etc. Making the course online can stimulate teachers to produce a detailed lesson plan. Everything has to be thought out very clearly and therefore it forces me to structure my lesson systematically.
Another benefit to me is that the content of the E-learning course is transferable. I find it easy to inform another instructor of the course’s focus. It is easy for me and the transition from one instructor to another is smooth in terms of both structure and content.
The major benefit of online learning to students is that they can really learn at their own pace. It is particularly useful for language classes. I am teaching classes with students at Level 5 and at the same time, there are students at Level 1 or 2. Brighter students with strong English can finish a task in 5 minutes, while lower level students are still struggling after 30 minutes. With online learning, these weaker students can learn at their own pace. They don’t need to feel embarrassed because of their relatively slow pace of completing the assignments. Online learning can really address the learning gap between stronger and weaker students.
What are the lessons you learn from your E-learning pedagogy?
I learn a great deal from the technical aspects, including SOUL. I also learn some differences between traditional classroom setting and online teaching and learning. You really have to experience it. In traditional classroom setting, when students give me an answer, I decide whether it is right or wrong and give them feedback. When the same process is transferred to an online mode, I can ask students to engage in more complex tasks, such as reading and thinking about the differences between academic and non-academic writing, and then completing some quizzes. One student wrote a long piece of comment on the platform, telling me the shortcomings of the reading comprehension. Why is this answer acceptable but not the other? Why are things so rigid? These responses were daunting and amazing to me!
In the future, when I run online courses, if I give students tasks particularly when any assessment is involved, I will be more careful in designing the suggested answers and I will ensure that I have a broad range of possibilities.
What is your advice to teachers and tutors who may try to experiment with E-learning?
My advice is to develop an online course based on an existing one. The process of writing a new course and making it online is really overwhelming, but if we have an existing course which has been run for once or twice and when the materials are more or less ready, then we can build on the existing materials, change the format, alter the way of delivery so that it is adaptable to the online platform. That is my first advice.
Secondly, selecting a few lessons of the course to go online is more feasible and perhaps more targeted as well as effective. We can focus on the parts with which students struggle most. In this way, online learning can be more effective.
What would you perhaps do to improve your course by using E-learning pedagogy again?
I would like to make pre-class activities more interesting to students. It is very difficult to motivate students to complete pre-class activities, not because of its blended, flipped or traditional nature. I think it is very difficult to ask students to prepare for a lesson beforehand. But with blended learning or online platform, we can make pre-class activities more interactive, involving more game elements. I’m now learning about gamification and I think games will facilitate student learning.
Dr Sylvia Hon