When I first started teaching ten years ago, I was extremely sceptical about the effectiveness of online teaching, but since then I have accumulated a lot of experience. I'd like to share with you a few things I've learned along the way.
Contrary to popular opinion, I recommend starting your online teaching career by working for an established company. If your teaching experience is limited and you're not an internet wiz, working for a company can act as an excellent type of 'internship'. Admittedly, the money can be low and the hours unreliable, but you'll receive on-the-job training and technical and pedagogical support. I started out working for one of the well-known English learning centres. I gained valuable skills, experience and the confidence, which later enabled me to go it alone.
Creating a blog
In the last two years, I've created more of my own materials, usually on the back of envelopes, in notebooks, word files and on scraps of paper. I often use authentic materials such as news articles, TED talks and YouTube clips, and create lesson plans around them. Last year, while looking for inspiration, I came across an English teaching blog for the first time and so discovered the possibility to create and save lesson plans on such a platform, which can then be easily accessed anywhere. I was so impressed that I immediately got to work learning how to create my own blog. I chose Blogger, as it seemed very easy to use. My blog was born in November 2013 and marked the beginning of an incredible journey of self-development.
Becoming part of a network of teachers
The most important discovery I've made since starting my blog is undoubtedly the British Council's Teaching English Facebook page. If only I had discovered it earlier! Through this page, I have connected with an amazing community of teachers (teaching online can at times be a little lonely) and to a vast quantity of excellent materials and resources. My blog has been visited by thousands of new people, which has led me to working on a very interesting new project.
I live in Israel and would never have dreamed of being able to enter a classroom in Iran. But a few months ago, a course co-ordinator in a college in Iran approached me about teaching three groups of Iranian men. I accepted the offer, and now I'm beamed into their classroom via Google Hangouts, which is projected onto a screen. I upload a document containing a list of weekly topics connected to their course materials, and each student gives a presentation on these topics. I coach and correct the students and send detailed feedback to each one after the lesson. These classes demonstrate the incredible power online teaching has to break through cultural and geographical barriers, offering endless possibilities to both teachers and students alike.
Choosing a platform to communicate with your students
Skype is a very useful platform for online teaching. You can have free video or audio conversations with your students, as long as they have a Skype account. You can send files, type corrections and new vocabulary in the message box, and also share a view of your screen.
Google Hangouts, as we've seen, allows you to create a virtual classroom. You and your students need to have a Google+ account to be able to use this platform. You can invite up to ten people to a Hangout. You can open any document that you previously saved to Google Drive, and add notes or a Google sketchpad, which acts like a whiteboard. You can also add YouTube videos and even use sound effects like clapping or a drum roll. I recommend having a trial lesson with your students to help them get used to using Hangouts. Tell them to sign in and enter a Hangout before the lesson. When you first enter, you are prompted to upload the Google talk plug-in, which may take a few minutes.
WizIQ is something I'm quite new to, and I've discovered that it offers a free online teaching platform for private teachers. You can set up a course for up to ten students, upload materials in advance and invite students to attend the course and then set time and date by email. When you set up your course you can also add the cost of the course, which the student will pay for through PayPal. WizIQ's virtual classroom looks very professional and seems to be the most interactive of the free virtual classrooms available. It enables you to upload documents, embed videos and share your screen. You also have a white board and a chat box, the contents of which can be saved. Once you sign up, you can participate in the free training courses that WizIQ offer. Your students will need to sign up to WizIQ to enter the class. If you upgrade, you can also promote your courses in their marketplace. WizIQ has a free course called Teachers Teaching Online.
Managing your time effectively
The most difficult aspect of being a self-employed teacher is learning to manage your time. To be honest, I'm still not very good at limiting my research and preparation time. I hope, in the long run, that having my lesson plans on a blog will help, but creating these materials is time-consuming. I would like to recommend two webpages I've discovered, which I'm sure will help teachers manage their time effectively.
Educanon is free and works on all major internet browsers. It enables you to create interactive video lessons using any YouTube, Vimeo, TeacherTube, Khan Academy or TED video, and allows you to embed time-linked interactive activities, in the form of questions, to the video. Students participate in these activities as they watch the video. They can stop and rewind the video at any point, but cannot progress until they have completed each activity. When you've finished creating your interactive video lesson, it can be shared or you can embed it on your website or blog. I think it's a fantastic idea and extremely useful for online teaching and flipped classrooms.
Off2Class is a website that offers ready-made course materials in the form of a set of slides. It is currently in beta stage and is free. The site offers a library of ESL (English as a Second Language) lesson plans and new lessons are added weekly -- they're really good too. As the teacher, you have the ability to invite a student to join you on the website in order to view the lesson materials together. When you leave the lesson, the student is no longer able to access the materials. It's a great website and a real time-saver.
The internet is a window of opportunity for teachers. It enables us to develop, create, share and teach independently, wherever and however we choose. Happy teaching!
Update, 8 May 2015: A previous version of this article made reference to Google Helpouts, which is no longer available. We have therefore removed the reference.