For many of us, it’s been a while since our teaching world got turned upside down and we found ourselves moving from a physical classroom to online lessons in a matter of hours. It feels like a lifetime ago since we were left wondering what the best practice for online teaching was. In this initial online period, often referred to as the period of emergency remote teaching (ERT), the best advice for running a smooth lesson included such sage things as to ensure you have a good microphone and lighting.
Fast forward to the present day and we’re moving out of the ERT situation and gaining confidence in our online teaching. In this light, I asked a number of teachers around the world what advice they would now give for ensuring the smooth running of online lessons. From what they told me I have collated the top ten tips to help your online lessons run smoothly.
1. Manage the technical stuff
Just because we are now more settled into the online rhythm doesn’t mean we should get overconfident with how things work. As such the initial advice of check your sound and video, make sure your internet connection is stable, still hold true. As many of us have learned just because things worked in one lesson it doesn’t mean they will in the next, so always check. If you’re just beginning with online lessons then follow some basic rules:
- If you can, make sure you have a quiet, uncluttered space that you can run your lessons from. It should have good lightening so that when you are on webcam you can be seen clearly.
- Be as close to your internet router as you can. If you have the possibility of using a cable for your internet then do as this can give you a more consistent connection.
- Wear headphones when you’re teaching as this will cut down feedback caused by you and your students having their mics on. Encourage students to wear them as well.
- Before your first lesson, familiarise yourself with the platform you are using. While platforms vary in their functionality, for your first lesson make sure you know how to switch on sound and vision, use the chatbox, and share your screen. This last one will mean you can show materials to the students.
- Don’t worry about becoming a platform expert overnight, it is more important to make sure both you and your students feel comfortable with the key features. To that end, use your first lesson to teach students how the room is used, don’t assume they will simply work it out. If you’re looking for more support in this area there are a plethora of resources on the Internet though you could start with OUP’s digital teaching resources.
2. Assume the students are not tech-savvy
To quote a teacher in Portugal, “Just because you’ve spent the last 7 months in online lessons, becoming tech-savvy, don’t presume your learners have!” Always make sure in first classes that you give the students the language they need to operate i.e. “How do I turn on my camera?”. Make sure you’ve explained or introduced any new tools or features of the room before the students are set a language task.
3. Expect the unexpected
Rather like falsely assuming your mic and camera will always work, it would be wrong not to be ready for the unexpected. You never know what the online classroom might throw up. For example, what happens if the students’ connections are having a slow internet day? Is there a low-tech solution? You could send any lesson materials in advance so the students have the chance to get and access them before the lesson begins.
4. Adopt a positive mindset
Many teachers still yearn to be back in the same physical space as their students and continue to find the lack of proximity a major hurdle to their lessons. However, a positive mindset will rub off on everyone in a lesson and as a result should make the lesson smoother. To aid that make sure you aren’t trying too hard, teachers often seek lesson perfection and then dwell on any aspect in a lesson that didn’t quite get to that level, overlooking the many things that went well.
5. Write it down
This is a multi-layered tip. First, it refers to planning. While many of you are bound to make detailed plans already think in the planning stage about elements that encourage the students to talk. One thing you’ve probably noticed is that your online lessons have been quite teacher-led, so now is the time to think about creating opportunities for the students to speak and interact more.
Next, it refers to physically writing it down for students. Have you noticed in a lesson when you rely on oral instructions that you have to repeat it so many times and still not everyone gets it? So, have written instructions to put on-screen to aid your words. You can have these on a slide that you can display by screen share at the appropriate moment.
And last but not least, write it down refers to making use of written comments. Though you’re meeting in a virtual classroom there are still many ways writing is used in your lesson. For starters there is the chatbox, ensure you reply to comments and answer questions in the chatbox so the students feel acknowledged. If your room allows it, use private messaging to do things like praise a student or give them extra support. Furthermore, if you use an external collaboration tool like a Google Doc or a discussion board, leave comments there so the students know the teacher is ‘there’ if needed.
6. Use your classroom tools purposefully
In other words, don’t confuse technology with teaching. A lot was made at the beginning of ERT about what virtual rooms can do and what tools can be added to them. It perhaps led teachers to the expectation that lessons needed to be all bells and whistles. While you’re probably ready to do this now, do remember that your room tools should be used purposefully. For example, there is arguably no point in putting people in and out of breakout rooms for short tasks. While you might feel like this brings a more student-centred lesson, you’re in fact making for a very stop-start sort of lesson and inadvertently giving over a lot of time to managing the classroom. One longer meaningful task will ensure more time for the students to meaningfully work together.
Whatever external tools you choose, stick with them. There is nothing wrong with using the same tool, in fact, the more you use it the more the students get to know it and the smoother the lesson becomes. Chopping and changing to try and utilise the current tool of fashion just leads to confused students and dedicating lesson time to showing how the tool works rather than getting on with the teaching.
7. The whiteboard is your friend
A small confession here, I struggle with online whiteboards. They are difficult to write on, I forget to give students the permission to use it and it often means stopping the sharing of one screen to share another. All things which can affect the smoothness of my lessons. However, rather than simply avoid them I am trying to make them my friend.
Since I tend to use a slide deck I’ve learned to include white slides amongst my deck that I can use as aboard. This eliminates the need to switch back and forth. I can also prepare slides as boards making me feel more prepared. Other teachers have achieved the same by using external whiteboard sites (easy to find with a quick internet search) or using a shared document. Additionally, to quote a teacher in Ukraine “a virtual board makes lessons more visual”. What’s more, you can usually save your board for future reference and to be used as a revision tool in a future lesson.
8. Keep them focused
Let’s face it even in the physical classroom, keeping kids focused is often a challenge and online this is amplified. One technique for dealing with this is to use visual cues at different points of the lesson to check the kids are still following along and not doing something. The visual clue should be a signal or action that you do at various points in the lesson and everyone has to copy as quickly as possible.
If ERT was about a quick transformation from face to face to online, now it is perhaps time to think about how we can effectively maximise educational opportunities. A way to do this is to go beyond the lesson and turn the class into a community. Some of the teachers who sent me tips talked about how they’ve used instant messengers to create groups to allow students to discuss things like language issues and homework problems outside of class. By doing so they feel the virtual classes have run a lot more effectively. This might not be suitable for every teacher so another option is to look into asynchronous areas that can have running discussion boards and be used to distribute work.
Not everything has to be done through the live online class, especially as there is so much to achieve within that time anyway. This will help with the community aspect and it does make language learning fairer for your students. Not all are comfortable synchronously and not everyone has the same access abilities to be online at the same time. Planning lessons that utilise various online means should lead to an all-round better learning experience.
10. Find a teachers’ room
At first glance, you might wonder how this will make your lessons run smoothly, however despite being tenth on the list it was the most submitted piece of advice. Not only are teachers missing their classrooms but they’re missing their staffrooms as well. The place they go to find support and get stuff off their chest. It’s important for both well-being and to keep the positive mindset suggested in tip 4. Looking after oneself and having good support is a fundamental step in ensuring you’re an effective educator. Teaching from home can bring a sense of isolation so if you can, find a place to act as your teachers’ room, be it the various ELT groups on social media, joining one of the many online events that ELT organisations are running or making use of initiatives like the IATEFL BESIG online breakroom where teachers can drop by and chat.
My thanks to all the teachers that gave me their advice to use.
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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.