3 Key Challenges of Online Teaching

Successful teaching requires us to know what to teach and how to teach it. Each teaching job presents us with a unique set of conditions. It’s those variables that push us to grow and become stronger in our knowledge and more versatile in our performance.

When I began working online, I had to figure out how much I could transfer from my traditional classroom teaching experience. It became clear that who I was as a teacher wouldn’t change much at all, but how I delivered my knowledge and how I interacted with my students would.

Learning the tools.
Teaching through video has taken time to master. I had to learn how to use a camera and editing software. Other skills, like building visual support into my presentation, simply needed a new medium. Initially, I didn’t make use of any graphics because I didn’t know how to. Now it would feel wrong not to use graphics in my video lessons; it would be like teaching without a board. I rely on the text callouts and my use of font colors just I like used to rely on a whiteboard and colored markers.

Teaching through a webcam also required me to learn new tools. Skype became an early favorite, and I still use it to this day. Skype allows screen sharing, file sharing, and a live text chat. I’ve learned to combine Skype with other tools like Dropbox so that files remain in the cloud and easily accessible to my students and me. Dropbox is more than a storage solution for me. I can post feedback on shared files, and I can combine my comments with a screencast of my suggested revisions to a text. Students get automatic notification of my comments and also receive an alert once I upload the accompanying screencast to our shared folder.

Virtual classrooms come with a few more frills like the virtual whiteboard, a highlighter, and pointer. It’s easy to import files, including word documents and slide presentations. Control of the whiteboard or a slide presentation can stay in my hands or be transferred to a student’s. Having all these options at my fingertips is very convenient, and strong familiarity with these tools allows me to enjoy the teaching experience.

Choosing tools to learn is a challenge itself. Thankfully, my yearly visits to the Electronic Village at the TESOL convention have helped with the selection. I learn what my colleagues are using in their courses, and I consider which resources lend themselves well to online learning and my set of circumstances. Shadow Puppet has been a lot of fun to use, for example. Students have easily figured out this app without much instruction from me. We work on writing and pronunciation in the process of developing a script for their photo shows. The finished projects are something we both value.

Learning how to interact with students.
Moving from a traditional classroom to an online platform has challenged me to establish and maintain a healthy student-teacher relationship primarily through asynchronous interaction.

I interact with two categories of students: my private students and my online following. My private students have greater access to me, naturally. Between our live lessons, we stay in touch through email, Dropbox comments, private FB posts, and sometimes even through texting via our cellphones. With my private students I’ve achieved a good level of accessibility so that they feel supported, but still perform independently.

Achieving an appropriate balance with my online following has been a struggle at times. Those who follow me on social media receive a good amount of free practice and feedback. One needs to learn my posting patterns, and then it’s possible to get free practice throughout the week. Over the years, I’ve experimented with ways to target different skills on different platforms. My weekday Twitter posts focus on vocabulary, for instance. A weekend post on Simor.org reviews those same words and adds listening practice. If you watch a YouTube video of mine on Thursday, you’ll like get follow-up practice on Facebook or my YT Community Tab. All my social media platforms allow user comments. Those who show patience and don’t overwhelm me with questions and requests receive my help through the comment sections.

Learning to manage time online and offline.
I think time management is one of the biggest challenges for me these days. Although I enjoy a high degree of flexibility in my day-to-day schedule, I’m never fully unplugged from the online world. Social media and email require regular attention so that communication doesn’t accumulate to the point where I can no longer manage it. However, I think that in this digital age, these issues are faced by all of us, regardless of where we’re teaching.

One practice I follow is to have alerts on my phone to help me tick off items on my to-do task. This way I stay on top of my social media posts, my lesson plans, and editing projects. I also know it’s not wise to plan an overly ambitious day. Filming always works best on a day when I don’t have any private lessons scheduled (and when I can take the dog to daycare).  I give priority to my private students on any given day of the week. If they submit homework for correction, I try my best to give feedback as soon as possible.

Do you have a helpful practice to share?

I’d like to express my sincere thanks to the group of Middlebury College students who prompted the reflection in today’s post. They have just completed their Introduction to TESOL with Joe McVeigh, my good colleague and newly elected TESOL Board Member. Joe invited me to meet virtually with these students, and I found it very refreshing to interact with young people who are on the doorstep of a TESOL career.

Photo credit: Sackcloth, Textured, Laptop by freephotocc. Retrieved from the Public Domain at https://pixabay.com/en/sackcloth-sackcloth-textured-laptop-1280529/.

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