How has the Covid 19 crisis affected our intercultural teaching?
By Kirsten Wächter
What is the situation we are facing?
When the lockdowns began in March to battle the spread of COVID-19, many intercultural trainers saw their world being turned upside down. Courses were cancelled completely or moved online. Many clients were reluctant to do the latter as they could not imagine how an online workshop would work.
Suddenly, trainers were working on multiple fronts: trying to keep clients and teaching assignments; boosting their own technical skills to use different online platforms; tweaking and adapting activities to make them work online; learning about the teaching features and opportunities that different platforms offered and learning to manage their classes and participants in a virtual classroom.
The editorial committee of the SIETAR Journal saw these changes happening all around and now that practitioners have endured the frantic first stage of moving courses online, we asked them in a questionnaire, “What is working for you? What do you miss?” In this article, I will summarise our respondents’ answers and comments.
This inventory-taking will hopefully benefit you in your own online teaching. Responses were, of course, mixed and represent the range of experience a lot of us made, for example, how easy or difficult it was to move online classes (see chart), or who we teach, i.e. one-on-one or in small to medium or even large groups, and in which format, ranging from seminars or tutorials and webinars to workshops. Quotes from the respondents are used as headers (in italics).
What exactly do we mean by teaching online?
“When designing for online learning, cognitive learning is best delivered asynchronously and emotional and behavioural learning through synchronous delivery.”
Teaching online entails a number of things: firstly, instead of direct contact, encounters happen through a technical medium. Secondly, there are synchronous and asynchronous components. Synchronous components are live sessions in which you have immediate contact with your participants, sharing exercises and materials and getting them to collaborate and discuss. These can be called “virtual classrooms”.
The asynchronous tasks of teaching lessons are those where participants study on their own with the help of videos, prepare texts or presentations, or do research to prepare a live online session.
Which platforms do teachers work with?
“Platforms need to be intuitive, easy to navigate, and have multiply security settings.”
The most popular platform among our respondents is Zoom, used by more than 90%, followed by MS Teams (50%). Many trainers use multiple platforms as requested or required by the clients or teaching institutes. So trainers, especially when working freelance, need to embrace flexibility in order to meet those needs.
The platform may also be pre-installed in the environment, e.g. a company or university. Other important selection criteria are bandwidth and connectivity, accessibility and reliability, as well as user-friendliness and familiarity. If you work freelance, then another factor to be considered is the price if you offer the platform as a trainer to your students.
How do participants benefit from online teaching?
“The online workshop situation is also great to focus on the intercultural differences in the online communication – I’ve added this topic to my workshops as this is a new situation for my participants who teach multicultural groups of students online.”
One advantage that several trainers mention is that removing travel and distance barriers helps them reach a wider audience. Teaching online, services are not limited by travel expenses or organising the logistics of getting participants into one physical place. They can all attend the same class online, provided the time zones allow that. In addition, respondents comment that working with virtual teams in a virtual environment makes the preparation for this kind of work more realistic.
Participants often join online classes from home and therefore seem to be more relaxed and less distracted by work issues. Trainers use breakout rooms and other tools, such as brainstorming on a whiteboard, that allow for group work and engaging their students. These tools were cited as benefits. In an online gathering, it is especially important to vary activities in order to keep participants involved and to provide a sense of connection with the group.
Once a strong connection has been established, open discussion and dialogue with active contributions seem to be possible. Although this seems similar to a face-to-face classroom, trainers report that participants often behave differently online: While some participants shine, interact easily, and love seeing others (and themselves) on video, others hide and feel uncomfortable with the video on. The latter group, according to some trainers, seem to contribute more when they feel unobserved. This insight highlights the challenge of how to handle the video feeds.
As in a f2f (face-to-face) classroom, involvement and variety seem to be the key, either by making extensive use of what the platform offers, or by bringing in external apps: There are a number of tools that can be used for polls and questionnaires, and drawing and writing tools to draw participants’ responses and ideas. You may find that you can recycle your materials online with a certain amount of creativity, or have to design completely new workshops.
What are we missing when teaching online?
“Online is more of a low context setting, so high context factors are missed. This is very limiting in the intercultural context.”
Despite all the advantages that online teaching can provide, there are also setbacks. Quite a few respondents state that they still prefer face-to-face training for a number of reasons.
Often, they miss the casual communication, feeling the vibes in the room, the informal exchange with the participants and getting their reactions in between sessions. One major disadvantage is that it is not so easy to pick up on all the non-verbal and personal cues and read people’s level of engagement. Often, face-to-face exchanges are seen as richer as pointed out by one respondent.
The lack of physical movement and presence, especially when required by some activities, is another downside. Some interactive activities just don’t work online and respondents comment that they had to skip tasks where the goal is the actual interaction, e.g. when experiencing social distances.
How to manage yourself as an online trainer?
“The online medium influences the teaching and facilitating methods. You have to be aware that factors like participants’ technical know-how, facilities, and openness to online ways are relevant. You need to plan more time (technical questions), make clear what you want them to do, and use feedback methods.”
As we need to give more instructions, we have to slow down the pace and use more functional language to check if people follow. That might change the natural free-flowing participation, and, in addition, people can get too focused on getting most of this valuable screen time and forget to take breaks. This fact can lead to fatigue and exhaustion among the trainers as well as the participants.
Thus, think carefully about the timing of your sessions: ninety minutes can be a long time online. One respondent recommends that “is better to organize courses that last 3 hours per day tops, all-day-long courses are very tiring especially for the trainer.”
Remember that for you as a trainer it can be very stressful to be ‘on’ all the time: allow participants to engage with each other and share – there is no need to be in the driver’s seat the whole time. Particularly in longer sessions, you might want to appoint a co-moderator to take care of the chat or a scribe for collecting ideas on a whiteboard.
Assigning group work, you can allow yourself to switch off your camera for a few minutes. And while you might be very excited by all the new features and functions offered to you, bear in mind that participants might feel overloaded with all those functions – select tools carefully to suit your purpose.
How to master the transition from f2f to online?
“Participate in some online courses prior to running your own course, especially if you do not have much online experience, maybe in a seminar or online meeting with other trainers who are running online intercultural trainings to exchange ideas and tips.”
COVID-19 is not going to disappear quickly. Although f2f-sessions and workshops will become possible (again), a lot of teaching will be done online in the future because clients have seen that it works and that it saves them considerable effort and resources. Therefore, I would like to close with some advice that our respondents provide to colleagues who are just starting to teach online.
First of all, trainers need to invest in their own training. Update your virtual skills, learn about the settings, and experience your platform from the participant’s perspective. Do not underestimate the time and effort the transition requires. Run a test session, preferably with other trainers.
Becoming an online trainer should involve preparing your environment well (the platform, your background and appearance) and the tools and activities you are going to use. It also seems useful to keep a balance between interactive activities, e.g. polls, word clouds, chat, and breakout rooms, and time for reflection and integration during the workshop or webinar.
Beware that while you need to practice using the technology, you may also want to think of a back-up plan in case technology fails: do not assume everyone has stable internet and a laptop.
In the end, remember that teaching should be fun: don’t lose your sense of humour and collaborate with your students (who can often help with the technical issues, too). Technology will not do the teaching for you, but it can help you to become a better teacher if you use it wisely.