Nick Perkins is an Emmy award-winning translator, accomplished editor, EFL consultant, and a skilled and engaging teacher trainer. He has many years of experience working as a teacher all around the world. Across two articles, Nick gives us some expert advice on how to teach English online and optimize your classroom practices for the digital world. In this second instalment, he focuses on designing an effective online learning space.
Did you miss part one of the series? Read it now: Optimizing online language learning: Classroom management.
Technology and the learning space
The way a physical classroom is organized, decorated and laid out impacts on how your students feel, interact and learn. It’s just as important to think about how your virtual teaching space functions and what it looks like, as it will have a big effect on your students’ learning experience.
Classrooms are usually full of posters, examples of students’ work and other decorations. Just because you’re teaching online doesn’t mean your environment needs to look dull.
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Take some time to think about your virtual teaching space. Picture it in your head. What’s behind you? What’s on either side? Is there an echo? Is it light or dark? How far away are you from the camera?
Top tip: Take a selfie from where you teach and analyze what’s behind you. If your background is plain, put some posters up, or place a blackboard behind you with useful words on it. Make your environment look interesting!
You can also experiment with artificial backgrounds if your video-conferencing platform has this feature.
Online classroom Dos and don’ts
While teaching online – isn’t always that different from teaching face-to-face – there are quite a few things you might not have considered before. Here are some of my top dos and don’ts to help.
- Don’t sit in front of a window or other source of light, otherwise, your face will be in shadow and hard to see. If you have no option, close the curtains and/or use an artificial source of light to illuminate your face.
- Do reflect lighting off a wall or ceiling so it hits your face indirectly. This creates a much more pleasing image. If possible, sit in front of any windows or to the side of them so that the light hits your face directly or from the side. If the room you are in is naturally dark, reflect a couple of lamps off the wall in front of you or the ceiling.
- Do invest in a set of headphones with an inline microphone. Even cheap ones will make you easier to understand, and reduce environmental noise interference (traffic, your neighbor’s stereo, etc.).
- Don’t teach in an empty classroom (if you can avoid it). They are a really bad place to teach online classes from because they suffer from echo, environmental noise, lighting and bandwidth problems.
If your teaching space has an echo, try placing some pillows or cushions on either side of your screen. They help absorb echos and make it easier for your students to hear what you are saying.
- Do sit far enough away from the camera so your students can see most of your upper body and your arms. If you use a laptop, raise it up on an old shoebox or a couple of books, so that the camera isn’t pointing up your nose!
- Do invest in the fastest internet connection you can afford (school administrators may want to consider offering subsidies so teachers can upgrade their connection speed). It is vital that you have enough bandwidth to stream good quality audio and video, and share materials with your students. Learn how to use your mobile phone data plan to create a wifi hotspot for your computer as a backup.
Using technology with your students
Online learning might also be new to students and therefore they’ll likely need some support to make sure they are successful. Here are some ways you can get the most out of technology, build your student’s digital literacy skills and increase motivation.
Students should connect from a private space where they are not interrupted by siblings, pets, housekeepers, or parents. The space should be well lit and have a good Wi-Fi signal.
Just like you, they should use earphones with an inline microphone. Their webcams should be on, not just so you can see them, but so they can see each other. Encourage learners to have fun and personalize their space by changing their backgrounds or using filters.
Parents should be aware of the negative effect of noise and distractions on their children’s learning. It’s important that where possible they avoid having business meetings in the same room their children are learning in. They should also ask any other people in the house to respect the children’s right to enjoy a quiet, private and productive learning environment.
If you and your students are online using some form of computer, tablet or mobile device to connect to class, make sure to use the resources available to you. Reinforce how to correctly use spell check when writing a document, for example, or have your students use their cameras to take photos of their work to share, or even their favorite toys, etc.
Instead of trying (and often failing!) to get all your students speaking during the class, have them make videos or audio recordings for homework that they send to you or each other for feedback. Alternatively experiment with breakout rooms, if using a platform that allows this.
If you want to show a YouTube video during class, send the link to your students to watch for homework before class, or have them watch it during class on their own devices.
Apart from saving your bandwidth, they may even be inspired to click on one of the other suggested (usually related) videos recommended alongside the one you want them to watch, and it’ll be in their recently watched list if they want to go back and watch it again. In addition to the platform, English Code also comes with a Pearson Practice English App which provides all the videos and audio from the course.
If you set group work that involves writing a text or designing a presentation, ask your students to use a shared Google Doc to collaborate.You’ll be able to see what they’re doing in real-time and give them feedback. It works just like you are walking around the classroom and looking over their shoulders.
Make sure you explore the focused feedback tools your web conferencing platform offers, such as breakout rooms or individual chat. But also, don’t forget to share relevant information and learning with the whole class. This helps them all benefit from your expertise, just like they do if they listen to you answering a classmate’s question in the classroom.
If your students are at home, they have access to materials and props they would never have at school. Think about how you could incorporate this into your teaching.
Finally, make sure that the materials you use are suitable for online learning. If you use a book, it should have a fully digital option and a platform available to your students with practice activities, videos and audio recordings. You should avoid using static pages in favor of dynamic activities, or online documents that allow real-time collaboration.
Involving parents in your online teaching environment
Create an online learning document for parents that explains how they can make a positive and productive learning environment for their children. Many families are experiencing significant difficulties with having everyone at home all day, and may not be able to implement everything. But it’s still important to explain to them how to optimize the experience if they can.
Top tip: If you are using a coursebook with digital capabilities, such as English Code – remember to tell (or show) parents about the at-home features available, so they can help their children get the most out of your lessons.
About English Code
Looking for an engaging and innovative primary course with full digital capabilities? Check out English Code.
Students learn English through hands-on creative tasks, investigation, projects, experiments and much more.
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To find out more about teaching online and managing technology resources, please check out part one: Nick’s article Optimizing online language learning: Classroom management.
How have you optimized your online learning space? Let us know in the comments!