I’ve been teaching English online for 6 months now and I’d like to share some of my (very subjective) thoughts on the matter. If you’re considering giving online teaching a try, you might find this post interesting. Take a look at some of my biggest surprises, most important lessons, and some reservations concerning giving online English classes.
Let me start by saying this post doesn’t contain any advice on the business side of teaching online. In case that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll be better off checking out blogs by Elena, Lindsay or Kerstin. This post looks at how a diehard face-to-face teacher (Gosia K.) ventured into online teaching and hasn’t regretted it yet.
My biggest surprises
#1 Online classes can be as personal as face-to-face ones
This was definitely my biggest fear concerning online teaching: 2D students, awkward Skype conversations (technical issues!), feeling uncomfortable not being able to truly be in the same room with the student … and what about my board?!
I might have been lucky, but a friendly rapport with my students and a natural “classroom feel” are the last things I could complain about. I actually think technology might have had something to do with the former. Since I’ve had to exchange numerous email with my students (arranging classes, checking homework, giving feedback, sending useful links, etc.) we’ve been in constant communication throughout the week. Some of these emails might have been more functional than others, but some of them also contained casual comments and exchanges. I can’t say my learners have felt more inhibited or uncomfortable because of the online nature of our classes. If anything, they got sold on the comfort aspect of such learning sooner than I did!
#2 Feedback given often and eagerly
I wouldn’t necessarily say I started out as a very confident online teacher. I treated it as an experiment and I decided there was little point in pretending I knew all the ins and outs of Skype lessons. Since the very beginning, I’ve been regularly asking students about their opinion regarding almost everything technical: How’s the sound? How’s the vision? What do you think about this Google Doc we worked in? How about this interactive online board? Was it easy to navigate? These questions not only helped me eliminate some tools or habits I considered useful and my students didn’t, but they also created a very open and direct line of communication and feedback.
Technical consultations took place alongside discussing class content and my teaching: students openly letting me know what has worked for them or not. I guess that the fact these exchanges took place mostly via email can’t be underestimated. I feel I’ve found the right rhythm with most of my current students and it feels great to be able to say I didn’t shy away from asking. Looking back at my classroom experience, I think I often might have been lulled into a false sense of “it’s all going fine” as both the students and I were in our element: a regular, physical classroom with coursebooks and desks. I’m afraid I often mistook students offering no comment for happy students.
#3 No coursebook = students feel more responsible for the course content
Thinking about it now, the statement above seems like a no-brainer. Still, six months ago I was a teacher whose most recent experience was working at a language school, where coursebooks were not only a given but also included in the price of the course = expected to be used. I was worried students wouldn’t take a no-coursebook course seriously enough (So, I’m skyping with this lady and there isn’t even a coursebook?!) Then again, I knew I’d be teaching 1-2-1 classes and deciding on a coursebook wouldn’t actually make much sense. I now realise how little faith in both students and myself I had back then!
I soon discovered that using online resources in an online setting makes students aware of how language learning stretches past the coursebook into the realm of websites, podcasts or online platforms (not to mention online newspapers and magazines). Once we didn’t have any support in the form of a coursebook guiding us through our classes, I noticed my students taking a greater interest in the content of each meeting and its source. This, in turn, resulted in students looking for things online we could use in class together. This website was discovered by my student and using it has saved me a lot of time in terms of lesson planning. It also ensured we’d work on something my student actually takes some interest in.
2 most important lessons
#1 Be confident about the technology you use (even if you really aren’t)
An online class might be an awkward experience at first and it’s riddled with (often unpleasant) surprises: a sketchy internet connection, disappearing links, disappearing documents, or files that won’t load. There are many things that might go wrong and disrupt your class. I’ve found early on that even if I’m not super confident about the technology I use, I should never ever show it as it directly affects how comfortable and confident the student feels. Imagine a teacher who can’t handle a blackboard very well. Other than looking extremely unprofessional, it makes people uncomfortable and feeling out of place. Rather than complaining about the internet speed or Skype being uncooperative to your students, I’d suggest getting an ethernet cable and making sure you have a backup channel of communication (Google Hangouts or even Facebook video chat). It’s not an entirely bullet-proof plan, but at least you’re making sure you’ve done all you could to make the class happen.
#2 The fact you can always reach your students via email doesn’t mean you should
Sharing a Google Doc with materials for the next class at 2 a.m.? I’ve discovered that if emails are your sole way of reaching people, they start being treated as phone calls made at inappropriate times. They annoy the recipient and get ignored. Sending this one last link in the 4th email in a row? It’s like giving your students the 10th worksheet of the day, which they inevitably will shove in some folder and forget about forever. I’ve learnt the hard way to think twice before I hit the send button.
My biggest reservation
I still can’t quite imagine teaching children or teens online. It might be because I’m still not very experienced and I haven’t started using a platform like AdobeConnect or WizIQ. Still, as much as I do enjoy my weekly face-to-face classes with kids, I can’t picture doing the same activities in a virtual classroom. I’d love to hear from somebody who’s tried/seen children and teens being taught online.
I’d love to hear from other teachers who have classes online. How has this experience been treating you so far?