The Oxford TEFL Blog

6 tips for moving your teaching online – How do you adapt your teaching techniques for the virtual classroom?

Nik PeacheyNik Peachey is a freelance writer, teacher trainer and consultant specialising in digital publishing, online course development and the development of digital resources for teachers. Since 1992 he has worked all over the world as a teacher, trainer and project manager. He was Global Head of Learning for Macmillan’s online English school EnglishUp from 2014 to 2016. In 2016 he won his second British Council Award for Innovations (ELTon) and co-founded PeacheyPublications Ltd. 

 

Have you ever thought of teaching online? Adding this skill to your teaching repertoire can open up a host of opportunities for you, from additional work to starting your own business. You could also vastly improve your chances of finding teaching work online, reaching more potential students and providing the best possible service by taking a more advanced qualification in ELT such as the Trinity DipTESOL or a teacher development course. If you are thinking of becoming an online teacher check out this article and see what’s involved in adapting yourself and your teaching techniques to online teaching. 

1. Working with the webcam

One of the first and most obvious things you’ll have to adapt to when starting to teach online is the change in space. As a teacher at the front of the classroom you have a three dimensional space to work in. You can move around get closer or further from your students , sit, crouch, stand and look over your students shoulder. You can use the whole of your body to mime or act and you have probably developed whole range of gestures that are all clearly and instantly visible to students. For many teachers, they way they use their body within the classroom space has become largely natural and subconscious.

With the move to teaching online you are suddenly restricted a small two dimensional square space on your student’s computer screen where only your head and shoulders are visible and where in most cases, you are anchored to your chair by headphones.

Learning to use and work within this space is very important. Many teachers when they first make the shift to teaching online, treat it a little like teaching on the telephone. They rely only on their voice and forget that they can still be seen by their students  and they can still use this space for visual communication.

Facial expression is a vital part of communication and you can still use your expressions to communicate, so practice looking at yourself when you are on the webcam and start to develop your range of facial expressions.

You can still use hand gestures, but practice with your webcam to see how much space you have before your hands disappear off screen. Be aware of where your camera is and practice using your hands in front of the camera, so that you can get a sense of how close or far they need to be so that students can see them clearly.

See how far away and how close you can get to your camera and think about how this will impact on your students’ view of you. You’ll find that being really close to the camera can make you seem very imposing, whereas getting too far away can make you seem – yes – quite distant.

Positioning your camera can have a big impact on how you are perceived by students. Ideally you should have it directly in front of you and slightly above eye level. It you are working on a laptop computer, having a stand for it will really help. These help to raise the screen to your eye level, though you may also need mouse and keyboard as this will make it uncomfortable to type.

Having the screen at eye level will make it easier for you to have ‘eye contact’ with students and will give the most flattering view of you. You really don’t want them to be looking up your nose or at the side of your face, so experiment with this.

When you are teaching, try to look at the camera rather than at the screen when you speak, this will help with the eye contact which will in turn help with building trust and rapport.

Also remember that you can use your webcam with realia and show things to students, whether it’s an object that you can hold up in front of the camera, pictures of word stress patterns or showing students the view from your window all of these things can help to make the lesson more engaging.

Think about how you use the layout of your virtual classroom. Some platforms automatically make the view of the person speaking bigger. On other platforms you can switch between  communication and presentation configurations which again make the webcam views larger.

Many online teaching platforms allow you to record your lessons, so take advantage of that feature and the watch and listen to the lesson and see how effectively you used the camera space.

2. Your work space

Many people when they teach online work from home, and that’s great, but you have to make sure you have a suitable space. Lighting is very important. The light will have a big impact on how you are seen and how well you are seen by your students. Having a light source behind your computer screen can really help with this, but if it’s directional it’s a good to try to reflect the light off a wall and onto your face, so that it’s defused and you aren’t dazzled. Back light is a disaster as it turns you in to a silhouette. A room with good natural light is fantastic, but remember that the light changes during the day and a cloud passing by can make you invisible.

Think about what students can see behind you too. If possible the view behind you should be plain uncluttered and light so that you stand out against your background and there are no distractions for the students like, washing or people wandering by.

3. Working with sound

Sound is also important. The space you use should be quiet, so that you aren’t distracted and students aren’t picking up a lot of background noise that can make it hard for them to hear. You should always use headphones or ear phones. Using speakers can cause echo for other people which you may not be able to hear yourself.

When choosing your headphones or ear phones, think about how you look wearing them and also think about how they feel. You may be teaching for a few hours at a time so it’s important that they are comfortable.

Your microphone is also really important. Using one that’s built into a laptop can cause problems as they can be prone to picking up background noise from your computer fan, so if possible get one that you can plug in. The quality of your microphone will have a significant impact on how the students hear your voice, so don’t be tempted to ‘go cheap’ on this, though if you have a reasonably good mobile phone that came with earphones with a built in microphone, that should work well.

You need to be aware of how you use the dynamic range of your voice and how that works with the microphone and volume on your computer. Many teachers who are used to projecting to the back of the classroom, have a tendency to raise their voice if students are struggling to hear them. This can cause sound distortion and make the problem worse, so you need to know about adjusting the volume on your computer, or more likely, the students need to adjust their own volume. It’s worth getting used to spending a few moments at the beginning of each lesson to get the sound levels right. I would also recommend you practice recording yourself and experiment with the dynamics and tone of your voice and listen to how you sound. 

4. Providing tech support

One element of teaching online that is likely to be completely new to you is tech support. In most cases that’s you. If your students are struggling to get their sound or camera working properly then they may well expect you to help, so make sure you know how the sound works on the platform you are using, how to run any setup wizard that may be built in to the platform and how to use some of the features like muting sound and camera. If possible you should also have some knowledge of how to adjust the sound levels on both MAC and PC as you may need to guide students through this process. If you have the opportunity, practice this with another teacher and try both teacher and students roles so that you are aware of any differences in the student interface. They may well have different controls or have them in different places.

Inevitably there are going to be times when the platform crashes either for you, the students or for everyone.The main thing to remember when things go down is to stay cool, refresh the browser and log back in. Also, make sure that your students know what to do when this happens. Having good on-boarding for new students when they join the school can really help diminishing many of the technical problems, but if your school just assumes students know how to use the platform, it might be worth sharing some procedures and doing a bit of training with new students to make things run more smoothly.

5. Working with Text Chat

As well as sound and vision you also have an additional communication channel. Text. The text or chat feature of your platform is incredibly important and useful. It is often the most reliable means of communication with your students, especially if they are having sound/audio problems. You can use it in a number of ways, from getting quick responses from all students and backing up vocabulary that comes up during the lesson, to passing links to online materials that you want them to work with.

Be aware of how your chat feature works. In most cases you will be able to share links to materials through chat and students will be able to open the materials just by clicking on the links. You may also find there is a feature that allows you to send message to the whole group or to selective students. Being able to send different materials to different students can enable you to create information gap activities or set up role plays with individual role cards, or even just give some personalised and private feedback to students.

6. Working with pairs and groups

In many cases you may find you are teaching one-to-one, and this tends to be by far the effective mode for online learning, but in some cases you may find that you have group classes. If this is the case then your platform may well have a ‘break-out’ class feature of some kind. This enables you to create multiple rooms and move pairs or small groups of students to them. This enable you to do group and pair activities far more effectively.

Be sure to practice with this feature and understand how it works on your platform. In some cases you can just click a button and the platform will randomly separate students into however many groups you want. In some cases you can drag and drop students into different groups. You can then go from group to group monitoring what they are doing.

When using breakout rooms, be sure to let your students know what’s going to happen and give them any instruction and materials they will need before you get them into groups. Moving round and monitoring each group can take a little time, so if they know what they have to do they’ll be able to get started as soon as they are in the room.

Monitoring students in most virtual platforms can be a little clumsy. As you move from group to group your webcam image will appear and disappear from the students screen, so it’s hard to be unobtrusive and even harder to know whether students are working while you are not monitoring their group. usually at the end of the group work session there will be a button on your interface to move students back to the main room, so be sure you know where this is and how to do it.

I’ve found that most teachers either love or hate teaching online. The main difference in which you turn out to be is likely to be influenced by how well you think about, practice with and get to know your platform before you start using it with students and the best way to do this is to team up with another teacher, or better still a small group of teachers, and have a few practice sessions until you feel comfortable and confident that you can handle anything that may come up.

I hope you enjoy it and that these few tips have helped you feel a little better prepared for the experience.

If you are thinking of opening your own business teaching English online or reaching more students in specialised areas of ELT, we recommend taking a Trinity DipTESOL or teacher development course to give yourself the highest possible chance of success. 

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