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Teaching English online: opportunities and pitfalls

By Sylvia Guinan

26 June 2014 - 12:13

Ever thought about teaching English online? Sylvia Guinan, online English teacher and current winner of the British Council TeachingEnglish blog award, walks us through the opportunities and pitfalls.

There are many different things to consider when it comes to online teaching. The good news is that online teaching opens up new levels of creativity and opportunity for you as a teacher. In a way, it drives you to surpass yourself and focus more on best practice as well as innovation. As for students, they are our digital natives, and they deserve to be taught with 21st century technology.

Technology basics

Many freelance teachers teach through Skype. It’s the simplest thing to do, as Skype is very stable for audio quality and you simply screen-share your desktop to show PowerPoint presentations or work directly from educational websites. While Skype works for small-scale teaching, you need something more sophisticated for larger groups or getting your school or organisation online. Personally speaking, when I started, I made a beeline for platforms with virtual classrooms, as it just seemed the natural thing to do. I found a community of teachers on WizIQ who were very inspiring, and we worked together for two years on our Edupunk creativity experiments. This was how I learnt the ropes, and learnt how to manage groups online. Once a week I held an open creativity class on poetry, games or story-telling, and students from all over the world would log in.

Resources and content creation

As for resources, the following sites have wonderful materials if you don’t feel like re-inventing the wheel. One outstanding find is the English Out There initiative by Jason West who has created six-level courses of English that incorporate the use of social media for fluency development, confidence-building and social/emotional engagement. ESOL Cambridge has free online exam materials for teachers and other online preparation courses. The British Council also provides a lot of online support for IELTS preparation. Other great resources can be found at busyteacher.orgEFL classroom 2.0, and TeachersPayTeachers.

Beyond that you may wish to supplement your basic course offerings, specialise for specific purposes or simply follow your own instincts and inspiration. This is when your own content creation comes into play. I highly recommend Eduglogster for creating user-friendly, brain-friendly electronic posters, and Prezi for more extensive creations. PowerPoint will be your basic essential, as only PowerPoint will work in most virtual classrooms, though you can screen-share to work on interactive sites. My number one tip here is to make PowerPoints as visual as possible.

The importance of personal learning networks

I can’t stress strongly enough how important my personal learning network has been to me. For me, as a freelance teacher, associating with others on the cutting-edge of technology in education has been a huge motivational factor. When you are challenged by the excellence of others, you become more daring, professional and creative. I can’t imagine what it would be like to set oneself up on Skype, post a few adverts around and then stare at your screen waiting for students to show up (if they ever do in this massive cyber vacuum where no one knows who you are). Pro-activity and passion are a must for success.

Motivating students online

This depends on the context of your online teaching model. If I had a class in a brick and mortar school and a language lab, I would have a field-day. The fun activities one can use to supplement courses and have students creating their own educational masterpieces are endless. My favourite activities would include comic creation, video-making and story-telling via multimedia.

You can motivate students online through interactive learning environments. In the virtual classroom, your camera is king. You’ve got to be as expressive as possible to make students feel as if they are in the same room as you. There is an art to using the chatbox as a back channel, and this is often far more effective than a traditional classroom, as you can have some students on audio, and/or video, while the others comment, chat, or interact through the chat box simultaneously. A huge advantage in my book is the break-out room feature in most of the best virtual classrooms. You can divide classes up into groups or pairs and send them to different sub-classrooms. In this way you can introduce many new games as you have the advantage of information gaps to exploit. Then there is the extra communicative element for students, a greater sense of intimacy between classmates, bonding, creativity and lots of fun.

This can be extended to 24/7 facilitation via learning management systems. The most widely-known LMS is Moodle. If, at first, Moodle is too challenging, there are course feeds on sites such as WizIQ. I also recommend the ClubEFL edutainment learning space. This would definitely motivate learners. Language schools all over Greece are enrolling their students onto ClubEFL and children are making their own quizzes, blogs and much, much more. From a psychological point of view, 24/7 facilitation gives all students a chance to get the teacher’s undivided attention and helps shy students to open up more. This doesn’t mean that you are at their beck and call, it just means that some of your work will be managed asynchronously.

Building rapport

Learning management systems give you the backdrop you need for informal communication between live online sessions. You can manage online discussions with your classes, just like on Facebook. In fact, there’s nothing to stop you from setting up private class groups on Facebook and engaging students directly from there. Working between Facebook and your chosen LMS would be ideal. It would entail building up rapport via text, chat and multimedia, using environments that students love, and adding more substantial projects and materials to the LMS. Some teachers also use Twitter as a tool to get students working intelligently while building relations.

My favourite way to engage with students is to give them creative challenges. If you ask them to create a video or comic they will have great fun creating and sharing, and overcome any reservations they may be feeling. You can also help them to explore the Internet mindfully by setting up engaging webquests.

Pitfalls to avoid

Social media

If you are a freelance teacher you will need to have a dynamic online presence. Having your own teaching page, with a unique teaching brand that reflects your professional values helps a lot. The pitfall, however, is getting sucked into a social quagmire. You’ve got to be aware of this and keep a professional distance.

Webtool mania

Webtools are, of course, creative and useful for online teaching, but be realistic about how many you can sensibly use, and avoid the trap of playing with too many toys. My criteria for this is simplicity. Tools should also fulfill educational objectives on a deep level.

Online schools

There are many unprofessional ‘online schools’ exploiting teachers online. Do not accept substandard pay even if you are still learning the ropes.

Join our TeachingEnglish community on Facebook for tips, resources and regular teacher chats.

Please note that links to third-party websites in this blog do not imply endorsement of those third-party websites by the British Council or any association with its operators.

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