Planning online learning for non-native speakers* – Dartington Online Writing Retreat Blogs #3

The Education Incubator is excited to host this blog, written by two attendees at our Online Writing Retreat in May. The perspectives on online learning offered below – by Irene Salvo (Classics and Ancient History) and Helen Knowler (Education) – are critical for all educators in the post-COVID HE landscape.

We are looking forward to posting more blogs from the Writing Retreat and on the Incubator Café in the coming weeks.

(*we are using the term ‘non-native speakers’ to denote speakers who have mastery of languages first, as well as English. This is because we prefer not to use labels and terminology that suggest if English is not your first language then you have some kind of deficit or learning difference.)

In the last twenty years, Universities in the UK have become increasingly more diverse, with students and staff from all over the world engaging in Education and Research together. According to The University of Exeter website, there are students from over 130 countries working on our campuses in 2020-21. During the recent Education Incubator Writing Retreat , we were interested to reflect on Inclusive Education in a way that afforded us a space to think critically about the opportunities and affordances of online learning, but perhaps more crucially highlight some of the ways that our assumptions about online learning as a panacea for Inclusive Education, could mean that we forget to think about the way that different groups engage and participant in online spaces.

For non-native speakers’ online platforms can offer useful opportunities for flexible engagement with learning, offering the time and space to engage in learning in a way that face to face learning does not afford. We acknowledge that some of the strategies we mention below are not solely specific to non-native speakers, but we start from a premise that organising online learning with non-native speakers in mind, will benefit all learners – an important principle of Inclusive Education.

The benefits of online spaces for non-native speakers

  • Asynchronous activities offer time to look up words in a dictionary – this can be important for checking in definitions, concepts or theories in ways that can sometimes we ‘lost’ in the flow of face to face teaching and learning.
  • More examples of an idea, concept or theory can be included in online spaces in different ways to embed understanding.
  • Non-native speakers can watch video materials on multiple occasions meaning that if they ‘miss’ a word or phrase that is crucial for understanding they can check this without having to keep asking a tutor to stop and explain.
  • More opportunities to ask questions in forums, chat rooms and using other methods after learning to be able to check for understanding with feel embarrassed or anxious.
  • There are extended possibilities to use a range of translation tools for checking which everyone can use when they need to.
  • There is what we are calling a ‘double benefit’ of learning and language practice (although this can be a downside – see below) – through learning and engaging with materials in several different languages students may not experience language barriers to their learning, and they will continue to develop their English language development if this is something they are keen to do.
  • Non time pressured learning and access to resources – autonomy to decide how to organise self-directed learning.
  • Tutors could use a range of text-based resources and offer them in languages that a majority of students use. For example, offering translations of key texts and key readings for all students (using tools like Google Translate) fosters feeling of inclusion and belonging for all learners.  Inclusion is just as much about having a sense of belonging in a community of learners, as access to curriculum materials.

7 things to consider when planning online learning

Students who are non-native speakers of English (NNS) can be facilitated in being full members of the online learning community in several ways.

  1. In synchronous sessions, forums, and chat rooms, smaller groups of max. 9-10 participants can support a more spontaneous involvement and engagement of non-native speakers. It will be easier to follow the flow of the discussion, especially if there are assigned roles or tasks within the group. Collaborative tasks are likely to encourage occasions of interactive communication between native and non-native learners.
  2. In synchronous sessions, slowing down the pace of online teaching, e.g. leaving moments of silence to think, may allow people to catch up. It would be better to limit task-switching and multi-tasking activities such as asking students to use the chat function while the teacher is talking. Additional activities should be structured carefully, since listening to a speaker, watching PowerPoint slides, and trying to read a chat box can be overwhelming. Different activities should be scheduled in appropriate time slots.
  3. A good mix and balance of written and audio materials can increase understanding of the teachers’ message. For example, a text can be accompanied by an audio recording that provides additional comments or instructions on how to use the text.
  4. When using a new skill or a new technology, it can be helpful to post examples and trial activities before the session to avoid that students feel unable to take part and hence they may not engage.
  5. It is essential to carefully consider the timing of each activity. For example, a short sessions that seem ‘pacey’ could be problematic because there might not be enough time to think through possible answers or ask questions. Alternatively, a series of different sessions on the same topic can give NNS students further opportunities to understand the content, think about their questions, and then be able to come back and engage in the discussion. Non-native speakers faces additional cognitive and metacognitive challenges when they intervene. A first step entails to identify an issue or an idea as well as to refer to a particular concept or theory; then, the focus shifts on English grammar, word choices, and ways of expressing the intended content; finally, the emotional layer can play a role, depending on the level of self-confidence, fear of mistake, judgement, and acceptance, and the need to find resolution to raising a virtual hand.
  6. Social opportunities and spaces for students to keep connected should be prearranged and included in the plan of the module. Although online learning can be supportive of refining and developing foreign languages, there is the risk to have less time to interact with other members of the community.
  7. It is worth stressing that each classroom is a non-homogenous group of learners. It could be better to open up any reference or hint at a specific linguistic and cultural background towards a multicultural and international environment.

Dartington Online Education Higher Education Incubator Online Learning Success for All

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The University of Exeter’s Education Incubator scheme. Promoting pedagogic innovation and collaboration with an aim to enhance learning across the University and beyond.

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