Online Teaching: New Road or Temporary De-tour?

100% online learning enforced by global coronavirus quarantines = Overdue reform for both teaching and, by extension, teacher training. With some sizeable asterisks, but the rewards far outweigh the risks for me on this one.

The fear drowned out the potential at the start. There was no monster under the bed, after all. So here we are, July 2020, at an important crossroads for ELT – integrate what we’ve developed or go back to our comfort zone as soon as the law allows (let alone our common sense)?

Instead of fearing the invisible monster under the bed, I’ve stumbled into something more akin to Narnia: there is a whole new side to teaching online which can eventually complement, rather than replace, our traditional physical classroom practises.

Covid-19 placed an unexpected obstacle in our path, online teaching went from obscure to mainstream almost overnight, and it would be a waste of a great opportunity if the ELT community doesn’t make the most of it. As Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote: the obstacle becomes the way.

obstacle way

Zoom out (pun intended). A selection from my favourite international organisations (International House World Organisation; British Council; Cambridge English) during this past week. I’ve been puzzled and concerned at the apparent obliviousness (TeachingEnglish – British Council must know that you can speak online…right? But why make it sound that we’ve had to reinvent teaching for the online classroom, rather than just adapt?) as well as the nostalgia and romanticisation for the ‘good old days’ and the cheerleading to those rushing back to the physical classroom before the pandemic has even finished (IHWO; Cambridge English). I generally appreciate all of these organisations, but not in these instances.

The Economist, 11th July 2020: 


Zoom in (pun intended) to a few ELT individuals. Understandably for such a rapid change, many doubts were expressed on the credibility, practicality and assessment validity of teacher training courses such as CELTA, particularly in the March-May channel before we had the chance to pit potential fears against lived experience and see that “tutto andrà bene” (everything will be alright).

Many of the prominent naysayers back in March are happily and (presumably) competently teacher training online this summer after adapting their vast experience to a new platform. It’s something like Darwinist evolution – adapt to survive. The negativity has died down and, as professional adults, we adapted to the situation in front of us and added another layer of skills to our teaching, training and our trainees’ teaching abilities. We should have a little more trust and respect for our professional teachers to make the same adaptations.

Screenshot (60)

A glib enough phrase but not beyond the level of this humdrum: there are serious pros and cons to both the online and physical classroom.

So why not try to combine the best of both worlds in the future?

My main points are the following.

1. Overdue reform: Learning and Teaching

2. Overdue reform: Equality of Opportunity

3. Overdue reform: Attitudes to the Teaching Profession

4. Overdue reform: Cutting the Excess in Higher Education

5. A Note of Caution: The Physicality of Shared Experience

There’s more to say, but I’ll try to keep it brief:


1. Overdue reform: Learning and Teaching

In my 2017 IH Journal article ELT 2.0 (link at the end), I proposed that more technology should be integrated into ELT. The global coronavirus quarantines have pressed the fast-forward button on an inevitable process. Technology is a part of everyone’s everyday lives, and now it’s part of our learning lives too. We’ll see what kind of hybrid, integrated or blended models we’ll settle back into eventually, but I don’t think that we’ll go back to the pre-quarantine suspicions of online learning any time soon.

Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. How many were satisfied and even enhanced by moving education fully online between March and July 2020 (as I write)?

maslow needs

Starting from the bottom up, I think that the basic needs of physiological needs (coffee on tap next door; no commute; a comfy seat to teach/train on) and safety needs (staying at home in times of coronavirus) were enhanced.

Psychological needs is less clear-cut for me: I’d say esteem and belongingness/love needs were met with online learning, as it allowed us to stay connected, but can be more deeply satisfied in the physical learning space (see point 5 below).

Lastly, the top of Maslow’s hierarchy. From what I saw from teachers and learners all over the world, creativity has positively exploded over the last few months, as teaching professionals – from first-year teachers to multi-decade veterans – have come together to create and share new ideas on how to make the most of this new learning platform, and students have responded with their own ideas too.

I couldn’t be prouder, for example, of IH Rome’s weekly idea swap run by my colleague and YL co-ordinator Natasha Lambert, and how quickly CELTA trainers from around the world clubbed together to work out the best way forward (see link at the end to the presentation I did with IH Rome Head of Teacher Training Gianni Licata called ‘CELTA Online: Spilt Milk or Red, Red Wine?’). Some top ELT personalities have responded admirably too, such as Nik Peachey’s range and depth of online resources and Ron Morrain’s positive and pragmatic postings, which he tells me reach over 3 million people a week (links at the end).

As for teacher training, the doubters have come around finally, and many trainees have already benefited from the experience. Micol is just one of the positive voices from our online CELTA courses at IH Rome:


2. Overdue reform: Equality of Opportunity (more coming up..?)

Teaching online, no teacher is limited by their physical location or transport availability when connecting with students – Wifi and device suffice. The same goes for teacher trainers looking for courses to work on. The reduction in plane and traffic pollution shouldn’t be forgotten, either, if you really care about the environment.

What I’m hoping this means is an increase in meritocracy and sharing ideas around the world. You don’t need to be where I am for us to connect and share: imagine how many possibilities that opens up.

It has also shone a bright light on how socio-economic equalities can limit learning opportunities, and these inequalities, now gravely exposed, need to be worked on by governments and other key organisations in these areas. This has been well-documented by the Economist, as students from poorer homes fell behind even faster than usual in online compared to physical classroom learning:

Poor children suffer most. Zoom lessons are little use if your home lacks good WiFi, or if you have to fight with three siblings over a single phone.

Richer families often include well-educated parents who prod their offspring to do their homework and help when they get stuck, poorer families may not.

In normal times school helps level the playing field. Without it, the achievement gap between the affluent and working-class children will grow.

(The Economist, Leaders, April 30th 2020, Open Schools First)

The same socio-economic gap has been evident on national levels too, as poorer countries haven’t had the resources to join the online party:IMG_20200502_153754

This must trigger a genuine call to action, as the quarantines have highlighted a deep-rooted problem. At the very least, arm each student with an electronic device to learn on as you would give out books and pens, and spread free WiFi around the world. These are the basic tools of 21st century online learning and nobody should be left out.


3. Overdue reform: Attitudes to the Teaching Profession

Teaching isn’t always respected as a key profession for a prosperous society. The same rings true for ELT: if English is now the world’s local language, then we (teachers and teacher trainers) are on the front line when it comes to enabling a more connected and communicative world. That’s not to be scoffed at as just ‘an extended gap year while I find something more permanent to do’ (when wages reflect this concept, happy days!)

The coronavirus quarantines highlighted how vital teachers are, because the education industry was almost untouched (see graphic below), even as individuals, businesses and governments looked to pinch every penny possible with fine savings and mass redundancies. Teaching was ringfenced because society recognised its importance; it wouldn’t be a bad thing if more teachers respected their own profession just as much. It’s not a consolidation prize because you didn’t become XYZ; you can make a real difference when you believe in what you’re doing as a teacher.

online edu

A little more gratitude and self-respect are in order. These values should then be reflected out onto the work we do.


4. Overdue reform: Cutting the Excess in Higher Education

The Higher Education sector, i.e. universities, is a bulging and bloated mess, particularly in North America and the UK. Stuck in an identity crisis, a no-man’s land between educational institutions, academic research centres and run-of-the-mill businesses, the global pandemic caught Higher Education with its pants down and it has been given a bill that it will be paying off for a while yet. A quality education is now available online, and it’s available for a fraction of the price (if not free!).

Already on the ropes before coronavirus spread, the advantages of online learning have added to an increasing disillusionment in what Higher Education offers for its astronomical costs and increasingly radical shift to being echo chambers of the political Left. ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ by Haidt and Lukianoff is a brilliant book that expands on this issue, and the universities seem determined to shoot themselves in the foot with absurd public declarations and educating one-sided social justice warriors. One-dimensional characters who are ill-equiped for the multi-dimensional outside world once released. That’s not worth my money.

The numbers don’t lie: student numbers are gradually falling and universities are slowly dying.

US educational statistics are provided by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), part of the Department of Education:

Screenshot (67)

Many students go for the giddy and/or international experience rather than the lectures and library alone, so how will the pandemic affect registration numbers in an already limping industry if lessons are 100% online in future (e.g. Cambridge University has already confirmed that the 2020-2021 academic year will be fully online)?Screenshot_20200530-155945

(The Economist, referring to US universities here)

Updated on 21st July (first publication date 10th July) with this from the BBC (link to full article at the end). UK institutions are suffering the same fate as their US counterparts. Higher fees for a sloppier educational service – the hiatus isn’t much of a mystery, is it? I learn more from YouTube than from my 9-grand fully online Applied Linguistics Master’s every week:

Screenshot (13)

Overall, Coronavirus and its subsequent quarantines have highlighted an existing problem which can and should lead to meaningful reform and push Higher Education to find its feet again. Finding its feet doesn’t just mean financial survival, but being a useful part of an educated society.

Are the fees worth the actual educational value of university tuition without all the bells and whistles of the uni lifestyle? The pandemic has exposed that mismatch.

5. A Note of Caution: The Physicality of Shared Experience

I’m not naively and blindly optimistic about anything, so I’ll end this post with the shortcomings of online learning.

Firstly, having the whole family working and learning full-time online in the same home has been a strain on many households. However, let’s not forget coronavirus and the reason we embarked on this adventure: the alternative was much, much worse.

In The Economist’s excellent article ‘Open Schools First’, previously cited, the need for physically-present social skills (such as whole body language and physical games) developed in the playground is highlighted:

‘No amount of helicopter parenting or videoconferencing can replace real-life teachers, or the social skills acquired in the playground.’

This echoes something I’m currently reading about in Dr Joe Dispenza’s great book ‘Becoming Supernatural’: our physical energy creates an electromagnetic charge around each of us which interacts with others’. For all its advantages, the screen can’t fully replicate that:

‘Just like two atoms that bond together to form a molecule—which share energy and information—when two people share the same emotions and energy, and communicate the same thoughts and information, they become bonded together as well. In both cases, they are bound by an invisible field of energy that keeps them connected.’



The experiment has been run around the world for long enough. The results are in: online learning works and is now sitting as a catalyst for overdue reform in ELT and beyond. If still in doubt, what would convince you? How many positive experiences do you need to be shown that a quality learning experience is not only possible but highly probable with the right training and preparation?

Now we have to decide: keep the fire burning by finding a positive balance of online and physical, or let it die out to return back to our traditional comfort zone of 100% physical classroom teaching.

Personally, I’d love to see a hybrid future in which we take the advantages from both online and offline to double-up on skills and experiences. Hybrid CELTA with both online and classroom TP, anyone? Yes please!

Of course, online learning has its imperfections which need addressing, and exposes social inequalities which need levelling if we truly believe in equality of opportunity in education. Nevertheless, online platforms such as Zoom represent an incredible way to open up learning opportunities and share our learning with a global community at the click of a button.

These opportunities don’t come round too often, so shame on us if we let it slip away. The lead must become the gold, as Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist says; this should become the start of a whole new journey, rather than just a temporary detour. Let’s make it happen.


What do you think? Comment or email me directly.


Links mentioned above:

ELT 2.0 by James Egerton (me)

CELTA Online: Spilt Milk or Red, Red Wine? webinar write-up

Learning and Technology News by Nik Peachey

The New Edtech Classroom by Sam Kary (shared by Ron Morrain)

Emergency Loans for Universities About the Go Bust, BBC.

One thought on “Online Teaching: New Road or Temporary De-tour?

  1. I definitely agree with all this. Online learning is a good thing when done right, and when everyone can access it at the same level. I for one am looking forward to getting back to face-to-face classes but I feel that blended learning should become more normal as we move forward through, and out of, this pandemic.

    Liked by 1 person

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