Daniel Lawrence is a freelance online English teacher, materials creator and translator. He is also one of our Trinity CertTESOL and Trinity DipTESOL graduates. After three years of teaching in private language schools in Catalonia – where he still lives – he began working from home with one-to-one learners online and is now our Teaching English Online tutor. In this blog post, he describes the hardware and software needed to get started teaching English online.
The resources you need for teaching online are like anything else in teaching: it all depends on what your students ask for! If you sign up with an agency that recruits online teachers – whether for business English classes or groups of young learners – your customer will give you an idea of what videoconferencing software they wish to use. One-to-one learners may not be so prescriptive, but as their teacher, you should be ready to use whatever hardware and software meets their needs. In fact, you’ll probably end up being an IT advisor, when the signal fails on the app they insist on using!
This article looks at the essential kit you’ll need if you’re thinking of setting yourself up as an online teacher. It will cover hardware, then software, roughly in order of importance, with a few extras at the end which could be handy to have. It goes without saying that the better the quality you go for, the more professional an impression you will give to your students.
A stable internet connection
If it’s not teaching grandma to suck eggs, you won’t keep your online students for long if you have to abandon lessons because the connection’s down. Clearly, what counts as quality varies widely around the world, but talk to your internet provider about how to maximise the speed of the service – for example, by using a desktop computer with a cable attached to the router, rather than wifi.
Your students will attempt to attend lessons from anywhere – I’ve had them walking from the office to the metro and sitting on a disused escalator in a shopping centre – but you can’t get away with things like that as a teacher. Those images of the online teacher doing it from a sun lounger by the Caribbean are a bit far-fetched! Your stable internet connection should be in a quiet, well-lit, professional-looking place.
You’ll also need a back-up plan for when the internet does go down – which will happen. The data on your mobile phone probably isn’t steady (or cheap) enough to sustain whole lessons, but it’ll do for communicating with your students in an emergency. So, if you’re one of the minority who doesn’t yet have a smartphone – like I was before I taught online – your flip-shut Nokia’s days are probably numbered. On which note …
A range a devices: desktop computer, laptop, tablet and smartphone
Yes, all of them! The best-case scenario is to do all your classes on a desktop computer, giving you maximum potential to multi-task and access resources both online and in your ever-expanding materials folder, both before and during lessons. This should be your set-up for your main ‘classroom’ at home. No matter how good touchscreen devices are getting, there’s no match for a desktop computer – preferably with a massive screen, or even two screens, so you can keep an eye on your student all the time, even while opening and sharing other things.
Although the needs of our students are the start, middle and end-goal of everything we do, don’t forget to put your own working conditions first. When you work for a company, they have a legal responsibility to ensure that your workstation is good for your posture, that you are allowed regular breaks, and that you have someone to talk to about occupational health. None of this is done for you when you’re working from home, and you overlook them at your peril. Don’t do your lessons hunched over a laptop or squinting at a tiny smartphone screen. It’s not good for you.
Having said that, it’s worth having those other devices as a back-up, or for those occasions when you’re travelling and you know the internet signal will be reliable enough to work – for example, at your mother’s house. There are also occasions when the software a particular student wants to use requires you to do it using an app on your phone – see the software section below.
Headphones and a microphone – preferably in an all-in-one headset
Don’t rely on any device’s built-in microphone and speakers, since these can produce howl-round and be surprisingly effective at picking up background noise, which will be distracting for your students. In many cases, this is exactly what they will be using, and it will be a job to hear and understand them. For this reason, a pair of headphones that fully covers your ears will help you enormously. To give them the best chance of understanding you, avoid using in-ear headphones with a microphone dangling halfway down the lead, since this can rub against your clothing and make you difficult to hear. Get the microphone as close to your mouth as you can.
A (detachable) webcam
Although most devices have a perfectly adequate built-in webcam, the set-up recommended above for use in most lessons – the desktop computer – doesn’t tend to, so you’ll need to install one. Unlike the considerations of sound, the student just needs to be able to see you clearly – but not in Hollywood-level high-definition – so if you’re concerned about budget, you really don’t need to worry about going top-notch here. Obviously, try before you buy if you can, and check what you look like by doing a test call with a friend and getting them to record what they see (or better still, have them in a different room so you can swap places and see your own live webcam picture).
Investigate how versatile your webcam is in terms of moving it around the room. If you’re teaching young learners, you might want to do a lot of Total Physical Response, or just get them moving – and leap about with them – to keep them engaged. Moreover, leaving aside the pedagogical theory, in the interests of your posture, you could avoid hours of back-to-back sitting by standing up for some or all of your class time. This has implications for what your student sees, so have various places in which to put your webcam so that you can do this.
A mouse and a keyboard
For those times when you can’t use your desktop, connect a standalone mouse and keyboard to your laptop or tablet. They make you far more adept in terms of switching between tabs, copying and pasting previously prepared text, highlighting and correcting errors and – sorry to bang on about this – maintain a good posture at your workstation!
A CD/DVD drive
One of the biggest challenges when teaching online is giving yourself the opportunity to do everything that you would do if it were a face-to-face classroom. You won’t even think of half these things until you want to do them and can’t, but the one thing that I’ve found needs even more preparation than in traditional contexts is how to use listening material.
Most videoconferencing software enables sound-sharing, so you shouldn’t have a problem playing audio to your students, but it’s where you play it from that deserves thought. We’ll look at using authentic sources online in the nice-to-have section at the end, but if you’re likely to use anything from a published coursebook, it will probably still be on CD for a few years yet, and you’ll be lucky if your devices have the built-in capacity to play them. Don’t try playing audio from a CD drive ‘live’ during the lesson, since they can be temperamental, but make a copy to keep with your lesson material and play during the class.
Note that we’re not endorsing any software – or the opposite! The following is based on what students typically want or need to use, and some reflection on how useful they are for teaching. You can get a free version of most of it, though the small (tax-deductible!) investment of a paid package will give you more potential.
Skype – and other videoconferencing software, e.g. Zoom
Skype has become the go-to software for videoconferencing – and is now even a verb for the very idea of it! Most one-to-one students will expect to use it, at least to start with, so if you’re not familiar with Skype, play around with the settings, know how to change the microphone input – which can miraculously change for no apparent reason between one call and another – familiarise yourself with what every single button and icon does, just in case the student doesn’t know and you have to talk them through something, such as sharing their screen with you.
Zoom is a good alternative, and far better for doing more than conversation and making straightforward text notes. There’s a whiteboard in the screensharing options, which all participants can write on, and a ‘break-out room’ facility where the teacher can put students into small groups (and also monitor them with or without their knowledge). Note that you’ll need a paid account to make class-length calls with more than one student at a time, though for one-to-one purposes, there’s no such restriction.
Voice calling/messaging apps for mobile-use only
As mentioned in the hardware section, many students will do their lessons on their phone, and sometimes the signal just works better on one platform than another. Even if you think you know how to use them, look online at what video tutorials people have made: you’ll always discover something valuable! Did you know, for example, that you can make a WhatsApp call on your phone while also using WhatsApp Web to give writing guidance or error correction via the chat box on your desktop!
Bear in mind, too, that some countries block certain software, so a student in China will likely want to use WeChat, while someone in the UAE may ask you to use BOTIM. They might even have paid for a premium version of this software specially for the classes and will expect teachers to do the same! You needn’t have a full suite of apps ready from day one, but you’ll probably find that the newer your smartphone, the more options you’ll be able to give your students.
A Cloud account – Google Drive or OneDrive
One easy, free way to put a whiteboard in the online classroom is to have a shared document open, where you and your student can both write during the lesson – and of course, they can keep it for reference, or even do their homework on it. If you’re working with a group, it’s a useful platform for peer collaboration, too.
Sound editing software, e.g. Audacity
Remember when language classes used cassettes? I shudder to think what hoops my own language teachers jumped through at school, just to do a basic gist-detail listening cycle. These days, when teaching online (or anywhere), it’s common to use online resources, such as BBC News videos, which can, of course, be played direct from the source during the lesson. If you want to be more versatile or work on sub-skills like dictation, you should record them separately and extract clips. Audacity is free and quite adequate for this, and works with the normal keyboard shortcuts for things like copy and paste, so you’ll get to grips with it quickly.
A video camera
This is less essential, but you might want to make your own video content for use in class, send video instructions to students for homework, or record a video intro for your website profile; a conventional camera will be better quality than a webcam for this (cameras on mobile phones are fine).
Video editing software
You certainly don’t need this to start out, but with your business-promotion hat on, think about all the videos that come up when you Google ‘online teaching’ or when students Google ‘IELTS tips’, or whatever. To market yourself in the future, you’ll want to be all over YouTube and the like, and the slicker you look, the more hits (and customers) you’ll get. You could start by making some simple lesson material combining a video of yourself giving instructions cut with photographs, music or graphics.
The list is endless!
This article has merely scratched the surface. There are digital whiteboard apps where you can write with a virtual pen, plenty of learner management systems where you can design your own courses, memory-testing apps like Quizlet and Anki, and a plethora of things that you could use both to do your online lessons and enable your students to continue their learning beyond your lesson time.
One word of warning to end on: just like the DOGME drive of recent years to abandon all the paraphernalia of the physical classroom, you don’t want to have too many things going on at once during an online lesson, since every time you ask the student to look at something new, their attention is divided. Plus, unlike in the ‘real’ classroom, you can never know exactly what they’re looking at. Take all the ideas from this article, research and practise them in your own time, and have them up your sleeve for just the right moment and just the right learner.
Would you like to make the transition into teaching English online? Start your online English teaching career in the best possible way and give your CV a boost by completing our Teaching English online course. Apply here or get in touch to find out more.
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