Sarah Mengshan Xu

A Critical Examination of Teaching Methodology in ELICOS in Australia: A transition to online course under the COVID-19 crisis

Sarah Mengshan Xu

University of Newcastle, Australia

Mengshan.Xu[at]uon.edu.au

Abstract: This study was designed to elucidate the immense online pedagogy and the upskilling in language teaching technology in English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students (ELICOS) under the COVID-19 pandemic. To discover what teaching methodologies and how they were employed in online courses to replace the traditional teaching pedagogies, classroom observations were conducted in the Language Centre at the University of Newcastle, Australia. The data were collected through Zoom platform over a month from two ELICOS online classrooms, intermediate and upper-intermediate, and students (N = 31) and teachers (N = 2) were observed. The findings indicated some similarities with previous studies that investigated under SARS epidemic, while more up-to-date technology implementations, including Zoom and OneDrive, were used. The eclectic method, namely, Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) and Task-based Language Teaching (TBLT), along with Information and Communication Technology (ICT), was adopted in daily courses. The final discussion focused on some of the problems inherent in online forum and recommendations were made for further research. Some potential values came from this research in the form of encouraging the readers who were not aware of the challenges that might be encountered in virtual classes to be reflexive with their curriculum designs and teaching methodologies.

Keywords: Teaching methodology; ICT; ELICOS; COVID-19

1. Introduction: New Challenges for Teaching and Learning

The COVID-19 outbreak had rapidly hit the world and within several months had a devastating impact on the world’s economy and caused changes in the consumption of education. One in five students worldwide was staying away from school due to the COVID-19 crisis while another one in four was barred from higher education institutions (UNESCO, as cited in Owusu-Fordjour, Koomson and Hanson, 2020). The situation in general language education in Australia has changed under this pandemic. With the cooperation of ‘social distancing’ required by the government and the suspension of face-to-face classes, most universities in Australia and New Zealand have closed but resumed with online teaching. Other school services remain open, but teaching is restricted to delivering courses online exclusively (Moorhouse, 2020).

Numerous Language Centre and ESL classrooms went through an educational transition to the online form of distance teaching and learning, and live communicative platforms like Zoom and Collaborate were giving crucial support under this challenging time. As most of the courses were designed for real-time interactions in physical classrooms, teachers are no doubt facing enormous challenges to adapt their traditional teaching methodologies into distance teaching operations while still regarding the needs of students. It comes to light that the pandemic might also have negative effects on students’ learning outcomes, especially for those who fail to adapt themselves to the e-learning environment. Whether this quick transition to distance course, where the language learning environment created by using the internet, video/audio/text communication and software, could be successful is still an unresolved question (Basilaia and Kvavadze, 2020).

2. Related Literature on Teaching Methodologies

In order to recognise the methodologies teachers employ in online classes, there is cause for reviewing relevant historical research and explore the data collected from traditional classrooms. In this paper, three teaching methodologies will be introduced.

2.1 Communicative Language Teaching (CLT)

Due to the absence of phonological instruction in language classes in the previous decades and the importance of learners’ unrehearsed responses in real-life communication, CLT has been gradually introduced into classes and has seen widespread use until today. A report by Savignon (1991) noted that introducing systematic communicative materials under various social contexts, including understanding the implication of appropriateness and the cultural norms, were all seen as the way to improve communicative competence and form the central core of the communicative approach. The advantages of the CLT were further identified by Savignon (1991) at the University of Illinois. Students who were experiencing an 18-week communicative teaching program, in which they were encouraged to take the risk to make spontaneous utterances instead of focusing on the grammatical knowledge and memorising patterns, the level of their communicative competence in the final task substantially surpassed other counterparts.

However, this pedagogical methodology has also been criticised for its lack of structure and accuracy. One who is in favour of this meaning-focused teaching approach might achieve fluency but not accuracy in language acquisition. According to Sato and Kleinsasser (1999), some negative concepts, including neglecting grammar, over-emphasizing speaking, and involving time-consuming activities, were frequently associated with CLT. Also, a class observation applied in an Australian state school discovered that the notion of the CLT still remains arguably vague among ESL teachers. Most of the participants confused the substantial similarity between audio-lingual method and the CLT with the same goal of teaching, and the significant overlapping areas in-between CLT and the natural approach due to the sharing of teaching syllabus (Koondhar, Siming and Umrani, 2018; Sato and Kleinsasser, 1999).

2.2 Task-based Language Teaching (TBLT)

In recent decades, TBLT has been considered as one of the most effective pedagogies. According to Dim (2013), tasks could potentially put learners into a more effective, self-directed, and more accessible situation. By working on the tasks, students can track their learning progress as the tasks could be a ‘monitor’ of their works. And it helps them to open and close conversations, to work together naturally, and to interrupt and confront. Some students believed that TBLT made them more independent thinkers since they were expected to accomplish the tasks individually. Some positive feedback indicated that TBLT-oriented classrooms made it easier for students to remember what they had learned, improving their self-confidence, and made them feel more curious about learning (Tomlinson and Dat, 2004).

However, language teachers who apply the TBLT in the classroom might find it difficult to evaluate the learners’ progress if they fail to familiarise themselves with assessment methods of the TBLT (Thi Ly, 2018). Also, receiving feedback from the teacher after the test, as one of the main characteristics of the TBLT, might have some negative effects on students. In the majority of language classrooms, the teachers are encouraged to give valuable feedback, so that learners can realise their weaknesses and make adjustments during the learning process, while it might not work this way for those who are acutely sensitive to the evaluations. According to the interviews in Horwitz and Cope’s research (1986), students complained that they were afraid of the teacher correcting every mistake they made, and this statement affirms the questionnaire results collected by Tomlinson and Dat (2004), which indicated that 12.6% of the learners feel apprehensive when receiving teacher’s criticism.

2.3 Information and Communication Technology (ICT)

Since the implementation of computers and various technologies in educational systems, ICT has been developed and widely used in the ESL context. The effective use of ICT can transform the traditional teaching and learning process into a creative, self-directed and constructive way (Shah and Empungan, 2015). This teaching methodology is highlighted as effective for language learning by affording access and exposure to authentic materials, communication opportunities, and instant individualised feedback (Røkenes and Krumsvik, 2016). Also, Yunus, Nordin, Saleh, Embi and Salehi (2013) showed that ICT could be beneficial in term of motivating and attracting learners’ attention as the lessons were more interesting when involving technological tools.

However, the successful integration of ICT is highly dependent on the preparation and attitudes of instructors. Teachers may find a gap between what they expect in ICT and the practices they encountered during the school practicum. Several researchers have identified that teacher’s digital competence is often limited to basic digital skills such as office tools and social media while having little experience with using ICT for delivering class (Yunus et al., 2013). The reason for this weakness was identified as the lack of support in the use of interactive digital tools other than office software in teacher education programs and partnership schools. Educators were often frustrated and frequently mentioned that they have not received any training for how ICT should be used in education, therefore causing challenges for them to adapt ICT effectively and develop digital competences (Røkenes and Krumsvik, 2016). Meanwhile, students found it difficult to develop the technical competence required for the educational practices since they did not have enough knowledge and practical skills including using databases and searching for articles (Tour, 2010). Also, the use of computer technology might lead to a ‘lackadaisical attitude’ among students whereby they were not taking works seriously (Røkenes and Krumsvik, 2016). The nature of the ICT is more likely to distract students’ attention from the teacher’s instruction, therefore making class control difficult for the instructors.

3. Research Questions

In response to the need for more research into online teaching methodology replacements to face-to-face instructional approaches, this study aims to address the following key questions:

(1) What teaching methodologies were employed in online courses in the Language Centre at the University of Newcastle?

(2) How were these pedagogies adapted to the virtual teaching environment?

4. Methodology

4.1 Participants

The participants of the study were 31 students studying in online ELICOS program and 2 teachers who were taking charge of the classes. The initial recruitment process planned to involve 50 students and 4 instructors approximately, although due to the constraints of the COVID-19 the number of the volunteers eventually dropped to 33. The student participants consisted of two different levels, intermediate and upper-intermediate, and were a mix of international students who were not fluent in English. The data for this study were collected from these two groups of students with their teachers for over a month. Also, the selected volunteers were not screened for demographic variables such as age, gender and ethnicity, and only those who formally indicated their consent to participate were recruited.

4.2 Instruments

The observations of two different virtual classes over a month were accomplished to analyse the adaption of teaching methodologies in an online environment. All the classes were observed through the Zoom platform and each of the classes met for 12 hours per week. In order to conduct the observations in a structured and controlled way, the descriptive field notes were taken to describe how the teaching methodologies were adopted. Some elements were captured multiple times, indicating the frequency of the used pedagogy. Meanwhile, the results of the observations were confirmed by the teacher at the end of the class, to corroborate the information collected and to reduce bias and evidence reporting errors. Also, during the process of observing, the role of the researcher in the intermediate course began as a nonparticipant observer and then transformed into a participant observer as advised by both teacher and students. In many observational situations, to be subjectively involved in the setting and to see the phenomenon more objectively, it is beneficial to shift roles when a researcher adapts into the setting (Creswell, 2002).

5. Findings

The research questions of the study aim to find out what teaching methodologies teachers choose to employ in the online ELICOS and how well they were adapted in the online environment. In order to address these objectives, the data were collected through the administration of the semi-structural classroom observations. Both observed classes commenced with a roll call from teachers to check on student’s attendance, with a review of previous homework, and ended in the manner of assigning homework for the following class. After all the field notes were examined, the different combinations of multiple teaching methodologies were discovered, and classified into three themes.

5.1 The Combination of TBLT and ICT

Figure 1.

TBLT ICT Frequency

- Assigned tasks. OneDrive; Zoom. 45

- Provided feedback. Onedrive. 18

- Explained the task instructions and purposes. Zoom; OneDrive. 25

- Mimicked the exam conditions. Zoom. 3

Note: frequency = total times that was captured during the observations.

Figure 1 above presents the analysis of the adopted pedagogies in observed classroom practices. In order to simulate the regular classroom conditions, both teacher participants were intensely using ‘share screen’ function in Zoom classrooms to demonstrate the course PowerPoint, shared pictures, sought information on Google, as well as adopted informative videos from Youtube. Meanwhile, OneDrive, a Microsoft Office product, was another ICT tool frequently used in the observed classes, which allowed teachers and students to collaborate by using ‘real-time co-authoring’ and other helpful features. As the frequency data show above, a large amount of time was spent on assigning and completing tasks. In detail, learners were expected to answer the questions listed on the PowerPoint and typed it down on the same slide or into the chatbox, according to teacher’s preference. All the course materials were able to access from OneDrive with the provided data of how many viewers and views of a certain digital file, therefore providing a better picture for the teacher to monitor learners’ studies. Also, in corresponding with the virtual environment, most of the reading materials were scanned and transformed from the traditional textbook to digital files with good graphics quality.

Before starting the tasks, students were required to access the correspondent file, complementing with the question list and task instructions presented on the ‘share screen’. The teacher subsequently stated what learners were expected to do with the purposes and benefits of the task. Following rule clarifications, the task continued and students worked independently in the Zoom room and the answers were shared both orally or with the use of the ‘real-time co-authoring’ feature in OneDrive. Finally, at the end of the lesson, students were assigned homework taken from an authentic text. The teacher would receive an informed email from OneDrive once the student submitted their works. As such, feedback and comments on after-class tasks would be left on the learner’s original file through OneDrive. In contrast, for in-class tasks, teachers used body language, such as clapping and giving thumbs up, positive facial expression and verbal complement through Zoom camera and microphone to support learners. Also, during the exam week, it was observed that the teacher played the examiner role to start the task to familiarise students themselves to the online exam condition.

5.2 The Combination of CLT and ICT

Figure 2.

CLT ICT Frequency

- Used visual aids (e.g. pictures) and had conversations about it.⟷ ‘Share screen’ in Zoom. 9

- Students produced a short speech or oral presentation.⟷ PowerPoint; ‘Share screen’. 12

- Minor corrections when learners speak, big encouragement.⟷ Zoom. 16

- Called on students to read the question instructions.⟷ OneDrive; Zoom. 13

The usage of CLT and ICT methodologies were illustrated in Figure 2. Both intermediate and upper intermediate classes proceeded similarly throughout the whole observation period. Most frequently, students were told to read the question’s instructions through ‘share screen’ as the start of a conversation. It seems like the teacher made the most of every speaking opportunity for learners to practice. Meanwhile, visual aids were more often adopted in the intermediate classes, such as presenting pictures on the PowerPoint and asking learners to describe ‘what do you see’ in English; whereas students in the upper-intermediate course were more likely to be required to produce a short speech or oral presentation with PowerPoint demonstration through the ‘share screen’. Moreover, students practised the speaking skills in two observed communicative activities. In the first activity, students asked one another about the provided questions listed under the pictures from PowerPoint for approximately 10 minutes. Following the activity, the feedback was observed, which entailed the students reporting their questions back to the teacher in the Zoom. The second observed communicative speaking practice was a role-play activity.

Both tasks involved leveraging the ‘breakout room’ feature in Zoom. This function was designed to split a large virtual classroom into smaller groups, and the host of the Zoom meeting room (in this case would be the teacher) would be able to decide how many rooms to assign out and how many participants per room. The teachers were allowed to hop between the different rooms to talk to the participants in the group. Meanwhile, there was an ‘ask for help’ button in every breakout rooms for calling an immediate group hopping from the teacher when students need an instant assistant. Curiously, it was noted that Alan (pseudonyms), the intermediate course teacher, seemed to avoid grammar correction during speaking practices and encouraged learners to articulate without interrupting them, while pronunciation corrections were captured in the upper-intermediate class. Finally, in all observed lessons, teachers’ speaking speed was slower than normal, with different casual and light conversations in between the class. As such, it was observed that maintaining a good rapport with learners was also one of the priorities for teachers.

5.3 The Combination of TBLT, CLT and ICT

Figure 3.

TBLT + CLT ICT Frequency

- Assigned group work.⟷ Zoom ‘breakout room’. 45

- Called on students to share ideas.⟷ ‘Share screen’; OneDrive. 34

- Checked on task progress during the group session.⟷ Group hopping; OneDrive 21

- Individual feedback and consulting time for assessments.⟷‘Consult hour’ in private Zoom room. 8

As Figure 3 indicates, three teaching methodologies were able to coincide in a single lesson. In these online collaborations, teachers’ most frequently used teaching technique echoed the group work with ‘breakout room’ feature in Zoom. Throughout, it was observed that the teacher broke the class into multiple individual ‘breakout room’ and each pair was given a specific task to complete after clarifying question instructions. Students worked in groups to communicate with peers and complete the task together. When the teacher was ready to bring students back to the main session for checking answers, the ‘breakout rooms’ would be closed with a one-minute timer in a pop-up window for students to rejoin the main session. This routine would be repeated by the teacher several times to accomplish the task thoroughly.

As well, the usage of OneDrive, another critical ICT tool, was also observed to have taken place during the whole group work interaction. Apart from the group hopping between different ‘breakout room’, teachers were able to co-author and collaborate on the documents which shared and used by learners through OneDrive. As such, if students or teacher make any changes or notes on the file, it would refresh with the updates made by the others. Each group has its own slide in the same PowerPoint file to type down the answers. Most of the time students divided the task into different parts and each member completed a part of the task individually in the ‘breakout room’. It was rarely captured that students went through every question together.

In second observed upper-intermediate class, teacher introduced students with a new exercise, ‘dictogloss’, which often occurred in the live class (face-to-face) before. It was observed that the instructor began by clarifying the task rules, and subsequently, learners were split into different groups, following the task instruction. During the breakout room session, it was observed that teacher constantly checked on every group’s progress through ‘co-author’ feature in OneDrive, and highlighted some answers in pink to signal the location of the errors. This process might repeat several times until students get it right. This allowed students to rethink and correct their mistakes with peers in the breakout room before being told the answers directly. This kind of instant feedback was less likely to be achieved in the traditional class, as normally teacher would not be able to pick up students’ mistakes in details and allow learners to correct them before ending the physical group session. Also, teachers can monitor the ‘live’ progress when learners were typing, and even the names of multiple typewriters were indicated by OneDrive.

Afterwards, students were observed taking turns presenting answers as a whole group for approximately 10 minutes. Also, it was worth noting that every participant in the class shares the same vision, as an advance feature in OneDrive, and students could easily see the answers from different group’s slide if clicking on another group’s page. This might lead to invalid answers from weaker students, and the teacher participant claimed in the classroom that he was worried about this ‘spy business’ since two students were caught as their typewriter name appeared in other group’s slide when they tried to copy the answers. At the end of the lesson, each student had equal opportunity to talk with the instructor individually in a private Zoom room, which aimed to go through student’s works and answered questions from learners. This daily ‘consult hour’ session lasted approximately 1 hour in total, with 10 minutes for each student.

5.4 Note for Unusual Scene

Figure 4.

Types of Unusual Scene Frequency

- Microphone; 6

- Internet; 7

- Virtual technology; 3

- ICT competence; 13

- Breakout room; 20

No response from learners. 8

A few different types of unusual scenes were observed, as Figure 4 indicates. Throughout, microphone problems like experiencing noise, high pitched buzzing sounds, and strong echo occurred when participants spoke. Also, undesirable Internet conditions were evident as students disconnected and re-logged in multiple times during the lessons led to an inconvenient scene. Additionally, technologies might not always work under daily teaching routines. In a particular class, the teacher was unable to utilise the ‘breakout room’ function at that time and caused frustration for both the instructor and learners. It was observed that at the end the teacher had no choice but to abandon his original plan, which supposed to be group work, and the emphasis then shifted to practice comprehension reading and writing skills. This technology issue was finally solved by signing in again with IT team involvement. Again, a similar situation happened in the other class when all the student participants were ejected from the Zoom meeting as the teacher needed to restart the whole system. The reason was claimed afterwards by the teacher, as in: ‘the bar with different features at the bottom disappeared, and the vision was stuck at one side when I try to split the screen between a word document and the Zoom. It jammed.’

Furthermore, the second most frequent issue Figure 4 has drawn attention to is the undesirable level of ICT literacy from our participants. It was captured 11 times that teachers forgot to unmute the microphone or were not connected to the audio feature while talking until students pointed this out. The teacher participant consequently complained that: ‘there are too many features...sometimes I can’t find the bottom.’ Finally, the most frequent problem was often noted in the breakout room session. Students were told to work together as a group in the breakout rooms, while during the observations there was mostly silence or ‘self-study mode’ between group members. Also, the usage of learners’ first language (not English) overwhelmingly dominated during the group sessions. It seemed quite challenging for the instructor to control the group work’s quality as the nature of the ‘breakout room’ isolated students from the teacher’s observation, whereas the instructor can see and hear from each group in a regular classroom.

It is possible that the type of task, the background of the learners, and the personality of the group members could lead to a different learning environment in the breakout room. For example, the ‘silent mode’ was seldom observed when the task was less academic-based and more on a daily-life basis. Also, students frequently use first language (L1) when they didn’t even understand the question and what they were expected to do. In many cases, they might ask group members to translate for them. Moreover, personality could also be an important factor to create an effective group learning outcome, which students were more likely to stick with the ‘English only policy’ when the active learner steered the interaction and created cohesiveness within the group. In the end, there were a few times when the teacher called on students but did not hear back from them. Whether it was due to technical problems or other variables like negative learning altitudes it cannot be fully determined.

6. Discussion

Drawing on the data from the classroom observations, this study sought to discover what teaching methodologies and how they were employed in online courses to replace the traditional teaching pedagogies. In addressing these questions, we argue that the Task-based Language Teaching (TBLT) and the Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) were both adopted into the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) language teaching environment. TBLT was evident on the various online individual and group tasks and the feedback provided from instructors through OneDrive and Zoom, in line with the main characteristics of the TBLT mentioned by Horwitz et al. (1986) and Dim (2013). And CLT was evident on the oral presentation produced by learners and interactions and teamwork between students and teachers throughout the classes. Also, as discussed earlier, teacher in the intermediate class often followed this approach which encouraging students to make spontaneous speeches without concerning of grammatical accuracy. This echoes Savignon’s finding (1991) that has indicated it helps improve learners’ communicative competence, as the biggest advantage of CLT, when achieving fluency but accuracy in target language acquisition during the earlier stage. At the same time, Brooke (2011) reminds us that most group tasks have combined both TBLT and CLT, which equate with the Zoom breakout sessions in this study. For reducing bias and enforce the validity of the collected data, the use of those teaching methodologies was confirmed by the teacher participants. All of these lead us to conclude a ‘relationship figure’ between adopted pedagogy, as shown in the following table:

Figure 5. Relationship between ICT, TBLT and CLT in Online Environment

The elements of ICT were deployed served as a ‘background’ and played a ‘media’ role throughout the course, while TBLT and CLT were employed alternatively or used as an eclectic method for group tasks. Without ICT, none of these teaching methodologies was able to deliver under this COVID-19 crisis. Academics like Fotos and Browne (2013) admitted that the need for teachers to acquire technological skills and apply in teaching critically has never been greater. Language teachers must therefore embrace ICT as a powerful instructional tool and meet the challenge of this continually evolving academic world.

7. Limitations and Future Study

As for the limitations, it should be noted that the recruitment procedure of the participants in the present study is extremely challenging due to the COVID-19 restrictions. Due to the small number of the participants, the sample population is not truly representative and may have limitations as to how the results can be generalised. Also, the teacher participants expressed that being observed made them feel uneasy. The data collection process might have influenced teaching practices. For future study, it is recommended that the study be replicated with a larger number of participants which statistically represents the population, controlling for the potential confounding factors during the observation processes.

8. Acknowledgement

Many thanks go to the teachers and students for their time in participating in this project. I am grateful for the supports of the Language Centre at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Also, I would like to acknowledge the invaluable supports provided by my supervisor Dr. Alan Libert and the insightful comments from Dr. Christo Moskovsky.

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