Stuck in Tashkent with Questions About Online Teaching: A COVID-19 Response

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Associate Editor
Editor, Teacher Education

Prologue: Your [Jim] email came at an opportune time [17 March 2020]. I am sitting in a hotel room in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, waiting to see if the Uzbek government is going to give permission for a flight to leave carrying non-essential Americans from Uzbekistan. I’ve been here for two months and was scheduled to leave next week, when the Embassy suddenly contacted me on Sunday evening to tell me to get to Tashkent immediately because the government was closing the borders. At that time, there were four cases of Corona here. Now, it’s sit and wait. Our embassy and some European embassies are in negotiation trying to arrange to get their citizens out. I think conditions at home aren’t all that great, but in a crisis, there’s no place like home. 

All of this is to say I was planning to write a piece about my work here with English teachers and online learning when I got home. However, your email prompted this piece [below], which is a little different than I was planning. -Lynn

Distance learning did not begin with the Internet. According to Harting and Erthal (2005), it had its beginnings in the 1700s when a reliable postal service was able to deliver correspondence lessons between teachers and learners. Then the advent of radio and television made another shift in distance learning. In a recent tweet, LoPresti (2020) repeated a story from his 94-year-old grandfather when Chicago schools were canceled because of a polio outbreak. He said that “classes were on the radio – newspaper published when each class would be on for each grade.” 

In 1952, National Educational Television, which was the precursor of PBS, began broadcasting educational material to viewers, specifically adult learners. Then when the Internet came along, its potential as a medium for education was quickly recognized. Schools installed equipment so that their students were able to participate in courses being broadcast from other schools.

Online databases quickly replaced print materials. Learning management systems (LMS) enabled instructors to easily provide materials and assignments for their students to access outside the classroom. Online universities sprang up. Today, the opportunities for distance learning are numerous, everything from video on YouTube to MOOCs that provide free courses for students around the world.

In January 2020, I went to Bukhara, Uzbekistan, as an English Language Specialist. The Ministry of Higher Education had recently implemented a policy for increasing the availability of online education. My project was to teach a group of English language instructors and teacher trainers how to integrate online technology into their English and English teacher training courses. Their knowledge of using the Internet and using it for teaching was varied. All of them use Telegram, a messaging service, to communicate and most knew how to search for information online. Most of them also knew how to create a PowerPoint presentation. Some had attended webinars and a couple had taken an online course.

When I asked them what they thought online teaching was, most had no concrete idea. One teacher told me that she thought we might use Telegram for lessons somehow. Therefore, I decided that the most effective tool for them would be an LMS. In that way, they could learn how to search more effectively for material to link to their lessons, engage the students in online discussions, and provide a platform for students to upload written, audio, and video assignments. At first, some of the teachers were not sure how they could implement these ideas into their classes. However, as we discussed methodology and pedagogy as it related to online education, they began to see the benefits.

At the end of the two months, every teacher had created at least one online lesson. One teacher had created an entire course. One simple lesson had students link to an audio story on Project Gutenberg then write a review of the story on a discussion board, which their classmates would read and respond to. Another teacher created a PowerPoint and had students link to a video as the “lecture” portion. She then included a quiz, a discussion board, and an assignment for students to upload. One teacher even included instructions for an ungraded discussion on Telegram into her lesson.

For those of you who are not very familiar with online teaching, you may be wondering what these teachers needed to know to get started. First, they had to understand the limitations of their LMS and how an online lesson differs from a face-to-face lesson. One important piece of that is the need for very clear and obvious instructions.

Then they learned about doing more effective Internet searches to find materials that they could adapt for or link to their lessons. This part involved doing activities that helped them understand copyright and how to use Creative Commons. They also needed to learn how to create and upload audio and video files.

While there are many online tools, the simplest is using a smartphone, something they and their students are familiar with. Therefore, rather than spending time learning new tools, we focused on how to put together a coherent story that had educational value. Another important lesson they learned is that they are not alone. They can look at other online lessons to get ideas for how to structure them. They can talk to their colleagues about what is effective and what is not.

For those of you who are experienced at online teaching, what advice can you give?

__________
Harting, K. and Erthal, M. (2005). History of distance learning. Information Technology, Learning, and Performance Journal, 23 (1): 35-44.

LoPresti, E. [@Saab95adventure]. (2020, March 15). “Just talked to my 94 year old grandfather – he recalled that Chicago cancelled schools when he was in 8th grade for a weeks because of an outbreak of infantile paralysis (polio) and classes were on the radio – newspaper” (Tweet retrieved from https://twitter.com/Saab95adventure/status/1239346608166371331).

One Response

  1. Lynn:
    I do hope you’re on your way home by now. In your closing, you asked for folks to offer advice. And, while I don’t know what the requirements are for Uzbekistan, I do know that a great many countries have adopted the WCAG standards for digital resources and websites. We know that designing digital resources that meet WCAG standards (ideally WCAG 2.1 AA) is far easier then backfill. And making instruction with UDL in mind moves things closer to accessibility than ignoring the issue.

    Please be safe.
    Ray

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