The topic for this post was prompted by a question posted some time back in a Facebook group and by my own experience of teaching online in the last few months. The teacher who posted the question had received a request to provide online language lessons, but her clients were not keen on using Skype. So she turned to the group for advice on ‘reliable alternatives’ and guidelines for teaching online.
Skype plus …
As a free software application that’s been around for quite a few years now and one which most of us are familiar with for personal use, it makes a lot of sense to turn to Skype for teaching purposes, at least in the first instance. It has the essential features we need to create a live virtual learning environment: voice, text and video chat with groups (up to 5 is recommended) or for one-to-one lessons. The addition of an integrated whiteboard would make the creation of an online classroom more complete, but this shortcoming can be remedied by using an external whiteboard such as Twiddla, which also allows you to upload and display PowerPoint slideshow (.ppt only), pdf files and images. Asking learners to use two applications concurrently is not ideal, but perhaps the biggest drawback when working with corporate clients is the fact that learners need to have the Skype software installed on their computers and some employers may be reluctant to allow this on their systems.
There is no shortage of alternatives to Skype. Teachers can now choose from an ever-growing number of web conferencing tools, mostly aimed at business users, but equally suitable for teaching purposes. Following the advice she received in Facebook, the teacher decided to suggest to her clients the newish web-conferencing tool Zoom, which looks very interesting, as well as a tool available to Google Gmail account holders, which allows them to set up live video calls either in the form of Video Hangouts, which are private group sessions, or as public, recorded events known as Hangouts On Air. The latter have become a popular option for those organising larger scale webinars. Both have text, audio and video chat, as well screen and document sharing.
There’s also a ‘Draw’ tool that can act as a whiteboard marker. As far as I can see, it isn’t possible to join a hangout as an active participant without having a Gmail account. It is, however, possible to view a Hangouts On Air session live on the host’s Events page in Google+, their YouTube channel or in a player embedded, for example, on their website, blog or wiki. Like Skype, there is no integrated whiteboard, and again some learners may be put off by the need to set up a Gmail account. With Google’s Chromebox for Meetings you can avoid this problem, but at a starting price of $999 it’s clearly aimed at the small to medium-sized businesses market.
Other, more affordable options for teachers include WizIQ, which has been around for a long time, has all the basic communication channels as well as inbuilt polls, and, having been launched with teachers in mind, includes an interactive whiteboard. With the free version, it’s possible to run live sessions with up to 10 participants, but unlike the pay-for plans offered, sessions can’t be recorded. Unfortunately, breakout rooms – a feature that allows the teacher to place participants in separate, concurrent rooms to work in pairs or small groups – are only available with pay for upgrades. A word of caution, however, expect quite persistent attempts to persuade you to sign up for a pay-for plan once you create a free account in WizIQ.
Another tool worth considering is Blackboard Collaborate, which was formerly known as Elluminate. It was developed as a real-time virtual learning space for educational and corporate training purposes and as such it has inbuilt, all the communication and collaborative tools mentioned above, and in the several years that I’ve used for teacher training purposes, it has proven reliable and reasonably user-friendly. It is a Java based application and this does mean that learners need to download and open a Java applet each time they join a session, which might prove an obstacle for some corporate clients. Similar in terms of features, but predominantly Flash rather than Java based, is Adobe Connect Pro, which many IATEFL BESIG members will be familiar with as it’s the application used for the regular webinars and online workshops now being offered by various SIGs.
As with Blackboard (but not with the free version of WizIQ), learners can join a session in Adobe without lengthy logging procedures or the need to register for an account. Adobe does have a number of advantages, not least of which being the fact that even with a basic account a number of ‘persistent’ web conferencing rooms can be set up, each with its own web address. These rooms can be used over and over again and each can have multiple layouts suitable for different types of interactions and activities. Another great time-saver is that teaching content can be uploaded to the rooms and re-used in subsequent lessons. The breakout rooms, after a little practice, work well and using this feature appreciably increases student talking time and closes the gap between conventional real-world classrooms and their online equivalents. Of the applications I’ve used to-date, Adobe has been the most teacher and learner friendly, but it does involve a considerable investment (the cheapest plan costs around $50 a month).
To conclude this very quick look at tools for giving live online lessons, it should be noted that whichever application one opts for, there are, returning the second part of our Facebook teacher’s question, a number of things one needs to keep in mind before, during and after delivering virtual lessons. Here are some guidelines I’ve used as a checklist when delivering language training online:
Before the lesson
- Make sure you’re reasonably familiar with the software and be prepared to deal with technical issues (e.g. problems with audio because learners aren’t using headsets or earbuds, or haven’t set up their microphones correctly)
- Make sure learners are also familiar with the application you’ve chosen to use. If there’s a participants’ guide available provide a copy. If not make your own cheat sheet for them.
- Some applications have tests that participants can run to check the compatibility of their systems. Adobe has its own test (Adobe Connect System Check), but if your application doesn’t, ask learners to test their connection speed and let you have the results (Speedtest.net).
- Another issue, especially with groups, is scheduling live sessions. To maintain flexibility, it might be necessary to offer a selection of times and use an online event planner to determine which is the most suitable for group members (Doodle).
- Remind learners the day before the scheduled session of any preparations they may need to make for the lesson
- If you’re using teaching materials (pdf files, PowerPoint slides, etc.) have them uploaded to the room in good time so learners are not left waiting during the lesson.
During the lesson
- If possible use an Ethernet cable connection rather than Wi-Fi connection. This will give you a little more bandwidth and overall stability
- Log into the room early and check your own equipment and set things up as you’ve planned
- Rehearse the lesson plan (typically: welcome, warmer activity, main activities, closing activity) and try out any of the features in the room you’re planning to use (e.g. polls, screen sharing, etc.)
- If the application allows, remember to record the session. This can used for learners who miss the session or for your follow-up feedback
- End on time – people have lots of other work and personal commitments – and so do you!
After the lesson
- Tidy up the web conferencing room if it can be visited between lessons, or is going to be used by another teacher
- Contact the learners with feedback and reminders of any follow-up activities you may have set up during the online session
This is, of necessity, a brief and by no means a comprehensive review of tools and considerations for live online lessons. An important point that former BESIG Online Team (BOT) member Mike Hogan made when being interviewed about teaching online (Mike Hogan interview) is that you may well have to familiarise yourself with and use whatever collaborative tools your clients are already using. So offering that kind of versatility may well be a better option than insisting on using your own favoured web-conferencing tool.
If you have any further tips or suggestions please add them to the comments below.
Apps to go
One big advantage of running live online lessons is the flexibility they can offer learners. Provided they have access to a robust Internet connection, learners can take part from whatever location they may find themselves in. And this convenience is further enhanced by the fact that many applications also have apps that run on mobile devices: