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Editorial NRInglês

Teaching older learners in online environments

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we teach and learn in ways we could not have anticipated or even believed had we been told about them not many years ago. One of the major changes we faced was the abrupt adoption of online teaching, which has now become second nature to many ELT teachers.

In this article, I will suggest a couple of points we must take into consideration when teaching older learners in online environments. I will also present some practical ideas that can be implemented in order to make online learning an easy and enjoyable experience for all learners, including the older ones.

Stereotypes

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO, 2018), a person is considered old at 65, so the first point I would like to talk about is age stereotyping. We tend to have preconceived ideas about things or people, and this is only natural. The problem is that these ideas, more often than not, misrepresent the object of our consideration, reflecting only generalised and oversimplified images of it.

When it comes to older learners, the preconceived ideas we have about them may hinder our own teaching performance, not to mention their development as learners. This is due to the fact that these ideas are so ingrained in our society that it can be hard for us not to think of them as true. Ventrell-Monsees (2019:97) argues that “our culture (…) teaches us to question and reject stereotypes about race or sex (…). But making an assumption about a person’s interests and abilities because she has reached a certain age is not routinely questioned or condemned”. She goes on to explain that although many stereotypes may hold a kernel of truth “in that there is likely someone of the protected
group who embodies the stereotype”, it is also true that “any individual in a group may not conform to that stereotype”.

Adults

At this point, it is worth mentioning that, as we age, we keep on being adult human beings as diverse, adaptable, and multifaceted as younger humans are. Some of us age feeling more and more comfortable in our own skin as time goes by, and some can’t stand their reflection in a mirror. There are also the ones who are in-between, probably the majority of us, ageing without really noticing it and being quite the same people they were in their 30s or 40s, with very little change apart from some physical and light cognitive ones. And these are the ones we need to focus on.

Some teachers believe that older learners cannot learn how to use technology and they tell stories about that one student or group of such learners who did not perform well or had a hard time learning how to use this or that online platform. This can be considered to be a case of misleading vividness, a type of logical fallacy, also called the “anecdotal” fallacy, in which an argument is based more on personal stories rather than on statistics and research.

According to Kottl and Mannheim (2020;3), recent research has demonstrated that “digital technology use (…) in adults aged 60 and above has consistently increased since 2014, and for many devices, adoption is nearly comparable to younger adults”. They also argue that the 70+ population is currently the most rapidly growing group of Internet adopters. In a more local view of older users of technology, Schisler and Duarte (2022) have recently delivered a talk in which they showed many examples of older learners who are thriving in online English lessons.

In this matter, it is also important to remind ourselves that younger adults may also face challenges when attending online or hybrid courses. Adaptation to a new environment is part of the learning process, and we have all gone through it at different levels, although we might not really recall it now.

Communication

The next point I would like to make regards communication. I do not mean only verbal or written communication, but also the visual and non-verbal ways we use to communicate. A proverb says, “Watch your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words. Watch your words, for your words become your actions.” As it was mentioned before, we are exposed to many stereotypes regarding old age during our lives, and they can make us communicate with older learners in ways that are not necessary or even acceptable or respectful. For example, speaking louder to older learners who do not have any kind of hearing disability, treating them differently because of their age, talking to these learners as if they were children, using age-stereotyped or ageist images during lessons, etc. So, when teaching or preparing lessons for older learners or groups in which they are present, be always mindful of how you communicate with them. It is also quite important to mind the way you talk about older learners, to avoid spreading or reinforcing ageism.

Online Learning

Here are some ideas you can use in order to help all your learners, including the older ones, when teaching online.

  • Check the technology background of the learners. You may be surprised to discover that some of them may have been using technology longer than you have.
  • Start the course by using a platform all the learners are familiar with. It could be a phone messaging app, email, social media, etc, anything all your students are used to and may be comfortable using at the beginning of the course. Use this first online contact with the group or learners to introduce the platform which will be used for the course. By doing this you not only have an opportunity to present the new platform, but you also get to make learners feel more confident about their own tech ability.
  • Choose one platform and be consistent with it until the end of the course. You will notice that as lessons go by, learners will become more confident using the same platform.
  • Have video tutorials showing how to use the chosen platform available for learners to watch whenever they need or want.
  • Prepare detailed step-by-step PDF tutorials too, with as many screenshots as possible, for learners to print and have at hand during lessons or when practicing by themselves.
  • Have one-on-one sessions with learners who feel insecure about using technology to show them how to use the platform and answer any questions they might have.
  • Respect each learner’s timing and have agreements with the groups regarding participation, camera, chat usage, etc.
  • Never, under any circumstances, spotlight or make fun of learners because of any incorrect use of the platform, this may discourage them to try and persevere.
  • Do not assume learners know how to use a particular website or app. Always ask and, if you are not sure they all can use it, present a short tutorial on how to do so.
  • Create opportunities for insecure learners to work with more tech-savvy ones, so they can learn from each other.
  • Encourage learners to explore the platform as they like, during and after classes, so they can become more familiarised with it and, therefore, more confident to use it during lessons.
  • Make sure they understand that making mistakes is OK and that there is no shame in not knowing how to use the chosen platform.
  • Be willing to help and let learners know they can count on you for any questions they may have.
  • Make sure your classes are enjoyable moments, not a struggle your learners may come to dread.

I hope this article helps teachers who are working with older learners in online environments. However, I believe the most important thing teachers should keep in mind when teaching older learners, online or face to face, is that ageing is not a disease; it is only a symptom of being alive.

About author

Heloisa Duarte holds an MA in Language Education (University of Chichester/UK) and a CELTA, as well as the CPE and the TKTs. She has been involved in ELT for almost 30 years as a teacher, trainer, writer, and manager. She currently works as an ELT coursebook senior editor at StandFor / FTD Educação, where she became a 2022 ELTons finalist and commendation recipient.
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