connect, collaborate, engage in the virtual classroom

by AES faculty ( a collaborative effort!)

With the rise of a global pandemic, educators have had to quickly adapt to meet the challenge of remote learning. The faculty of Academic English Studies (AES) at Lewis & Clark College were among the first to move to remote education as the United States became a focal point of COVID infection, and through their work and research can now suggest new teaching habits for others struggling to adapt to language teaching in online and virtual teaching environments. 

The Challenges 

For many of us in the field, this is uncharted territory. All the habits we have developed over years of in-person education must now be re-examined in light of their efficacy in an online environment. Routine aspects of classroom management like taking attendance, distributing and collecting assignments, and grouping students for activities have suddenly become technical issues, involving a new suite of logistics.

Of more significance, teachers must find new ways to interact with their students in the virtual classroom that adequately substitute for in-person classrooms. A prime concern shared by AES faculty was how to ensure that face-to-face interaction in remote learning could exist in a remote learning environment and fulfill the role that in-person interaction offers. International students – and language students especially – rely on such interactions for their language development, socialization, and psychological well-being. These challenges are shared among educators and students worldwide, but we’re beginning to develop strategies to address student expectations and needs.

New Habits

Despite the challenges remote learning brings, the faculty of AES have identified three major habits that remote instructors can adopt that aid their remote learning environments.

  1. Keep it personal

David Hoffman comments that “the most difficult aspect of teaching online for me has been establishing the personal connection that I rely on so much as a language instructor.” It can seem unusual or strange to get to know students virtually, but that should be no impediment. John Barritt states that “I found that just simply having a (virtual) ‘face-to-face’ conversation with students before class helped us all to process the new reality —  to clear out the affective ‘junk’ created by pandemic anxiety and free up a little space in our brains for learning.” 

Part of creating a more personal remote learning environment is to have the students engaged with the new mode of learning. Brittney Peake illustrates that “engagement requires intention,” and often utilizes ice-breaker activities, small-group discussion, and breakout collaboration to build her students’ engagement with the material. Her most successful classes “include about 10 minutes of lecture per hour and 50 minutes of engagement. Needless to say, teachers can never have enough ideas for engagement strategies.”

  1. Keep it collaborative

Feeling alone or isolated is an unfortunate correlate of being a virtual participant, but there are ways to increase collaboration in the remote environment. Alexis Olson promotes a new habit for her and her students by consistently using Google Docs and Drive. “I ask my students to open [a shared folder] at the beginning of each class. In asking them to do this every day, I am creating a classroom habit, and it has become gradually easier and quicker for everyone to access documents moments after I ask them to do so.” Building this habit allows her not only to share important documents (like assignments or grammar explanations), but also to monitor and comment upon her students’ work contemporaneously, in place of “circulat[ing] through the classroom peering over their shoulders and making comments/suggestions as I would normally do.” This practice mimics the in-person ability that instructors have to group students together and keep their eyes on the same material.

In creating shared folders, Alexis notes additional advantages. She can make some documents “read only,” provide other documents for collaborative exercises with each student having editing capabilities, and even give practice documents that act as “virtual notebooks,” which Alexis can view and comment on. John agrees and says “Giving my class editing privileges on materials in Google Docs so that I can track their collaboration in breakout rooms and insert ‘live’ feedback has helped me to feel more connected with students, despite the facemasks and the distancing.”

Julie Vorholt also enjoys working with Google Drive as it “presents endless possibilities” for content and discussion. She expands on the collaborative work that shared folders allow with a step-by-step example (using Zoom and Google Drive):

Before Class:

1. Start a folder in Google Drive. Give the class access to “view” the folder and its contents. (Example: Graphs and Charts)

2. Decide how large your groups will be. My students worked in pairs. Decide if you will assign pairs manually or automatically. If manually, decide your pairs in advance.

3. Start a Google Drive folder for each pair and label it as Pair 1, Pair 2, and so on. Place unique content into each folder. (Example: Graph 1 differs from Graph 2 and so on.)

Class Procedure:

1. Review the target vocabulary and the activity’s instructions. Connect students to the Google folder.

2. Assign students to partners. Place each pair into their own breakout room.

3a. Each pair goes to their folder to see and discuss their content and prepare to present it.

3b. While the pairs work, the instructor confirms that everyone is a co-host and then visits each breakout room to assist the students.

4. When time is up, everyone returns to the Zoom classroom. Each pair, now Zoom co-hosts, will show and describe their graph to the class.

  1. Keep it interesting

A major complaint of remote students is that they are tied to their computer for hours each day, and the simple repetition of using the same device for several classes (and likely their research and homework) can cause stress and boredom. Thus, it is essential that educators provide meaningful and interesting content in their classes. This can be achieved by using a variety of platforms and content.

Brittney and Julie both comment on Flipgrid as an essential tool of the online educator, allowing students to post short videos of their responses to certain prompts and comment on each other’s. Brittney suggests that “these types of assignments are rich with examples you can pull into class — perhaps it can become part of a quick warm-up activity, [which are] by their nature friendly and social. They can also be built upon and added to in a synchronous meeting, and students are able to fully participate even if they have not completed their homework.” You can read about the “4 Benefits of Flipgrid Video Recording” here

Another way to keep it interesting is to include content related to the real world. John suggests including “content that [he] hoped would engage students not only on an academic level, but in other relevant ways as well. For example: Zaynep Turfekci’s essay for The Atlantic arguing against colleges using tracking apps as a way of surveilling student behavior to monitor compliance with COVID-19 policies. Or Ibram X. Kendi‘s ‘Stop Blaming Black People for Dying of the Corona Virus.’” Timely, contemporary content will help to engage students who otherwise may not have a desire to join a remote class session and is in line with our learning objectives at a liberal arts college.


Challenges always exist. When they come all at once, it can be disorienting and particularly difficult. Forming new habits is a key component of flexibility and adaptability, tools we will need in ever greater supply as our world continues to change. Our educational environments may return to “normal” in the coming years, or our “new normal” may persist. As Alexis acknowledges, “It will be interesting to see which habits stay once we are in an entirely in-person environment again. Or maybe hybrid teaching and learning is the new normal. If so, I’ll be glad that these habits have been established.”

What are your thoughts? What new habits or strategies have you formed since moving to remote or online learning environments?