Invest in the Right Professional Set-Up

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I taught my first online lesson in 2010.  Last I checked, I’ve taught well over 1,000 lesson hours of online TOEFL lessons.  This doesn’t include all the other consultations I’ve given, or time I’ve spent making teaching videos for my programs.

I’m just a digital girl in my self-made digital world.

Over the years, I have learned a lot about how to teach effectively online.  There are some basics that you need to have covered.

At the risk of sounding blunt, I will say that if you can’t invest about $300 in the tech to get started, you probably shouldn’t even bother with it…

Requirement #1: Make your presence crystal clear.

You must do everything in your power to make sure your student can see you as clearly as possible. Computer hardware and local internet speed varies a lot and you can’t guarantee that every student on the planet will be able to see and hear you clearly perfectly 100% of the time. Whenever I taught my student in Tokyo, between exactly 10:20 and 10:21 am, every lesson, we experienced weird delays. However, you can make sure you’re doing everything right.

My Solution: get an Ethernet cable ($5-10). The cost of this is so minimal, and the return on your investment is so high, that the time and money you spend getting to the store or paying for delivery is more than the item itself. Yet its importance cannot be overemphasized. Test your call quality

Requirement #2: Share your computer’s screen with your student.

This instantly reduces our stressed feeling that “It’s so much easier to teach in person.”

Right, well if your student is looking at the same PDF document that you share from your screen, and if you’re controlling that and talking about it, then you are able to simulate the real life element of teaching face-to-face that we all love so much.

My Solution: subscribe to a screen-sharing solution ($30+ a year). Every year or so, I pop my head up and see what’s out there. The proliferation of screen-share technology is mind-boggling. You could get lost in the rabbit hole, or you could just use Skype.

I used to pay for a “group call / screen share” service called Skype Premium and I was paying about $30 a year. The company currently seems a bit confused about what they’re doing and may not continue to offer this as a paid service, or with this name. Hunt around on their website and you’ll find it. However, for the purposes of calculating your investment budget, let’s just say it’s still $30 a year. Experiment and play around with this today. Before your lesson, make sure that you can share your computer screen with your student.

Requirement #3: Be heard loud and clear.

I fully admit to looking like a dorky version of Princess Leia. I really don’t care how tiny my head looks in comparison to the headphones. If my student can hear my voice clearly, I’m cool with it.

My Solution: get a good headset ($65-$100 USD). I go through a lot of headsets and I always buy either high-end Logitech, Sennheiser or Plantronics headsets.

This is the current one I use most from Logitech and it has some quirks but seems to be holding up well after 8 months of being used every week day for 3-6 hours a day. It’s true that the wireless range on it is not flawless, but I’m usually at my computer to give my students full attention anyway, so for the purposes of lessons, it’s not an issue.

Requirement #4: Translate your face-to-face style of teaching onto a screen.

Before I started using the pen tablet, I had so many moments like, “I could totally teach [relative clauses / subject-verb agreement / passive] really easily if only I could write something down!” I had developed naturally in classrooms to rely on certain means of expressing myself, and without a pen and a board, well, I just felt powerless! You know that using a mouse and typing is just not the same.

Not to mention the fact that your students have likely spent years watching teachers write on boards, and so there is something really comforting for students if we can replicate that experience.

When I became proficient at using a pen tablet, I experienced a massive decrease in that intensely frustrating feeling of being limited and “not myself.” I hope you get that same freedom.

My Solution: Wacom’s Bamboo Tablet (now $70 USD). A few years ago, I bought Wacom’s Bamboo Tablet I had my friend bring this back for me on her trip to The States.  I was so excited! I opened the box, plugged it in and… My handwriting sucked! It was like I was back in kindergarten. I felt disappointed and wondered if I had made a mistake or wasted my money.

I kept practicing by myself for a few weeks (without my students watching me!). Eventually, I figured it out and now I’m really comfortable with it.

Requirement #5: Document your lesson notes.

Once you have a pen tablet like the Wacom Bamboo tablet I use, you need a program you can use it with. Sometimes where I am, the power gets cut of unexpectedly. Other times, I want to quickly pull up a previous lesson vocabulary or grammar discussion to trigger my student’s memory.

My Solution: Microsoft Office One Note (now $134 USD). Of all the programs in the Microsoft Office 2010 suite, One Note is the easiest to use with my Wacom tablet. I can open endless pages, and they automatically and instantly get saved. If the power goes out, if I forget to save it, it’s always there.

Also, despite my computer’s aging and lagging capacity to find and open files from various programs, everything in OneNote opens instantly.  I don’t have to waste any time in the lesson. I can just share my computer’s screen with Skype, click on the slide I want, and presto! My student’s memory is triggered from a conversation we had. It’s such a time saver and makes me look more professional.

I also absolutely love OneNote’s “screen clipping” function that lets me clip relevant bits of PDF transcript and insert them instantly into One Note, where I can highlight on them. This is essential when I’m trying to help a student develop listening or reading skills.  We can instantly both be looking at exactly the same thing, and I can focus their attention really quickly and keep things from getting overwhelming.

So what do you think? Is it a useful list? Got any questions or comments?