ONLINE CLASSROOM –
PLANNING, ORGANISING, MANAGING AND TROUBLESHOOTING
Nowadays, with the great information revolution of the Internet era coming at great speed into all spheres of life, it seems obvious that teachers, and especially teachers of foreign languages, should take the leading part in this new endeavour as well, by incorporating the elements of Internet into their teaching. However, easy as it may sound, the issue is much more complex, demands a lot of knowledge, preparation and creativity on the part of the teacher. Language teachers are rarely computer specialists, and they do not feel confident enough to go and teach their subject with the help of advanced technology. This paper will try to address these people, willing to use the Internet in their teaching, by giving a discussion of all important aspects of organising, planning, managing and troubleshooting an online classroom.
My aim in the paper is to make it as practical as possible, and set in the Polish reality. Thus, after the introductory section about the ideal conditions for online education come practical applications of these. Much of the ideas and solutions as presented here have been actually tested by me in my online lessons in grade two in a secondary school.
1. ORGANISING AN ONLINE CLASSROOM –
THE IDEAL CONDITIONS
This section of the present paper is going to deal with general and organisational aspects of online English instruction and is meant as a guide for those teachers of English who would like to meet the challenge of the information revolution of the Internet era, but are unclear how to do it. The section can be subdivided into two very clearly distinguishable parts: in the first one there are guidelines on how to organise an on-line classroom in terms of equipment, students, teacher and syllabus used. Each of these aspects will be covered in detail together with specific requirements and arrangements. However, and I am quite definite about it, this is going to be a rather theoretical discussion, presenting ideal conditions and requirements for online learning. Perhaps when acting from the position of a university scholar occupied with theory in much better conditions such a treatment would be sufficient and justified. But because I am a teacher in a secondary school in Poland, struggling with the everyday reality of underresourced reform-undergoing Polish schools, after the theoretical discussion of the ideal conditions for online learning I give some practical tips of advice on how such an on-line classroom can be set up overcoming common problems. I feel that such a double perspective, that of ideal and of actual environment, is highly practical and fully justified in a paper like this, directed to ELT practitioners. Hopefully, in most aspects (especially when considering technology and resources) the conditions are likely to improve in time, coming closer to the ideal as presented in the first part.
The term “online classroom,” as used throughout this paper, denotes a lesson of English done with the help of the Internet and computers, involving the use of the Internet sites for different activities developing various language skills. In order to organise and run it successfully, the first big issue to be tackled is equipment in a computer lab. Ideally, and again I would like to stress that requirements presented here are ideal conditions as can be met in theoretical papers, such a computer lab should have:
These requirements concern all computers in the lab. Apart from that, the classroom would also need one printer (preferably a colour one), for printing some Internet materials for home use. One computer might be equipped with a CD-ROM recorder drive, preferably a CD-RW type (recording rewritable discs), to store large amounts of data, music, pictures or animations. All computers should be connected, forming a Local Area Network (LAN), and it should be possible to use the printer from all connected workstations. Also, an A4 format scanner of reasonable resolution (at least 600 dpi x 600 dpi, preferably 1200 dpi) would be useful for scanning photos, texts and putting these on the class website.
However, the hardware requirements as enumerated above, though certainly important, are not as crucial as the type and speed of the Internet connection, preferably a permanent connection with fast file transfer for instant downloading of Internet sites with music and graphics, rather than a modem connection, which is too slow and severely limits an online teacher in his possibilities. The type and speed of the connection is the most crucial aspect here, having greater effect on the successful outcome of the lesson than any other of the variables mentioned in the previous section. The school lab should have an email server operating on a relatively powerful computer, to enable fast and reliable mailing service, and to give students the chance to have their individual email accounts, as well as some webspace to create a class website.
Apart from hardware, each computer will need certain software to operate on: a word-processing programme (most usually Microsoft Word, at least 6.0), an Internet browser (Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 or 5.0 or Netscape Navigator), a web-publishing programme (e.g., Microsoft Frontpage Express supplied free with Microsoft Internet Explorer or Adobe PageMaker), email software (Microsoft Outlook Express also in the package with Microsoft Internet Explorer, Eudora or Pegasus Mail for Windows), a graphics editing programme (the simplest being Windows Paintbrush, though perhaps some more sophisticated one such as CorelDraw! would be a better option), and a photographs editing programme (such as Adobe Photoshop) if we intend to use photographs and make students do some advanced exercises in using them to enrich the class website.
Finally, the computer lab should be made available for English classes there apart from information technology classes, and also some allowance should be made for out-of-class, self-access use by students.
The next vital component of the online classroom are students. It is significant that their level of English should be intermediate or above, since the majority of the Internet sites uses authentic unabridged language and students must be proficient enough to process the sites. Obviously, the level can be adjusted by different methods, which is explained in detail later on in this paper. Online students need to have necessary computing skills, which involves the knowledge of a word-processing programme, the knowledge of how to move in the Internet, search for information there, save or print sites, the ability to create some graphics, to do basic webpublishing and to operate an email programme. It is assumed here that these abilities, at least partly, should be acquired during the information technology classes, and online English lessons should not be the time for lengthy teaching of these issues to the whole class (though it is possible, and even advisable for the teacher to provide technical help to individual students once in a while). Finally, it is crucial that students should have at least basic typing skills required to type a short letter, summary or report.
Preferably, students should have computers at home, so that they would be able to continue work from the lesson and further develop their computing and typing skills. Also, they should be allowed to use the lab outside class, since different students work at a different pace, and slow-working students should also be given the chance to complete the task at school after lessons or at home.
Probably the most important issue when considering students in an online classroom is the students-computers ratio, and it is essential that there should be so many computers (or so few students) that everyone is given an equal chance to participate in and benefit from the lesson. Obviously, that does not mean that there should be a one-to-one correspondence between students and computers (since this is hardly possible), but from my experience it seems that the best results can be achieved when there are two students per one workstation, but even three or four can be arranged profitably (see the next section for practical ideas).
Finally, as regards students’ psychological features, they should be internally motivated to use computers, should be eager to explore the world with the help of the Internet, should be ready to take up a new challenge and learn in a completely new learning environment, should be persistent in working on tasks assigned and creative enough to be able to add something of their own to the task.
The next element of an online classroom is the teacher. It is essential that he should be not only competent in teaching English, but should also have the computer skills and should be able to teach them or solve technical problems. Such a combination is still not widely met, and it seems necessary that teachers of English, willing to give their students the new experience of online learning, should work on improving their computer literacy, for instance during courses for ECDL (European Computer Driving Licence), organised by INSETT programmes, British Council SPRITE project or local education centres (WODN). To give an idea of the level of computer qualifications required by the teacher, it seems that possessing skills on ECDL level in its module 1 (theoretical knowledge about computing), module 2 (computer use, file management, operating system management), module 3 (word-processing), module 6 (graphics designing software), and, most essentially, module 7 (operating the Internet and computer networks) would be required to conduct a successful online lesson. The online teacher should also know some webpublishing basics, and be innovative and creative enough to create or guide students to creating a class website. Of course, it is not so important what certificate a teacher has, rather he should be as skilled as his students or more, in order to help them in case of technical problems, and should be really confident in his use of computers. Here, a must for every online teacher is a deep practical knowledge of the Internet, the Internet browser, search engines, types of sites, ways of moving in the Web, and the types of information that can be obtained from the Web. Therefore, a teacher, before going online with his class, should be online himself for at least a term.
Apart from being computer-skilled, an online teacher should also be extremely well-prepared for lessons, having a clear and detailed plan what to do, preparing some worksheets for students to complete, and giving them clear and precise instructions. It is advisable that he should preview the sites chosen for students before the lesson, to make sure that they still exist, that students will be able to find there the information they are looking for, that their content is not inappropriate in any way (this point is especially important having in mind the fact that the Internet is uncensored and any content can be found there, either purposefully or accidentally). Finally, the teacher should be well aware of dangers and problems connected with online instruction, and should always have some alternative sites to visit if the previously chosen are inaccessible or too slow to load, some additional off-line or on-line tasks, and some emergency off-line lesson plan in case of a connection breakdown.
The next issue to consider when organising an online classroom is how to incorporate this Internet instruction to the general English syllabus and what syllabus model is the best to follow in such a case. It is essential, in my opinion, that the online component should be compatible with the content of the course, and students should feel that what they do on-line is consciously connected with the rest of the course. Definitely, on-line instruction should not just consist in playing with computers, surfing the Internet for students’ pleasure or chatting with other people, but should lead to achieving learning goals. On-line lessons, in the sense proposed in this paper, should serve the purpose of exposing students to the abundance of authentic materials in the Web, in order to let them benefit from the interactive character of the Internet, to gain the first-hand experience of various places they would never visit personally, all achieved at great speed, with little cost and with great variety. However, and it is the teacher’s greatest responsibility, there must be an overall learning purpose in mind, and on-line lessons should involve only such tasks and activities which cannot be done in the normal off-line course of lessons, and to which the Internet adds some additional dimension which cannot be achieved otherwise. To sum up, it is my point that the Internet should not be used all the time, and just for the fun or novelty of it (because the novelty tends to wear out quite quickly), but only when using the Internet can help learners in their learning.
As regards the duration and frequency of such online lessons, it all depends on the availability of the lab, the number of hours a teacher has at his disposal, and the willingness of students. However, from my experience it appears that one on-line lesson in six would be enough, especially that each on-line period demands a lot of preparation from the teacher, and students also need some time to finish off the tasks at home.
The format of online lessons should, according to my observations, follow the well-known division into pre, while and post stages, the format familiar to most teachers from reading or listening instruction. The detailed components of each stage are discussed in the section “Managing an Online Classroom.”
2. ORGANISING AN ONLINE CLASSROOM –
THE POLISH REALITY
So far, I have been talking about the ideal conditions for online education, and the listeners/readers must have noticed a serious discrepancy between what I have outlined and the reality in their schools. Now I am going to come to terms with the actual situation in schools, and to give some practical hints on how to organise successful online lessons even in underresourced and overcrowded schools.
The initial assumption is that most schools have school computer labs connected to the Internet with at least seven or eight workstations and a school server. I know that this is so in most secondary schools in Lublin, and the situation has recently improved in lower secondary schools (gimnazjum), with most of them getting Internet access or being scheduled to go on-line in the near future. The Polish Ministry of National Education has made a priority of opening schools to the world via the Internet, which is a praiseworthy tendency. What is more, it has been revealed that in the institutional reform of the Polish secondary education system, computer skills are to be developed during the information technology classes in lower secondary schools (gimnazja), while in upper secondary schools (licea profilowane) the emphasis of computer instruction should shift on using the Internet during other subjects to enhance learning in all fields. All this, if implemented, will create very good conditions for online English instruction, and it is crucial that English teachers should start to think about using the Internet in their teaching.
Ideally, there should be a computer lab available for lessons of English, as well as for self-access outside class. The self-access provision, though certainly highly beneficial for students, is hardly realistic in our schools, since computer labs have usually such a tense schedule that sometimes it might be hard even to have an hour of English in the lab. It is the popular assumption that if students were allowed self-access to the computer lab without any direct control, it would result in their irresponsible and inappropriate behaviour. In my school, however, in the early afternoon students of higher classes (3 and 4) have been allowed to be in the lab after classes, and surprising as it may seem, this has not had any dreadful consequences so far. As for the difficulties in scheduling the lab for English lessons, it is true that in some schools the lab is occupied most of the time, but I think that if the school headmaster is convinced of the opportunities and benefits coming from online English instruction early before the beginning of the schoolyear and before the class schedule is made, he may try to make some allowance for online English instruction while the school schedule is being made. Of course, the situation is much better in private schools, as well as in lower secondary schools in the country, where with less classes there are greater possibilities for teachers of other subjects to have lessons in the lab.
The next problem concerns a school mail server, students’ individual email accounts and virtual space for a students’ website. It may happen that students do not have individual accounts for some reason (some of the classes may not have information technology classes this year) and cannot read and send messages from MS Outlook Express (I am talking about this particular programme because of its being free, easy to use and widespread, though I am well aware of its limitations). In such a case, the teacher should guide students through setting up individual email accounts on one of the free-to-use commercial servers (onet, Wirtualna Polska, Interia) and show them how to operate this Web-based mail. Also, the future class website could be placed for free on such a server, if there is no space provided by the school. However, as I know from my experience both with MS Outlook Express and Web-based mail (Hotmail), MS Outlook Express accounts, though not safest to use (anyone can send emails from any other person’s account), are by far the fastest, as in Web-based systems every operation (reading mail, replying, sending, etc.) means loading a new page, with graphics, ads, banners, etc. added by the portal.
A lot has been said before about students’ computer skills. It rarely happens that all students are equally skilled, while usually there are some knowing more than the teacher, while others do not know computers and are afraid to operate them. In such a case, students could be grouped in twos with one more computer-skilled person acting as hands (doing), while the other, less able with technology, as head (thinking). However, this solution, though quite profitable, should be avoided in the long run, since the purpose of online instruction should be giving all students equal share in the Internet experience.
It does happen quite often that the class for an online lesson is big (25-30 students), and there are more than two people per one workstation. Then, students should be divided into bigger groups, and each person should be assigned a specific role, not necessarily connected with a computer. Thus, one person would be doing things on the computer, the other would be thinking and guiding the doer, the third might be asked to look up words in a dictionary, while the fourth might be held responsible for preparing a presentation to the whole class. In this way, even up to four students per one PC can be reasonably arranged, giving each person some language work to do. In the future tasks the teacher should rotate the roles of students, as well as change the composition of groups, so that students are more likely to develop in various dimensions.
It is hardly realistic that each student will have a PC at home, as was said before, to continue working on the saved Internet sites, type letters or prepare reports. To amend this situation, mixed groups could be formed by the teacher, with one student having a PC at home, and the other not. This could add a collaborative element to the lesson, although we cannot totally prevent the situation when a student with a PC does the whole work for the group, without the other person even lifting his finger. The other solution to the problem is to print relevant passages or Internet sites (this is when the net printer comes useful), so that students could work on the hard copy at home.
I have emphasised before that the teacher needs to be extremely well-skilled in computers and Internet use, and definitely more skilled than students. However, it may happen that students know more than the teacher and may try to maliciously challenge him or purposefully break some parts of the system. Such a situation is, in my opinion, unavoidable, and the reasonable advice here might be that the teacher should learn as much as he can from his students, should try to involve such computer-literate students in providing technical help to other students or should make them responsible for some more advanced issues such as class website designing, graphics adding, photographs editing, typing, etc. On the other hand, even though the teacher may have to acknowledge his lack of skills or ask students for help, he or she should always have the confidence to drive students to the goals of the lesson according to the lesson plan, and to be firm about the fact that it is the teacher who is the decision maker and master of the classroom.
The final issue to be raised in this section is the students’ level of English. It has been said before that students should be at least intermediate or above, so as to comprehend and process the authentic and unabridged content of Internet sites. However, online tasks can be quite easily graded and adjusted to the level of a particular class, catering both for more and less advanced learners. To make the task more accessible for lower-level students, the teacher could try to choose sites with easier content (including less text and more visual stimuli) or could increase the amount of teacher guidance before, while and after the task. Also, the teacher could search for sites with easier language, and this technique was actually tried out by me. When I was working with my students on on-line newspapers, I discovered that some of them use more sophisticated vocabulary (quality papers such as Electronic Telegraph, www.telegraph.co.uk, an electronic version of Daily Telegraph), while others are easier to comprehend in terms of vocabulary and structures (tabloid papers such as The Sun, http://www.the-sun.co.uk/). Finally, the inadequate level of English may be levelled out by the task type. For less advanced learners the task should be easier, demanding less work, while for more proficient students the task should be made more sophisticated, requiring more effort and independent contribution. These are the many options that the teacher has to adjust online tasks to the level of the class.
3. PLANNING AN ONLINE CLASSROOM
The fundamental issue about planning an online classroom is, what has already been signalled, how this Internet-assisted instruction is to fit in with the whole syllabus of learning English. There are two alternative approaches here. The first possibility is to make such a lesson outside the syllabus, without any correspondence with the subject matter, structures or vocabulary of previous or subsequent lessons. In such a case, the main purpose of the lesson would be to add some freshness to the classroom, to use the Internet and computers to increase students’ motivation to learn English or to show them some new learning techniques. This situation is relatively easier for an online teacher, since it demands less conscious planning. It is enough to find some interesting sites and build lessons around them, without paying attention to the fact whether or not the lesson is compatible with the overall syllabus. Indeed, such an approach is advisable for beginning online teachers, who themselves learn a lot about planning, managing and troubleshooting an online classroom while conducting such lessons. Online teachers who make their lessons unconnected with the syllabus, should make sure that during subsequent online lessons they expose students to different types of materials and engage them in different types of tasks. The novelty of the Internet, as every novelty, wears out fairly quickly if students are made to do the same all the time – read the content of the site, make notes, then write a report or present a summary to the whole class. Thus, it is important to alternate types of tasks and modes of work, types of sites, focus on different skills, and to exploit all aspects of the Internet (for ideas on such various ways of using the Internet, see Sperling’s Internet Activity Workbook or The Internet Guide for Language Teachers, Teeler and Gray’s 2000 How to Use the Internet in ELT, Eastman’s 1999 The Internet and ELT or Eastman, Windeatt, Hardisty’s 2000 The Internet).
How to plan a lesson that would not be connected with the syllabus? In order to do that, the teacher should find some interesting Internet sites (such as Dumblaws, www.dumblaws.com), which he feels might be of interest to his students and at the same time might let him build an interesting lesson around their content. Then, the teacher should determine how he is going to exploit that site, i.e. what skills and in what way he is going to make his students develop. After that, he should devise tasks, prepare some handout or checklist to complete, and prepare a detailed lesson plan following a pre, while and post format, with some additional off-line tasks, on-line activities, and an alternative off-line lesson plan for the whole lesson. I would like to stress here that the sites chosen should be interesting for students, not for the teacher, and the tasks should use such techniques as are enabled by using the Internet. Also, the teacher should keep in mind all the time that the online lesson should primarily serve the goal of learning English, not learning how to operate computers or playing with the Web.
The other approach to online lessons, and the one advocated by me, is trying to incorporate them in the syllabus, so that during such a lesson students operate on already known vocabulary and structures, practising and reinforcing them. The subject matter of such a lesson is the same as of the unit from the book, and the Internet instruction gives a fuller context to the material and ideas presented in the coursebook. What is most crucial, the Internet can bring to the coursebook instruction such important elements as:
These are all advantages of Internet instruction over coursebook instruction, and, in my opinion, these arguments are strong enough to convince my listeners of the need to enrich coursebook instruction with the Internet component.
When planning an online lesson, both in the syllabus and outside it, the teacher should keep in mind the general principle that the Internet should be used to do tasks which cannot be done otherwise. Also, the Internet instruction should serve the purpose of opening students to the whole world, raising their cultural awareness, broadening their horizons, increasing general knowledge, learning new vocabulary and getting ideas for speaking and writing.
The online lesson which is to be compatible with the material in the coursebook needs much more considerate planning. The teacher needs to consider the unit he is teaching, and decide which of its elements could be more conveniently or interestingly taught online (e.g., newspaper headlines from the coursebook could be replaced with current headlines from an online newspaper). Then, the teacher should devise off-line and on-line tasks developing various skills for each stage of the lesson. The rest of the planning is the same as in the case of the lesson outside the syllabus, namely preparing materials for students, a detailed plan with careful time allocation, additional activities and an emergency off-line plan in case of a connection breakdown.
The main difference between the two types of lessons lies in the initial, conceptual stage. It is much more difficult for the teacher to devise a lesson that would reinforce the coursebook instruction. The tendency among materials writers is that they complement the basic coursebook with additional materials, among others video cassettes with workbooks (Oxford University Press New Headway Intermediate). It seems that soon they will acknowledge the growing importance of online education and will issue Internet activity workbooks as supplements to the basic coursebook. Then, the teacher will no longer have to go through the painful process of planning, searching for sites and devising tasks, but will just follow, adapt and verify lesson suggestions supplied by the publisher. But until that is done, teachers have no other choice but to experiment on their own in a much more conscious effort of adapting parts of their coursebooks to online learning.
4. MANAGING AN ONLINE CLASSROOM
This section of the paper is going to deal with specific aspects of managing an online classroom, and particularly with what the pre, while and post stage should include, what the teacher’s and learners’ roles are in these stages, and what should be the timing and pacing of an online classroom.
As said before, it is advisable that the lesson should be divided into pre, while and post stages. The pre-stage is off-line, and it should be devoted to the introduction of the topic of the activity, the speaking warm-up, the review of key structures and vocabulary necessary for the completion of the task. If the lesson is the continuation of the coursebook, then the teacher should give students the sense of continuity, should refer to previously or subsequently taught material, and students should know which part of the coursebook they are currently working on. In this pre-stage students should be familiarised with instructions for the while-stage, so that they know precisely what they are expected to do, and specific technical instructions could be given in students’ native language to ensure full comprehension. Also, if the task’s nature is unfamiliar, the teacher might do the task to the whole class as a model, with everyone paying attention to the technical part of the activity (which is Prabhu’s 1987 idea of pre-task and task). Obviously, as Prabhu also notes, the pre-task makes sense only to familiarise students with the nature of the task, and the task should demand some fresh thinking. Finally, the teacher should guide students through the materials they are given and asked to complete (a checklist, a grid to fill in, a handout with information to verify, a handout with points to find out information about and write a report).
The pre-stage is off-line, and the time used for it might be utilised to load a website to be used during the lesson or perform some time-consuming search with the Internet search engine. However, after typing the URL or a keyword in the search engine, students’ monitors should be turned off, so that students’ attention is not distracted from pre-stage activities in any way. It is crucial that in this stage strict discipline is maintained and the teacher makes sure that his students do what he expects them to do.
As for the teacher’s role in this stage, he should introduce the topic in an interesting way, activate students’ background knowledge, bring back structures and phrases referring to the topic and provide a clear and detailed explanation of the while-stage. Obviously, he also needs to arrange the whole lesson, pre-load sites if necessary and make sure the equipment is working.
On the whole, the pre-stage should not be too long, but meaningful, informative and kept at a quick pace, so that proper introduction to the task is done, and students do not feel bored.
The second part of an online lesson is the while-stage, which is the most crucial of the three. Also, it is the most demanding for the teacher and students, since it requires a lot of cognitive effort and strict discipline on both sides. It is also difficult because it relies almost exclusively on technology, and in case of technical problems the whole essence of the lesson may be lost. In the while-stage, students are expected to work in pairs or groups in the Internet, executing tasks assigned to them and explained by the teacher before, and getting the information needed to complete their handouts, with the Internet sites serving usually as a source of information, developing different skills in the course of it (reading, listening, speaking and writing). Of course, as for speaking, the teacher should make sure that native language is not used in the interaction in groups, which is a common tendency among students.
During the tasks, the teacher should be extremely active, controlling all the time students’ progress, helping them in case of unexpected technical problems, if needed clarifying the instructions for the task making sure students proceed in the right direction, providing vocabulary help as a last resort by helping to translate some passages or giving native language equivalents for crucial words (however, the extent of this vocabulary help should be limited, and it is usually more profitable for learners to have one person from the group responsible for doing dictionary look-up). The while-stage may also be the time for the teacher to show some useful time-saving software tricks to groups of students (e.g., how to count words, how to check spelling, change the language, make the Internet search more specific). Also, the teacher should monitor students’ movement in the Web, to make sure they work on sites with appropriate content.
Finally, a word is needed about the timing and pacing of this stage of the lesson. It is extremely important that the teacher should keep track of time during the while phase, and motivate and urge students to speed up with the task if this is the need. With ordinary off-line activities, there is always a chance to finish off in the next class, but with on-line tasks there is no such possibility. Also, while allocating time to each part of the lesson, the teacher should make sure there is some extra time for the while-stage, just in case the connection is slower than expected or some sites are temporarily down. Thus, the teacher’s role to keep the time and maintain the proper pace of the lesson cannot be underestimated.
The last stage of the whole lesson is the post-stage, which is (as well as the pre-phase), off-line, so it does not have to be conducted in the computer lab and can be done in the next class, providing students in this way with some time to work on the completion of the task. The post stage should focus on checking and reviewing the way the tasks assigned are accomplished, with students reporting their findings to the whole class or to the other group. Preferably, Internet activities should be based on information-, opinion-, or reasoning-gap, and such mutual reporting, apart from developing oral skills and fostering communication, would greatly help to increase students’ knowledge and broaden their horizons. The post-stage is also the time to reward students’ effort, to encourage them to the idea of technology in learning, to get some feedback from them about the experience of learning, the problems they have encountered and the solutions they have come up with, the possible strengths and weaknesses of Internet-assisted instruction. For the teacher such insights from students might be quite illuminating, since probably the greatest obstacle in teaching is overcoming the natural tendency to look at learners and tasks through the teacher’s, not the learners’, eyes. Also, during this post-stage, the teacher should provide some feedback about the errors students made. Finally, this could be the time to draw their attention to some key vocabulary or structures encountered in the Internet, as well as to some formal features of writing genres using the examples from the Internet.
5. TROUBLESHOOTING AN ONLINE CLASSROOM
In the last section of the paper I am going to present some problems encountered by me in my experiences with Internet-assisted education and give some practical solutions to them. Obviously, each new environment will have new problems and new solutions, but I hope that what I give here will be of some help to online teachers.
The most usual, and at the same time the most painful, problem of an online classroom is a slow connection. In case of slow file transfer, the teacher should reformulate his ideas for the lesson, should forget about using Internet search engines such as Yahoo or Altavista, since it might last extremely long to get a search result. Instead, the teacher might do the search before and save the site with results, so that students have the links to explore, without having to wait for the search result. In a slow connection classroom, in order to maximise students’ learning experience, the teacher might preview the sites and give students only those which load fairly quickly, and in this way prevent students from wasting time exploring a number of sites before getting to the right one. Sites which load faster are those with more text and less graphics, banners, ads or pictures. Also, some solution would be to preload a needed site to the computer’s cache memory, and thanks to the proxy server in a Local Area Network, all computers would access such a preloaded site quickly. Another option is to choose the “view off-line” option in the Internet browser, and choose some sites for off-line viewing, either with the Internet browser or with some dedicated software such as WebWhacker (however, this solution should be treated rather as emergency, since then the lesson is not really online, students no longer have the choice, variety and interactivity, and choosing sites for students and saving them for off-line browsing should be used only as a last resort). Finally, the site’s domain has a lot to do with loading time, and, as I experienced, sites with the .com ending usually load long (as being from the United States), while United Kingdom-based pages (with .uk ending) are much quicker to load.
Online classrooms are very likely to be mixed-ability, both in terms of computer-ability and proficiency-level. To level out the differences, the good option would be to group students in such a way that a computer-skilled student (but not necessarily the best in terms of language) is paired with a more advanced learner, and in this way they both compensate for the other person’s limitations. The teacher should encourage some friendly peer teaching inside groups, so that the level of computer skills and the level of language proficiency improve in time.
It sometimes happens that computer-skilled students, usually boys, being fast to complete the tasks assigned, disrupt the class, surf the Internet for sites of inappropriate content or disturb the other groups. The teacher’s role here is to engage these students by giving them enhanced responsibilities, and the best choice is to involve them in creating a class website from the materials supplied by the other groups. In such a case, these students’ advanced skills will be utilised with benefit for the whole class. Giving them a greater challenge to meet and using their energy and imagination creatively will successfully prevent them from causing discipline problems.
The final issue which appeared to be a problem in the Internet adventures with my classroom was that students often met the sites with inappropriate content, which can be in sharp conflict with the policy of the school (I had to be particularly careful about that, working in a private Catholic secondary school). Sometimes even incidentally students might come across a site with the content openly erotic, promoting violence or full of swearwords, as appeared some time ago when one of the links for Mardi Gras festival was a gay and lesbian site. In order to make sure that students work on pages whose content is relevant to the subject of the lesson and in agreement with the school policy, the teacher should be active in monitoring students’ progress in the Internet, both during the lesson and after it (using the History feature of an Internet browser). Also, students should be made aware of the teacher’s attitude in that matter, and they should realise the consequences of purposeful bad behaviour (this also concerns malicious damage to the software or equipment, disturbing the class, not executing the teacher’s instructions, etc.). As it was the case with my class, I made the strong point that the online lesson is a kind of reward for them (and they indeed treated it like that), and any problems concerning discipline, destruction of the equipment or anything else would result in immediate comeback to normal English instruction (which worked perfectly, by the way). Only if students feel equally responsible for the course and success of the online lesson will it be possible for the teacher to achieve his teaching goals and make the online component fully meaningful and profitable for them.
The purpose of the present paper, dealing with practical issues of organising, planning, managing and troubleshooting an online classroom, was not to exploit the matters raised in detail, but rather to inspire teachers to meet the new challenge and make their classes online. Thus, I have not tried to focus on theoretical aspects of Internet-assisted education, but rather on well-tried out recipes for successful online lessons. Much more research is needed into each of these fields, but probably more necessary than research are actual experiences of successes and failures of online lessons, as recounted by primary and secondary school teachers. I hope that soon it will be possible to exchange URLs, ideas for lessons, solutions to problems or useful tricks among online teachers of English in Poland, as more and more of them will be opening their classrooms to the world via the Internet. In order to accomplish that goal, lively cooperation of teachers in IATEFL Computer Special Interest Group (http://www.iatefl.org.pl/call1.html) is needed, as well as participation in British Council SPRITE project (http://www.britishcouncil.pl/english/polsprit.htm), INSETT programmes (http://www.codn.edu.pl/tekst_pl/3_proj/insett/insett.htm) and other programmes dealing with Internet education, for instance European Computer Driving License courses (http://antenor.pol.lublin.pl/~ecdl/) or Interklasa programme (http://www.interklasa.pl/).