Online learning is a reality we’ve been living for a while and its flipside – online teaching – is worthwhile paying closer attention. In this issue, our new blogger Joanna Malefaki and two of our very own Advanced Course trainers, Katherine Bilsborough and Patrice Palmer, share their invaluable experience and advice on how to be successful online teachers.
In June 2016 I taught my first ever fully-online course for teachers. The course was directed at teachers who were interested in learning more about how to create ELT materials. When I’d originally agreed to design and deliver the course, I hadn’t really given it much thought. After all, I’d done webinars before and wasn’t this just a series of 4 webinars with a few other bits in between? As the starting date loomed, I began giving more thought to what would actually be involved and realised that (for me at least) the webinar parts would be reasonably straightforward. It was the bits in between that required some consideration. My previous, relevant experience included:
writing online materials;
being an online student on a 12-week course in 2006;
using collaborative hangouts while working on projects with multiple authors;
having regular Skype or phone meetings with co-writers and editors;
designing and delivering face-to-face courses for teachers;
being the parent of a son who was doing an online degree and was giving me regular updates on what he hated and what he loved about each aspect of it.
I wondered how much of this experience would be of help when the course kicked off. As it turned out, I drew on reserves from all of these sources. But what really facilitated my first experience as an online tutor was my decision to enroll as a participant on an online e-Moderation course that was running simultaneously. Some might say the timing wasn’t thought out well but, as it turned out, the timing was perfect. After fine-tuning the skills of time management, the situation offered me a unique opportunity to (a) put much of what I was learning on the e-Moderation course into immediate practice and (b) have a ready-made support system of expertise (my tutor) should I run into difficulties. I kept a journal through the month of June, recordings highs and lows and making a note of any revelations. There were lots! But for this post I’ve chosen six which I’ve presented as useful tips below.
Extracts from reflective journal and tips to would-be online tutors
Today I received a pre-course questionnaire to complete from my tutor on the e-Moderation course. What a great idea! It made me feel (a) welcome and (b) that they really cared about who I was and where I was coming from. I’m not just a reference number on an Excel sheet! They will use the information I give them to better address my particular needs. They’ll know which things I might be worried about (Have I got enough time? Will I be able to get my head around the ‘technology’ side of things?) and they’ll advise me accordingly. Tomorrow I’m going to design a pre-course questionnaire for the participants on my course! Copy cat? Of course.
Tip 1: Build in a pre-course element to your course to find out valuable information about participants.
I’ve had a look around the platform of my E-Moderation course and I love the fact that there are defined areas and forums for different activities, actions, and interactions. It reminds me of a real world learning environment with classrooms, a library, a café for informal chats, and so on. I wonder whether there are any other spaces out there in the world of VLPs (virtual learning platforms) that have yet to be considered. I’m thinking a virtual cinema might be a good idea with a selection of topic-related videos. Maybe it’s already been done. The course I’m giving has fewer places to hang out but that isn’t a problem. In fact, for me right now, it’s a good thing. We’ve got all the spaces we need and in this particular case, less is definitely more.
Tip 2: Do a needs analysis that focuses on which spaces are necessary for a particular course.
And we’re off
Today I wrote my first comment in a discussion thread on my E-moderation course. It felt a bit scary, to be honest. I don’t want my fellow participants or tutor to think I’m stupid. I was thrilled (and relieved) to get a swift response from my tutor. The content of the response gave me confidence, and the fact that he didn’t make me wait too long reassured me that he was there and really interested in our thoughts and opinions. Note to self: I must show that I have read the contributions from my own course participants and sooner is better than later.
Tip 3: Let your presence be felt in discussions and forums! Even a single word sends a message that you are there … and listening. It’s probably better to make frequent short visits to the forum rather than longer, less frequent ones.
We’ve been given a short writing assignment that is really motivating because it allows us to focus on something personal of our choice. I already know what I’m going to write about and I’m intrigued at the thought of what my colleagues will write. What a great way to get us motivated. I’ve decided to invite my participants to share something personal, too: a photograph of a person, a place or a thing that inspires them … The results have been overwhelming – lots of beautiful photos of all kinds of things that help us all learn a little bit more about each other. I’ve figured out who the cat and dog people are! One participant made my day when she wrote “Thank you for this opportunity to share photos. It’s lovely to get a glimpse into the lives of my colleagues and learn a Little bit more about them. ”
Tip 4: Create opportunities for sharing something personal … but make sure personalisn’tintrusive! The key is in giving participants choices, either in whether to share or not … or in what they feel comfortable sharing.
I’d been intrigued at the prospect of interaction on an online course, especially ways of setting up pair work and group work. We’ve had two different kinds of group tasks on the e-Moderation course so far and both were inspiring. One involved a chain of turn-taking and it made me realise the importance of participants actively … ehm …participating! In this kind of activity, you only need one learner to obstruct the process and the whole thing breaks down. It’s probably a good idea to spell this out at the beginning of the course. Make sure participants (a) understand the importance of active participation in collaborative tasks and (b) have communication pathways to let you know about any potential problems with collaborating. I’ve looked ahead at a third group task and am now convinced that any face-to-face interaction can be mirrored in an online course. In the course that I’m running, I’ve stayed away from explicit pair and group tasks but – human nature being the way it is – I’ve noticed partnerships forming between like-minded participants who are making plans to collaborate on future projects. This is heart-warming. I know that since the course ended, several partnerships have been set up between course participants including a joint blog and some self-publishing ventures.
Tip 5: Make sure participants know not only what to expect of the course but also exactly what is expected of them for the duration of the course. Giving them the reasons behind these expectations is also a good idea. Sometimes what is obvious to a tutor might be a mystery to a learner.
A final few words
To conclude I’d like to encourage those teachers considering teaching online to give it a go. Online teaching offers all kinds of exciting new opportunities for those prepared to grasp them.
Tip 6: If you are thinking of being an online tutor, become an online learner! You might like to enroll on an e-Moderation course as I did or you could find something completely unrelated to teaching. Keep a reflective journal. I’m sure it will come in handy when you eventually decide to take the plunge.
To say that the education field often undergoes change is an understatement. Many of the recent changes relate to technology in teaching and learning. Initially, I felt that ESL could only be taught face to face, however now I have a different view based on my own personal experience. I think teachers can be open-minded to any change when we see the benefits for our students. This was key for me.
A few years ago, the college that I was working at announced in May that it would transition to becoming a “blended learning” institute the following September. This meant that students would have both face-to-face classes and online activities. At the time, I was very skeptical about teaching English for Academic Purposes in this format, and also overwhelmed with the thought of adapting both my teaching approach and materials to a blended format. I also wondered how students could possibly learn and improve their language skills without all of us physically being in the same room.
The fall semester was rocky in that many of my international students were unfamiliar with logging in to the college platform to find course outlines, email their instructors, and locate information related to assignments and assessments. So much class time was spent helping students to navigate a absolutely new learning environment. Instead of us teachers providing handouts for students, they were asked to read and sometimes print off learning plans, readings, and other handouts before classes. As a result, many came to class without the required materials so it was often impossible to teach what was planned on that day. The photocopying allotment for each teacher per semester was cut to less than 500 sheets. In classes with 40-50 students, teachers would quickly exceed their limit. It was a stressful time for both instructors and students.
You would think that this experience would make me shy away from teaching online courses, but it did not. Slowly, I began to see the benefits for both instructors and students. For example, the online assignments helped to reinforce material. Content was covered in class for each 2-hour lesson, and then materials were uploaded for reference. For example, if I were teaching essay writing, I would provide a sample after class. Writing that was completed outside of class could be checked for common errors using Spellcheck and Grammarcheck. For quiet students, the chance to interact online was a perfect alternative. Lively discussion ensued online which I believe would not have happened in a classroom setting. Discussion boards provided students with an opportunity to ask questions, help each other out, practice their writing and communication skills, and gain more comfort navigating the course platform.
Once I felt comfortable with teaching online, I started to look for other opportunities. As a result, I now teach two TESL courses for a college located in another city. If the courses were only offered face to face, I would be unable to travel to that city and students from all over the province would be unable to obtain a TESL credential. Since we can’t meet face to face for practice teaching, students record their teaching at home and upload their videos to the course platform. Having a video of one’s teaching also helps new teachers reflect on their skills. It is also beneficial for me because there is always an odd student who challenges me on their grade, and then I have a chance to go back and review a particular part of the lesson if necessary.
Learning to be an ESL teacher online presents some challenges but there are more and more technology tools available to create an interactive environment. For instance, I frequently record videos using Vimeo and post them to provide clarity or general feedback on assignments, and like to use voice recording software available inside the course platforms to leave comments on assessments.
In addition to teaching the TESL course, I have also had experience teaching a well-designed university-level academic writing course online. Each week students were introduced to a writing technique and submitted an assignment to practice and demonstrate their learning. Overall, students did very well in the course, and I could see the importance of developing essay writing skills over a 12-week period. For example, students submitted a draft and then a final piece of writing after receiving feedback which facilitated their learning. I also appreciated having all of the course materials including rubrics prepared by the Department and uploaded before I started teaching. This gave me more time to grade assignments and provide robust feedback which is so important to improve one’s writing.
Despite the benefits outlined, I do believe that teaching online requires much more time for both students and teachers. It should not be seen as an “easy way” to either take a class or teach one. Online courses are not for everyone but before you say “no”, keep an open mind. I am glad that I did because it has opened many new teaching opportunities, including an online course that I will be teaching for iTDi.pro in January 2017!
I have been teaching online for more than 3 years and now I am a full time online teacher. When I started off, I thought my biggest challenges would be how to deal with tech issues or how to turn a Word document into a Pdf file. In fact, when you read about challenges of teaching online, you usually read about how hard it is to find students, how there may be technology problems, how difficult it is to start, and so on. I know about this because in the beginning, those were the “obstacles” I had to overcome. But those, in my opinion, are not the biggest challenges of teaching online. For me, the difficulties go beyond work and actually affect me as a person.
Rarely do you read about a different sort of problems a teacher may have when teaching online: challenges of being on your own, working from home, or how easy it is to become a workaholic. That’s what I want to focus on in my post, because if you ask me today, 3 years after I first started teaching online, what the hardest thing about it is, I’ll tell you it’s anything that has to do with psychology and well- being.
Most teachers work and then think about work. When you are not teaching, you often think about work. You take work home. When you teach online, home is also work. Working from home of course has its benefits: you work from the comfort of your home, you save money on commuting, and so on. At the same time though, your office, your work space is at home, too, which means that you do not physically leave any building to “go home.” Having boundaries and knowing how to switch off is extremely difficult when you are an online teacher because your work is staring you in the face. Allowing you to leave “work” and go “home” – probably a different room – is extremely hard. This can easily lead to burnout… because work is everywhere!
Another challenge of online teaching is the feeling of isolation. When you go to a school or an academy to teach, you have colleagues, someone to talk to exchange ideas about work, complain, and have a laugh during the break. When you teach online and work from home, you do not have that. You are on your own. Sure, you can use Facebook or other social media to connect with teachers, but the truth is, you are on your own, there is no human contact and you do miss the “office.” In fact, there may be days when you do not even leave the house!
As much as work is important, drawing the line is essential. An online teacher needs to be very disciplined about that and try to find reasons to draw the line and avoid turning into a workaholic. You, the online teacher, need to say to yourself that you will spend X amount of time in front of your computer and that’s it. After that time, you need to leave your “work.” It is also necessary to find reasons to leave the house. Most people go from work home and vice versa. In your case, you do not do that, so you need to find hobbies and activities that will make you leave the house.
Connecting with people who also teach online and using instant messaging may give a sense of not being “isolated.” Let other teachers know you teach online and start forming connections with people in the same position as you. You will definitely find that you share some of the same challenges and maybe something helpful will come out of this.
Whilst teaching online can be challenging, it still is a great way to do what you love – teach. You just need to be more focused about getting out of the “teacher zone.” Happy teaching!