I’ve been teaching private online lessons for TOEFL iBT since 2010. By 2012, I had left local schools and was earning 100% of my income from teaching online lessons. There are a lot of questions about which of the many platforms – Skype, Google Hangout, WizIQ, Join.Me, Go to Meeting – is best for teaching online.
Let me tell you what you need, and what I use.
What do you Need out of an Online Platform?
This is the first question to answer, since you only need to cover these basics, and any other features are just additional bells and whistles. At its core, there are really only four basic things that an educational learning platform needs to do:
- Teachers need to see their students and be seen by them.
- Teachers need to hear and be heard.
- Teachers need to show their notes for presentations and explanations and watch their students produce English.
- Teachers need to share materials and collect homework assignments as easily and quickly as possible.
For better or worse, there are dozens of ways to meet each of these four core needs.
The thing is (especially because most students are new to online learning and have some trepidation), you want a platform which feels easy to use. The easier, the better. With that handful of options, the choice comes down to cobbling together a few quality free, or low-cost platforms – or paying a monthly subscription to conveniently access this functionality from a single platform.
How to See and Be Seen, Hear and Be Heard
In online lessons, students are choosing you because they like you and want to learn from you. The clearer your video and audio are, the more ‘Digital You’ is like ‘Real You’, the happier students are, and the more likely they are to continue studying and recommend you to their friends. There are so many ways to share video and audio between students and teachers for private lessons, but top options include:
- WizIQ (which is an ‘all-in-one’ paid service that bundles other functionality along with video and audio chat)
- Skype (which you have probably already used for video conferencing or instant messaging; it’s free or paid, depending on their business model in any given year – but it is always extremely affordable)
- Zoom (which is another ‘all-in-one’ option with both free and very cheap paid versions)
What about Platform X, Y or Z? I’m purposefully leaving off many platforms like Google Hangouts. You can ask why in the comments, but it’s mostly because new communication companies and services proliferate faster than baby rabbits on Rabbit Island in Japan. There are countless options for video or telephone conferencing or screen sharing. By the time I write this list, a dozen new programs will have been born. It’s easy to spend loads of time downloading, testing and niggling, only to find the time would have been better spent teaching or gathering new students. So, until someone literally pushes a new option under my nose, I’m sticking with Skype, Zoom or WizIQ.
The Platforms’ Similarities
Demos – If you are so inclined, you can request a demo from both WizIQ and Zoom. They are thrilled to let you test drive their platforms. Sales reps from both companies are super friendly and helpful. If you don’t want to wait to see it, just head to YouTube and search ‘WizIQ demo’ or ‘Zoom teleconference demo’.
Standard Stuff – All three services broadcast your video and audio to your student, and transmit your student’s video and audio to you. WizIQ, Skype and Zoom all allow you to change audio settings about which microphone or speakers/headphones to use. They all also let you turn your video camera on or off, so you can hide yourself even though your student keeps hearing your voice. (This could be useful if you’re doing a listening activity, or simulating a listening or speaking situation in which the student cannot see the speaker.)
Recordings – No matter what kind of lesson you’re doing, it can be extremely useful to have a recording of it. Recordings allow students to review, absorb more and make greater progress. Zoom and WizIQ both have the capacity to make recordings of your lessons within the platform itself. To record Skype calls, you need an extension – Ecamm’s ‘Call Recorder’ for Mac and ‘Pamela’ for PC.
Chat – Also, each of these big three services have a built-in chat function so you can message by typing. This is useful for overcoming tech glitches, maintaining contact with a student when the call drops unexpectedly, co-ordinating the precise start time of a lesson, or making notes on the fly about what to add to homework or review lists.
Invisible Technical Stuff – It isn’t really possible to give a definitive answer on which platform has ‘better’ audio or video because there are so many variables that have nothing to do with the platform. Performance is impacted by the teacher’s computer’s processor, video and audio card, RAM, the quality of devices (webcam, microphone, speakers, etc.) and internet signal. It’s then multiplied because the student has their own set up of all this as well. WizIQ claims their platform is superior to Skype but there isn’t an actual technical explanation as to why that would actually be true. When I test drove WizIQ, I wasn’t convinced that their audio or video was any better than what I already get from Skype. I know there will be people who argue with me, but I think most differences in the perceived quality of Skype and Google Hangouts can actually be chalked up to an outdated laptop without enough RAM or really slow upload and download speeds which gum up the transmission of video and audio. And for visual quality, if you’re using a single 75 watt incandescent lightbulb to light your space, no platform can fix that.
Sooner or later, the internet will have a bad day. Your calls will drop. Your face will get frozen in an unflattering frame. Something will go wrong. The best approach is to readjust your philosophy. In all these situations, take a breath, smile and call the student back, carry on right where you left off.
Tech glitches are only as big a deal as you make them – and ultimately, if you have quality components and hardware, you will see that these platforms are virtually the same in their ability to beam Digital You to the world.
The Platforms’ Differences
Ease of Use – This is the biggest difference because Skype is undoubtedly the best-known platform and requires the least rigmarole to get started in. Students almost always already have Skype installed on their computer, with an account ready to go – or have a family member who understands it and can help with at-home configuration. If a student has a smart phone, then Skype’s icons for starting or accepting calls intuitively make sense, so the learning curve is virtually non-existent.
Zoom is also very easy to use (but if you struggle, they’ve got 24-hour support which had me speaking with someone in less than 60 seconds). There is an app to make using it on mobile devices. You just click a web link and you agree to open an application through your internet browser. No download is required, so within a few seconds, you have a new internet window with a control panel very similar to Skype. However, you have to provide your student with that link, so you may still find Skype useful.
WizIQ needs to be downloaded to your computer. WizIQ’s app didn’t function properly when I test drove the software in April 2015. Also, the WizIQ representative still connected with us initially on Skype to make sure I downloaded and set up the program correctly. So even WizIQ folks still need to have Skype installed on their computers. Point made.
Aesthetics – There are aesthetic differences in the way that Skype, Zoom and WizIQ compose the visual layout of the chat box and video portion. No one is ‘better’ in that sense. If you like the way a platform like WizIQ looks and feels, use it! Alternatively, if you’re happy with Skype, you can go a long way for free, or nearly free.
Privacy – WizIQ and Zoom both claim they are encrypted so if you have privacy concerns, you might be happy to pay the monthly fee in exchange for peace of mind. As a free platform, Skype has no guarantee that your data won’t be used for nefarious purposes. Unless you’re divulging state secrets in your English lessons, it may never matter.
I have logged thousands of hours since I started using Skype for online lessons back in 2010. More recently, as I started teaching groups, I turned to Zoom for its simplicity and ability to record and call quality with larger groups. At the point that I need to facilitate proper pair work, I would rely on Zoom or WizIQ for their ‘breakout rooms’ (this is the ability to put students with a partner, so you can create small group discussions and then bring everyone back to the ‘whole class’ experience).
I won’t be uninstalling Skype anytime soon, as it’s an initial contact point and back-up communication method. So, for the purposes of a one-to-one teacher, I doubt you need more than what Skype offers for free. Just upgrade your computer and internet package.
Don’t miss the rest of the series, A Beginner’s Guide to Online Teaching: Part 2 and Part 3, where we discuss how ‘screen share’ restores your sense of agency and how to curate and share digital materials with your students.