안녕히계세요 Korea: The Insanity of Online Teaching

Another big reason I decided it was time to leave Korea has been my career. Before COVID broke the scene, I had already decided it was time to move on. At the time, my goal was to get into a PhD program and study the use of Global English (or English as Lingua Franca) in the classroom. I took many materials with me on holiday in January 2020, expecting 2020 to be my final year at my Korean university before moving on. What is it they say? Man plans, the gods laugh?

I like and respect my former employer, the University, and my co-workers. For the 2 years I was there before COVID, it was the first job I’d held in a long time that I had that I liked going to in the morning. I liked the freedom and support that I had there. I liked it when struggling students had breakthroughs because I helped them. I liked the challenges of updating the materials to reflect the students changing needs. I liked the way the teachers collaborated and shared materials. Sure, there were imperfections, but I had some pretty serious job satisfaction, and even though I never intended to stay quite as long as I did, my intention to leave after 2020 (a decision I made before COVID) had more to do with my own goals than anything at the school.

During COVID was a different animal. Although I know that my coworkers and the university administrative staff were doing everything they could in a difficult and unprecedented situation, it was miserable. The beginning felt like rising to a challenge, but over time, it just became an endless slog. Online teaching broke my soul, and after 5 semesters of waiting to hear “we’re going back to the classroom”, I just couldn’t take it anymore.

What Is Virtual Learning?

Virtual learning existed before COVID, but most people didn’t have much experience with it until they were suddenly trying to log into their own or their children’s classrooms in 2020. Good virtual learning programs are out there. It’s possible, though I remain skeptical, that some of them might even be for language learning. We did not use any of those at my university. As I understand it, most of the schools in the world that had no previous online course offerings before COVID floundered in a big way and did not look at previous models of successful online education as a guide. For the non-educators in the audience, here’s quick and basic overview of the main types of online learning:

1) MOOC: Massive Open Online Courses: These are basically self study. You watch the videos, read the articles, take the computer graded quizzes, participate in a “discussion forum” with other students, and if you pay for it, you get a certificate of completion at the end. This is really great for people who want to just learn about stuff on their own. It has zero guidance from a teacher, however, so if you get lost or have questions, you are limited to your peers on the discussion board. I’ve used these for career development and for personal growth, and been pretty satisfied. I would NOT recommend them for regular 4 year university students, and would shun them completely for k-12.

2) Asynchronous Learning: you and the teacher are not in sync for most of the work. Teachers prepare lessons, videos, ppts, worksheets, etc. It’s very similar to the MOOC in that you work your way through the material at your own pace (with completion goals to meet the school schedule). It’s different in that your teacher is available to you. Some asynchronous classes have scheduled video meetings with the teacher either 1-1 or in groups of various sizes, some will just be via email unless a student specifically requests a video meeting. In an ideal world, teachers also provide some feedback to the students on their assignments and evaluations, which is not an option in MOOCs.

3) Synchronous Learning: The teacher and all the students go into the same online platform together and have class together. This is my least favorite form. If you’ve ever been in a Zoom meeting with more than about 5 people, you will understand why. There are some cases where this is a great way to deliver a presentation or lecture – when there is only 1 (maybe 2) speakers at a time, and everyone else is just listening, with the occasional question in the chat box or a structured Q & A at the end. It supposedly supports “breakout rooms” for discussion or interaction in small groups, but I did not find those effective. (NOTE: some people like breakout rooms, but it’s highly dependent on the course and level. It works best when a dedicated leader is in each small group, and when the participants speak up. It works less well with language barriers when everyone in your host country is too shy to speak – eg, my situation, or if the internet is to be believed, any classroom of students between the ages of 11-30).

4) Hybrid Styles: there is no one hybrid style, it just means a mix and match. Maybe your class would be 3 times a week, so now it’s a hybrid asynchronous with 1 time a week synchronous and the rest is on your own time. Maybe you have small groups at different locations, so you live cast from one classroom into a second. When offline became an option again, my school offered a hybrid that required teachers to set up the synchronous format in a classroom on campus and simultaneously teach the students in the room, and the students online. Thankfully, someone talked the English department out of that option.

About Education in Korea

A tangled web of bureaucracy means that the Korean government doesn’t seem to have any way to prove students completed the required work for a class other than literally making sure their butts are in the seats for those hours. This goes back to some scandal of last decade where students were getting A’s even though they didn’t attend … or do the work, because of nepotism or bribery or something sinister. As an American, I hated mandatory attendance courses in college, and they were rare because mostly it wasn’t possible to pass a class you never attended. Also most American professors have no qualms about failing students who didn’t earn the grade, and hey, if you want to waste your money taking a class you could pass without going, that’s on you.

The Korean approach is quite different, largely based on the Confucian cultural standard of “it looks good on paper”. (Confucian descended cultures, those heavily influenced by China at some point, like Korea, Japan and some SE Asian countries). It is required to have certain courses or types of courses on a transcript, and better to have the higher grade for an easier class. It is insanely common for students to blow off schoolwork and then do a ritual apology and beg for a grade increase at the end and get it. In an attempt at fairness, the government resorted to attendance minimums so that at very least the students must physically put in the hours. As far as my experience goes, this just resulted in a lot of students who thought they couldn’t fail if they met the attendance requirement and were often shocked to discover actual work was also required.

The school year in Korea starts on March 1. K-12 schools have a winter break for lunar new year, but they come back in late February and seamlessly move one grade up in March. Universities tend to go on winter break (or winter class schedules for make up classes) sometime at the end of December and not come back until March. I myself only came back into Korea at the tail end of February, a plan I’d made when everything was normal. We delayed the start of the semester 2 weeks, hoping that the plague would pass (oh sweet summer child). When it became apparent that COVID wasn’t going away fast enough, my uni started online classes for “just for a couple of weeks” and hasn’t stopped since. The online classes were ported over from regular class lesson plans in a big hurry in March 2020, because it was “temporary” and “an emergency”. Imagining that it would end shortly, the school didn’t see any need to update the online methods for long term use, so I’ve been trapped in virtual class hell for 2.5 years.

Why I Got Stuck With the Worst Way

Before COVID the English classes met only once a week for 100 minutes (which is already not a great way to teach a foreign language). Even when students do have more speaking time in an offline classroom, they are often speaking with peers, and I can only listen to one pair at a time. They don’t get much of my undivided attention this way. After researching online learning styles, I decided I wanted an asynchronous style where the lesson slides and lecture would be made as a video, and the slides, book pages, examples, etc. would be available to students for download. Watch the lecture, read the download, do the homework – and then once a week meet in pairs with the teacher for 15 minutes of dedicated speaking practice. However, due to the aforementioned bureaucracy and scandal, the university would not approve of such a plan, Long story short too late, asynchronous classes were off the table.

Korea decided the only way to really make sure students were doing the work and not … I don’t know cheating or whatever, was with live synchronous online classes. Ok. We want all the students together at once, so how then do we deliver quality educational content? Do we choose a platform built for educators? Do we take advantage of any of the existing software already in use for online learning? Oh, no! We get a business platform, designed for corporate needs. It’s called WebEx, and I’m sure it’s fine for what it is, it’s a lot like Zoom. This poor decision making was by no means limited to my University or even to Korea.

A lot of classrooms at the university level are just big lecture halls where the only person who talks is the teacher. I’m also not a fan of lecture hall classes unless they are supplemented with small discussion groups. However, Korea loves passive learning even more than America, so the school probably thought it was fine for like 95% of their stuff. As it turns out, medicine, archaeology, music, art, and a few other hands on topics don’t actually do that well in a pure lecture format. Also, languages. Teaching a foreign language is unlike many other types of teaching, and requires a huge amount of student talk time. You can’t learn a language through passive listening no matter what those “learn Spanish while you sleep” CDs say. In addition, being able to see each other is crucial. Facial expressions and hand gestures make up so much of communication.

The school administration surely imagined a virtual meeting room where every student sat attentively with their cameras on, hanging on the teachers every word, and jumping in to participate in speaking activities quickly, all while the teacher wrangled the slides, the virtual whiteboard, their own camera and mic, looking at the students camera thumbnails to check if they are paying attention and comprehending, and playing tech support for every single glitch. Of course, none of that happens. Students log in from their phones in the back of taxi cabs, play video games while waiting to hear if their name is called, or just sleep. Teachers can’t possibly manage the number of plates spinning, and often have to take 2-3times longer for every single activity than planned for. Not a lot of actual education was happening.

My Online Classes: A Timeline of Deterioration

Spring 2020: A small team of English teachers (including myself) met on campus daily and tested out the software and different methods of implementing student talk time. We came up with a string and paperclips barely functional version in time to start after the two week delay. After classes started, it was impossible to teach from my computer in a shared office with other teachers talking all around me, so I taught from home, a folding tv tray across my legs in my bed because my apartment was too small to have an “office”. I was so wrapped up in COVID that it wasn’t a priority to make changes to the massively ineffective and frustrating to all education delivery system. I told myself that in the long run, it didn’t actually matter if the kids (young adults) learned any English. They were stressed out af, and not English majors. I did my best just to get us all logged in every day, and to make the required classes as painless as possible for me and my students while still meeting the university minimum requirements.

Fall 2020: I felt like I was no longer struggling just to conduct a class, but I had to adapt the fall semester courses to online. I found a day of the week where I could come into the office to do necessary work without cross talk during my class time. As teachers, we’d picked up some few helpful tricks in the first semester, but we were still struggling.

Partner conversations (a key part of language learning) could not be done in the main meeting room. We had to have mini meets, not unlike the suggestion I made for asynchronous learning, but no, I’m not bitter. These mini meets had to happen while the teacher and students remained logged into the live WebEx class which was recorded to be sure of meeting minimum educational standards. I tried multiple platforms for that, all of which had issues. At one point, I was using 2 computers and my phone just to conduct a class in which some students only had a phone, or were on a free public Wi-Fi system that choked their data and kept the voice and video functions lagging.

I felt as though I could not be a good teacher in this environment, I couldn’t catch the falling behind or accommodate the struggling. I had a disabled student enroll who had a special helper assigned by the government (a normally nice accommodation). The student was stuck in another city and the helper couldn’t log into the virtual class live from where they were, so he was entirely unable to function in the class. When I tried to speak with co-workers (both foreign and Korean) about any of these issues, no one seemed to be able or willing to work on solutions. As with many places in the world, the pandemic served to highlight pre-existing systemic issues that leave the vulnerable behind.

Spring 2021: It was supposed to be the last. The plan was in place to get public schools back in the classroom and we would surely be in lockstep. I buckled down and did my best. I was able to replace my lowest level class with the advanced course, thinking that teaching higher levels online would be better for my sanity. Mostly, that was true. The new crop of incoming students had experience with online learning and weren’t as scared and confused as those in 2020. I also moved into a nicer apartment with more sunshine and a dedicated work space. I was so sure that I’d be able to travel, and we’d be able to go back into the classroom in 2021 because the vaccine was out! Neither of those would come to pass. It was my last “good” semester.

The Teacher Becomes the Student: Over the summer, I signed up for a Korean language class online, hoping to improve my Korean, but also to experience the virtual language classroom as a student to get some perspective and ideas. It didn’t do much for my Korean skills, but it definitely helped me to understand my student’s struggles. I found the synchronous virtual classroom to be wildly difficult to learn in, and was myself often muting the sound, turning off my camera, or playing video games when the class got too boring (and I’m somewhere between Hermione Granger and Amy Santiago on a teacher’s pet scale).

The big thing I learned from the teacher was to really let go of “normal” classroom management, and be ok when we just don’t get through the material. It still makes my eye twitch when I think about that, because it is unfair to the students to be in an environment where the goal is “just get through it” instead of “learn something new”. If I had been taking that class to prepare for the TOPIK (test of proficiency in Korean) to qualify for a visa, I would have been very disappointed in the class. It’s hardly surprising that students all over the country began to experience virtual learning burnout.

Fall 2021: It all broke. The student enrollment plummeted. Students who spent their last year of high school online and were missing out on the cultural joy of first year university were disillusioned and either dropped out or took only the minimum requirements. Not just at my university, but all over the country. Classes that have less than a certain number of registered students (at that time 5) are usually dropped from the roster. I lost 5 of my 6 courses because 0-3 students were registered for each. The school tried their best to make up my required classroom hours by offering me the “language lounge”, a sort of tutoring/practice lab, but they were not able to offer enough to make up the difference, and I was told I would have to teach an extra two courses to the following semester to make up for it. I did try to get them to just deduct the money from my paycheck since I was financially ok, what with zero international travel for over a year, but they declined.

Other departments were increasing offline options. Majors which required hands on labs or used specialized equipment or travelled to locations as part of the curriculum could not fulfill their educational requirements online. It’s hard to dissect a cadaver or dig up an archaeological site from a Zoom meeting. There were also a few test that required specialized proctoring in designated locations that students were required to come to campus for. It was a struggle for the students to be in the disorganized pseudo-hybrid learning environment. They weren’t living on campus full time nor attending offline classes regularly yet, but neither could they do everything online. It required many of them to travel by bus or train to Gyeongju just one day a week or less while they lived full time in their hometown (often still with their parents and younger siblings, a big crush for a young adult who had been expecting the independence of dormitory life).

The Liberal Arts classes were not considered essential enough to receive offline dispensation, so we continued to slog by with our WebEx meetings. I only had one real class, once a week, and the rest of the time, I had what I referred to with great distain as “the Schrodinger’s classes” because I didn’t know if or how many students would come until I opened the virtual meeting room. I then had to explain Schrodinger’s cat to way too many people. I hated these so called “classes” with a burning fiery passion. Try making an hour of activities for an unknown number of students in a vague skill range when you have no idea what their actual teacher is working on this week. See how much effort you are willing to put in when over and over 0-2 people show up and don’t even have their book. Or a microphone to speak with. You may also have noticed, I didn’t post anything on the blog from the summer of 21 until the spring of 22. Dark times.

Spring 2022: While I was waiting for the semester to start (and to learn my schedule’s fate) I had a lot of anxiety about a repeat of fall 21. There had been a failure to launch “Living with Corona19” and the activity restriction level was at 4 (the highest /most restrictive) for most of the winter break. There was no way we’d be back in classrooms when we couldn’t even eat at a restaurant after 9pm! I was deeply worried about my salary and my future employment options, too. I had already been told that I couldn’t make up my missed hours over the winter course selection, and rumors abounded that the graduation rate in 2021 was lower, that the national exam (Suneung) scores were lower, and that overall expected enrollment of new students was … lower.

NOTE: Returning students have classes in Jan/Feb, 3rd year high school students – aka the graduating class – take their Suneung in mid-November and although they go back to classrooms, they are not expected to do much work since the test results will determine their university eligibility. As a result, by early December, the scores and numbers of graduating students is already known even though the school year does not end until February of the following calendar year.

Some schools were shutting down, or cutting programs. The public schools were all fully back online (with exceptions for outbreaks), but the university deemed it was too difficult to contain a spread at a school where students came from all over the country, and would engage in socially risky behavior (like partying without a mask). The existing round of contracts were not set to end until February of ’23, but if my hours were continuously docked I might not be able to afford to wait that long. My school sent out emails urging anyone who wanted to resign before the semester start to come and talk to the office.

I had zero control or input over my schedule either. It changed more than once before March 1, and continued to change for the first several weeks of the semester! The university’s federal allotment was reduced, and budget cuts ensued. The minimum number of students to keep a course was raised (from 5 to 10), and the maximum number of lounge hours was lowered. Because some majors had gone fully offline by this time, the school decided to offer a small number of face to face English courses, but I was not given any chance to volunteer for those.

In the end I was assigned 8 regular courses (my 6 contracted+ my 2 make ups) and kept only 3 due to low enrollment. I had an additional 4 online lounge hours, and 2 “in person” lounge hours each week, the later consisted of me sitting in an empty classroom for the whole time, because it was “my duty”. I know that this was a result of my admin going to bat for me and pushing to add more lounge hours so that I could get paid, and I really appreciate the way she had my back, but the whole situation was absurd. I had come full circle back to desk warming. I was not only an English Robot*, but I was a virtual English Robot. It was time to go. I turned in my 90 day notice near the end of the spring semester, my last day of classes was June 21, and my last official day of employment is August 31.

*English Robot is the term I use to describe any “teacher” whose job is primarily to stand in front of the class and be a Happy Foreigner ™, giving out set phrases in that coveted native accent. I think that it can be good for the kids to be exposed, but it’s soul sucking to the human being who has trained to be a teacher to be trapped in the role of living doll. Most of these jobs also entail mandatory hours of just existing at the school, to be seen and so they can tell the parents about how the foreign teacher is available to their precious children all day. In EPIK, they call it “desk warming”.

What’s Next?

I’m saving the details for a surprise revelation post (though some of you already know). I did find a good opportunity that will start in October, and it’s different from anything I’ve done before. The university I’ll be working with doesn’t have an English Department (yet), so there’s no strong expectations that I have to follow a preset curriculum or meet certain bureaucratic minimums. There will be plenty of other challenges (no shortage of other types of bureaucracy), and my work will not be limited to within the university. Also, the country I’m going to doesn’t have as much online access as Korea, and hasn’t been enacting much in the way of COVID restrictions or accommodations. There are some virtual conferences and workshops among teachers and teacher trainers, but no widespread virtual classrooms for regular students. Finally, the nature of the project itself has a greater chance of being more “meaningful impact” and less “English Robot”, providing me with a level of job satisfaction I haven’t felt in many years. I’m not saying it’s going to be a cake walk, but it will definitely be entirely different from everything I’ve done in Korea, and that is something I am looking forward to immensely.

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