At the start of 2020, I believed that in terms of teaching, I had seen most things. However, as we now know, this was all about to change.

Source: Unsplash

I’ve been a teacher for a fair few years and at the start of 2020, I believed that in terms of teaching, I had seen most things. However, as we now know, this was all about to change.

I have always liked to bring technology into my lessons whenever I could. However, I had never really considered online teaching, and to be honest it made me quite nervous.

I was in many ways the epitome of the ‘reluctant online teacher’, and from speaking to colleagues and friends, I had the impression that this was how many of my peers felt.

I was working as the Director of Studies at a language school in the UK and from around December 2020, the ELT industry was hearing rumblings of what has now fully developed into the Covid-19 pandemic. As time progressed teachers and staff were becoming anxious about the impact that this would have on the industry. As of mid-February, it looked very likely that we would have to teach online, and at least close the School and go completely online temporarily. The final weeks of  

February was spent trying to figure out how and what form this would take. We needed both a synchronous (live-video conferencing) and an asynchronous (place for materials and self-study) platform for our students and teachers. We finally decided on Zoom and Google Classrooms. I don’t believe these choices were made for any other reason than that is what everyone else was doing. I had to train teachers, many of whom were very nervous about teaching online, how to use these platforms whilst I only felt two or three steps ahead of them. However, if it had not been for this need, I don’t think I would have ever really embraced online teaching and its many positives and initial difficulties. Here are a few things I have learnt over the last year both as an academic manager and a teacher and why I now fully embrace online as a learning medium.

Smaller classes

Many students, like teachers, were not convinced of the virtues of online teaching and learning. We initially started with very small classes and it was difficult to say the least, to get our students to commit to this new learning experience. Quite simply, it was not what they had paid for or wanted. Our relatively high numbers of 100 students for a slow January quickly shrank to a demoralising 22 students. However, after the first few weeks, we started to have students return to us. Their friends and classmates had told them how the class ratio of student to teacher was so much better online. Moreover, there appeared to be a realisation that online teaching and learning is here to stay, which has been another impetus for encouraging students to seek online classes.

So, what are the main differences between online class sizes? In many of the physical schools  

that I have worked in, the average class size is around 12-15 and very rarely 20 students. I have spent a lot of time working in the private sector and have found that this tends to be the norm. Of course, if you work in a secondary school teaching English or a university in China, where I have heard that student numbers can be in the hundreds, I can understand why you may think these classes are tiny. Even so, an online class of 15 students, is huge!

Realistically, a teacher/student can only see a few faces at once, usually, the person talking is highlighted. This entails that class sizes need to be smaller for students to have time to use the language, ask questions and have time with the teacher. We were concerned about this initially, primarily thinking how this would affect the sociable atmosphere of the classes; however, the feedback that we got was positive. Students loved these smaller classes. They received immediate direct feedback from their teachers and commented favourably about this too.

Getting to Grips with the Platforms

Zoom, Skype, Google Meets, Microsoft Teams, and my newest find, the Chinese, ClassIn, all have their pros and cons. Many language schools chose Zoom as it worked well with their admin needs too, whilst many schools and universities chose Microsoft Teams and freelance teachers appeared to continue using platforms like Skype. I started using Zoom and Google Class, but then during the summer used Microsoft Teams whilst teaching at a university. With Zoom, you can randomly put students into ‘breakout rooms’ which many have used to emulate the ‘mingle’ or group discussion in a communicative language classroom, but with

Teams, you had to manually create ‘breakout rooms’ and then either set a timer or go and ‘collect’ your students to ask them to come back to the ‘main classroom’. Platforms like ClassIn have the easy function of allowing everyone to log in and immediately see the same screen without the awkward “can you see my screen?” where you realise that you have been talking for 5 minutes without anyone seeing your beautifully prepared PowerPoint, (it has happened to the best of us). Last year, there was a technology race at a certain point between these providers that meant that they all started to have similar features, annotate (you and the students can write or draw on the screen), set your background, or hide your home with a blurred screen for privacy, breakout rooms (a virtual room separate from the main virtual classroom), screen share (share your PowerPoint, whiteboard, Word Doc, etc.) and so on. I would suggest that you revisit any of these platforms if you haven’t for a while as it is likely that there have been quite a few updates within the last few months.

As a result, many now have very similar features, which means if you’ve had training on one, you should be able, to a degree, to transfer that training. The biggest difference is perhaps the price. Another thing to note here, not all these platforms were originally designed for teaching, and whilst the ELT industry embraced Zoom and Skype (notwithstanding their latest updates) I believe this is notable. As of February 2021, it does not appear that online teaching isn’t going anywhere fast and it might, therefore, be the time that language schools revisit the platforms they use, especially with regard to young learners and very young learners. Usually, if you are working for a company, they will have a preferred platform and train you on this and pay for the license. Additionally, in terms of building my own confidence, I found some of the biggest guidance for me was watching YouTube videos for some tips and “diving straight”. You can play around with the features by creating a ‘fake student’ and connecting with another device in your house or use a colleague, friend, or family member as your ‘student’.

Embracing technical issues

Things often go wrong in a normal class, but we feel that we can cover it up, make a joke, smile or just simply explain what is happening. For example, “I’m sorry class! The photocopier wasn’t working.” And then quite easily we revert to ‘Plan B’. Years’ of teaching experience means that we usually have quite a well-oiled Plan B to roll out, but just as many of our long-time teachers commented, online teaching makes you feel like a novice again. The important thing that I had to remind myself and them was that it was this experience that taught us coping mechanisms and that we simply needed to get experience with these platforms.

Most importantly, just as in the classroom, technical problems happen, but we must communicate to the students what is happening. When such problems occur, we may need to give some extra time to our students to make up for this, extra tutorials, tasks, or some type of asynchronous task to do too.

Zoom Fatigue

You may have heard the term “Zoom fatigue” which became a popular term around late-springtime of last year. This is supposedly caused by teaching and communication being completed all through videoconferencing. All platforms entail looking at a screen for a long time, moreover, you might prepare your classes on that same screen. To avoid this as much as possible, I recommend taking concerted breaks. This entails walking away from any technology for a while.

Go for a walk (if you can) or go to a room where you do not need to look at a screen. Moreover, don’t always make yourself the focal point when teaching online! There is a reason just like in a physical class that you do not talk and stay the main focal point all the time in a physical class. This is even more important for online classes.

The way around this was to embrace asynchronous tasks, use “breakout rooms”, or simply turn my camera off whilst the students talk amongst themselves. You can still be present and listen but allow the students to connect with one another, if not your teacher talk time will be very high and increase this fatigue even more.

Preparation time

Initially, the preparation time is A LOT. This is because you are not just preparing your materials but also training yourself and checking your technology is working correctly. If you think back to when you first started teaching or if you have to teach a new specialism you might remember or know that this also initially takes longer to prepare.

Quickly though you find nice little apps, activities, and your colleagues may have some tips. Also, not everything needs to be on a PowerPoint slide or virtual whiteboard! You could use paper, a notepad, a mini whiteboard, or flashcards just as you would in a normal classroom. Try new things and don’t overthink everything that can go wrong!

Tutorials

One of the hardest things to build in an online classroom is that sense of rapport and therefore tutorials are so important. We were fortunate when we first went online as many of our students knew us from the physical school, but as we started to get more students who had never met us in person, we had to be aware that making a connection might be more difficult.

Of course, there are things you can do like be friendly and welcoming, give good quality classes and materials and such, but we also decided to add more tutorials. Everyone was advertising online classes in a domain that they had never really functioned in, which meant that we had to offer something different. For us that was a sense of community and great customer service. I would meet with the students and ask them about their progress and goals. This was then relayed to the teachers and discussed in our twice-weekly meeting. It became vital to our success in making sure that these new students knew that they were important to our school.

Admin

The admin cannot be as centralised as it would be in a physical school. This entails that teachers are more responsible for admin than they would normally be. Also, admin can be forgotten but is more important online than in a normal school as communication takes a different form. We used Google Docs for lesson notes, registers, syllabus guidelines and such. As an academic manager, my admin also greatly increased as I found myself doing a lot of customer service, meetings with students and level testing also took much longer. However, I felt it was more thorough and the students got to see and meet me, even if only virtually, a lot quicker than they would have using our normal processes.

Conclusions

At the beginning of last year, I like many of you, was overwhelmed by the prospect of online teaching; however, despite the initial difficulties and nerves, my takeaway from 2020 and continuing into 2021 has been quite positive.

This reluctance has turned into enthusiasm as I continue my journey as a developing online teacher. I remember speaking to fellow teachers and friends at the end of 2020 and saying that I felt “proud” of how we dealt with this situation. Sometimes, I was met with a look of shock. But I can say that not only does teaching online have benefits for students but also for teachers. It brought humour, laughter, a sense of camaraderie and a levelled playing field for newer and more experienced teachers. So, whatever your present situation, whether you are lucky enough to be in a physical classroom, some form of blended learning, or fully online, I recommend that you continue to embrace your own development as a teacher and an education provider.

Were you also a reluctant online teacher or have you been doing it for years? Have you got any other tips or experiences that you could share? Was your experience entirely different in any way?