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Learner-Instructor Interaction: Best Practices

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The "course contract." The "teaching and learning contract."This lesson is part of the NFLRC Online Language Pedagogy Series, designed for in-service teachers of world languages online.

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While the job of teaching language face-to-face in a classroom and teaching language online share many similarities, the downfall of many online instructors is assuming that only the similarities exist, and that if they pay attention to being a good teacher, the learning will fall into place. ‘Mapping’ traditional face-to-face teaching onto an online environment is common error when instructors approach online teaching for the first time. In the first part of this presentation, the learner-instructor ‘course contract’ is discussed articulating ‘awareness’ strategies for both parties. In a course contract, both learner and instructor must interact according to rules set up in the syllabus or in the online course. Learners must know when and how to interact with instructors and learn how to learn in this new environment. Instructors must know how to share information, keep track of learners, and promote learning. Learners and instructors must be cognizant of the course materials to be tackled during the course and be mutually informed of due dates, feedback expectations, penalties, and availabilities. Awareness of technology requirements are vital, both learners and instructors must know how to use the online course technology and know what other software tools or applications are required for success (for example, making videos, recording audio, sending or uploading documents). The second item discussed was the ‘teaching and learning contract’ that first highlights key learner responsibilities in the course. Self-regulating study time is not easy for the best learner and doing so in an online course can be even more difficult. Learners must be taught positive online learning behaviors: be attentive to deadlines, learn how to integrate feedback individually, accept penalties for late work or handing in no work, prepare sufficiently for synchronous or asynchronous meetings, study for tests. The instructor cannot be constantly available to learners, but we can encourage positive online learner behaviors. Instructor responsibilities (many of which are similar to face-to-face teaching situations) in this contract include: getting to know the students, developing a ‘class’ or community of learners, cementing relationships with the learners, building trust, and knowing when and how to guide their learning. Further though, instructors need to be confident in the course material, in their abilities to use the technology and promote learning using the technology, and in their abilities to make adjustments as necessary to improve learners’ chance of success in the course. The most vital type of interaction required in this contract is task development and preparation for its execution. Instructors, whether required to meet with learners individually, as a class or not at all, must be familiar with the tasks (most often activities or exercises not designed to enhance learners’ critical thinking skills) presented in the course material or must extend or develop them in line with a proficiency- and a communicatively-oriented methodology. It is important to know when the online course material exercises are ‘working’ for the learners and when those exercises fall short. Online language course materials are not all created equal. Well-designed tasks are difficult enough to construct for face-to-face language courses. Developing tasks that target the learners’ second language level and encourage its use in both synchronous and asynchronous online environments fails as often as it succeeds. Unfortunately, it is only through trial and error that we as instructors can make the adjustments needed for providing the most effective learning environment possible. Happily, many of the positive traits that you learned and practiced during your face-to-face language teaching experiences will be useful in an online language course. The biggest challenge, aside from task development, is knowing what needs to be added to your skill set early on in the course.

The most difficult part of teaching online is creating opportunities for meaningful learner practice of course content. Even assuming that students do their homework, the synchronous online course feedback is adequate, and the asynchronous instructor feedback is delivered in a timely manner and effective, instructors cannot rely on the content of online courses to provide appropriate opportunities for student practice and learning. Just because the course is online, it doesn’t mean that instructors don’t need to plan for the eventualities and possible problems, just as they would plan for in a face-to-face course.

Before even stepping into the online ‘classroom’, teaching in this environment requires teaching training (, administrative preparations necessary for keeping track of student work, progress, and success, familiarity with course materials (see the publisher’s website), knowledge of the technology to be used, including problem-solving skills and work-arounds for when technology fails.

Once in the course, instructors need to assure quality learner time on task by keeping abreast of second language learning theories as related to learning language with technology (cf.,, the NFLRC site, among many others). As in face-to-face language and content classes, online teaching requires the instructor’s attention to the same level of quality language use, which includes integrating proficiency-oriented standards and the 5 Cs ( Course materials and technology choices must reflect the need for learners to practice their language skills in meaningful interactions, which in an online course, are sometimes provided only via the instructor (cf. Shrum and Glisan’s discussion of the three modes of communication in their Teacher’s Handbook (2005)). Resources
Chenoweth, N.A., Ushida, E. & Murday, K. (2006) Student Learning in Hybrid French and Spanish Courses: An Overview of Language Online. CALICO Journal, 24 (1), 115-46.
Hauck, M. & Stickler, U. (2006) What does it take to teach online? CALICO Journal, 23(3), 463-75.
Jones, C.M., & Youngs, B.L. (2006) “Teacher Preparation for Online Language Instruction”. In Teacher Education in Call, Language Learning and Language Teaching Series, Philip Hubbard and Michael J. Levy, Eds. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Lewis, T. (2006) When Teaching is Learning: A Personal Account of Learning to Teach Online. CALICO Journal, 23(3), 581-600.
Son, J-B. (2002) Online Discussion in a CALL Course for Distance Language Teachers. CALICO Journal, 20(1), 127-44.
Wilson-Duffy, C. (2003). “Creating online language activities: Putting task-based language teaching to use” (Part 2). CLEAR News, 7(2), 1, 3, 6-7.

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