Teaching online: A checklist for a ‘live’ lesson
By Anastasiya Shalamay
As the coronavirus crisis is unfolding, teaching online is gaining immense popularity. Teachers all over the world are transferring their face-to-face classes into an online environment, typically an online conferencing tool, to run synchronous live lessons as if they were taking place in a real class.
While this type of teaching is quite different from ‘traditional’ online teaching and doesn’t really make use of all the numerous advantages the latter can offer (you’re welcome to read my article in issue №128 of English Teaching Professional on the differences between the two), it still remains the most realistic, appropriate, and hence the best option for now. But with so little time available for teacher training, what should experienced face-to-face teachers pay attention to when they’re forced to start teaching online overnight?
Here is some advice based on my own online teaching, training and course design experience, as well as observing other online teachers at work.
1. Planning and resources
Explore the software you’ll be using (Zoom, Google Hangouts, WebRoom, etc.) and introduce your students to it
Practise first – run demo sessions with your colleagues or family and friends. Don’t assume that your students will find the app intuitively clear and remember that face-to-face students are often biased against online learning, which is why they’ve chosen a face-to-face course in the first place. To help them in the beginning, consider publishing a pdf guide, recording an introduction video or running a separate training session with your group. Think of mini-tasks your students should complete (write something in the chat, raise their hand, etc.). To prevent technical problems, don’t forget to check the materials and settings before each class and think what you’re going to do if something goes wrong. Connecting with your mobile phone as a student to check what your learners can see is also a good idea.
Choice of topic
If you’re working with a group who have never studied online, think wisely about what topic to choose for their first online lesson. Two main complaints students often have about ‘live’ online learning are not seeing any point in writing when the teacher can’t check it and being muted most of the time. Therefore, sharing a very long grammar presentation that will leave no time for spoken practice in breakout rooms is definitely not a good idea. How about speaking to help the students get to know each other?
Basic classroom management and rapport
If you’re working online with your regular face-to-face students, you’re lucky to have already established rapport with them. However, meeting a group online is a different experience. While most face-to-face ice breakers can be adapted for an online environment, what matters more is explaining why it’s so important to have the students’ cameras on and ensuring that everyone’s going to speak at some point (mute and unmute your students when necessary). With video off, you can neither see if the students are actually working, nor read their facial expressions (boredom, confusion, etc.).
With the wrong choice of topic (such as a long grammar presentation above), the lesson can turn into a very disappointing online learning experience, which you may not even notice since not everyone wants to ask questions in the chat window or ask for help from a breakout room. As for establishing rapport within a group, students do need to see each other on video or photo and have the ‘name under video’ function enabled: imagine your first class as a student trying to talk to a breakout room full of anonymous gray squares, most of whom can’t unmute themselves or are away – and this is a true story!
Stable internet connection
Having your video on is crucial – so is the internet connection that lets it happen. Tip: avoid large classes. Apart from connection issues with having all the cameras on, they are much harder to manage than face-to-face ones and can easily turn into a non-interactive, ‘webinar’ type of teaching – just like lecturing.
Don’t overplan. Whatever you do online takes more time than face-to-face: breakout rooms need some time to open and close, so does typing the answers in the chat.
Choosing activities and planning feedback
Since you’ll want to keep your students muted during the lesson to avoid background noise, you need to think of other ways to engage them: something varied and dynamic. Chat is one of the options, but think how you’re going to make sure that everyone participates. What I do quite often for one-word answers is closing the chat right before asking a question (configuring your hot keys for this is a useful thing), so that I can see the number of new messages received. Enabling ‘message host only’ can also prompt everyone to answer individually rather than wait for others.
Instead of just sharing your screen and letting students make notes that you can’t really check, make the tasks interactive – explore online collaboration tools, such as GoogleDocs and Padlet for a start, or design your tasks in a VLE (Virtual Learning Environment, such as GoogleClassroom, Edmodo or Moodle). Interactive tasks are essential in making your online classes student-centred – avoid long stretches of students’ staring at your shared screen.
Note: there are lots of other tools that you can easily Google depending on your needs, e.g. “create an online crossword”. However, make sure that you really need them first – do they correspond to your lesson or stage aims? Using a word search, board game or anything else only because they seem new and fun isn’t the best use of classroom time.
Clear task setting
In addition to keeping instructions short and checking them, ensure that the students have the task after they’ve moved to a breakout room. Show them how to take screenshots or share the tasks via a link rather than on your screen. Model the task on your own with a strong student by unmuting them, and don’t forget to unmute all the students before you put them into groups. Instructions have to be written, not only spoken – remember that your students can’t see what other students are doing, so they won’t know if they’re on the wrong track. Moreover, you need to make sure that you can reach all the students.
Keeping students muted results in unusual silence that you might want to fill with your teacher talk. Don’t – this stresses online students out even more, since they are forced to listen but can’t say a word. Yes, there’s a ‘go slower’ reaction button in Zoom, but even in a face-to-face class not all the students have the nerve to admit they need help, especially if stronger students have already given the answers. Make longer pauses than usual when you ask questions: due to connection issues students might be 2-3 seconds behind you. Also, unless you’re using a professional headset, the sound of your voice is likely to be much more monotonous than in real life, which also puts extra strain on the listeners.
Boardwork and materials
When students are doing a language exercise in a face-to-face class, they can usually refer to the target language on the board or in their course book. As an online teacher, you need to ensure that that the students can still see the new language when completing practice tasks. Sharing screenshots can get chaotic, so if you’re not using a VLE, consider creating a cloud folder where you’ll be uploading the lesson materials.
Rather than following the coursebook, treat it like a syllabus. Think which tasks the students can complete individually (e.g., reading for detail, writing), and which tasks should be done in class. As a rule of thumb, prioritize speaking, language practice and error correction in online classes.
Feedback on task and error correction
You can give very useful feedback through comments in collaboration tools, which is one more reason to use them, or record longer, spoken feedback using Screencast. As for error correction, most techniques work the same. For delayed correction, I recommend writing down the mistakes first and then muting yourself and typing them up in a GoogleDoc.
3. Developing professionalism
Don’t incorporate too many new tools at once – remember that your students also feel overwhelmed and will need very detailed instructions whenever they’re using a new app.
Record your lessons
If your students don’t mind, recording the lessons can provide you with valuable insights into your online teaching habits.
Observe other teachers and invite them to observe you
Not only will you get new ideas, but it’s also reassuring to see that no-one’s online class is perfect. Most of us have never taught under such stressful conditions, and there are so many things we simply can’t control.
The same, only different.
While most of the planning and teaching principles given above are applicable in both face-to-face and online teaching, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t much to learn. For example, while certain principles might be shared when teaching YLs or Business English, these are clearly different contexts. Moreover, as I mentioned in the beginning, emergency online teaching in the times of the coronavirus doesn’t equal regular online teaching. So, when the quarantine is over and after you’ve enjoyed some good rest, why not get some special training in this area?
There are a lot of options available that I would be happy to recommend, for example:
- IH Certificate in Online Tutoring (https://ihworld.com/teach/ih-online-teacher-training/ih-certificate-in-online-tutoring/)
- A “Teaching Online” course from Cambridge Assessment English (https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/online-tutoring)
- “Take Your Teaching Online” by NILE (https://www.nile-elt.com/courses/course/790/#course_details)
Author's bio: Anastasiya Shalamay is a teacher of English and German, as well as a teacher trainer on Cambridge English’s CELTA and CELT-P/S courses. She is currently based in Europe, where she teaches and trains on both face-to-face and online courses. She also prepares teachers for taking the Cambridge DELTA Module One exam and is pursuing a PhD in ELT methodology. Her interests include teaching ESP and teaching online.