As an unprecedented virus makes its way around the world playing havoc with teachers’ schedules, educators are looking into how to use technology as a way of filling the gap left by the closure of many schools. If you’re one of them then the first question you need to ask yourself is do you want to fill that gap in a synchronous or asynchronous way. Or in other words, do you want to use online teaching to get the class together at the same time in a virtual classroom (synchronous) or are will you be sending out work to the students to do in their own time and report back (asynchronous). In this post, I’ll give you some advice about getting started synchronously.
Choosing a platform to communicate with your students
The first question is probably what software are you going to use. There are many platforms to choose from, each with their own advantages and disadvantages, and going over each would make for a very long post. Given that you probably need to move quickly don’t have much time for training, I imagine you need something relatively simple. You could, for example, simply use Skype; it allows for video, text chat, screen sharing, and recording. Additional features like ‘meet now’ would allow you to put all your students in one group. The downside though is that not everyone uses Skype and it can lead to the sharing of contact details.
If your school uses Google Classroom then you can use Google Hangouts which you will find as part of that. Zoom, a platform many schools I’ve been working with have turned to this week, is free to use for 40 minutes but for large classes, a school will need paid accounts. One advantage of it is that people simply click on a link to join, and it has a feature called breakout rooms to use for pair and group work, plus you can make different ‘rooms’ useful for different classes. What I like about Zoom is that it has so much support online that it is easy to get started. I am not endorsing any of these platforms, in particular, just pointing out that they’re free. There are many more but whichever you choose, first and foremost in your mind will be “what best fits the needs of my students?”
Additional technology you’ll need
Aside from an online teaching platform, what else do you need? Well, a good internet connection helps. These days we are all used to WiFi and this will usually do, but if you can attach your computer to a cabled network this will make for much better stability. Bear in mind also that, depending on your countries situation, the internet is getting heavily used. If everyone is confined to their homes then naturally they’re all online and this can cause a bit of slow down here and there.
Your computer probably already has a built-in camera and you’ll need that as students will want to see you. Will you want to see them? If so, then they will need cameras too. However, bear in mind it is the camera that takes up a lot of the bandwidth in a connection so too many cameras could lead to issues. As well as seeing you, students will need to hear you and you hear them. While computers have built-in mics, I strongly recommend you use a headset. The one you got with your mobile phone will do the trick. The advantages of headsets are two-fold; the mic is closer to your mouth and more importantly everyone wearing headphones will limit the amount of feedback that can be caused by everyone having a mic on.
Getting set up to teach your first online teaching lesson
My final tip for getting started is to consider where you are going to teach from. As many of you are possibly being confined to homes, think about where you are going to sit. You need to be away from distractions such as pets or kids. Being on camera you also need to make sure that what’s behind you doesn’t give away anything private about you. Finally, you need to make sure that your chosen location has a good light source.
Once you’re set up and ready to go, take some time to have a play around your platform. Push some buttons, see what things do. Don’t be afraid, it’s pretty hard to break an online classroom. You can also use your platform to meet up with your colleagues. Not only will this give you an idea of what’s it like to have a class but working together lets you share advice. You can set each other quizzes to test how well you can do things, i.e. ‘how do you turn on the mic’, ‘can you show how to use the whiteboard’ and so on. My one extra tip here is don’t try and learn everything in one go. Keep the first lessons as simple as you can.
From this not only will you feel more confident but you’ll also be to help students when they first come to the platform. Additionally, if you write down some of the answers you can turn them into a ‘getting started’ information sheet that you can send to students. It can also help you come up with some classroom rules. For example, when you’re not speaking turn off your mic or, if you want to speak, put up your hand first.
Get practical tips for planning your online language lessons in part 2 of my online teaching guide here!
Please visit our Learn at Home page to find online teaching resources and activities to help teachers, parents and students get the most out of learning at home:
Shaun Wilden is the Academic Head of training and development for the International House World Organisation and a freelance teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer. He currently specialises in technology and language teaching, especially in the area of mobile learning. His latest book “Mobile Learning” was published in 2017 by OUP. He is a trustee of IATEFL and also on the committee of the Learning technologies special interest group. He makes the TEFL commute podcast for teachers.