Teams works: Collaboration the key for English at Essex Adult Community Learning

Bob Read is the Education and Training Foundation’s (ETF’s) Regional Specialist Lead (RSL) for Maths and English in the eastern region. He works with a range of practitioners who are coping with the daily challenges of teaching maths and English programmes in the context of the current Coronavirus pandemic. For this third in a series of experience-sharing interviews with practitioners he talks to Karen Gowlett, a GCSE English teacher and a Teaching and Learning Mentor at Essex Adult Community Learning.

Bob: What kind of delivery model are you using this term?

Karen: During the summer we decided to put most of our English courses online apart from our supported learning programmes and for Entry Level learners and beginner readers, especially those who don’t have any IT access at all. We gave our tutors a choice of either continuing to use our Moodle VLE or to start using Microsoft Teams and their Education Suite. We hadn’t used Teams before, so we arranged some initial training during the summer and then different tutors went on to explore particular areas of interest in more depth and then shared their expertise with each other.

Bob: How’s it all going?

Karen: Really well! Most tutors have moved on to using Teams now and we encourage our tutors to meet up regularly in drop-in sessions, like virtual ‘tea rooms’, where they can share ideas and issues as well as their ‘Eureka’ moments! We are lucky in that our new Learning Technologies manager, Jo Loss, used to be the Curriculum Lead for English and was a regular member of an ETF’s Professional Exchange Networks which enabled practitioners to work together and share their use of digital technology in English teaching. She has always championed the importance of encouraging teachers to share their practice and this has been a key factor in the progress we have made in moving more fully online this year.

Bob: Which tools or teaching strategies have you found useful when working online?

Karen: I’m a great fan of using a visualiser and I use one regularly to record screencasts, mainly to demonstrate how to annotate a text or how to put together an answer to an exam question. I have a Hue HD camera which is light and easy to use. I can just put on a piece of text, mark up the language features and talk through the process at the same time. Being able to record it is a real bonus as the videos are useful as revision resources or for learners who might miss a session.

Bob: What else have you found useful?

Karen: I think the whole collaborative thing about Teams has been great for both learners and tutors. We’ve set up reading ‘channels’ which give learners a chance to discuss any kind of reading they’ve done. The channel is monitored by their teacher who prompts learners to post comments that analyse a text rather than just sum up the plot. And for teachers it’s been really great for us to be able to visit each other’s channels as it’s meant we can easily share resources and save prep time.

Bob: What are some of the challenges of teaching online for you as an English teacher?

Karen: Marking written work and giving feedback to online learners is a regular discussion point and we need to be more judicious in the amount of marking we do. But we’ve been exploring different ways of doing it more efficiently. My own learners post their work to our Class Notebook which means I can then comment on their work in real time. It feels just like walking around a traditional classroom to see how everyone is getting on. Other tutors have been using the Qwiqr website to record short audio messages that they can send to learners via a link and learners really appreciate hearing their tutor’s voice. We’ve also helped students learn how to use apps like Genius Scan so that they can upload their work as PDFs as the file size is much smaller than a JPG version.

Bob: What are some of the challenges of accessing online courses for your students?

Karen: I think they’re fairly predictable really. Some students just don’t have a laptop or a PC and so are limited to what they can do on their smart phones. And not everyone has a quiet space at home away from their family where they can work. That’s true for teachers too of course! And concerns about data usage and poor WiFi connections are a regular challenge too. I think too that the kind of reading students need to do for GCSE English can best be done with hard copy texts, so we have been going into our centres to photocopy packs of reading materials.

Bob: What have you found surprising about moving to online teaching?

Karen: I’ve been surprised how much I’ve enjoyed sorting out my resources on Teams! I’ve always been someone who enjoys sorting out and tidying cupboards at home and so I’ve loved using Teams as it is brilliant for organising things! I’ve kept it simple for my learners who all know now that they have their ‘Live Lesson’ and then they can go to an area I’ve called ‘The Sunrise Team’ which is where all my handouts and activities are stored and which learners can access any time. It means that they can be more independent in studying between sessions and access revision material whenever they want.

Bob: And finally, if you could go back to just before the start of term, what would you do differently?

Karen: That’s a difficult question as there is so much that you can only learn as you encounter and deal with different challenges for real. We are all just learning so much still every day. However, I think we now have a better idea of how we could carry out and collate information from initial assessments. Our one-to-one approach to initial assessments was very valuable in many ways but it was also very time consuming.

To find out more about the ETF Regional Specialist Leads and their work please visit the RSLs page on the website. Details of the ETF’s comprehensive range of support for maths and English delivery are available on the programme page.

If you would like to contact Karen to find out more about Essex ACL’s delivery model for GCSE English, please email her at: Karen.Gowlett@essex.gov.uk.

The first two interviews in the series remain available on the ETF website. They featured Dominic Nice, GCSE Maths Programme Lead at West Suffolk College, and Juliet Yager, GCSE English teacher at Suffolk New College.

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