Episode # 25

Teaching Abroad, Online Learning and the Importance of Feedback

December 1, 2022

About This Episode



Carrie lives in Ohio and is a curriculum developers for an online English program.  She has a BA in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from Indiana Wesleyan University and an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Leicester. She has taught  language learners in China, Mongolia, Macedonia, Uzbekistan, and the USA. She is especially interested in providing authentic language learning experiences for English learners across the globe through online courses.


[00:00:00] Caryn: Hey, is this thing on? Are we recording? Can I get a tech person? Oh, for the love of ed tech.

[00:00:47] Kara: Joining us today is Carrie who is a products and development manager for an online English school. We’re pretty excited to hear this conversation. Hey, Carrie .

[00:00:59] Carrie: Hey, nice to be here.

[00:01:00] Kara: Yeah, thanks for joining us today. I wanna know what led you to become a teacher in the first place.

[00:01:09] Carrie: So I always wanted to be a teacher of some kind. For a long time I thought I might be a ballet teacher. Or you know, a ballerina and then a ballet teacher and then yeah. You know, when you’re like 16 it becomes pretty obvious if you could do that or couldn’t do that. And yeah. And so I got to the point where I was like, well, maybe ballet isn’t the best career move for me, but I still really.

Teaching. And I traveled overseas for a summer for a leadership camp thing, and we did some teaching while I was there and I loved it. And a, a bunch of the leaders told me like, oh, you’re really good at this. You should consider teaching English. And my initial thought was, but I can’t spell.

How can I teach English if I’m a horrible speller? And they’re like, oh, you’d figure it out. Mm-hmm. . But it. It captivated me and I loved the idea of being able to. Teach a lot of different things through teaching English. Because when you’re an English teacher, you teach also about culture and you go with a lot of different topics, and I really enjoy learning about different things through the lens of how can I help people’s English improve as well.

[00:02:11] Kara: Wow. How cool. So, can I ask, where did you get to go on that trip? I was in China for a summer. Oh, were you? Okay. Mm-hmm. . How cool is that? So your first teaching job took you to China? Can you share with us a little bit about what that was like?

[00:02:27] Carrie: Oh, it was, it was absolutely amazing. So I studied tsol in college Okay. As teaching English to speakers of other languages, and then moved overseas right after college. And I was working at a foreign language university in China and teaching primarily oral English to freshmen. Most of them had never had a foreign English teacher before or ever interacted with someone from the United States or a Western country in English. And so I would get these wonderful freshmen that were so excited to be in college and excited to interact and really get to empower them to use the language that they already knew and start refining pieces that they didn’t know.

[00:03:05] Kara: Oh my gosh, how cool is that? And you have this group of kids that are so excited. That’s just gotta be fun, so. Mm-hmm. , what did technology look like while you were teaching in China? We were told always have a low tech plan. Expect your technology to not work.

[00:03:23] Carrie: Because when I moved to China in 2014, it still wasn’t a guarantee that you would have a PowerPoint or sound ability in your classroom. Some classrooms had it, some classrooms didn’t. I was fortunate enough that the university I was at had just. Over the last maybe two years TVs in all the rooms. So I had a PowerPoint most of the time.

But you know, there were issues with electricity sometimes or the computer just wouldn’t work like I would imagine happens in most places in the world as well. And so we were always told, have a low tech option in case your technology doesn’t. Work. And I did that for a few years and then started becoming pretty reliant on my PowerPoint in particular.

And I remember there was one day that I had a lesson planned and I got to class and the power was out for the whole building and we were told, oh, it’s gonna be out the rest of the day. But my lesson was super PowerPoint dependent and so I had all my students take their phones and take pictures of every slide

They literally sat there during class and flipped through my power. On their phone because I needed it too much for my lesson. Yeah, that’s an ingen though. I like that. , they were good sports about it. And so it’s an, it was interesting because I, most of the time I would have good technology, but there’s always a chance I didn’t, I, I wouldn’t have that.

And trying to figure out how much do you plan for either option was a bit of a challenge.

[00:04:43] Caryn: What are you currently doing? Because we are not talking to you while you’re in China.

[00:04:48] Carrie: Mm-hmm. , what brought you back? I think I have an idea, but I’ll ask anyway. . So while I was in China, I was working on my master’s degree in Applied Linguistics. And I got to the point in my program where I. I wanted to be able to work on it full time and not also have the stress of living overseas and working a fulltime job.

I came back in August. It would be a year. I had two more semesters of school left, including. My final semester in my program was all about writing a big thesis paper. I had been studying Chinese education and teaching oral English specifically and teacher training, things like that, knowing I was gonna write about that for my final project.

But that involved going back to China to do my research. So March 20. I’m starting my final semester of grad school working on figuring out what am I gonna study, and basically had to start over thinking through what, what am I gonna research? I can’t go to China to study, to do any projects. They’re not really in school, like, you know, like we weren’t really in school by, by Marsh at that point as well.

So I can’t even just interview people. What do I do? And so my professor asked me what are you interested in right now? Like, you wanna research something you’re actually interested in? What are you curious about? And I, my instinct was, how are people that typically teach in person oral English classes, going to do that online?

How are they going to manage this transition for, you know, the next six? Thinking we’d go back to China., I was already signed up to teach in person in China starting that September. And so my teacher’s like, well, that’s your topic then, like start researching how they’re doing it.

And so I accidentally stumbled into this world of online. Teaching because I wanted to know how people were gonna do it. And I can picture, this is how you do it in person, but do you do that online? And so I started interviewing teachers first and asking, okay, so you’ve been doing months, how’s.

What are you teaching? How are you teaching? What are the challenges? Are there benefits? And then I interviewed their students as well and asked them similar questions to try to figure out what is the experience like and what does it look like to learn in a crisis situation? How do you take a class that’s so personal and in person oriented, like oral English and place that online and do that asynchronously?

Can you do that well?

What was so fascinating is during my research, the teachers, the teachers were struggling. They were trying to do the same kind of quality and caliber of classes without basically any of the resources that they usually were able to do. So like even just like I can see my students because most classes during that first six months were asynchronous.

And so you would upload a PowerPoint and that was basically it. Maybe you’d get some homework back. Even in China, there wasn’t as much LMS support as we, you know, as we would need for a really good online class. And so I was re but then the students found ways to really enjoy it. They liked the connection with their teacher.

And as I heard their, the students experience and also was researching what, what does like scholarship say about online teaching? It was really interesting to see some comment threads and look at, okay, so if you have to do it this way, These are the three things that make it really successful. And then as I was writing my paper, I got to end of July and realized, oh, I’m not going back to China.

Like there’s no way that I’m going back in September. At the very least, I will be starting my classes online and maybe finishing in person in December spoiler alert, I never went back. But until all of a sudden I’m thinking, oh, I have to do this really soon. How am I gonna do it?

So it was in a lot of ways I had the best preparation, I think, out of a lot of people because I spent six months studying it before I actually had to do it. When most people found out the day before, oh, you have to do this. And so I really enjoyed online teaching then, because I’d had all this time to prepare and had a vision for what I wanted to do

after that year, I, I transitioned and now I’m working in online curriculum development and helping an organization work with people that wanna learn English and have a foreign teacher but don’t have access to them in their country or can’t come, you know, to the states to study.

So how do we connect them with authentic English and native teachers through the internet? Because now we know we can.

[00:09:21] Kara: What I think is so fascinating about that is like you got to see both perspectives. Like you got to see the teacher’s perspective and the student’s perspective almost as an outsider, even though you were an educator, what an experience, first of all. For most of the teachers, they were just in survival mode, trying to make it through

what did you find in your research that makes online teaching successful

I think the two things I learned one was pretty basic. So I, I came across this really great article and I, I need to look up the citation. It’s Ham in Someone, and it was written in 2009 and it has this really helpful pyramid that looks at what do you need to succeed for online learning.

And the two base levels of that are technology, like, can you turn on your computer? So this is written, you know, early two thousands. And so. Still not necessarily a guarantee, I guess. But then the second level is can you use the platform that you’re learning on? And there’s another really great article I read specifically about Chinese education reminding people that just because students have grown up in a technological age, does not make them like technologically savvy and.

That part of what I had to do as a teacher and as an English teacher as well, was teach them how to use the technology so that they could learn. I could not assume they knew anything about Western technology because even within Chinese and. Western websites, like they’re just oriented differently.

And what’s intuitive to me as a North American is not intuitive to my students as Chinese and then flipped. You know, I can’t, Chinese websites very well. I all over the place before I figure out what I to do. And so part of my job as their was to, to technology they’d be using and consider it an intercultural experience for them.

I didn’t. Any assumptions that about even their language, like do they know what login means or like why would they learn that word? If they’re freshmen coming into college and they, they’ve had English for a long time, they have an immense amount of language, but they don’t have specific words for technology yet.

Partly because that changes a lot and our textbooks can’t keep up with it, and partly because they have never had to. And so I was very careful to walk my students through what I needed them to do online. So we use Flipgrid a lot, and I made so many examples of here’s how you do Flipgrid. And even that, a lot of them struggled with it, and I had to really push them like, no, go look at my PowerPoint.

Get a classmate to help you. Other people have done it. You can totally do it and try to empower them that, I know it feels foreign to you. It’s a different website than you’re used to, but you can do it. So I, I tried to, to not assume anything and to teach them specific vocabulary they needed to succeed.

[00:12:16] Carrie: One of my, my colleagues has this really great story about, she was trying to get her students to take a quiz and the students were using the translate feature. And so resume translated in Chinese to resume. And so when they get kicked off the quiz, which happens a lot, they didn’t know what to do because they couldn’t click on resume because it said resume

I think a lot of times websites try to be accessible through translation, and that’s really helpful, but it’s not always a guarantee of ease and accuracy.

So that was one thing I learned and implemented and had a lot of success with because at the end of the first three weeks, my students knew how to turn things in, how to use our elements, how to use Flipgrid, what my expectations were for turning things in and. I felt like we had a more successful class because we were all on the same page.

And then the other thing I learned was the value of feedback. When I’m walking around the class, I’m giving a lot of feedback. I’m nodding my head, I’m listening to them. I’m giving verbal feedback and verbal correction in the moment on the spot. And I’m not necessarily collecting all their.

I’m, I’m probably marking it. I’m prob cuz I would differentiate between feedback, which is me giving them information about their work and grades, which is me telling them what is right, what is wrong, and what is their score. And so in person you can get away away with a lot more grading and less written feedback because you’re giving them the verbal feedback and you’re.

Physically present with them. You’re saying their names, you’re calling on them, you’re walking around the room, but online, all of that’s taken away from you. And so in order to increase motivation and connection, you have to be present with them through your written or oral feedback. And I did a lot of research into, well, what’s better do they wanna do?

They wanna hear my voice or they wanna see it written out and learn like no written feedback seems to be more helpful in an asynchronous situation because you can go back and refer to it later. And, and see maybe progress.

That takes a lot longer to do though, I had 30 some students in an oral English class giving 30 some students weekly feedback on Flipgrid took a really long time.

And so I also had to learn my boundaries with it. Like, okay, I know this is the best thing. I know this proves my presence in their life and in their learning, but I also can’t spend 25 hours a week giving feedback. And so, I learned that, like for me, watching it and writing out their feedback and taking a picture was what worked best for me.

But then that also the students loved it cause they said, oh, I see your handwriting. Like, that’s so fun. I didn’t know that’s what your handwriting looks like. And it was a way of me being present with them, even though I wasn’t physically present with them. And then it kept them engaged. There was accountability because they knew they weren’t just turning it into the abyss.

Like I watched everything they did and I, you know, gave them feedback on things so that they actually did it.

I think those are two great pieces of advice because we’ve talked about this before just because the kids are on their phone all the time, they know how to do basic. Computer things is a wrong assumption. I mean, there are so many kids that just don’t even understand how to use a track pad on a laptop because they’re so used to having a touch screen,

[00:15:32] Caryn: This isn’t just advice for someone that’s doing something like what you’re doing. This is good advice for anybody that’s doing any online or digital component with any students in person or not?

I think feedback is important no matter what the setting is, but when you’re in an online setting like that, I’ve taken classes before where you can totally tell that the professor is not giving you individual feedback.

[00:16:00] Carrie: I had read something that talked about how feedback equates to teacher presence in an online classroom and that really. Spoke to me because I wanna be present with my students and I want them to feel encouraged and drawn towards learning.

And if my , presence is taken out of that equation, I need to do everything I can to get any other kind of presence there for them so that they feel encouraged and can keep moved on. Because you know, even thinking about I, I had a similar experience to you, I think where I’m a really motivated learner, however, a lack of really good feedback and feeling like I’m just a.

And getting the same feedback from people. It, it takes the motivation out of you and it doesn’t make it so that you wanna engage in the learning anymore. And so, if that happened to motivated learners, think about unmotivated

[00:16:52] Kara: yeah, for sure. Well, and sometimes you can’t even find the language that you need.

[00:16:58] Carrie: And I think with all, all intercultural and also all technology things, especially in the context of learning, it just takes a lot more patience and understanding and assuming that everyone, you’re trying your best.

And you’re using your resources, but your access and your understanding of the resources might be varied. And so what does it look like to have compassion if they can’t get into the Zoom room taking a test or trying to turn in their homework, something like a technological issue can be really devastating to them. And so how do you extend compassion via the internet so that they’re not, they don’t have this effective filter built up this wall towards technology and learning because of something that’s outside of their control?

[00:17:42] Caryn: It can put a sour taste in your mouth to not wanna do. I think too that goes across even like ages depending on how you’ve interacted with technology over the years and if you’re trying to go back to school and start something later. It’s changed just since we were.

Of like how you submit and the LMSs that you’re using, and it’s, that’s a whole just learning curve in itself.

[00:18:12] Carrie: Its, and I think that generation. Doesn’t have as much fear of technology and like I can get on a new website like this. I’ve never been on this zencaster, but I felt very confident that I could figure it out in less than two minutes.

I think if my mom was trying to do that, she would probably get there, but she’d have more fear than I would. About trying to access it and log in. And I, I think that that can extend to students as well. Especially if when they’re coming from a intercultural background and I’ve never interacted on this, what if I can’t do it?

And that fear can keep them from actually being successful instead of just giving themselves a chance to try it.

[00:18:52] Kara: I think we’ve learned very important lessons in this conversation. , the importance of feedback, the importance of not assuming that everyone has the same skills in technology, compassion.

And I feel like we’ve also, while we haven’t really said it, is empathy and like putting yourself in other people’s shoes to try and understand where they’re coming from.

[00:19:15] Caryn: So I have, I have a couple friends that have taught English in other countries Korea and Japan. Oh, cool. And I think there’s a lot of people that are very intrigued by it and interested in it. What would you say to someone that was interested in that

[00:19:29] Carrie: I would say go for it with the right preparation. At least like a TEFL certificate in order to have some kind of context for what you’re doing. And if you can find a, an organization or company that can help you, that is also. Highly recommended.

As far as fluency, so I, I’m not fluent in Chinese.

I think that in certain countries, fluency might be more important, but in countries that do have a background in English education, Usually you can survive and get by with a low level of whatever the host language is.

However, your experience will be better the more language you learn and your experience as a teacher will also be better the more language you learn. So I, for the first three years in China, would make my students play telephone in English. You know, where you whisper like something and we try to get it.

And I thought it was so much fun until I played. In my Chinese tutoring time and I hated it. I’m like, this is so dumb. I can’t hear what you’re saying. How am I supposed to know student, student understand you? And so I, like, I apologized to all my students and never made them play it again. So I was like, this is, this is not actually that fun.

And it’s not helpful either to try to decipher a whisper in a language that you’re still trying to grasp. Oh, that’s fair. I’m not like a, an English only kinda teacher. If I can say something in Chinese and we get there faster than if I tried to act it out or explain it, then I’m probably gonna say it in Chinese so that we can move on with the lesson if it’s not the point of my lesson.

And so I would encourage. If, if you’re thinking about traveling abroad and teaching abroad and you have a location in mind, start studying now . It will help you outside of the classroom in just your normal life. It will help you feel more connected to the place that you are. It gives you empathy for your students and you probably will end up finding it helpful in the classroom as well.

And then you can trick your students and they’ll think you understand more than you would actually do . You can, you can, you can just mess with them.

[00:21:26] Kara: Thank you so much for joining us today.

Thanks for having me. This is interesting. I feel like we had great conversation.