teaching English online

5 skills for teaching online and 1 skill to make you stand out

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Many schools have been forced to move to teaching online with little or no preparation for students and teachers have been, in many cases, left to cope with developing online teaching skills with little or no training.

If you Google ‘disruption’ you’ll see two definitions: The first is “disturbance or problems which interrupt an event, activity, or process.” The second is “radical change to an existing industry or market due to technological innovation.” As an example sentence it gives “No industry is immune to digital disruption.” This couldn’t be more true than in the English language teaching industry over the last year.

In many ways, these changes have been a long time coming. The online English language market has been growing for some time. Now with so many teachers trying to develop online teaching skills and transfer their existing skills, there couldn’t be a better time to gain additional qualifications by enrolling in an online teacher development course.

Some of Oxford TEFL’s very own courses such as the Trinity DipTESOL and teacher development courses have moved completely online whilst continuing to provide the same level of support needed from tutors. Studying online doesn’t need to mean cutting corners or downgrading – quite the opposite, in fact. It can also provide a type of reflection to help us see online training from the student perspective. Personally, I’ve also discovered a lot about my own teaching skills and use of body language and gesture by watching myself during my online training sessions or courses. It’s pushed me to think more carefully about how I use my voice both in the physical and remote classroom and that can only help me to become a better practitioner.

As the manager of a 100% online school where students were able to select their teacher for each lesson, I spent two years analysing data from thousands of remotely delivered lessons to identify what changes online teachers need to be aware of and what skills made some teachers more successful than others. This is what I discovered.

1. Technological

I guess it’s no surprise that the first of these skills is technological. Understanding how the virtual platform works, the possibilities it offers and its limitations is an important part of making the shift to remote teaching. This tends to be something that most online teachers can master pretty quickly. Having time to practice with peers and try out various aspects of the platform can make stepping into the classroom with a class of students much less intimidating, so that’s something I would recommend to any teacher who is about to teach on a new platform for the first time. And, if Zoom or another platform, doesn’t work for you, find another one that does. Read about my 9 free alternatives to Zoom here and find out what hardware and software you need to teach online here.

2. Environmental

This one might be more surprising. Understanding how the physical environment impacts on the remote teaching and learning experience is one aspect that was very commonly overlooked. I found that many online teachers just put their laptop down wherever they were and didn’t stop to consider the impact that bad lighting, background noise and distracting background activity might have on their students.

In some ways I guess many of us are used to poor quality Skype calls with friends or relatives. This did not go down well with paying students and increasingly there is an expectation that you should be delivering your lessons within an environment that conveys a sense of professionalism and isn’t detrimental to students’ ability to see and hear you clearly.

Teaching English online

3. Behavioural

This is something that is often neglected and isn’t just the responsibility of the teacher but also the school. Understanding how student and teacher behaviour can impact on the learning experience is vital to ensuring that students have a safe and stress-free remote learning experience.

Students and online teachers should really know what’s expected of them in terms of their behaviour and the behaviour they can expect from fellow students. Providing a code of conduct that outlines what is and what isn’t acceptable behaviour can make the learning experience much more comfortable for remote teachers and students. Students should be aware of how they can report any behaviour that makes them feel uncomfortable, such as students creating screen shots during class or any form of harassment. They should also understand what the consequences of this kind of behaviour will be. You need remote teachers and students to turn on their webcams and participate fully in their lessons, so it’s important that everyone feels secure and knows that there are rules, just as they do in the physical classroom.

4. Pedagogical

This should come as no surprise. Understanding how to create learning affordances within remote learning environments is very important. The teacher talking time of many teachers when they make the change to online teaching goes up dramatically, so teachers need to learn how to get students interacting with each other in breakout rooms and how to monitor interaction to ensure that lessons don’t turn into lectures with little or no student participation.

Managing students in breakout rooms is a very different skill from managing groups in the physical classroom where it’s very easy to move your attention from one group to another. When teaching in the remote classroom you have to develop strategies for ensuring that students work as a team and monitor and support each other so that the interaction continues in English even when you aren’t in the breakout room with the students. Your lesson content will help with this too of course, so I recommend reading about my tips for developing course content for online courses here.

5. Motivational

Understanding the challenges and skills that can be used to foster motivation in remote teaching contexts is vital for both students and teachers. Motivation works in a very different way in the remote classroom and it’s easy for students to feel a lack of connection to the online teacher and to other students and this can easily lead to a drop in motivation and course dropouts.

Learning how to help students create learning roadmaps and use portfolios and other techniques and tools to identify milestones in their development can help keep students on track and stop them from giving up. It’s also important to give students socialisation time so they can spend time together without the teacher present and just catch up on gossip without the pressure of a task to complete.

Stand out: Interpersonal

Despite the importance of the previous five skills I found that what made the most successful online teachers stand out from the others was their understanding of how communication takes place and relationships are developed in online environments. These online teachers were able to project their warmth and personality through the webcam and quickly build a close and supportive relationship with their students. This led to much higher levels of student-engagement, motivation and learning.

Most of this was made possible by their ability to use their voice and the webcam effectively. Where many online teachers go wrong is that they sit too close to their computer and loom over the webcam with it pointing up at them. Visually this has a similar effect to standing over someone and looking down on them while they are talking. The successful online teachers sat or stood well back from the computer and had the camera at eye level so that their students felt they were making eye contact. Having a greater distance from the camera also made more of the teachers’ body visible and so these online teachers were able to use a wide range of body language and expressive gestures to aid communication when teaching online.

Another place where many online teachers go wrong is not using a headset microphone. Many raise their voice so that the microphone on their computer picks up what they are saying clearly, but to the students this is like the having the teacher constantly shouting at them and that can be very unpleasant to listen to for a whole hour. The successful online teachers used a microphone on a headset so that they could vary the volume and tone of their voice for different stages or functions of the lesson, in the same way that they would in the physical classroom. For example, when giving instructions to the whole class, you speak clearly and assertively, but when giving feedback to an individual student while monitoring you adopt a more friendly and consultative tone.

Another online teaching skill that made some online teachers more successful and engaging was their understanding of space and proximity, and their ability to use the space the webcam provides more dynamically.  Online teachers who were further back from the camera and especially those teaching standing up were able to expand the field of vision the camera provides and use proximity to the camera to signpost particular parts of the lesson in a similar way that they do in a physical classroom. They would step out of frame to give students space to talk together or do thinking activities. They would move in closer to the screen to attract students’ attention they would stand back so that they could use hand gestures when presenting or giving instructions.

All of these skills together made their lessons far more dynamic and engaging and made them far more similar to a physical classroom experience.

Final thoughts

As online teachers we should be well aware that a large part of communication is enabled through visual and non-verbal features, but for some reason when we make the move to the online classroom, we forget much of this and become self-conscious of the camera and afraid to work with it.  Most of us would never think of sitting statically at our desk at the front of the physical classroom and yet when we enter the online classroom it is staggering how few online teachers actually move during their lessons.

Learning or relearning the skills to teach successfully within the online classroom can be a challenge for many online teachers. It requires us to re-evaluate what has become instinctive for us and to look again at what has become ritualized practice. For online teachers who are willing to engage in this challenge, the process can be very rewarding.

If you would like to develop your online teaching skills, obtain an advanced qualification in ELT fully online and learn from our expert tutors, including Adrian Underhill, Scott Thornbury and Nicola Meldrum you could consider our Trinity DipTESOL course. Get in touch with us to find out more or apply here.

If you are looking for a way to gain more confidence teaching English online and specialise in a specific area of ELT, you could consider one of our 30-hour online teacher development courses with expert tutor support.

For more articles, resources and tips on teaching check our Nik Peachey’s blog here.

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