Assessing Undergraduate and Certification Programmes: Online Presence of ESL Students

By Dr. Nandish V. Patel
Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Since our move to online interaction, I must admit I do miss the physical presence of my ESL students. Sensing the sights and smells and negotiating colleagues and students through the hallways coming onto campus now seems like a fleeting dream.

Smiling student with raised arm in a classroom

In those days it seemed that being physically present is crucial for teaching and learning, an inseparable aspect of sharing my knowledge with my students. Looking into the eyes of my ESL students as they asked me their questions about the assessment added to their experience and directly improved their understanding. Now, after interacting with my students online for eight months, I believe the role of this presence in learning needs to be rethought. Here, I will focus on the role of the online presence of ESL students in assessment issuance, guidance and feedback.

In my previous blog, I reflected that online lecturing dispelled the deeply entrenched sceptic in me and revealed the value that technology could add to teaching and learning, and even to students’ experience of learning. It seems I’m on a see-saw because now I think that as far as assessment is concerned physical presence is vital, especially for ESL students. I was not happy with the whole process of issuing the assessment to my students, providing guidance to them, and discussing in detail the content and structure of their submission. For me, the whole experience leaves much to be desired. I do not have any sense of how my students feel.

The great entrepreneur and engineer Elon Muck, the richest man in the world, believes there is no need for universities. He says everything someone needs to learn is available online. I am convinced that for students learning in a second language there is a need for lecturers and, that too, physically present lectures. Having assessed the students, their grades and the quality of their submissions suggests to me that their online presence is doubtful. I am sure nearly all of them were physically at their PC or laptop listening to my guidance and looking at the illustrations I was providing. (I am also sure many were ‘making coffee’ so to speak or had gone to work or nipped out to the shops! This is a separate issue.)

I suggest being present online requires a new mental state that we all are now having to develop. Sure, we can be present for short periods while we compose or respond to emails or surf the Web for specific information. The mind recognises then that we are simply using an online instrument temporarily, much like opening our post or reading a magazine. Our minds are now learning to be present virtually for longer periods such as in a three-hour lecture or even two such sessions during the day. The minds of my ESL students, I suppose, face an even greater challenge being present for such long periods. Gaining understanding is essential to being present during learning, without it, the mind is likely to wander away.

As I issued the assessment and provided guidance over several weeks, I began to doubt my students’ presence. Sure they were at their computers. I could sense, though, that because their minds were struggling to understand, their presence was fading. Being online, I could not do anything physically to help them remain present. I could not walk up to them and look at their notes or walk over to them and look them in their eyes to ask if they understand. That would have secured their presence I am certain. The whole process of issuing the assessment and providing guidance thus was uncertain. This was compounded by the uncertainly of the students’ presence online.

While teaching ESL students online is plausible, issuing assessment and providing guidance to them is problematical. Physical presence is essential for them to understand the requirements. Their physical presence is essential too, as on campus, they cannot escape during a lecture to ‘make a coffee’. There is further research required for us to fully understand and nurture online presence.

About the Author

Dr Nandish Patel is a Lecturer at UWTSD London. He also takes part in DBA Research (Part II) supervision.