The present crisis has brought rapid and dramatic changes to the world of work, and the world of teaching has been no exception. Teachers have suddenly been forced, by circumstances, to adapt their skills to working online in live virtual classrooms with little or no preparation or training.
Most schools and teachers have faced the challenge and, ready or not, teachers have launched their students into online classrooms using commonly used tools like Zoom or Skype. But now the initial panic is over, we can take a closer look at the kinds of technology available for the delivery of live online learning and the kinds of training teachers need to be able to use that technology effectively.
Oxford TEFL has for some time been offering courses in Teaching English Online and is now offering the 100% Online CELTA so that new teachers can gain a recognised qualification online and get started with their first experiences of virtual teaching.
As for virtual classroom platforms there are a lot of alternatives and the one you choose may well depend on your students access to technology, the model of delivery you want to use and whether you see this as a short or longer term situation.
If you have been using Zoom and want something as similar as possible to ease the transition, then Jitsi Meeting may be the platform for you. It looks very similar to Zoom and has very similar features. Jitsi can also be used in the web-browser, though there are no breakout rooms.
- Jitsi enables you to record the meeting and to get some useful speaker stats that show who was more active during the meeting. There is also a nice feature that allows you to share and watch YouTube videos together.
- As well as working within the browser there is also a desktop version and a mobile app that can be used. The only restriction on class size is bandwidth and connectivity.
- You can launch a meeting and invite students directly form the Jitsi Meeting website, but you can also download the code for the platform and install it on your own server, which might be wise if you are thinking of building a more long term online teaching business.
- Like Zoom Jitsi has been built to optimise communication through the webcam, but you can also screen share materials and using free tools like Crytpad you can do collaborative activities like peer document editing, brainstorming on a sticky note (Kanban) board and working on presentations and spreadsheets together. There is also a whiteboard that you can use together, so the combination of Jitsi and CryptPad can be quite awesome.
- If your students are struggling with connectivity Jitsi does also allow you to reduce the image quality, which should save bandwidth.
- There is also a background blur feature, but when I tried this it slowed down the image a lot, so I would avoid using this unless you really have to.
WebRoom is one of my favourite virtual classrooms and the one I use by choice. It was developed by a language school owner so an understanding of teaching and the needs of language learners has been baked into the design.
- It’s easy to create a free room, you just need to input your name and email address. When you join the room there is a technical onboarding process to make sure your sound is connected and functioning properly. This is really useful as it can cut down on the amount of technical support the teacher needs to offer at the beginning of the class. Once you are in the room you can share a link for the room or add students’ email addresses to invite them in.
- The room has a great range of features including whiteboard, presentation space and screen sharing. You can also share links to websites and see them open within the presentation space. One of my favouite features is that you can add links to Google documents and do collaborative writing work, or watch YouTube videos together as a group.
- You can set up your workspace before the lesson and prepare any materials you are going to use, then just open the workspace you want students to work with. These workspaces and resources are also available from within the breakout rooms so you can have groups of students working on different materials in each room.
- It’s also easy to do listening activities as there is a tool for uploading mp3 files and then the teacher or the students can activate these to listen on their own computer.
- If you want more of a conversational lesson you can switch to tile view and this arranges all of the webcams of participants into the main space and hides the workspace and whiteboard.
- As well as voice and video there is also a text chat feature and to the right of the text chat, there is an area where students can take private notes.
- At the end of each session after students leave they also get an email with all the resources and links used in the lesson and a copy of their notes.
- WebRoom is the classroom and free part of the iTeach World virtual school and LMS. If you really want to get serious about creating a 100% online school then this is the tool to choose.
- In addition to the classroom, there are a range of scheduling and admin features as well as a content and learning management system that enables you to build asynchronous online courses and schedule live classes into them.
- All the courses you create can be sold directly online through your own online storefront and payment can be taken using PayPal or Stripe which enables a range of credit card and virtual payment types.
- The platform works well on mobile and there is even a white-labelled mobile app which can be branded for your school.
If you are working with younger learners or you want something more playful than the normal flat whiteboard type environment, then it’s worth checking out Mozilla’s Hubs.
- Hubs provides a choice of 3D virtual worlds to meet in with your class and chat using text or audio. There is a pen tool so users can write anywhere within the 3D environment and a camera tool which enables students to take photographs inside the environment. You can also share your webcam and do screen sharing of any materials you want to use.
- Students have an avatar and they can move around the environment and explore it. The audio is proximity specific so if you ask pairs of students to go to different parts of the environment they will be able to do pair or group work without being heard or disturbed by other students.
- There is a great range of different environments to choose from and you can use a different one each time you meet. You could even choose an environment to match the theme of your lesson. There’s a wonderful pirate ship environment that would be great for storytelling or role play sessions.
- Once you have chosen the room environment you want to use you just share a link to it with students and they can enter. Anyone with the link can enter the room, but you can add a password to make the environment safer.
- Hubs runs in the web-browser on a desktop computer, but will also run in the mobile browser and can be accessed using a VR headset if you or your students want a more immersive experience. I tried it on my mobile phone in the browser and felt that it worked very well and was easy to navigate.
- If you or your students are looking for a longer-term project you can even get them to create their own environment using Mozilla’s Spoke, which is a little like MineCraft.
- There are no limits on the number of participants, but connectivity will restrict how many people can work effectively within the environment.
BigBlueButton is another open-source project that has been around and developing for quite some time. It can be used for free as a plugin for Moodle, you can host it on your own server, or you can register for a service called GreenLight that you can access through the BigBlueButton site and host meetings there.
- BigBlueButton has an impressive collection of features including; whiteboard (tutor controlled or shared), polls, screen sharing and breakout rooms as well as the standard chat, audio, webcam and emojis.
- There’s no restriction on the number of people in a room or session, but connectivity and bandwidth will limit how effective the room is with larger numbers. I have seen sessions running effectively with up to 15 participants though and this is easily enough for a tutor to handle in a single class.
- At present, the length of sessions is being restricted to 60mins and you can not record the sessions (though prior to the COVID crisis this was possible). If you were using it as a plugin to your own Moodle environment, then these restrictions would be unlikely to apply.
- The interface for BigBlueButton is very easy to use for both teachers and students and there should be too many surprises if you have used other virtual classrooms or webinar platforms. To my knowledge, there is no dedicated app for running BigBlueButton on mobile, but it should work within the mobile browser, though screen size may be an issue.
This is the simplest of all the solutions here and a great free option if you only want to have small classes and one-to-one lessons.
- Whereby opens in the web browser and you can very simply create a video-conferencing room and send the link to your students.
- Better still if you register on the site for free you can create a named room that you can keep and lock when you are not there and open when you want to let your students in. Locking once they are in will stop any other intruders from entering.
- Whereby enables screen sharing, text and video chat for up to 4 people on the free version. If you are willing to pay around $10 a month you can have 3 branded rooms and up to 12 students in each.
- You can also share links through the text chat function. Whereby works well in the mobile browser, but there is also a free app you can download for it.
- This is a great free and easy solution if you are just doing one-to-one or small classes.
GoBrunch is a fantastic resource if you are thinking about large scale webinar type lessons as well as smaller classroom-type meetings. It’s a free resource developed for the education community and has a few rather unique characteristics.
- The interface is very simple to use but is based on a floor plan backdrop. You click on a seat and your profile image appears there. This makes it much easier to see who is in the sessions than the more traditional virtual platform.
- When you open your webcam or screen share you can drag these windows around to any convenient space, so it’s very fluid and nice to be able to share your screen and your webcam at the same time.
- When you want to create a lesson you can either create a meeting which opens instantly, or you can schedule a webinar for a specific time.
- Webinars can be recorded and the recordings can be made available to the GoBrunch community or to any of your students.
- You can also go and find webinars that have been or are being presented by other people.
- GoBrunch was created in Brazil so many of the webinars are in Portuguese, but they are becoming more international as the resource grows in popularity. This is a really versatile free platform for small scale classes or large scale (500+) lectures.
I haven’t tried this with anyone yet, but I like the concept a lot. It’s a video conferencing room that runs in the browser and you can make yourself available to chat.
- Students can go to the room and leave you a message if you’re not there and they can subscribe to get a notification of when you are available to answer questions, etc.
- It might even be a nice way to support parents without committing too much time or raising the expectation that you are available 24/7.
- Once you mark yourself available online they will get a notification or anyone who drops by can come in for a chat.
- The room works very much like Whereby and has screen sharing video, audio and text chat and you can decide how long the session lasts for.
- This is a nice way to offer support to your students and/or their parents but still maintain some control over how much time they take up and when you want to be available.
- Remotehour works well in the mobile phone browser too.
- You can see how it looks by clicking on my own room link here.
Callaba is similar to Whereby. It’s a very simple browser-based chat room that you can create instantly without registering.
- It’s very feature light and has text chant which you can use to share attachments.
- There is no screen sharing, breakout rooms and no whiteboard, but it is very simple and quick to use so could be useful if you want to do one-to-one tutorials or deal with quick questions or problems.
Xroom is also similar to Whereby. It has a few more features than Callaba.io and can enable screen sharing too.
- One nice feature is that there is a streaming mode with means you can give lecture/webinar type presentations from the platform without the constraint of limited numbers and anyone you share the link with can watch your stream.
As you can see Zoom isn’t the only option you have if you want to deliver live online learning. So be prepared to try out some alternatives and try to enjoy the learning experience.
If you are looking for a fully online, internationally-recognised TEFL qualification, find out more about the Oxford TEFL 100% Online CELTA course. Save €100 (€50 each) when enrolling with a friend.
If you are already a teacher and you would like to develop your skills by learning to teach English effectively online, find out more about the Oxford TEFL Teaching English Online course.
Nik Peachey is a freelance writer, teacher trainer and consultant specialising in digital publishing, online course development and the development of digital resources for teachers. Since 1992 he has worked all over the world as a teacher, trainer and project manager. He was Global Head of Learning for Macmillan’s online English school EnglishUp from 2014 to 2016. In 2016 he won his second British Council Award for Innovations (ELTon) and co-founded PeacheyPublications Ltd.