A far-away society where people are taught to avoid direct contact at all costs, necessary face-to-face interaction (such as when you have to procreate) is considered dirty business, communication is performed exclusively through enhanced technology – holograms, 3D screens and the likes of it – and a deep fear of human contact is so strong that some may even consider suicide to avoid it. This was the first imagined paradigm of social distancing I ever came across in a book (The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov), many years before reality beat the life out of fiction and made us all at least consider the situation, as well as its consequences.
I am considered to be a millenial, which basically means I have come to age along with the internet. I can still distinctly remember the first time we went to an internet café in the mid 90s in Romania – there was a group of us skipping some class – to go check what all the fuss about the internet was. I remember one of my classmates who had the privilege of having a computer at home (not connected to the internet, though) sat in front of it while we stood and watched how he typed the three magic Ws to get on the first webpage I had ever seen. Soon after, another colleague taught me how to set up a free email account to keep in touch after having met in different city while taking part in some high-school language competition.
I turned 18 in the last year of the millenium and even though I can still remember those two previous moments of my discovering the internet, I can´t remember a single milestone instance ever since when I didn´t somehow rely on the internet. From the applications I sent to universities abroad, the scholarships and job interviews, the emails and facetime sessions used to keep in touch with friends and family, up to the very jobs I have had – everything ultimately depended on online connections.
I am an English teacher now and what seemed to be the source of some extra income when I was a student turned out to be a profession of choice. I love teaching English, so when I was faced with the interdiction to leave the house because of this pandemic, I didn´t think too much into it. I didn´t even consider there might be anything to think about, or any difference, for that matter. I sent my students the invites to the virtual classroom and got on with it. Besides, I could also consider myself lucky: of all the jobs that could NOT be done remotely, teaching was definitely not one.
The fall from my zen-induced grace came soon enough: from the open mics and consequent partial loss of hearing because of the plain rustling of papers at the other end of the connection to the sheer lack of savvy of some students, everything opened up to a world of miscommunication, misdeeds, mistakes, misunderstandings, and misconceptions. I was blissfully (and shamefully) unaware, so I decided to get some inside information and facts.
What follows is the result of the friendly contribution of 59 EFL teachers from all over the world who kindly agreed to answer 18 questions on the effects of the pandemic on teaching English. Here are the raw data. And here goes my completely biased interpretation of it all.
Teachers from all over the world answered my questions; even more so, they have been teaching all over the world: from Europe to India, from the Middle East to Asia, to the Americas and back. Most of them have an impressive professional experience: years and years of teaching English as a foreign language, for all purposes (exam preparation, Business English, general English), to all types of students (infants, children, teenagers, young adults, adults, the elderly). All of them have seen their lives and incomes affected – to a higher or lesser extent – by the restrictions instilled by the pandemic and its aftermath. Some teachers adapted; others lost their jobs. Some teachers found it challenging and interesting; others considered the amount of work way beyond what can be done for the going rates. Some teachers have been lucky enough to keep their students; others see it impossible to make a child stay in front of a screen and enjoy the class.
The teachers I´ve asked consider that saving time and money by not being forced to commute brings in additional advantages: better classroom management, instant connection, less or no paper used, wider access to varied resources, flexibility, comfort, convenience, even less use of fossil fuels (the planet actually breathed during these lockdown weeks). On the other hand, many teachers prefer in-person classes and see all this as no more than a patch-like temp solution because nothing can replace the face-to-face interaction; some of them consider that feedback and microteaching is basically impossible during a remote class – no matter how successfull the Zoom breakrooms turn out to be.
Furthermore, educators also noticed that student connections motivate them to learn and grow, and this is something that can never be achieved as such during online sessions. Above and beyond technical problems, other teachers explained that this could also be a good moment to reflect on what we are doing: some students actually don´t have unrestricted access to the internet and those who cannot adapt risk falling behind.
Of course, this is undoubtedly a harsh generalization: it all depends on the profile of the students, the circumstances, the type of education system they are in, what teachers see and what their standpoint is in each situation. But the case in point stands: can online education and English specifically ensure the same results as face-to-face classes? Students don´t only learn a language: they get to know a culture, they connect to their colleagues mostly through the mistakes they make and the corrections they need, the laughs they have because of false friends use and literal translations, they react to spontaneous and natural situations, they share unbiased unique moments.
On a higher ground and from a broader perspective, maybe one can lecture online with no restrictions, but hardly ever would it be possible for one to teach and learn online hoping for the same intellectual results. That´s because teaching and learning is not a solitary activity, like reading or sleeping. And no matter how happy smiling people may look in ads in front of a screen, the real joy comes from sharing the same space and breathing the same air – no matter how contaminated.
Teaching English online is possible, and can be done in even better than average conditions. But this sets a new paradigm, which may come to a serious debate, beyond teaching English. It remains to be seen whether education can be moved to the online sphere – partially or completely. And I believe this is much bigger than any of us teachers, the profession, even the activity itself: if education can adapt to be performed within extreme social distancing conditions, if molding mentalities and shaping minds and souls can skip the in-person part, what else can we skip on doing directly? And how long before we develop an aversion to human contact and a deep fear of close face-to-face interaction – just as in the gloomy fictional future I mentioned?