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Challenges in ELT: Teaching online

Type: Article

Experienced teacher and blogger Cecilia Nobre shares her experiences and top tips for successfully teaching online.

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I have been teaching EFL for 17 years and teaching online lessons full-time since July 2016. Before moving into the world of online teaching, I taught one-to-one classes, visiting students at their homes.

If you had asked me about teaching online three years ago, I’d have said that it was not my cup of tea. I thought I needed to see my students face-to-face to do activities and would’ve cringed at the thought of not being able to establish a rapport with them via a computer.

However, since making the switch, my attitude has changed completely, and I can now say transitioning to full-time online teaching is the best decision I’ve made in my career.

In this article, I don’t intend to tap into the online teaching business, as in selling products and courses and building an email list with your readers. If you want to learn more about the business side of it, I highly recommend the amazing work of online teachers Elena MutononoJack Askew and Gabby Wallace.

Rather, I would like to share some practical tips with you for getting started with online lessons.

The joys of teaching online

What are the benefits of teaching online? If you are passionate about teaching, chances are you’ll be passionate about teaching online. No matter who or what level you teach, you can easily adapt your lessons to an online environment. And once you get the hang of it, the students will start coming in.

I was nervous about the transition to online classes because it was a step into the unknown. But, over time, I’ve become really passionate about teaching online because I can focus on my lessons and myself, rather than worrying about the commute, finding a parking spot or looking for somewhere to kill time between lessons.

First off, it’s worth thinking about your reasons for plunging into online teaching. Here are some potential benefits:

  • Teaching online isn’t as impersonal as some might believe. Students are often more relaxed than they might be in a classroom or with the teacher at their house. With online classes, they can sit in the comfort of their home and even have a homemade snack during the lesson. This creates a relaxed, personal atmosphere, and you can certainly create a strong bond and trust with your online students.
  • Generally speaking, online students are more focused and motivated than face-to-face students. Students can choose their teachers from a wide range of options, and lesson times are more flexible. This means they can be suited to students’ busy schedules so they don’t need to cancel a lesson if they have to travel. As a result, students’ needs can be addressed more adequately because there is more flexibility in both timing and structure.
  • There is no travel time involved. How wonderful is that? You will be able to maximize your work or focus on other things at home. I love to be able to play with my dogs between lessons. Those three hours of commuting a day will transform to three extra teaching hours, which means a higher income.
  • You can teach wherever you are, as long as you have a reliable internet connection. You can maintain your lessons if you’re travelling, and consequently, so can your students, which leads to lower cancellation rates. You just need to adjust the lesson times according to the time zone, which brings me on to …
  • Depending on your lifestyle, you’ll have more flexibility to offer to your students. If you don’t mind teaching at 10 pm or 6 am you can offer a very early (or late) lesson to students who live in different time zones –something you probably wouldn’t be able to do in a face-to-face class.
  • Your reach is much wider with online lessons; you don’t need to limit your classes to your neighbourhood or city. You can teach students from different cities and countries. The sky is the limit.

Getting started

If you’re thinking teaching online is a walk in the park, I have to tell you it’s not. Teachers should take it seriously and have a professional attitude, the same way they’d approach a face-to-face class. Here are some tips to get started:

  • Invest in a good internet connection to avoid technical problems with the camera and audio. I tell my students they should have at least a 30MB bandwidth speed.
  • The very basic equipment you will need to have is a good headset and some clear speakers.
  • As teaching platforms, I use Zoom and Skype. Zoom is excellent. It offers a wide range of annotation tools, recording facilities and great audio and video quality. Become a premium member. Before using it with your students, do trial lessons with a friend to test the audio, camera, recording, annotating and video sharing.
  • Find a quiet place in your home to teach. Make sure the lighting and surroundings are appropriate (no leftover pizza boxes in the background!).
  • Turn on your computer at least five minutes before the lesson. Make sure you have adequate refreshments for the duration of the class and that you won’t be disturbed by anyone during the class. Put your mobile on silent and, if necessary, send the student a five-minute warning message to make sure they’re ready for the start of class.
  • To advertise your services, use social media.

Online teaching is not for everyone

When I first started teaching online, I managed to transition 80% of my face-to-face students to online classes with me. However, I couldn’t understand why the other 20% didn’t want online lessons. They loved my face-to-face classes, so why wouldn’t they want to continue classes with me?

  • It turns out that online classes are not for every student. It might sound obvious, but some people simply don’t enjoy studying online, preferring face-to-face lessons. I tried my best to convert them, offering a free online trial lesson, but when this didn’t work I decided to respect their wishes and accepted that not everyone thinks the same way.
  • It’s important to remember that you can’t switch off in a one-to-one lesson. You can only set pair work if you become your student’s partner. You have to be on the ball and be flexible, ready to change the lesson plan on the spot if the situation requires.
  • For some students (and teachers), technology can be a headache: too many buttons to press, fear of failure. Technology is the trickiest aspect of online teaching, but it’s just a matter of playing with it and adapting. My advice is to be patient and use every opportunity for the student to learn. You can watch as many tutorials as you want, but the best tactic is to learn by doing, and you’ll get the hang of it once you do it yourself.

How to structure your content

Online lessons can be as effective as face-to-face classes. As with group classes and face-to-face lessons, a lot depends on how much love and effort you put into your lessons. It’s as simple as that. Try to incorporate study habits and learning strategies into your classes.

It’s essential to find out from the students what their goals, motivations and needs are. You will need to carry out a thorough needs analysis to assess what type of student they are and how you’re going to plan their course. As with a regular face-to-face student, the needs analysis will dictate how you shape the activities, the content and the expected outcomes from each student.

In addition to your needs analysis, you might want to offer a free trial lesson (30 minutes is enough) to diagnose their learning needs, strengths and weakness. You can use this Feedback sheet to assess their learning needs.

  • I tend to prepare my own lessons and use a materials bank. Apart from the wonderful materials at onestopenglish (check out their winning lessons from their Lesson Share series), there are plenty of other excellent resource sites out there with ready-made lesson plans.
  • There are great teachers who share world-class lesson plans that you can easily adapt for online students. Here are some of my favourites: Blog de CristinaRicardo Barros’ blogFilm EnglishViral Elt.
  • For higher-level students, a nice idea is to ask them to choose an interesting text for discussion, to summarise and explain it to you in class. If you read it before, you can also set questions as homework for the following the class.
  • Set your students a task to record themselves speaking (use http://vocaroo.com or www.soundcloud.com) and send it to you before class. You could then listen to it back with them in class and analyse their strengths and weaknesses together.
  • Role-plays work wonders with all levels of student. Choose image and word prompts so students can create the scenario and dialogue.
  • Do flipped lessons and ask them to read a text, listen to a recording or watch a video for the following class.
  • At the end of class, spend five-ten minutes recapping what you’ve talked about, remind them to check their email for your lesson notes (which you can copy and paste into a doc from the messages area of Skype or Zoom), and, if it’s the last class of the week, ask them what they’ve got going on for the weekend.
  • Create a folder for each student on a Google Drive to store the lesson recordings, worksheets, homework, feedback sheets, tests, etc.

Final thoughts?

Teaching online is a relatively recent development in the world of ELT, but it’s clear from the short time I’ve been doing it that there is a huge demand out there. You don’t need to change your personal teaching style, and the period of adaptation relies only on your willingness to embrace the technology and the wealth of possibilities available. A few final things to consider:

  • Value yourself. Charge the same as you would for your face-to-face lessons. Don’t change your fees just because the class is online. There are expenses to cover: the electricity bill, your Zoom membership, the internet connection, headset, laptop maintenance, etc. On top of that, the work is still there, and it’s still an hour of your time.
  • Learn how to use your Zoom or Skype from your phone in case you can’t access it through the computer/laptop. It’s not the ideal device, but the phones might be the only devices your student will have one day. Have a plan B.
  • Create a contract with rules with cancellation policy, rescheduling classes and payment details.
  • A common complaint about teaching one-to-one online is that teachers miss the camaraderie from the staffroom, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The internet is a global staffroom, and we can find support in each other. Join a teachers group on Facebook, for example the group I run (www.facebook.com/groups/privateenglishteachersreloaded), and join a Personal Learning Network (PLN) on Twitter.
  • Start the lesson with a genuine smile. This can set the tone for your class and your student will feel appreciated. 

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Readers' comments (2)

  • I really enjoyed the article. These tips are very effective.I have taught online for 8 years already. Most of teachers have just one question-where to get students? My advice: First join some platforms. I don't know if I can share links here.)))

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  • Lots of good, commonsense advice from Cecilia, I would say that different people have had different experiences with using social media for advertising. I am not aware of any students that have come in to me from social media. If you are starting out, it may be worth looking at some of the teaching platforms to get some experience.

    You can also get a wide range of materials by browsing the internet. This site is a good starting point but I also like breakingnewsenglish.com, linguahouse.com, esllibrary and off2class.com

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