Learning from an Online Course

This is a new kind of post on my blog, and I am very excited about it. For the first time, I have a chance to reflect on the recent online facilitating experience, and to do this with one of its active participants, Olga Lukashova. (Read more about Olga at the end of the post)

In preparation to create this post, we offered a couple of questions to each other to answer. 

The post has 3 parts.

  1. About the course
  2. Olga’s answers to my questions
  3. My answers to Olga’s questions
  4. (a little more about the OPEN courses)

About the course

The Online Professional English Network (OPEN) Program offers foreign English teaching professionals the opportunity to take innovative, online university-level classes and online professional development programming for teachers through FHI360. 

Integrating Critical Thinking Skills into the Exploration of Culture in an EFL Setting (Integrating Critical Thinking, or ICT) is provided by World Learning, and is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, and administered by FHI 360. The course is 8-weeks, and there are usually up to 25 teachers from different countries taking part in it. 

Quoting the Course overview page, ‘exploration of culture in an EFL setting requires helping students engage in authentic situations to develop the ability to navigate across a variety of cultures. This intercultural ability requires language choices and awareness of oneself as a cultural being. It also requires critical thinking skills, which are themselves culturally defined’. – please read more here: https://www.openenglishprograms.org/ICT.

I had several chances to facilitate this course between 2018 and now. 

Zhenya’s (Z) questions to Olga (O): 

(Z) What was the most motivating thing for you on the course?

(O) The most motivating thing for me was communication with my peers and the teacher. All the comments were so polite and supportive… Talking to professionals from all over the world, who love their work, who have ideas that would never come to my mind, inspired me and gave me much confidence. 

(Z) What was the most challenging aspect, or task/assignment?

(O) There were several challenges for me in the course. First of all, it was time management. I don’t have free time during the week, so I usually planned to cover most of the module on the weekend. But then something unexpected happened, and I had to write the rest of assignments late at night on Monday, to meet the deadline… and still several times failed to do it. 

Then the language – to be honest, I haven’t spoken or written anything in English for a long while, so I also spent much time consulting dictionaries to double check that my posts are correct. 

(Z) I agree this course requires a lot of writing! Do you feel this discomfort reduced as the course progressed? 

(O)Yes and no; on the one hand, by the end of the course there were less writing tasks, but on the other hand, those tasks appeared to be the most difficult for me (e.g. lesson plan and rubrics creating, I spent hours contemplating while doing them). 

To be honest, the most challenging task for me was creating a lesson plan. I have only one student at present (I’m on parental leave from the school where I teach), and her level is beginner to elementary, so I really racked my brain to adapt the tasks and make them easy to understand. But in the end teaching the lesson was one of the most satisfying and rewarding activities of the course. 

(Z) And it was a great lesson! Hope you will experiment with it more when you get back to teaching groups of learners. What was your most favorite part in the course, and why? 

(O) My favorite part was investigating my students. I had to ask my former students for help, and it was a shock for me to learn that I knew so little about people I had been teaching for several years. But diving into their culture, seeing how deep their thoughts are, was a pleasure for me. 

One of the course assignments completed by Olga.

(Z) What were your expectations from the course and to what extent were they achieved? 

(O) When I started the course I expected to get lots of useful and relevant information, however, I didn’t think I would be able to use this knowledge in my practice immediately and also share it with my colleagues. During the course, I taught a real lesson and talked to my fellow teacher about the new things I learned in the past weeks. I’m so happy that I’ve taken part in this event, got acquainted with my coursemates and you, and I’m very thankful to you for cheering me up throughout the course and for providing me with great reflection-provoking questions.

(Z) It was my pleasure! Now, it is your turn to ask me 🙂

Olga’s questions to Zhenya:

(O) During the course my peers were also my teachers, I learned so much from them; were there any moments during this session for you when your students became your teachers? 

(Z) Yes, there were many, and I keep a journal of such insights and ideas. For example, one of the participants was an experienced researcher and talked a lot about her intercultural experience, course and curriculum development, and developing critical thinking of her learners by taking them through the research experience. Another participant was an experienced teacher trainer who was sharing additional ideas as to how some aspects in the course (e.g. Orientation session) could help him and other teachers in the course process. I learn a lot by reading the questions asked about the assignments, for example (the ‘Question and Answer’ ideas came from the previous participants, and each new group has at least 1 new question added!). I learn a lot by reading the lesson plans and trying to offer my thoughts and ideas as feedback (and I learn even more by reading the revised plans and teaching reflection assignment, as I see which ideas are accepted by the teacher, and which are perhaps less relevant as I had never been in his/her classroom). I also learn from the questions teachers ask about their assignment scores: this way, I can see which comments were not clear, where I needed to be more specific, add an example, etc. 

(O) What do you most like about the course? 

(Z) I know, I am very biased, and I like so many things about it! Let me list a few here. 

  • The structure and how the tasks between the modules are linked, and support each other. For example, we get to know the Depth of Reflection Rubric at the beginning of the course, and then return to it at least twice in the later modules. Or, we start talking about active listening and reading techniques, and then apply them in the responses to each other during the remaining part of the course. 
  • The assessment system in the course, and the rubrics for each task being explicit and transparent to the teachers. I appreciate how the specific comments can be made inside the chart so that the person knew which aspect needs more attention, for example. Several teachers in each group usually mention how this helps them learn about the importance of assessment rubrics for their students. I noticed it is actually quite a new skill for many teachers internationally. 
  • The way the course explicitly scaffolds and promotes reflective practice and reflective thinking skills (as a part of critical thinking skills). The readers of this blog know how much I advocate for the reflective practice, so I really appreciate the effort this course makes to help teachers see how these skills can be applied. 
  • The focus on the learners, and the student-centeredness of this course (starting from the early modules where teachers introduce the classroom and learners they are working with, and with each assignment helping them think about the benefits for the learners, the chance to get to know the students more, and on a human level, ‘holistic’ level, then creating the rubrics that are student-friendly in their language, and finally, the lesson plan with its student-centered lesson objectives and activities. 
  • The chance to communicate with teachers in a variety of ways: through the discussion forum, through the assignment section, or individual messages. Sometimes, when the time zones and Internet connection allows, there can be live meetings, but this is explored much less, to be honest. A side note: something I would like to try doing is offering voice (audio) feedback to the assignments. Something to experiment with in the future!
  • the Cascading thread, helping teachers think how the ideas from the course can be applied in their context, and how they can be shared with colleagues. In my experience, teachers don’t always have the tools and confidence to facilitate a conversation about their learning experience, especially if they are younger than the other colleagues, or don’t have any teacher training experience. Our course gradually builds this confidence (I hope!), and helps participants see practical ways in which they can start sharing. My favorite part is the idea of ‘starting small’ and making small steps (a session for 2-3 teachers, a small conversation, etc.) 

(I keep adding more to the list, so I must force myself to stop here!)

(O) Do ICT teams differ much from each other? 

(Z) Each group is different! For example, my first ICT group had teachers from various parts of the same country (Morocco, in that case). I had been lucky to have visited Morocco before the course and had a chance to work with very experienced teachers, teacher supervisors and teacher trainers there as a part of the World Learning – AMIDEAST Professional Certificate (PCELT) course. At the start of that term I was worried about the fact that all the participants come from the same country (what about the intercultural/international aspect of the course?) but soon realized that with so many cultures and micro-cultures, and rich history, there is a lot to discover during the course. By the way, I wonder how a similar scenario would work for a country like Russia?

Then, I worked with groups of teachers all coming from the same region (Europe and the Balkan countries). Again, I was wondering if learning from the peers who are literally ‘neighbors’ could be beneficial for the course discussions and assignments, and realized that there was so much to learn, and so many genuine insights were shared. The groups like ours have people from various corners of our planet, and this of course adds a different feel to the online conversations. 

(O) What is your favorite course from OPEN? 

(Z) I am very biased (did I say that before?) 🙂 On a serious note, I can only speak about the courses I have worked on and have first-hand facilitating experience with. Besides the ICT, these are the following: Content-Based Instruction and Teaching Grammar Communicatively.

But.. I must confess that the ICT course is my favorite. For all the reasons listed above, and for the chance to keep learning how to reflect in more depth. Every time I facilitate it, we have a document with thoughts and ideas as to what challenge and questions we (and teachers on the course) had, and what kind of improvements and changes we can make. Surprisingly, almost every module has a tiny thing to think about, no matter how familiar the content is. 

Now, let share more information and links with the readers: please pass it on to the teachers who you think may like the idea to join a course like this. Check this page for more information about each course. 

For 2021, these are the dates of the coming terms: Winter (January 12 – March 9), Spring (April 13 – June 8), and Summer (July 6 – August 31). 

Important note: there are GOCs, or Global Online Courses, where the groups are closed and the number of participants is limited (and everyone has a chance to have feedback on the work done from the group, and the course instructor), there are also MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, open to an unlimited number of participants. One of the strategies could be to attend a MOOC, and then apply for a GOC to learn in more depth. 

All the courses are free, but you must meet certain criteria. Please visit this page to check if you are eligible to take a course, and learn how you can apply.

Olga, thank you for the chance to look back at our online learning/facilitating experience. I am grateful for the chance to meet you as a course participant, and would like to stay in touch as colleagues. And… hope to be able to add a link to a blog of your own some time in the future! 🙂

About Olga 

I am from Smolensk in Russia and have lived here all my life. I’ve never intended to move somewhere else, but I sometimes feel regret that I have little opportunity to travel and see the world. I am a graduate of SmolGU, that’s the State University of Smolensk. I’ve got a qualification as a teacher of English and German.

I started tutoring when I was studying at the university. When I was in my fifth year, I started teaching at a private English school, where I worked with small groups of students. There I taught very small children from the age of 4 or 5, teenagers and adults, whose language level varied from starters to upper-intermediate (B2). I worked there for two years and I didn’t feel satisfied because I couldn’t get any professional development. So I left for a state comprehensive school, where I’ve been working until my parental leave about two years ago. There I worked for three and a half years with large groups of around 25 students from the year 2 up to 11. During those years I’ve taken several teaching development courses, but still feel that I have to learn a lot about teaching. I am one of the youngest teachers at my school and sometimes feel that I lack some experience. My next goals are taking TKT and CPE exams.

The OPEN course is one of the most important experiences in my life, I feel much more confident as a professional and as a person due to it.

About Zhenya

ELT: teacher educator, trainer coach, reflective practice addict https://wednesdayseminars.wordpress.com/.
This entry was posted in Trainer Reflections and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Learning from an Online Course

  1. Hakan says:

    I enrolled on that course but couldn’t make it due to the conditions. I was wondering about it and your post has made me more willing to take it next time. When thinking about the cultural exposure in my teaching setting, I am sure it will be an eye-opening perspective even when you think you kind of have an awareness. I really want to see all the things I am missing on that matter. Thank you Zhenya. It was a really nice to read different views and experiences.


    • Zhenya says:

      Hi Hakan
      Thank you very much for your comment: I hope the course will offer you the reflective space about cultures you are seeking, and you will enjoy it. With this course, I find that the more ready you are to reflect in depth, the more you can take out of it. As a facilitator/trainer on the course, I learn a lot every term, and think a lot about the experiences I have had in different educational cultures. It would be exciting to talk with you after you take it! 🙂


  2. Sandy Millin says:

    This is a fascinating insight into a type of teacher training course I didn’t know anything about – thanks Zhenya and Olga. Zhenya, I really enjoy reading about all the different types of teacher training you do – it’s really broadening my knowledge of what kind of courses are out there, and I’m sure I’m not the only one!
    Happy Orthodox Christmas 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Zhenya says:

      Thank you Sandy! I am grateful for the chances to experience various programs and courses. This helps me see that there is no ‘right way’ to train (and teach, for that matter!)

      (and I really want to have a Trainer Conversation post with you at some point) 🙂


  3. Pingback: Learning from an Online Course (Post 2) | Wednesday Seminars

  4. Pingback: Learning from an Online Course (Part 3) | Wednesday Seminars

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