English for Academic Purposes (EAP) is a unit at the Royal College of Art (RCA) that supports students from across the college in growing their English language and Academic skills, including reading and writing academic texts, giving presentations, building discussion skills, and more. Though the work of EAP continues throughout the year, the ‘Pre-Sessional’ course conducted over the summer for non-native English speakers entering Masters programmes draws an average of around 200 students each year. The 8-week intensive course is usually taught in small groups of 12 to 15 students that travel to the UK for school from a variety of international locales. The course has a large focus on interactive workshops and allows students to develop the necessary dialogue and discussion skills to succeed in their degree programmes.
In the summer of 2020, however, we were not sure if our international students would be able to travel or participate in our programmes – so, we completely transformed the Pre-Sessional course into an entirely online programme to support our students across the globe. Due to the intensive and highly personalized nature of the course, we needed to be very careful to not lose any of the pedagogic elements in the transition.
The basis of our course became Moodle™️, which prior to the pandemic had only been used as a repository for materials for our students and a place to book workshop locations on campus. Despite the heavily increased workload to make this transition, I approached this task with the mindset of “how can the move to online learning benefit our students” as opposed to “what will the added difficulties be?”. Part of that involved looking at the important elements of the course and seeing what needed to be done via video conferencing, as opposed to what elements could be most effectively achieved in an independent study format. For language and communication development, large amounts of exposure to new language is essential to allow students to reflect on the language and its context and usage before diving into using it. For this reason, I felt that reading and thinking skills could benefit from e-learning independent study elements, leaving the synchronous, online teaching to focus on dialogue and interaction.
In order to organize the weeks for students, I used tiles to group all of the tools, Zoom session links, and resources needed for the students in one place. Each week included a self-study unit with interactive activities, created using interactive text software so that relevant questions would be included in the reading and students were able to live annotate the text. These interactive elements effectively replicated the reading skills that benefit students in Higher Education including highlighting, reflecting, and exploring the text in autonomous ways. The self-study sections also included embedded video clips, such as our weekly tutorial video that outlined the key teaching point for the week, and short quizzes relating to vocabulary and comprehension, which I created using H5P.
For the synchronous teaching elements of the course, we set up four 3-hour zoom sessions a week. These provided a space for the groups to build rapport and support networks with as much verbal interaction as possible. With the self-study units laying the groundwork for language input, the focus of these synchronous sessions could be more distinct than they might have been in face-to-face sessions and tutors were able to provide individualized feedback to students.
These sessions were made more interactive with the use of Padlet, which provided the space for the sharing of materials and posting of comments. Padlet also served as a safety net for internet issues – if students had to leave the Zoom due to WiFi issues, they could still participate via Padlet from their phones if necessary. Padlet went beyond just replacing a traditional whiteboard in a classroom and created a more interactive and egalitarian place for multiple students to contribute at a time. Additionally, it provided a more relaxed environment for shy students to participate actively in the course. Padlet also served as a portfolio of students’ work, including regular blog posts, outlines, and drafts. This provided a way for instructors to continuously check in on students’ work and for teachers and students to see progress throughout the course.
One student said of the programme platform, “the combination of Moodle™️ and Padlet is very helpful…In my particular experience, I think that online classes work very well and also Padlet was very helpful….I really like the way of using Padlet to express ourselves and connect with others.”
The variety of e-learning tools used with enthusiasm by the teaching team meant that key pedagogic outcomes could be retained and, where challenges could have created obstacles, we were able to find viable alternatives. For example, a key aim of this course is for students to develop confidence in reading longer academic texts, developing their vocabulary, and developing the ability to critically engage with unfamiliar content. By concentrating on reading and listening skills in the self study sections, students could work through the materials in their own time: reflecting on new concepts and terms and repeating the tasks if necessary, before joining the group teaching sessions. This allows for independent learning strategies to develop as a necessary element of this course. The e-learning tools were varied and interactive which students reported as stimulating and interesting. One of our students said of the programme style, “The experience was great…It was just like studying in the classroom.”
Of course, our transition did not come without challenges. Some students were shy and reluctant to switch on their cameras or join group discussions. However, we used the technology tools to encourage students to participate in other ways they were comfortable with as we moved them slowly towards verbal contribution. We also had to adapt to restrictions across multiple countries. Many of our students on the course came from China where typical video platforms – like YouTube – were not available, so we adapted to making our videos native within the platform.
Additionally, we had to contend with the challenge of producing high quality course material in a limited time with limited staff – leading many of our team members to become familiar with several new elements of e-learning in quick succession. Collaborating with our Learning Technologist and IT department was crucial and allowed us to have fewer challenges.
Students had new ways to communicate and interact with one another, but they did miss out on some casual interactions and the ease of face-to-face teaching, and – of course – had to grapple with the occasional technological issues that cropped up. However, building this online catalogue of materials and interactive assignments meant that all students were receiving consistent materials and teaching. Additionally, they were able to revisit different topics, participate in new ways, and interact with instructors through blogs and their portfolios.
My recommendation to other professionals who are moving their courses online is to be clear about the pedagogic learning outcomes you want to achieve before you craft your program. Before you think about software or other elements, focus on the process students should go through to learn. Additionally, it is essential to think realistically about what is most successful in which format online to help you reach your aim of the session. Using too many tools can overwhelm participants and technical details can overtake the actual process of learning, so be strategic when it comes to tools. And last, but possibly most importantly, allow for plenty of time and creativity when developing your materials and additional time and viable alternatives for how you can deliver information to your students.