HETL Global Communities

Learning to Become an Online Instructor of Teacher Education: From a Technicist Paradigm to a Culturally Reflective Approach

March 30, 2016 in Volume 6

HETL Note: In this academic article by Dr. Guofang Li, the author investigates how she, as a teacher educator, redesigned an online undergraduate TESOL minor practicum course using a culturally reflective approach to teaching and learning. Using action research, the author explores her experience with the common technical and pedagogical issues she encountered in creating the course and teaching online and she discusses the impacts of using a culturally reflective approach on the development of pre-service teacher identity and language teaching.

Author Bio:

LiImage2Dr. Guofang Li is a Professor and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Transnational/Global Perspectives of Language and Literacy Education of Children and Youth in the Department of Language and Literacy Education, University of British Columbia, Canada. Her work Article has been devoted to understanding immigrant and minority students’ bicultural and biliteracy practices and (dis)connections between home and school, and promoting a culturally reciprocal approach to instruction that utilizes “parent culture” as a scaffold for powerful academic learning. Her recent research interests are longitudinal studies of immigrant children’s bicultural and bi-literacy development through school, ELLs’ new literacies practices in and out of school, and ESL/EFL pre- and in-service teacher education. As one of the leading scholars in the field of second language and literacy education, Li has published 12 books and over 100 journal articles and book chapters in English and Chinese, and presented over 100 papers worldwide. Li is the recipient of numerous national and international awards including the 2016 Mid-Career Award from the Second Language Research Special Interest Group (SIG), American Educational Research Association (AERA), the 2016 Carol Weinstein Outstanding Research Award, Classroom Management SIG, AERA, the 2013 and 2006 Ed Fry Book Award of the Literary Research Association (LRA), the 2011 Publication Award from ACPSS, the 2010 AERA Early Career Award, and the 2008 Social Context of Education Division Early Career Award of AERA. Dr. Li teaches undergraduate, Master’s and doctoral courses in teacher education and language and literacy education.

 

Learning to Become an Online Instructor of Teacher Education: From a Technicist Paradigm to a Culturally Reflective Approach

Guofang Li

University of British Columbia, Canada

 

Abstract

While teacher educators play a central role in implementing new pedagogical practices in pre-service teacher education, their trials and explorations of new pedagogies in this process, especially in an online education environment, are largely unknown. In this paper, I document my own process of learning to teach and redesign an online undergraduate TESOL minor practicum course. I first describe the technical and pedagogical issues emerged in my learning to teach online and my effort to redesign the course following a culturally reflective approach. I then present an analysis of the impact of the redesigned course on pre-service teachers’ teacher identity development, understanding of authentic school contexts, competency development in language teaching and diversity, and dispositions toward technology integration. The powerful impact of the redesign suggests the potential of action research in transforming teacher educators’ instructional practices and the need to provide ongoing professional development for effective online instruction.

Keywords: English language learners, English as a second language, teaching English to speakers to other languages, online instruction, teacher education

 

Introduction

The increasing number of English language learners (ELLs) and the continuing shortage of qualified teachers for these students in American schools have highlighted a critical need to provide better education for pre-service teachers in Teaching English to Speakers to Other Languages (TESOL) or English as a second language (ESL) teachers (Ingersoll & May, 2011; Office of U.S. Department of Education, 2013). The unpreparedness of the teaching force and the shortage of qualified teachers for teaching ELLs in low-income schools intensify the urgency to prepare the next generation of teachers better for the changing demographics in today’s schools. Lucas and Villegas (2013) argued that the process of preparing qualified teachers to teach culturally and linguistically diverse students must begin in pre-service preparation, laying the foundation for teachers’ continued development throughout their teaching career. This emergent need raises questions about what pre-service teachers need to know and how to help them learn it effectively in order to prepare them to teach in increasingly complex and diverse classroom settings.

Scholars of pre-service teachers’ knowledge base in ESL maintain that in the current educational context, pre-service second language teachers not only need knowledge of linguistics, pedagogy, and cultural and linguistic diversity (Menken & Antunez, 2001; Lucas & Villegas, 2013), but also knowledge of themselves as learners of teaching, knowledge of schools and schooling as social contexts for their teacher learning and development, and knowledge of the pedagogical process of language teaching and learning in authentic settings (Darling Hammond, 2006; Johnson & Freeman, 1998; Johnson, 2009; Wright, 2010).  This expanded knowledge base for teachers of English language learners suggests that to prepare pre-service for ELL education, the program must move away from a skill-based, technicist approach that treats student teachers as technicians receiving techniques to apply in their future jobs, to a socio-constructivist approach through which teacher learners construct their own knowledge of teaching through engagement in the classroom, as students in teacher education, and in their subsequent experience as practitioners (Cochran-Smith & Lytle 2001; Crandell, 2000; Freeman & Johnson, 1998; Sleeter, 2008; Wright, 2010). This paradigm shift requires pre-service teacher education to focus on producing  teachers who are reflective practitioners who can theorize practices, helping them explore how their prior learning experiences and beliefs shape their conceptions of teaching and learning ELLs, preparing them for the complexities of real classrooms by providing school-based, experiential practice, and socializing them into communities of practice for continued, lifelong professional learning (Crandall, 2000; Wright, 2010).

Given the new emphasis on understanding the complexities of real classrooms and providing school-based, experiential practice for student teachers’ knowledge base, the role of early fieldwork, or a practicum project, becomes the central component of pre-service teacher education. Pre-service teachers’ direct field experience or practicum in teaching ELLs prior to their internship has been cited as the most helpful component of pre-service teacher preparation programs and as the most valued component by graduates of teacher preparation programs (Coady, Harper, & de Jong, 2011; Sailors, Keehn, Martinez, & Harmon, 2005). Research on mainstream pre-service teachers’ early field experience in multicultural school settings has suggested that these experiences can help student teachers gain different perspectives on children in diverse settings (Almarza, 2005; Bleicher, 2011; Wiggins, Follo, & Eberly, 2007), clarification of their career goals (Gomez et al., 2007), and skills and strategies for teaching in diverse settings (Mora & Grisham, 2001). While much research has been focused on adding a multicultural component to mainstream pre-service teachers’ field experience (such as those cited above), or a TESOL practicum at the graduate level (e.g., Richards & Crooks, 1988; Stoynoff, 1999), relatively little research has been published on early field experience for pre-service teachers (with the exception of Johnson, 1996) at the undergraduate level. Also, while teacher educators are primary authors of research on pre-service teachers’ field experiences, their pivotal role in second language pedagogy and practice is largely unexplored or even acknowledged (Wright, 2010). There is a critical need to address this knowledge gap because practicing teacher educators are the major players in pushing for the paradigm shift and in introducing new epistemologies into pre-service teacher education. As Wright (2010) argues, their role in the process of change in training pre-service teachers is central as “trials and explorations of new pedagogies are almost entirely within their remit” (p. 287).

This gap is further complicated by the growing trend of transitioning pre-service teacher education programs from face-to-face instruction to online courses where teacher educators have to adopt new roles, assume new responsibilities and use different pedagogical practices to realize quality instruction in a virtual environment (Baran, Correia, & Thompson, 2011; Butrymowicz, 2012; Shea, 2008). Despite the growth in online learning in higher education, existing research on online education lacks a critical look at online instructors’ roles and competencies with respect to online teaching (Baran, Correia, & Thompson, 2011). Given that the shift to online education is relatively new in the field of pre-service teacher education, understanding of second language teacher educators’ roles and online pedagogical practices is even more limited.

This article addresses this gap and complexity by detailing my action research to address issues arose in teaching an undergraduate TESOL minor online field experience course in the Teacher Education department at a public university in the Midwest. I used action research as a form of investigation to attempt to solve problems emerged in teaching the field experience course and improve my professional practices in my own online classroom. Action research involves systematic observations and data collection that can be then used by the practitioner-researcher in reflection, decision-making and the development of more effective classroom strategies (Mills, 2011; Parsons & Brown, 2002). In this sense, action research is a natural part of my teaching process and it enabled me to continually observe students, collect data, and change practices to improve student learning and my own instructional practices in the practicum course (Mills, 2011).

During 2008-2013, I went through two cycles of reflective process of problem solving that included identifying a problem(s), collecting information, taking action, observing, and reflecting (Stringer, 2008). The period of 2008-2011 constituted the first reflective cycle. During this time, I identified a need to learn the technologies associated with online teaching as a new online instructor. I gathered students’ feedback and examined their weekly posts and assignments, and took action to address the technical concerns. As these efforts failed to produce the desired outcome, during 2012-2013, influenced by Mishra & Koehler’s (2006) TPACK framework, I began to pay attention to the integration of technology, content and pedagogy in this course. With this new focus in mind, I began redesigning the course and collected information on student assignments including students’ posts, reflections, and course evaluations (see more details in the impact section) to examine the effects of the redesign.

In the first part of the paper, I describe my own journey of identifying issues emerged in learning to teach online and the actions I took to move from a narrow focus on improving the technical aspects of online teaching to the transformation of creating a synergy between online teaching and the integration of cultural pedagogy in course design. In the second part of the paper, I present a qualitative analysis of student teachers’ responses to and the impacts of my redesign and teaching of the online field experience course, Field Experience in Teacher Education-TESOL.

Learning to Teach the Online TESOL Practicum Course

Become a New Online Instructor: Focusing on Technical Concerns

The online practicum course, Field Experience in Teacher Education-TESOL, included a three-credit online course work and a two-credit field experiences in the local K-12 schools. When I was assigned to teach this course for the first time, I was new to both teaching online courses and supervising field experiences. I struggled with creating a social presence and close connection with students in the online course (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000; Lehman, R., & Conceição, 2010) and dealing with students who had different levels of familiarity with the online course format.

Like many novice instructors documented in research, I struggled with the change of my role from a content-provider and knowledge-disseminator in the face to face classes to a content facilitator in the online class, (Smith, Ferguson & Caris, 2002). One of the most difficult aspects was to capitalize on my identity as a dynamic instructor who was passionate about English language learners—an identity that I found effective in forging meaningful connections with my students. However, I found myself unable to transfer this identity and passion in the online environment where communication was mostly done through emails and discussion posts and the human dimension of group interaction was lacking (Major, 2010; Smith, Ferguson & Caris, 2002). Although the course had the three types of interaction:  learner-content interaction (through weekly readings and writing assignments), learner-instructor interaction (through emails and discussion forums) and learner-learner interaction (discussion forums) (Peters, 1993), both students and I felt a sense of alienation from each other.

Students’ different levels of familiarity with online courses further compounded this lack of connection. While the majority of the students enjoyed the flexibility of an online class and found the class well-organized and very useful, a few other students disliked the online nature of the class. Students who had prior experiences with online courses were very positive about the course. However, students who took an on-line class for the first time felt the class was impersonal. One student wrote in the middle term evaluation, “This [is] the first time I have taken an online course. I am not very fond of online courses based on this experience because I feel like there is less communication between the professor and her students.”

While I was not able to change the decision that the course had to be offered online, when I taught the course again, I focused on addressing the communication issue in the online class by adding a video introduction of myself and the course before the class, and organizing some face-to-face meetings with students. In addition, I conducted mid-term evaluation and solicited students’ suggestions to improve the course, for example, by adding more materials and adjusting some assignments. I also added optional online chats and created more detailed announcements on the online course site. However, to my disappointment, students’ overall rating of the course remained similar.

Moving from Technical Concerns to Concerns on Pedagogical Impact

Lack of improvement in the course evaluation had pushed me to reflect on my own online teaching. I realized that I had been so focused on how to use different technical tools to improve the social presence in the course that I had not considered the course’s impact on students’ learning. I had not considered the cognitive presence (the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse) (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001) or the teaching presence (the design, facilitation and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes) (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison & Archer, 2001). According to Mishra and Koehler (2006), effective technology integration for teaching specific content or subject matter requires understanding and negotiating the relationships between these three components or the TPACK: Technology (Technological Knowledge), Pedagogy (Pedagogical Knowledge), and Content (Content Knowledge). Therefore, to become an effective online instructor, I must not become just a technology expert, a disciplinary expert, or a teaching/pedagogy expert, but also have the ability to integrate all three domains of expertise effectively.

Thus, as I focused on becoming more technologically proficient in the online class, I failed to consider the disciplinary content and the pedagogical design in the course and its impact on their learning to become an ESL teacher, especially in terms of meeting the goals of the pre-service program and the objectives of the practicum course which were to: prepare them for the complexities of real classrooms, help pre-service teachers explore their identity (i.e., how their prior learning experiences and beliefs shape their conceptions of teaching and learning ELLs), train them as reflective practitioners, and socialize them into communities of practice for continued, lifelong professional learning.

With this realization in mind, I examined the course content and assignments to see how they might have impeded students’ learning and engagement in the course. First, I observed that the current online course content (that was determined by a previous instructor) focused exclusively on second language assessment issues. While the goal of the course was to provide students with experience and competence in ESL teaching and with knowledge in real classrooms, a narrow focus on assessment limited students’ learning in the field as ESL teaching concerns all aspects of language teaching. These aspects include different school contexts, classroom management, teaching strategies, cultural and language diversity, diverse levels of language proficiency, parental involvement, and community engagement, in addition to assessment issues. Since all the student teachers in the practicum course had never formally taught in a real classroom, and most of them had never worked with an ELL before this class, to provide a comprehensive understanding of the real ESL classroom was therefore of critical importance.  A student’s comment well confirmed my concern about the disconnection:

This is the only class that TESOL students are placed in an actual language class. There are so many important things that were observed in the classroom that pertained to things other than assessment and there was no forum for which to discuss them…Most of the things read about in this class, I never saw in the classroom

Existing research on teacher education practicum courses revealed that the disconnection between student teachers’ in-field experience and on-campus learning has been a wide-spread problem in many teacher education programs around the world (Allen & Peach, 2007; Cochran-Smith, 2005; Darling-Hammond, 2009; Johnson, 1996; Zeichner, 2010). Zeichner (2010) considered this disconnection as “one of the central problems that has plagued college- and university-based pre-service teacher education for many years” (p. 89) and calls for creating more hybrid spaces in teacher education programs to bring together university-based teacher educators, practitioners, and academic knowledge in new ways to enhance the learning of prospective teachers. In fact, one of the causes of such disconnection has been attributed to the exclusion of K-12 classroom mentor teachers from major decisions made about the design of the practicum course (Hamlin, 1997; Veal & Rikard, 1998). In light of these findings, I realized that the practicum course’s design had been mono-directional: We university educators set the standards and requirements, and we did not enlist mentor teachers’ input on what might work for our students and for their own teaching from their perspectives that could make a significant impact on course and assignment design, and hence on our student teachers’ learning experiences. Therefore, future improvement of the course must include cooperating teachers’ perspectives and input.

Second, I observed that the major term assignments lacked reflective inquiry that provided meaning to students’ experiences in the field placements or encouraged connections to their prior experiences as learners (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001; Swan, Garrison, & Richardson, 2009).  The final term portfolio assignment, for example, required the pre-service teachers to collect samples of assessments by following the taxonomy in the course textbook. This task became very “mindless”. In fact, many students who shared the same mentor teacher handed in almost identical collections of assessment samples. A student’s comment in the final course evaluation confirmed my observation of this problem:

Really the professor was great for an online class. I do not think that the portfolio at the end was a good project. It was busy work. We should have done that as group work if anything…Something that is not so mindless. Course was great otherwise…

Third, I observed that many of the weekly assignments aimed to help pre-service teachers master the content but did not engage the students in connecting with their own experiences, cultures, or those of the ELLs students who they interacted in the field placements (Johnson, 1996; Hixon & So, 2009). Their posts and assignments rarely alluded to ELLs’ cultures or their own. This finding suggested that the pre-service teachers needed support and guidance to make personal connections to issues of cultural diversity in their process of learning to teach ELLs.

Redesigning the Online TESOL Practicum: Addressing the Pedagogical Concerns through a Culturally Reflective Pedagogy

Good teaching must affirm students’ cultural identity and build on their prior knowledge. As noted earlier, students in the practicum course were new to ELLs and ESL classrooms and they were often prone to experience a mismatch between their theoretical views of teaching and the realities of teaching in schools (Johnson, 1996). Therefore, the practicum course revision had to attend to both their cultural and professional identity development as teachers in training and their knowledge gain in understanding the sociocultural and socio-political contexts of teaching and to dispel any misconceptions about teaching ELLs in these contexts (Farrell, 2007; Johnson, 2009; Richards, 2010; Wright, 2010). As well, I had to depart from the technicist approach that to second language teacher education that treats student teachers as passive receivers of knowledge and focuses solely on their learning of assessment skills and techniques; instead, I needed to capitalize on their prior knowledge, beliefs, and experiences and to help them become active learners of language teaching and culturally reflective practitioners through the course. That is, I needed to help them develop their reflective and analytical skills, examine the relationship between theory and practice, and dispel myths and misinterpretations they might have about ELLs and ESL teaching (Feyten & Kaywell, 1994; Schon, 1983; Wallace, 1991).

Following this culturally reflective approach, my revised course work in Spring 2013 included carefully constructed activities that were connected with the contexts of the schools, allowed critical reflection on their own learning about teaching in the contexts, and built on their prior knowledge and sociocultural backgrounds. I redesigned the course to include six interrelated modules that attend to 1) teachers’ identity development including transitioning from being a student to a student teacher and forming professional learning communities), 2) knowledge of school contexts including physical, social and political contexts, 3) connection between theory and practice in language pedagogy, and 4) critical reflection on their learning processes:

Table 1: Revised Course Modules and Pedagogical Concerns Addressed

 

Revised Modules Pedagogical Concerns Addressed
Module 1: Preparing for the practicum course and the field

Topic 1: Learning about the practicum course and yourself as a teacher-in-training (with an autobiography assignment)

Topic 2:  Working with cooperating teachers

  • To reflect on prior experiences and cultural identity
  • To gain knowledge about how to work with cooperating teachers
  • To form learning communities
Module 2: Learning about the ELLs and culture (Week 3-4)

Topic 1: Who are ELLs?

Topic 2: Learning about cultural differences

  • To reflect on diversity among ELLs;
  • To compare and contrast students’ cultures with their own cultural backgrounds and experiences
Module 3: Understanding the teaching context: Policies, standards, and assessments in the schools

Topic 1:  Policies and standards

Topic 2: Assessing ELLs

  • To understand school contexts regarding federal policies, standards, and assessments
  • To reflect on their own experiences in the school system
Module 4: Getting to know the schools, classrooms, and the curriculum

Topic 1: Observing the schools and the classrooms

Topic 2: Teaching beginning ELLs

Topic 3: Teaching intermediate ELLs

  • To understand the school contexts regarding the curriculum, programs, and classroom settings and setups
  • To reflect on ELLs’ learner characteristics
Module 5: Preparing to teach

Topic 1: Teaching an effective lesson

Topic 2: Handling potential challenges

 

  • To understand the process of teaching and the possible challenges (understanding contexts)
  • To reflect on connecting theory with practice in language teaching methods
Module 6: Teaching and reflection on teaching and practicum

Topic 1: Planning and delivering the lesson and work on your final project

Topic 2: Final reflection

  • To reflect on their teaching experience
  • To reflection on their learning process in this practicum (teacher identity development)
  • To form learning communities beyond the class

 

To support the learning goals outlined above, I used two texts, Practice Teaching: A Reflective Approach (Richards & Farrell, 2011) to provide a practical guide on how to be a reflective teacher in training, and The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide: Ready To Use Strategies, Tools, and Activities for Teaching English Language Learners to All Levels (Ferlazzo  & Synpieski, 2012) to provide student teachers with practical resources about school contexts and the pedagogical tools (e.g., effective strategies in ELL instruction, ESL strategies in content classrooms, and tips on how to build supportive classroom environment) needed to teach in these contexts. In each module, student teachers’ learning experiences were mediated by weekly readings, multimedia materials, course PPTs, and online discussions that were closely connected to their classroom experiences (see Figure 1 for an example of a module outlined above).

LiImage1

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1: Screenshot of Module 2, Week 3

In addition to these content changes, I also redesigned the final portfolio assignment to make it more inquiry-based and reflective (Swan, Garrison, & Richardson, 2009). To make the assignment better aligned with their field experiences, I enlisted cooperating teachers’ input in and perspectives on the assignment design and revision and changed the final assessment portfolio to a tutoring/teaching or class observation portfolio. The revised tutoring portfolio required the student teachers to document their tutoring of ELLs and/or their two short teaching activities and reflect on their experiences. The observation portfolio required that students document several lessons taught by cooperating teachers that they observed, discuss their strengths and weaknesses, and revise an observed lesson based on their analyses.

In addition, to address my concerns about pre-service teachers different comfort levels in using the technology, I integrated the use of iPads by securing support from an iPad loan program offered by the College to help our students to work better with ELLs and document their experiences for online discussions/posts to enhance their field experiences (as described in Option 2 in the example unit above).

In the final week of the class, student teachers were also asked to submit a post discussion on their overall experiences in this practicum course through which they reflected on the positive experiences, challenges faced, gains in language teaching skills, changes in their beliefs and practices about teaching ELLs, their experiences using iPad, and suggestions for technology integration. At the end of the semester, I also organized an optional face-to-face showcase event for students to present their work.

The redesign successfully addressed the issue of social presence in the course as not one single student complained about feeling isolated from instructor and peers. Students overall rated the course as “above average to superior,” and their comments indicated that the redesign addressed the pedagogical concerns I had identified earlier, including the disconnection between in-field and on-campus experiences, the lack of reflection, the lack of attention to cultural diversity, and the lack of community building. For example, about 91.6% the student teachers believed that the course content and activities supported their learning, enhanced their ability to reflect on their practices, and gained their experience for participating as a member of a professional community of educators. Students wrote (italics added),

[The course] provided me with the opportunity to pair my course work with firsthand experience working with ESL students. It allowed me to use what I read and learned about in the course and apply this knowledge to real situations and daily practices in the classroom. Situations that I observed in the ESL classroom made more sense in light of what I discovered through class readings and lectures. Overall, reflecting on my coursework and weekly placement allowed for a deeper understanding of the nature of working with ELLs.

 –The online course really worked in collaboration with what I was learning in my field placement. I felt that they were connected and that I could apply what I was learning in the online portion to the field. In comparison to my other TE courses with field components, the field and the classroom work have always felt separate. This course did a great job of making connections between the two experiences.

 — Although it seemed a lot of work at first, I actually learned a lot from being forced to have reflection and read peers’ reflections. I really felt like this course was quite flexible and very interactive in a meaningful way for an online course. I have learned from doing everything in this class, and enjoyed it.

 — I also learned how to use colleagues and create a community of learning through this class. Through the Live Chats and different discussion forums, it felt like we created more of a community in this class, despite the fact that it was online, and that we were working together. I want to create a community like this with future colleagues.

The redesign had also improved the pre-service teachers’ cognitive processes of learning. In particular, the teachers’ reflection and comments revealed that the course had major impact on their processes of learning to become an ESL teacher, which I report in the following section.

The Impact of the Redesign on Pre-service Teachers’ Learning Processes: An Exploratory Analysis

In order to understand the impact of the redesign on the pre-service teachers’ learning, I conducted a qualitative analysis of students’ weekly posts and responses, final written reflections on the course, course evaluations, and their course assignments including the portfolio and teaching reflections from the 2013 session. I used Johnson’s (2006) framework of second language teacher learning that includes three components: The teacher as learner (teacher identity development), contexts of learning (gaining knowledge of the classroom and the schools as contexts), and pedagogy of teaching and learning (developing competency about language teaching and diversity). Since technology integration was an innovation in this course, a fourth theme, perceptions of the integration of iPads in the online course, was also included. The data were then coded according to the content related to these four themes (see Table 2 below for examples).

 

Table 2: Examples of Themes and Codes

 

Students’ Comments/Writing   Themes and Codes
Another thing that I learned is the importance of looking at myself as a teacher and to assess myself, this allows me to see what was successful during the lesson and what improvements I can make to help students
  • Teacher as Learner/Teacher Identity
I think I now have a better idea of the students’ learning development and the challenges in ESL classrooms. I was also surprised by the students’ rapid progress and their abilities to complete difficult tasks.”
  • Contexts of Learning
When looking over the two lesson plans that were given in the book about how to get students motivated at the beginning of the year, I think I would definitely do one of those two lesson plans…These plans are also a tool that I could use throughout the year to refer back to if I noticed students were lacking motivation. 
  • Pedagogy of teaching and learning–competence in teaching strategies
One of the girls, Hafa needed help studying for her American History test. The test was over events from the Second Great Awakening and other antebellum events. I tried to relate the Second Great Awakening, a period of evolution of Christian ideals to aspects of Islam and I came up short…I’ve always had a fascination with other cultures/religions I just never made time to research. I also should have used my iPad as a resource, something I did not think about in the moment, but reflecting on this moment, it would have been very helpful. 
  • Pedagogy of teaching and learning—cultural diversity
  • Technology-iPad

 

Multiple sources of data (See Table 3 below) indicate that the culturally reflective approach to the TESOL practicum course (with the support of modern technology) was effective in enhancing student teachers’ understandings of themselves as teachers in training, their knowledge of classrooms and schools, their ability to connect theory with practice about language teaching, and their interest in integrating technology in teaching. As well, they were more aware of the cultural differences and diversity in schools and the strategies that their mentor teachers used in dealing with these diverse issues.

 

Table 3: Data Sources and Analyses

 

Data sources Number Analysis
Weekly posts and responses 341 posts and 613 responses Thematic content analysis
Final Reflection on the Course 30 entries Thematic content analysis
Written Reflections in the Portfolio Assignment 30 entries Thematic content analysis
Reflections on the Teaching Practice 30 entries Thematic content analysis
Course evaluation 24 respondents with 19 written comments Analysis of valid percentage of responses and thematic content analysis of written comments

 

Impact on Teacher Identity Development

Since most students never had any experiences with ELLs prior to this class, many were concerned about their ability to interact with or teach ELLs as student teachers. Upon entering the practicum, I asked the student teachers to write an autobiography in which they responded to the question, “Who are you as a teacher-in-training?” Like pre-service teachers reported in Feyten and Kaywell’s (1994) study, the student teachers focused on specific technical skills they would have to perform as teachers, such as a) learn strategies on how to help ELLs write; b) see different ways to help me communicate with my students and to help them become more confident with their assignments and in the classroom in general; c) build a safe and accepting environment; d) design materials and plan lessons and activities that meet their individual learning needs; e) select techniques that I can use to effectively teach English to ESL students (“favorite go-to teaching methods”); e) find ways to help these students stay motivated and to help them improve in their English proficiency; and f) use the right tools to help them learn how to interact with ESL students. Students also held a naïve view of teaching. One student, for example, regarded teaching (ELLs and others) is making a good plan and sticking to it:

I feel that a teacher could improve all other student[s] by being genuine, sticking to a plan, and giving the students as much time and attention as needed…I need to learn how to develop a good plan that will provide my students a path to follow as they develop…

Student teachers also expressed feelings of excitement and nervousness in working with students from diverse backgrounds. How to communicate with ELLs who did not speak English well was a major concern for many student teachers. One student’s comments at the beginning of the class were representative:

Since these students are from everywhere around the world, I may not be able to rely on my L2 for communication…Another difficulty will be gauging how to talk to the students. What kind of vocabulary should I use? What kind of grammar knowledge will the students have? … I hope to learn how to effectively communicate with students that do not know very much English (who also do not have Spanish as an L1). I hope to learn how to properly gauge which aspects of English the students need help with the most, which errors to fix immediately and which to fix later

The practicum had helped the pre-service teachers develop a broad view of their perceptions of an ELL teacher that went beyond the technical view of an ESL teacher as the language/grammar teacher.  Instead, the students embraced a sociocultural view of ESL teaching that encompasses learning more about the learners. As a student’s post at the end of the class indicates, students were now concerned about learning about students’ cultures, affirming students’ cultural identities in class, engaging parents, creating a positive classroom environment, and addressing students’ different learning styles (italics added):

In order to address these diversity challenges, I need to do many things as a teacher.  First, I need to learn about the different cultures of the students… By learning more about the students’ culture, I can avoid sending negative unintentional messages and creating a more positive atmosphere.  This will be a huge benefit when talking with parents, too… Not only would I learn more about the places they are from, but it will additionally help the other students be more understanding and create a positive learning environment where everyone feels welcome.  Secondly, I need to figure out the students’ unique learning styles.  With the students having such different academic personalities, it is important to teach in various ways so that all can learn

Another student wrote in her final reflection that she learned about the job of an ESL teacher entailed knowing more about learners’ language abilities and preparing them for the future (italics added):

From this practicum experience, I learned that the job of an ESL teacher requires knowledge about every student’s level of speaking, writing, and reading the language. It also requires crafting lessons that will not only help the students better learn the language, but that will also prepare them for the future, whether it be high school or SAT tests.  I also learned how important teacher-student relationships are to how well your classroom will function and to how comfortable students will feel in the United States, learning English.

In addition to broadening the pre-service teachers’ views of the meaning of being an ESL teacher, the practicum also helped solidify students’ career choice as an ESL teacher. Paese (1996) pointed out that one important purpose of field experiences was to explore teaching as a career option, and the teaching skills needed for carrying out that professional role. In the final course evaluation, about 95.7% of the student teachers believed the course topics were relevant to their career goals, and 91.6% of them reported that they were able to connect the course content to their professional career goals.  Similar to prior research that reported positive career reinforcement, the student teachers reported positive ELL teacher identity, more feelings of confidence, eagerness to teach, and feelings of appreciation by their students (e.g., Feyten & Kaywell, 1994; Gomez et al., 2007). As one student teacher wrote, “I learned a great deal from this practicum experience. I wasn’t fully sure what it looked like to be an ESL teacher, what standards and [requirements] the teacher had to follow, and how to plan lessons for ESL students. I was able to learn about all of these things through my placement and observation of my MT [mentor teacher]. The placement experience was invaluable in my development as an educator” (italics added). Several other student teachers shared similar experiences (italics added),

I’ve had other classes about ESL learning from having the TESOL minor, but none of my classes talked about HOW to actually teach these students. That’s where I think this class has been very important to my education in becoming an ESL teacher.

 –I learned that I would be interested in accepting a TESOL job where I am the ESL specialist in the school…I found that my TESOL background gave me that advantage to help ESL students in a mainstream classroom and I found that I really enjoyed having that knowledge to help one of my students. This one student was very grateful for my helping her learn English because I could recognize her troubles. This practicum experience also taught me how I want to approach ESL teaching if I were to ever strictly teach only ESL students… Overall, this practicum experience helped me to further shape the kind of teacher I want to become.

 –I am a TESOL minor but until this class did not feel like I knew much about the students. I have practiced some lesson planning and learned the SIOP model but really being with the students and watching another teacher showed me that I do really want to continue on with this degreeI think that the readings may have been some of the most useful I have read in my Teacher Education, not only for ESL teaching but just in a general idea…

Impact on Teachers’ Knowledge of Classroom Contexts

Another important aspect of field-based learning for the pre-service teachers is to have a better understanding of ELLs and real ESL classrooms. Some students started the class without knowing how to interact with ELLs or to “act on the first day.” At the beginning of the course, many students expressed concerns about their lack of knowledge about the school contexts in their posts prior to going to meet with their mentor teachers:

I don’t know any ESL curriculum, if my mentor teacher chooses to use one.

 –I am also somewhat nervous about stepping into this type of language teaching situation, since it is the first time I will be in an ESL teaching environment.

 –…I haven’t had any prior experience working with high school students for tutoring or student teaching. This made me worried that I wouldn’t know how to talk to the students or how to “act” in the classroom.

At the end of the course, students noted their familiarity with the class environment, interactions with students, and the importance of knowing programs related to ELLs in the schools (italics added):

I think I now have a better idea of the students’ learning development and the challenges in ESL classrooms. I was also surprised by the students’ rapid progress and their abilities to complete difficult tasks.

I really enjoyed the readings and can [see] myself as a future teacher looking back through the books and using the material. I also enjoyed participating in an ESL program in a school. It was a great example to see what a program could look like in a school setting.

I learned so many useful things this semester from my practicum experience. I feel like I have a much better understanding of how an ESL classroom works and the state requirements that ESL students must meet, such as taking the ELPA test on a yearly basis. I have a better understanding of how students can be exited from the ESL program and what happens when the students are exited. Aside from just learning more about ESL programs in general I learned that teaching ESL students, or any students for that matter, is about helping them to understand the content rather than just preparing them for [a] standardized test

Impact on Pre-service Teachers’ Competency in Language Teaching and Diversity

Showing student teachers’ changes in beliefs reveals much about the importance of connecting student teachers’ theoretical perspectives about teaching to the realities of teaching (Johnson, 1996). At the beginning of the practicum course, as noted above, students were overwhelmingly concerned about how to interact with ELLs who do not speak proficient English, and they were eager to learn some “go-to teaching strategies” to teach English to the ELLs. Students’ weekly discussions, their tutoring portfolios, and teaching reflections revealed students’ knowledge gain in learning about the skills and strategies for teaching ELLs, ranging from how to set up class routines, how to use different multimedia, how to conduct small group tutoring or teaching activities, how to provide students with opportunities to use English for authentic, communicative purposes, and how to provide meaningful feedback. Their course evaluation results suggest that about 91.7% of the student teachers agreed or strongly agreed that their learning in the course had a positive impact on their teaching.

The course also showed a strong impact on student teachers’ perceptions of diversity. At the beginning of the semester, many students saw cultural and linguistic diversity as “barriers” in their communication with and teaching of ELLs. Students wrote in their early posts, “I know very little Spanish and it is the only other language I have ever learned, which could cause problems when the students are very low proficiency English speakers.” Or, “I struggle with how to help students understand when it comes to language barriers.” At the end of the practicum, diversity was not seen as a barrier but as a resource that they could tap into to teach ELLs from different backgrounds effectively. As described earlier, many student teachers entered the field believing that TESOL was just about teaching “the language,” and one or two believed in teaching the language with “American culture.” In the final reflection post, students were asked to reflect on “What will you change in your teaching skills or techniques as a result of this practicum experience”? Their final reflections demonstrate a wide range of qualitative changes in this belief. In particular, the course had helped student teachers see the importance of getting to know ELLs and teaching based on knowing students’ sociocultural information and strengths. In the final course evaluation, about 95.7% of them agreed or strongly agreed that their experiences in this course contributed to their ability to support the diverse backgrounds and needs of their students. They understood that affirming students’ cultural background could lead to more academic success. As one student wrote, “I’ve learned that as a teacher it is important to know the backgrounds of your students. When you take the time to get to know them, they feel more comfortable with you, and they are more successful in class.” Several others concurred (italics added):

As a result of this practicum experience I will change the amount I get to know the students. I was always really aware of the fact that it is important to learn a lot about your students and cultures, however I am much more aware of how this knowledge can be used in the classroom…

 –I will now take into account students’ background experience. I really want to get to know my students and how they learn. I want to dig into their background knowledge and use it in my classroom. I will make sure to model expected behaviors and objectives for my students so they understand what is expected of them. I will provide multiple opportunities for assessment because there will be many different learning styles in future classroom.

My biggest takeaway from this experience was learning to really “see” my future ESL students. I think it is so easy to get caught up in “teaching to the test” and making sure standards and benchmarks are met. However, nothing can be accomplished without putting forth an effort to get to know our students and in turn, earn their respect…Also, I now value the need to involve parents in their child’s learning experience and make them feel welcome in the community as well. 

Developing Interests in the Integration of New Technology

As mentioned earlier, how to make the best of the mediational tools of iPads in an online environment was new, so I was eager to find out how students responded to this innovation. Students were asked to use different applications on iPad in tutoring, observation, and documenting their field experiences. At the beginning of the semester, only one student expressed the desire to learn to integrate technology in their learning to teach experience. At the end of the semester, about 95.8% of the student teachers indicated in their final course evaluations that the course technology worked for them. In the final reflection of the course, I asked students to reflect on the questions “How do you like the use of iPad in this class? What are the positives and challenges? What are your suggestions for future technology integration in this course?” While many students’ responses to the use of iPads were very positive, some expressed the desire to have more tutorials on how to use the applications at the beginning of the class, or having ongoing sessions on how to use some of the applications. Except for a few students who were unable to use iPads in their field placements due to different factors (e.g., lack of time or Internet connection in the classrooms), most students noted that the use of different iPad apps, such as the translate and dictionary apps, had been very helpful in their tutoring and teaching of ELLs (italics added):

I truly enjoyed the iPad use in this class. This was a positive addition to my teaching practicum because of how fun, different, and helpful it was during my tutoring lessons as well as my overall experiences with the students. The resources and assistance on the iPad seemed endless…

 –I think it is important to expose prospective teachers to these technologies as well…Overall though, I know many of my classmates were excited to just be exposed to this technology and I think this exposure is important since iPads are frequently used in the modern classroom. 

 –I liked the use of the iPad. I found that it motivated the students a great deal. Students love using technology and the use of the iPad allowed me to use fun, engaging, and challenging applications to help the students

Students’ feedback suggests that future integration of iPad use must help student teachers better learn the technology itself. As well, specific modules on how to integrate technology will also be helpful in future classes. Like other aspects of field placement experiences, students needed guided support on technology use as well as opportunities to use it, discuss it, and reflect on it—the ability to effectively integrate technology in language teaching will not be “caught” but has to be taught as well.

Conclusions and Implications      

In this paper, I have detailed my journeys of learning to teach online courses and redesigning the online undergraduate TESOL practicum course by adopting a culturally reflective approach and integrating the use of iPads in field placements. In my own initial journey of learning to teach online, I paid much attention to the technical or survival aspects of online teaching, without considering the pedagogical synergy among the online platform, course content, the pre-service teachers themselves as learners, and their off-campus learning experiences. I believe lack of attention to this pedagogical synergy among the social, cognitive and teaching presence (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001) as well as the interconnected relationship between technology, content, and pedagogy (or TPACK) (Mishra & Koehler, 2006) in the TESOL teacher education context contributed to several of the issues such as the communication issue and the online nature of the course emerged in the course.

The redesigned online course attended to pre-service teachers’ cultural backgrounds and critical reflection on their practices and created a pedagogical synergy that was critical to strengthening their knowledge base not only in linguistics, pedagogy, and cultural and linguistic diversity, but also in understanding their own teacher identity development, how schools and schooling contexts work, technology integration, and the pedagogical process of language teaching and learning in authentic settings (Darling Hammond, 2006; Johnson & Freeman, 1998; Johnson, 2009; Menken & Antunez, 2001; Lucas & Villegas, 2013; Wright, 2010).

The initial success of the use of the culturally reflective approach to second language teacher training suggests that the approach has the potential to address the problems of disconnection between university course work and field experiences experienced by many teacher education practicum courses both in online and offline formats (Zeichner, 2010).  Through this approach, pre-service teachers can gain experiences within real school contexts and with firsthand classroom experience, learn to apply theory and teaching ideas from previous course work, discover their own teaching styles from observing experienced teachers, try out their own teaching, enhance lesson-planning skills, gain skills in selecting, adapting and developing original course materials, question, articulate, and reflect on their own teaching and learning philosophies, which include a complex array of assumptions, beliefs, values, educational and life experiences (Gebhard, 2009). In the current context, this comprehensive approach is particularly needed as the increasing demands of teaching diverse learners in American schools require more well-qualified teachers who not only have the knowledge base in second language acquisition and effective language teaching methodologies, but also contextual understanding of diverse learners and their learning process as well as the ability to navigate the ever changing educational policies in the local contexts of schools (de Jong et al., 2013; Li, 2013).

Through this process, I also learned much about designing an online course. First, learning from my earlier struggles, I would recommend start the course with questions on what students need to learn (content) and how to support that learning (pedagogy), rather than with concerns how I could replicate face-to-face teaching in an online environment. Designing the course with a focus on students’ learning and selecting appropriate pedagogical approaches to support that learning will open up more opportunities to experiment with different online tools to better engage students. Second, I learned that it takes time to get better at it as all other things do. In my case, it took several times teaching it (and reflecting on it) to improve it. I will continue to learn new pedagogical approaches and new ways to enhance online teaching. Therefore, do not expect to be perfect the first time or second time. Third, I learned that soliciting students’ feedback during mid-term and end of term was very helpful in making it more supportive of students’ learning. Lastly, I learned that creating active social presence for both instructor and students in online teaching is one of the most import elements for success due to the inherent “distant” and “impersonal” nature of online teaching. This can be achieved through many learning and social activities online, for example, regular group live chats with students (instructor-students contact), small group work and discussions (peer-contact), and individual consultations via technological tools such as Skype or face-to-face meetings.

In addition to learning about online course design, the powerful impact of my teaching innovations on pre-service teachers’ learning suggests action research is a powerful tool to transform one’s own teaching practices and improve the quality of online teacher education programs. This paper is the first stage of this exploratory action research study and it is also based on a single sample case in which the analysis was conducted by the author with full understanding of the preferred outcome. To understand better student teachers’ learning needs and to maximize their learning to teach ELLs, further research and reflection on my own teaching and innovation in the online environment is needed. In the next steps, including dialogue and collaboration with other teacher educators and students, I can frame and reframe the issues emerged from this online TESOL practicum course from different perspectives (Samaras & Freese, 2009). Collaborating with “critical friends” and colleagues in improving the course will provide an opportunity for me to think about the issues differently, reflect on how I interpret what’s going on in classrooms, and ultimately improve my practice (Hamilton et al., 1998). Such collaboration will also reduce inherited author/instructor bias in data interpretation. Forming a collegial learning community so outside perspectives support my own efforts to study and improve my own practice and in turn can help colleagues improve theirs will help transform not just individual courses but a whole program.

Finally, though I achieved success in learning to teach online courses, my action research on improving my online teaching suggests that institutional support in the form of ongoing professional development for college professors to transition from face to face teaching to online teaching is much needed (see also Shea, 2007). Institutions need to provide support not only in how to use the technical tools of a learning management system, but also in learning to do pedagogical design that promotes inquiry and reflective practices. As well, institutions also need to help form a learning community that provides opportunities for new online instructors to observe successful online teaching and experiment with online technology before teaching it, and to discuss barriers and challenges of online teaching with peers in a safe and supportive environment.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my former colleague Dr. Cheryl Rosaen at Michigan State University for her helpful feedback on an early draft of the paper that greatly improved the manuscript. I’m also immensely grateful to the four anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and encouragement of this work.

This academic article was accepted for publication in the International HETL Review (IHR) after a double-blind peer review involving 4 independent members of the IHR Review Board and one revision cycle. Accepting editor: Dr Tina Bass

Suggested citation:

Li, Guofang. (2016). Learning to become an online instructor of teacher education: From a technicist paradigm to a culturally reflective approach. International HETL Review, Volume 6, Article 3, https://www.hetl.org/learning-to-become-an-online-instructor-of-teacher-education-from-a-technicist-paradigm-to-a-culturally-reflective-approach

Copyright 2016 Dr Guofang Li

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