Practical tip: Distance teaching using conferencing tools
Effective teaching activities using conferencing tools

Teachers and course participants in a conferencing tool smiling and pointing in different directions during an online class
Having fun in an online German class | © Goethe-Institut Thailand

Using conferencing tools as a synchronous online element in blended or online learning is now an integral part of the portfolios of Goethe-Instituts and other language schools. These tools can be a sustainable approach to group learning – provided they are used in certain ways, as presented in the following practical tips.

By Stefan Häring and Christiane Bolte-Costabiei

Group learning

Learners to be committed to actively participating in order for distance learning to be effective. To ensure that learners don’t regard conferencing tools as merely a flexible option that can be used ad lib whenever they feel like it and have time, it’s important for teachers to create a setting in which they can learn actively from and with one another. To this end, we need to kindle a sense of group cohesion and, from the very outset, boost motivation and concentration by establishing camera-based activities in which learners talk to one another, find common ground even while noting differences and particularities, and learn to regard themselves as a group. “Getting-to-know-you” activities can be used to get learners to talk about themselves and their everyday lives. Ideally, learners should be free to choose the content and form of these activities so they’ll feel they’re relevant and meaningful to themselves. Most of the time, these activities can be conducted in groups of various sizes. In an activity called Zeigen Sie uns … (essentially: “Show and tell”), for example, after a brief plenary round with the whole class, you can have learners talk about objects they feel like showing the others in “breakout sessions”.

Show us... Stand up and go get your favourite book / an object on your desk / something practical / something soft / something red / ... Say: Who fetches / shows ... the fastest? Group format: whole class Time required: 5 min
Zeigen Sie uns… (“Show and tell”): a “getting-to-know-you” activity | © Goethe-Institut Thailand

Introductory classes: creating a positive learning atmosphere

Wo sind Sie im Moment? (“Where are you right now?”) is an activity that gets learners involved via the chat function and can be used repeatedly in a language course. The questions shown in the example below serve to provide orientation and a sense of learners’ surroundings and their state of mind at the beginning of the class. It’s a good idea to follow them up with one or two questions that call for reflection.
Write your answers in the chat: Where are you right now?  What did you do just before class?  How are you feeling right now? Follow-up questions: Read your classmates’ answers, too: What are your interests? What do you like doing? Where else would you like to be? What else did you do? Group format: whole class Time required: 5 min
Wo sind Sie im Moment? (“Where are you right now?”): Another “getting-to-know-you” activity | © Goethe-Institut Thailand
Wo ist bei Ihnen ...? is an activity that also heightens learners’ awareness of both their immediate surroundings and their state of mind. It involves getting up and moving around, which relaxes the atmosphere at the beginning of class. The learners consciously look at one another, read each other's names and get socially orientated. After the teacher gives an example by way of introduction, the learners are to ask one another the questions themselves.

Where are you? Where are your classmates? Switch on gallery view. With your finger point to where each person is on your screen, e.g. top left, bottom right, right, left, ... Group format: whole class Time required: 5 min
Wo ist bei Ihnen …? (“Who’s where on your screen?”): Another “getting-to-know-you” activity | © Goethe-Institut Thailand

Combining in-person and distance learning methods

When using conferencing tools, the teacher and learners are in different physical locations connected up by audio and video conferencing, which yields some new opportunities for effective teaching. In addition to online conferencing supplemented by Web 2.0 tools, the teacher’s and learners’ individual personal spaces can be incorporated to produce creative learning methods that not only appeal to all their sensory channels, but also train skills at the interface between in-person and distance learning. This works particularly well with the standard topics covered in A-level teaching. Distance learning can be combined with the participants’ respective personal spaces to apply teaching methods such as personalization and learner activation, which are essential for teaching with conferencing tools in particular.

So many clothes in our wardrobe! Individual task:  Go over to your wardrobe and get various items of clothing. Here are a few ideas: (Picture of course participants holding items of clothing up to the camera) Group task:  Take turns showing one another your clothes and talking about them with your classmates. Here are a few questions to ask: What do you like wearing? What don’t you like wearing? Where did you buy that item? How long have you had it? ... These phrases will come in handy: This is my ... I like wearing it because ... I’ve had it for a very long time / I haven’t had it for very long. I bought it ... Reinforcement: What was the most beautiful or original item of clothing in your group? Group format: Breakout session, Time required: 15 min
Talking about clothes | © Goethe-Institut Thailand
So viele Sachen in unserem Kleiderschrank (“So many clothes in our wardrobe”), for instance, is an activity in which learners show one another selected items of clothing from their wardrobe and talk about them in groups.

Exercise and assignment: personalized and action-oriented practice

The following example on the topic of “food and drinks” shows how exercises and assignments can be personalized in classes using conferencing tools and also rendered more action-oriented as a result.
We have tomatoes, we don't have any potatoes Individual task:  Step 1: What foods do you have in the kitchen / refrigerator? Write down 5-7 foods that need to be eaten soon (or they’ll go bad). Write them down with the correct article in the singular and plural forms. Step 2: Then go to the kitchen and have a look. Bring back an item of food you always have in the fridge. Whole class:  What do you always have in the kitchen? Show your food. Follow-up questions: Which of your foods are unlikely to be found in a “German fridge”? What differences might there be from Germany? Group format: whole class and breakout sessions, Time required: 20 min
Name this food | © Goethe-Institut Thailand
First, each learner writes down between five and seven foods in their kitchen that ought to be eaten soon. Then they each go to their kitchen to see whether they have that food at home. Each brings an item of food to serve as an example, holds it up to the camera for the others to see and tells them what it’s called. Then the teacher divides the class into breakout sessions and each breakout group draws up a menu comprising a starter, main course and dessert using the foods available and then briefly presents it to the whole class. In a final voting process designed by the teacher ahead of time using conferencing or survey tools, the learners vote on which menu they like the most and would most like to be invited to consume.

Our multi-course meal Work with your group to put together a multi-course meal. Open your online classroom, where you’ll find an Etherpad entitled “Unser Menü” (“Our Meal”). Decide what you’re going to cook and add it on the Etherpad. Presentation: Present your dish as dynamically as possible. Useful phrases: Our dish is ... We have chosen ... We would like to cook .... Follow-up questions: Which meal do you like best? What would you like to eat? Group format: breakout sessions / whole class, Time required: 30 min
Drawing up a meal | © Goethe-Institut Thailand

Exercises and assignments: success-oriented conferencing

Success orientation is particularly important in classes using conferencing tools, in which teachers have more limited means of providing direct support than in in-person classes. One way of applying this principle in the above example is to give learners short sample dialogues to work on as well as selected vocabulary and “chunks” for weaker and stronger learners alike to draw on.

Interactive practice and action

Many of the standard methods employed in in-person teaching can be transferred to distance teaching using conferencing tools. For example, learners can dictate texts to one another in breakout sessions, which they can then display at home a few metres away from the computer, or they can work with partners to fill in the blanks on various worksheets, sitting “back to back”, i.e. with their backs to the camera, whilst working on the assignment.

Fill in the blanks together! Take turns reading your passages of the text aloud to one another and fill in the blanks. Divide up the work: Who’s going to work on Worksheet A? Who’s going to work on Worksheet B? Decide whether to switch off the camera or sit a bit sideways with respect to the camera. Take turns reading the text aloud up to each blank. Info: Think about what word makes sense in each blank. Don’t look at your partner during this exercise. Concentrate on their voice alone. Group format: breakout sessions, Time required: 20 min
Partner-based dictation | © Goethe-Institut Thailand
In “speed dating”, each learner asks a partner questions about a given topic, then switches to a different partner in a different breakout session every two minutes or so. This makes for a high degree of interaction.

What’s your favourite series? Speed dating: You engage in speed-dating conversations in breakout rooms. You’ll receive your conversation prompt via “Send message to all”. After two minutes, you’ll be assigned a new partner. You’ll receive a new prompt via “Send message to all” again. Follow-up questions: What did you find surprising? What did you find interesting? Who would you like to spend an evening watching a series with? Group format: breakout rooms, Time required: 12 min
Speed dating | © Goethe-Institut Thailand

Last but not least: writing with pen and paper

Many people learn more effectively by actually writing down words, sentences and whole blocks of text with pen and paper. This can be done whilst conferencing, too. Besides pen and paper, physical tools like post-its and notebooks can be used to draw on various learning channels and senses. In Ich habe gestern mit meinen Freunden gechattet (“I chatted with my friends yesterday”), the teacher forms groups that divvy up the various elements of a given sentence amongst themselves in a breakout session and write one element per learner on a card. Then they put the elements in the right order and present their results to the whole class, holding the sentence elements up to the camera one after the other.

I chatted with some friends yesterday What’s the complete sentence? Work with your group to put the words in the right order. Then divvy up the words or phrases amongst yourselves and write them in large letters on a card. Group 1: cycling - yesterday - I – went - with - brother - my  Group 2: you - a long time – spent - homework – doing – yesterday  Follow-up questions: Think it over: Sentences in the perfect tense – Where is the verb “haben” (“have”) or “sein” (“to be”) used? Where is the past participle? After the breakout sessions: Show your sentence to the whole class. Whoever has the first word starts. Switch on audio and video, show your word and say it aloud. The next words are to follow until your sentence is complete. Group format: breakout sessions, Time required: 5 min
Sorting elements of a sentence | © Goethe-Institut Thailand