Why I prefer Zoom for English language teaching
Here in the UK, we’re a few weeks into remote teaching and learning and many of us (teachers and students) have been trying to get to grips with online classes. At the place where I work, Teams is being heavily pushed onto us by the senior management as a platform that is easy to use. While there are some useful features, such as linking with other Office applications, the senior management clearly have not tried to use it for teaching English online, because it has been very frustrating to use.
While online English classes are likely to include a combination of synchronous and asynchronous delivery, much focus has been given to synchronous platforms, such as Zoom and Teams for teaching live lessons. Zoom has been getting some negative publicity in the media because of ‘Zoombombing’, which involves unwanted participants entering a Zoom class and causing disruption. This is most likely to have been the result of a lack of awareness on how to use the security features of the platform or poor practices on the part of the meeting organisers, such as posting details of meetings publicly on a school website, rather than a lack of security features with the platform itself.
For synchronous teaching of English classes (live lessons), I prefer Zoom over Teams. Learners had lots of problems figuring out how to logon and access the meetings on Teams becuase it has other uses apart from for live meetings. For example, on the mobile app, it isn’t obvious that you need to click on the Teams icon to access meetings. Also, a limitation for me is that Teams currently only allows you to see 4 participants on the screen at any time. In ELT, teachers have been trained to teach using active, student-centered methods and ability on Zoom to see everyone makes it much easier to develop a rapport and do activities around the class, such as open pairs, where one learner asks another learner something and this continues around the class. In addition, the breakout rooms on Zoom enables group and pairwork activities, which shifts the focus of a lesson away from teacher-centered methods. Okay, it is possible to have breakout groups on teams (there are videos on YouTube showing how it can be done), but it can best be described as a workaround to the lack of this feature. All I can say is, if you’ve tried it with a group of ELT learners, you’re braver than me!
This isn’t to say that Zoom is perfect by any means. For example, learners in Zoom breakout rooms aren’t able to see the shared screen. This means that you will have to find another way to enable learners to refer to class materials during group and pair activities. In addition, where classes are taught by different teachers, each has a different meeting number and password, which can be confusing for learners. However, the company has been generous enough to lift its 40-minute restriction on meetings on their free accounts (although you do have to submit an online request).
I acknowledge that there are alternatives to Zoom and Teams for synchronous learning, but I have not had enough experience with them to be able to comment on them in detail. WebRoom, which was the second most popular platform in the survey, is free and appears to offer many features, such as screen sharing and breakout groups. It’s main limitation is that the number of participants is limited to 15, which makes it unsuitable for large classes.
Adobe Connect also appears to be a good platform for delivering synchronous teaching. One of its greatest assets is the degree of customisation offered in terms of adding and arranging different components on the screen. The flip side of this is a steeper learning curve compared to some of the other platforms. But the biggest barrier for me is the cost: it is the most expensive platform, although at the time of writing, it was offering a 90 day free trial.
A well-designed online course is likely to have a combination of synchronous and asynchronous components. Although Zoom is not designed for asynchronous delivery of learning, Teams is also not ideal. There are many better alternatives, such as virtual learning environments (VLEs). An example is Moodle, which has a whole host of features that make it very useful for online learning. These include using it as a repository for course materials and activities. There is lots on information on these features online, so I’m not going to repeat them here.
Want to learn more?
For any teachers out there who are serious about doing some professional development on this subject, I highly recommend Cambridge Assessment English’s comprehensive online course on Teaching English Online which can be accessed free on FutureLearn. It covers a lot of background on the technologies and platforms available, as well as offering lots of useful tips on how to teach the skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening.
One interesting bit of information I got from the course was a survey which was carried out to find out the preferred platform for teaching English online. The survey was started over a year ago, well before the closure of schools and with over 10,000 responses, the results include both platforms for delivering synchronous online lessons, such as Zoom and Teams, as well as platforms for asynchronous delivery, such as Moodle. The most popular platform was Zoom, with 50% of responses. This was followed by WebRoom with 32% of responses and Skype with 13%. All the other platforms made up the remaining 6% of responses.
There are a couple of things that stood out from this survey, the first being the dominance of platforms that enable synchronous delivery of teaching. Could this be because people think of online teaching to be ‘live’ classes? This would explain the small number of responses that mentioned asynchronous platforms, such as Moodle, Blackboard and Google Classroom.
image source: Boris Johnson’s Twitter