Personalising Your Online Teaching

English language teachers around the world are quickly transitioning from f2f teaching formats to video platforms and online learning management systems. The COVID 19 pandemic has hastened this change, causing educators to acquire new skills as they take on the role of teacher-presenters in videoconferences. As educators, we are scrambling to support our students, via video classes and webinars. Many platforms are now available: Zoom, Facetime, WebEx, Skype, Adobe Connect, Google Hangout, Adobe Connect, Shindig, and Amazon Chime. Clearly, online teaching is taking up significant amounts of our time and thoughts. This article offers some suggestions to teach effectively online by focusing on how to project empathy by personalizing your online presence. This takes effort, as transitioning to new ways of doing things is always stressful. The stress of learning how to use these platforms adds to the stress of dealing with personal health and safety of friends and family. Moreover, the stress of feeling dissatisfied and uncertain about the educational output we are creating, as well as the output we may be watching and receiving ourselves, can be overwhelming. We all know that students respond best when they understand that we are personally involved in their learning journeys. Traditionally, we do this by offering students information via our f2f lectures, where we demonstrate empathy + information, and via materials, where we choose specific content to personally support their learning needs.

Note that our students also study outside of our classes. They learn from reading, podcasts, or streaming a video, and they have choices. Students can choose when and for how long to read, listen, or watch. Access to content is determined by the environment. For example, in the case of books, people require library access, or funds to purchase books. For video and podcasts (and e-books), appropriate bandwidth, licenses, paywalls, and device compatibility all come into play. The digital divide, having financial means and social systems that provide these resources, is significant in regard to today’s practices regarding teaching and learning. For our purposes, this article assumes that teachers and students have sufficient access to the Internet. Transferring content and assignments is simple over the Internet, offering teachers a conduit to generate and send learning resources to students for consumption. Remember, however, that we all consume print as well as other asynchronous media (podcasts, video, websites, etc.) differently. And we often receive and examine this information while separated from each other. This type of learning is different from f2f classrooms, and from online webinar classes.  

Yet fundamentally, the principles of effective language teaching remain the same, whether presented online, f2f, or in hybrid format. For our lessons, we need to focus upon clear objectives, to take time for careful lesson planning, carry out assessments, and to conduct strategic alignment of objectives, tasks, and assessments. With the transition to going 100% online as a teacher, a massive elephant in the room has appeared. How do we create authentic, empathetic and professional teacher presence? Live, synchronous webinars for teaching seem very different than the f2f teachers conduct. Again, similarities do exist. Just as in f2f classes, instructors request that students show up at a particular time, and pay attention. By sharing content and experiences live, the teacher also expects that students will learn. And, as in any f2f class, teachers differentiate content, monitor student progress, most importantly of all, engage students. Live online classes, however, present a unique social context and challenge. This article offers five tips to humanize your online teaching experience in order to create personal presence. Teachers can be authentic and caring when teaching live, and these tips also can be incorporated into asynchronous teaching as well. Because our world is currently flooded with advice and training related to online teaching, only five short and sweet, but powerful and proven, teaching techniques are presented. 

The first tip is to be aware of time.

We are all stressed due to the global pandemic. Therefore, it is imperative to recognize and respect the commitment students make when they attend your online courses. First, respect the time allotted for a webinar. Don’t spend two hours teaching a 50-minute class. Second, dogfood your tasks (asynchronous and synchronous): Do the tasks yourself to determine how much time your students need to think through and complete any given assignment. By respecting these types of time constraints you are creating trust, along with a positive and humane online atmosphere. 

Tip two: Follow your best practices as a f2f teacher.

In many ways, creating effective online teaching presence mirrors the f2f classroom. For example, teachers come early to their physical classrooms and greet students as they enter. You can do this by opening your online session early, and you can also keep the class open for a few minutes after the session, in case students wish to communicate with you privately. In addition, you might start class, you could ask a casual question; “What did you eat for breakfast?” or “What did you read or watch this week?” This helps them to practice the platform by using the chat function, and it helps them to relax, and interact in a friendly fashion with each other. Remember, you are building community for your learners as well as teaching content. 

My third tip: Test your equipment and set up your materials before class.

This certainly applies to checking your computer audio and video, but it also means exploring ways to use your voice and face/body in the video. Inexpensive lapel mikes are available for purchase that might be more appealing than your basic computer audio. I recently watched a video from a YouTube vlogger, a former opera singer, who gave expert advice on using your voice as an online instrument 

We all know that our students always watch us carefully, so by modulating our voice, as well as dressing appropriately, we are unconsciously luring students to learn by being appealing.  I recently started experimenting with a lamp behind my computer webcam, and then bought a ring light. Both work well to soften my face; they make me appear friendly. You can also have an attractive  “classroom.” You can vary your background via virtual screens (https://displate.com/blog/zoom-backgrounds) Changing your screen regularly keeps your students curious about how you may present your ‘room’ this class. This personalizes you, and demonstrates your creativity.

The fourth tip is to mix it up.

As you and your students become more comfortable with using a synchronous platform, such as Zoom, you can plan lessons that utilize different kinds of media and different kinds of social media. I started by inserting short video clips  (one to four minutes) that paralleled the class topic. I would offer lessons where they simply listened  to a short podcast excerpt with closed eyes. Later I began to send students links to our class Twitter and Instagram, and asked them to post text or images for various reasons:  as warm up exercises, or to demonstrate knowledge. This was also useful for differentiation purposes; students who finished an activity early could go and do a Twitter task, which became homework for those who needed more time. 

The fifth and final tip is to share.

Students want to know you. If a cat jumps on your shoulder or a toddler wanders in, this endears you to students. And students want to share with you as well. During a semester, I allot time for students who wish to participate to “take the floor” and show everyone something in their lives. This is in addition to the timed video introductions we make on Flipgrid.com, which are accessible to class members. In addition to sharing at the personal level, you can progress to having students share online assignments they have created, according to proficiency levels in language and computer literacy. 

As a language teacher, I want my students to become linguistically, culturally, and socially competent, and I also urge my students become technologically competent as well. Consequently, during a term I will introduce simple digital tools and use them, and model them during lessons. For example, for storytelling I have modeled Adobe Spark, (htpps://[email protected]), a simple, free storyboard. I have also modeled video production via Explain Everything.com, an excellent interactive whiteboard that allows users to create YouTube videos. And I have modeled H5P.org, another free interactive html platform, for explaining ideas and doing very simple coding. Finally, I use the free platform Voicethread.com; this tool allows students to create audio comments on images and video. There are hundreds of tools available, and many of them are free. To start learning about them I highly recommend watching Matt Miller’s Digital Summit (https://ditchsummit.com).

Progressing to successful online teaching is not only possible, but it can be pleasurable as well. A wealth of resources and information is now available. Even more important, demonstrating your human side online is not so difficult after all.  Sharing your humanity is as important as sharing your content, because teaching effectively is all about creating positive relationships. Let’s not forget the kindergarten maxim many preschool teachers use: The Power of Three. “We learn to take care of ourselves, of each other, and our classroom.” We are all trying to stay safe and to continue with our lives. We are trying to build community while teaching online. And finally, we are trying to understand and implement the new digital tools that make up the online classroom.  Stay flexible, be kind to yourself and your students, and keep moving forward.