By Wan Li
The unusual – and often unwelcome – experiences and emotions brought on by the pandemic lockdowns have hit everyone in ways specific to their personal circumstances. Many can be scrutinized and investigated in real time, others need some perspective to be fully appreciated. For me, there was one particular aspect of my life under lockdown that I begin to fully appreciate only now, in retrospect, long after life in China largely got back to normal. What I’m talking about is the wild ride of being an online teacher and a distance learning student at the very same time.
I’ve been teaching English online for several years now, but I started out in a more traditional setting. Traditional, that is, for the Chinese language training market, where private tutoring institutions target parents of primary and secondary school students with courses designed to ensure successfully passing the dreaded gaokao and other examinations. With my undergraduate degree in English, I landed a job at just such an institution in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou. It was very much in-person, face-to-face teaching, our workspace being tiny cubicles with two chairs each, a desk, and a whiteboard. The school even had “one-on-one” in its name.
It was a tough introduction to the realities of a career in education, with classes scheduled late at night, traffic jams turning commutes into ordeals, students exhausted after the whole day studying at public schools, and a lot of staying up late. None of that was rewarding nor stimulating. Quite the opposite, and soon I didn’t like who I was becoming as a teacher. But I didn’t have any idea as to how to get out of that situation – until one day at a metro station I saw an ad about teaching online. Suddenly it seemed I didn’t need to go through all that trouble to be a teacher.
The online school was based in Shanghai, but employed over 2000 instructors from all over China to teach students in virtually every province purely through distance learning. I applied for the job. Aptly, the interview was held online. And I made it.
Before I could begin teaching, I needed to take a two-week training. Everything was handled online, so I was able to take the training from home. Soon, I started teaching through my employer’s customised teaching platform that used all sorts of tech gimmicks to improve teaching, including an AI-based facial recognition feature that tracked students’ attention levels based on their facial expressions. Classes were also one-one-one, but this time there was no cubicle to close in on me and my student. Over the course of just one day, I could be teaching several students in different provinces thousands of kilometres away and apart, all the while not having to face gruelling commutes or stressful late nights.
All this freed my attention to start pursuing self-improvement and higher qualifications. I decided to apply for a postgraduate programme in English or pedagogy. It wasn’t easy, but finally, I got enrolled at a university in southern China. I could choose the location of the university based purely on my preference, knowing that my job commitments wouldn’t get in the way: after all, I could teach classes from my dorm or pretty much anywhere else. Indeed, on more than one occasion I taught a class while in public, including on the subway.
But there was something else too. I realised there existed alternative ways of reaching out to students and thought to myself, why shouldn’t I benefit from that flexibility as well?
Like many Chinese students majoring in English, I harboured dreams of one day being able to study abroad. Prohibitive costs mean that for most of us this dream never comes true. But then I heard about postgraduate programmes at UK universities taught by distance learning. Not only does distance learning resolve the issue of exorbitant accommodation costs, but it also allows for part time study, paying module by module, and getting intermediate qualifications on the way to the master’s degree. Suddenly a British degree seemed much closer.
It was September 2019 that I began my postgraduate programme in pedagogy in China while sending out applications to British universities. Soon I received the first of several offers from institutions in England and Scotland. I knew that for a time I would be very busy, teaching online while also studying in-person in China and by distance learning in the UK. But I also knew it was right for me and I couldn’t wait to embark on that project. Finally in December my place on a TESOL programme in Scotland was confirmed, with the first module scheduled to begin in January 2020. Everything was falling into place.
Then the coronavirus struck.
The first outbreak coincided with the winter holiday, which meant I had no classes to teach or attend in China anyway. All I had to do was to navigate the requirements of taking my modules in the UK, which was quite a challenge in itself, the mode of instruction and assessments being so different from what I had known having studied all my life in China. But it was all reassuringly “normal” in the sense that the distance learning activities were the core of the study and there was nothing unusual about them per se. Then my online teaching restarted, and it was also normal in the sense that I simply continued to teach my students the same way I’d had for quite some time now.
What was not normal was my spring term as a postgraduate student in China. Schools and universities didn’t reopen after the winter holiday and all the classes were moved to online platforms.
This was quite a shock to everyone: students, teachers, administrators. There had been little by way of online instruction in public Chinese education before then, so the necessary shift was massive. Having to transition from on-campus classrooms to online spaces on the go was a challenge that oftentimes seemed too much to bear. But over time I noticed that while troublesome, none of it bothered me as much as it did many of my classmates and teachers. They had to learn to study – and to teach – in a completely new way as it was unfolding; me, I’d already experienced online teaching and distance learning, and felt I was dealing with it better than most.
The spring semester 2020 was a wild ride that didn’t last long. After the summer holiday campuses were reopened, and things got back to normal. But as I was studying for my two postgraduate programmes, with a steady stream of readings and assignments on all aspects of pedagogy, as well as later supplementing my online job with in-person teaching at a language college, I realised that I had witnessed – and lived through – a remarkable period not only in the wider society, but also in my own personal life.
What happened was that I developed several identities that not only didn’t compete, but complemented one another. I was teaching and studying at the same time. I was studying in two education systems. And I was juggling three different approaches to online instruction: one-on-one language teaching, live group classes at my Chinese university, and asynchronous assignment-based modules in the UK. It was all made possible by an intersection of my personal career choices with the epidemic lockdowns.
Barely several years earlier, even had there been a pandemic, this could not have happened. It’s technologies that made it possible. Digital and online tools provide spectacular extensions to our human capabilities. A switch to online learning has been quite some time in the making, but the pandemic speeded up the process. And in the globalised world of seemingly infinite opportunities and similarly ubiquitous threats, not a moment too soon. According to Kern (2016), it is technology that gives students access to authentic materials, texts, and speakers of target languages beyond geographic divisions, time differences and income gaps. It is very much what we need right now to overcome barriers to mutual understanding. Technology has changed our world in many respects, and it seems it is only going to get more influential, if not disruptive: some claim that we are living in a post-digital age that is fast approaching an “industrial revolution 4.0” and even if these claims may be exaggerated, it is clear that our daily lives have changed beyond recognition within a generation (Selwyn 2020). Perhaps this “industrial revolution 4.0” is happening right now, with the epidemic making it increasingly clear to everyone.
For these reasons, teachers need to pay attention to – and become comfortable with – how technologies evolve and what new ways of social interaction and learning opportunities they provide (Kessler 2018). Clearly, not everyone has, which partly explains the confusion and even exasperation that was a common experience for many teachers and students when faced with the necessity to switch from in-person to online learning. But what would go a long way towards making disruptions like this less challenging is a little bit of institutional support. After all, distance learning is not rocket science. The problem is limited access to means of acquiring necessary tools and strategies (Cross et al. 2018). This is true as much for teachers as it is for students. According to Piña et al. (2018), students should be provided with a comprehensive course in information literacy so that they are equipped with skills that will allow them to become life-long learners. In my own experience, authorities often assume that teachers will provide training for their students, but if teachers themselves are making it up as they go along, there’s not much training to be had. What neither of them realise however is that students – whose grasp of technology is in many cases better than those of their teachers – might be worth consulting at all. Doesn’t a common challenge require a common effort?
In the teaching platform that I use at work, teachers can freely choose from a wide selection of teaching materials provided by the company based on specific requirements of each particular student. In other words, teachers and students have agency to make choices within this teaching system. This arrangement helps facilitate efficient and effective language learning in one-on-one classes. In this circumstance, teachers are supported to be active participants shaping classroom practices by using technology while in class. As Golonka (2014) argues, learners enjoy using technology in foreign language learning and prefer it over more traditional methods and materials. Because of technology, learners tend to be more engaged in the process of learning, and have a more positive attitude towards learning. That’s what I’ve often seen happen in my professional context as well as experienced in some of my distance learning. But what I’ve also seen all too often is missed opportunities for both teachers and students to recognise the prospects afforded by distance learning. If these remain unrecognised, in the eyes of many teachers and students online learning may remain a failed experiment whose challenges are not to be faced and learned from ever again.
My own hybrid identity as a teacher and a student has provided me with insights into society and my own personality that otherwise I might not have stumbled upon. Spring 2020 was a difficult time, but it still informs the way I see myself both in my work and my study. It also inspires my continued efforts to improve my teaching, learning, and research skills. After all, we all have something to give in return for what we get. A more comprehensive view of oneself as someone who can (and should) sit on both sides of the table, so to speak, is a lesson that I hope many teachers and students, trying to make sense of the disruption to their routines brought on by the pandemic, will take away from 2020 – and beyond.
Cross, T. & L. Polk. (2018). “Burn Bright, Not Out: Tips for Managing Online Teaching”. Journal of Educators Online 15:3, 1-6.
Golonka, E. M., A. R. Bowles, V. M. Frank, D. L. Richardson & S. Freynik. (2014). “Technologies for foreign language learning: a review of technology types and their effectiveness”, Computer Assisted Language Learning 27:1, 70-105.
Kern, R. & D. Malinowski. (2016). “Limitations and boundaries in language learning and technology”. In: F. Farr, L. Murray. (Eds.) The Routledge handbook of language learning and technology. London: Routledge.
Kessler, G. (2018). “Technology and the future of language teaching”. Foreign Language Annals 51:1, 205-218.
Piña, A.A., V.L. Lowe, B.R. Harris. (2018). Leading and Managing e-Learning. What the e-Learning Leader Needs to Know. Cham: Springer.
Selwyn, N., T. Hillman, R. Eynon, G. Ferreira, J. Knox, F. Macgilchrist & J. M. Sancho-Gil. (2020). “What’s next for Ed-Tech? Critical hopes and concerns for the 2020s”. Learning, Media and Technology 45:1, 1-6.