By Nathan Lomax

29 January 2015 - 12:51

'Set things up in advance so the lesson isn’t taken up fixing the microphone, focusing the projector, and so on.' Photo (c) Watchcaddy licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'Set things up in advance so the lesson isn’t taken up fixing the microphone.' Photo ©

Watchcaddy licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Do teachers need to be in the room to successfully deliver a course to groups of learners? Not according to Nathan Lomax, who is training Libyan teachers from the UK using Skype with the help of local trainers. Here are his tips for teaching a class from a computer.

Without the visual cues available in the face-to-face classroom, it's difficult for the teacher to make spontaneous judgements based on the mood of the class, or to respond to individual learner needs. Nevertheless, with careful planning and student-centred activities, it's possible to deliver motivating and worthwhile classes to large groups over Skype. This has been my experience delivering online TKT (Teaching Knowledge Test) courses with the British Council. Here are my tips for teaching groups of learners remotely.

Keep instructions simple

When there is no telling how good the internet connection will be and there is the possibility of power cuts, it is important to include detailed and clear instructions for each activity in the lesson plan — especially for local trainers on the ground who are responsible for facilitating the lesson. They may need to know how to run activities in case the connection is lost.

One of the benefits of trimming down oral instructions is that it encourages you to reduce your teacher talking time (TTT) — a habit which all language teachers are guilty of at times.

Anticipate learners’ needs and difficulties

It's often a good idea to have a brief, pre-lesson meeting with local trainers to talk through any difficult explanations with them. Be prepared, however, for some things to be lost in translation and not always to go to plan. Activities may also take longer than expected because it's sometimes difficult to model what learners should do from afar.

Depending on the culture, local trainers may tend to over-explain activities and be reluctant to relinquish control to the learners. By the end of the course, however, they have usually got used to the idea of facilitating, rather than leading, the class.

Make it social and fun

Just as in a traditional classroom setting, it's good to include warmers and ice-breakers at the start of every class, such as role plays, surveys and whole-class mingling activities (onestopenglish is a good place to find these). The students want to socialise!

As all teachers know, course books can be dry and usually need adapting to make the content more learner-centred and communicative. I do this by turning texts from the manual into different kinds of dictation (running, group, back to back) and displaying texts on the walls for learners to walk around and discuss. If you’re lucky enough to have some fantastic helpers on the ground (as I do in Libya), they'll help prepare the lesson materials necessary for these activities (photocopying, chopping up and sticking things around the room) in advance.

Encourage a lively atmosphere

Just because you may be on the other side of the world, it doesn’t mean you can’t bring some energy into the classroom. Nearly all students, young and old, enjoy competitive games and activities. I have found that miming and games such as  backs to the board and board slap are by far the most successful. The competitive element tends to keep learners motivated and on-task. Smaller groups can also make quizzes for each other based on the course content.

Get learners to help with classroom management

One of the challenges of not being in the room, however, is ‘policing’ these activities (which can get quite intense sometimes). This can be done by local trainers or volunteer students who effectively take care of classroom management. Indeed, if you’re training local teachers, then you’ll be developing their classroom management skills.

Come to grips with the technology

If you’re thinking of teaching over the internet, you’ll need to become familiar with the options at your disposal. One of the most useful is the ‘share screens’ function in Skype, which allows you to share whatever is on your desktop, such as instructions, flashcards or games like Blockbusters displayed in PowerPoint. If your class uses a projector to interact with you, then your desktop effectively becomes an interactive whiteboard when using the share function.

Be prepared for hiccups though, and, as far as possible, set things up in advance, so the lesson isn't taken up fixing the microphone, focusing the projector, and so on.

Find new ways to provide feedback

Although teaching remotely makes it impossible to monitor individual and group activities in person, it's still possible to give feedback on learners’ progress. Edmodo is a great way to connect with learners on an individual or group basis, and for learners to collaborate on assignments and provide feedback to each other. It's a safe and secure way to learn socially and a good alternative to Facebook, especially if you wish to avoid being bombarded by friend requests.

Summing up

On the whole, if lessons are planned well, with plenty of fun activities and with good assistants on the ground, it doesn't seem to matter whether the trainer is present or not. In fact, as long as the instructions are clear, the limited presence of the trainer makes activities more student-centred.

I would recommend online training to anyone, as long as you have some patience with technical glitches. Assuming these can be ironed out, the future of online training looks good.

The British Council TKT courses in Libya reach more than 100 trainees. The training is delivered through Skype by Nathan Lomax, a freelance EFL (English as a foreign language) teacher and teacher trainer based in the UK. He is supported by a local co-trainer.

The British Council, with sponsorship from Libyana, the biggest telecom company in Libya, will be supporting the SMS for jobseekers programme, reaching more than 3.5 million subscribers. The programme kicks off in early February 2015.

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