At GeoVLE we’ve had a busy few weeks trialling out our classroom sessions via Zoom, a world-class online meeting platform more often associated with online meetings attended by staff members of international corporations.
Despite the breadth of tools and the simplicity of use that this communication platform has to offer, it seems that online tuition for children has been met with a slower, more hesitant development in the UK, despite the challenges that the British education system has faced in recent years, with overcrowded classrooms and a severe shortage of teachers to educate the next generation.
Hesitancy is understandable - from challenging the online ‘stranger danger’ mantra we have adopted since the internet’s infancy, to the simple practicalities of children using online platforms - would they be able to use the software?
Despite these concerns, over the last two weeks we can confirm that not only do children of all ages get on board with the platform (we have students from 4 to 18), but are in fact (unsurprisingly) already quicker to learn and more fluent in their use than most of us tutors!
By no means are we the first agency to champion online learning. iTutorGroup, the Shanghai-based online education company, has been bridging the gap in Chinese students’ education by partnering with tens of thousands of tutors all over the world helping to provide English tuition since 1998. So, there is clearly something to this online teaching business.
From our experience over the past two weeks, we can already see some transformational ways in which our Zoom lessons are, in many ways, superior to traditional classroom teaching.
Online tutoring gives us the opportunity to deal with much smaller groups than the average 30-40 children-per-classroom. This of course means that we create much stronger relationships with each of the students, and are much quicker to notice each students’ strengths and weaknesses. The classroom becomes more like a little family, and as a result the children create stronger bonds with their fellow classmates and teachers.
The ‘at home’ atmosphere creates relaxed students
Children of all ages can experience a multitude of emotions when dealing with classroom environments, and for some it can sometimes be a space that causes anxiety and overwhelm. Sometimes it’s physical - too many children in one classroom can be loud and riotous, seating arrangements might be uncomfortable, or even sometimes just the label in the back of their uniform is itchy; all of which can cause distraction and poor attention, unbeknownst to the teacher.
Traditional classrooms are also rife with interpersonal challenges - perhaps a student has fallen out with their friend, or they have a more confident peer sitting on their table, answering all the questions and taking control of the group projects - causing them to concentrate less, or feel less need to be involved.
These issues can particularly affect neuro-diverse children, such as those with ADHD/ADD or autism (still largely under-diagnosed, particularly in girls) who tend to be more sensitive to physical and emotional stimuli, and as such can stifle and stagnate the learning development of otherwise bright and capable students.
If these issues continue, children can miss out on critical foundational learning (particularly those at primary school age) which can seriously hamper their studies at examination levels further down the line when studying for their GCSEs and A Levels.
Lauren Brooks, GeoVLE's English and History tutor said, "I personally have found so many students requiring English tutoring at these examination levels are unable to explain basic grammatical concepts, with many stating they never fully understood it when they were younger or were prone to distraction or zoning out during lessons as younger children. "
Being at home with a laptop, nestled into their favourite sofa, in their favourite comfy clothes, without the distraction of other students in the room, munching on some snacks; this environment is much more akin to the environments we as adults crave and enjoy working in for optimum focus it only makes sense that we can extend this opportunity to children too, and from experience, it really works!
Randomised breakout rooms
This has proved fantastically useful in not only sub-grouping children for quick 5 minute tasks. The ability to randomise who gets put into each group means that each student is forced to work and socialise with different children every time, allowing different styles of thinking and learning to be shared and developed, whilst also, crucially, creating new bonds between students. This can be particularly helpful for quieter, shyer students, as they are pulled into a different group perhaps two or three times in a lesson. It is much easier for the tutor(s) to zip from group to group to check in on their progress and keep an eye on behaviour than it is to circle around a busy classroom.
More often than not, we have actually found the children teaching and helping each other rather than waiting for, or relying on, the tutor to support. These quick five minute break out rooms are therefore developing critical cooperative interpersonal skills in the kids, improving their confidence and preparing them for real-world working environments.
The almighty mute button
A classroom teacher’s dream! In those moments where the classroom gets a little rowdier, the teacher can quickly click the ‘mute all’ button to demand the attention back to the teacher and steer the lesson back into the intended direction. With the ability to see all the children on the screen, we can then ask them to put their hands up when they would like to speak (as a side note, this is also helpful in ensuring the shyer voices are heard), and then we can un-mute that one child to allow them to add their contribution.
This is already teaching the children patience and turn-taking etiquette, and is vital to their learning; they enjoy being fully listened to as an individual, without interruption from their peers, who in turn contribute their own ideas to the discussion.
A variety of ways to communicate
Zoom not only provides video and phone call functions. It also provides a text chat function, a yes/no quiz button, a whiteboard, screen sharing, and remote screen control features. This allows different students to engage with the lesson in their preferred method. As we know as adults, we are better at expressing ourselves in some ways over others; some of us prefer to vocalise our thoughts and ideas (video and phone function), others can put it better in a written format (chat function), some prefer to draw and doodle to articulate their thoughts (whiteboard) and some even prefer to physically show and direct their ideas (screen sharing and remote screen control).
This leaves little room for students to fall behind based on lower communication skill levels in certain areas, and also allows them to communicate to the fullest of their potential.
We are still exploring how to use Zoom features most effectively, and all our tutors are playing around with them to see how teaching can become more interesting, exciting and above all, as fun as possible.