By Lucy Nankivell
Delivering online classes for busy professionals
When I changed from classroom to online teaching, I thought I would be using much the same materials and methods as before, just on a screen instead of a whiteboard. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
While I have given group lessons online, such lessons are obviously a lot more structured, and a classroom-type set-up is to be expected. It’s the one-to-ones that tend to be so different from classroom sessions, and these are what I would like to focus on here. Most of my current students are in full-time jobs, and a lot of them work for large companies that are keen for their employees to improve their English whenever and however they can. The biggest challenge – for teacher and learner alike – is finding a slot in their busy day when we can get together for a lesson. The second biggest is finding something to do that is relevant to their needs and manageable in short chunks.
Sorry, I’m in my car
Of course, it’s wonderful that thanks to technology we can all connect with each other wherever we are, but it does lead to some unusual ‘classroom’ situations. I’ve had learners trying to take conversation classes on carphones while driving their children to school; getting moved from room to room by colleagues; in a hotel room practising a presentation they’ll be giving in the next few minutes; and, once, walking the dog in the park – shouting at the dog in between describing the scenery to me.
This makes it tricky if you’ve set up a gapfill or a reading exercise on your screen; as often as not, the learner won’t have a screen for at least some of the time, or won’t have the chance to sit and look at it. Even if the learner has managed to find a quiet corner and is officially free for an hour, the reality of modern working life is that interruptions will occur constantly. I’ve picked up quite a bit of Spanish from overhearing hasty phone conversations in mid-session, and the assorted pings of Skype and Whatsapp messages can be heard every few minutes – quite often heralding an emergency that the learner has to go and deal with at once.
What were we talking about again? Never mind, let’s do something else
Some online schools address these problems by offering shorter lessons – 30-minute slots are very popular in my experience – and allowing a shorter cancellation period, sometimes just a few hours. This may not be ideal for a teacher, since it usually means less pay and less certainty, but if we want to offer remote lessons to people with modern lifestyles, in their own countries, there is probably no alternative.
So, is it possible to offer rich, interesting and useful content under these conditions? I would say, definitely. Over the years I’ve come not only to adapt to this way of teaching but actively to enjoy it and see major benefits in it for learners. Above all, it’s real. Teacher and learner have to communicate in English in order for the lesson to happen at all: the metalanguage of the lesson – instructions for sharing screens, for instance – is useful technical English. Explaining where you are at the moment and what you’re doing can become a genuinely challenging task (and a much more interesting way of practising, say, the present continuous or prepositions of place).
Also, the opportunities for helping the learner find the exact language and skills that he or she most needs are numerous. Some of the more obvious are:
- Encouraging the learner to share any texts that might be helpful to work on. Emails if they aren’t confidential, LinkedIn profiles, presentation slides are just a few examples of real-life materials that can be used for correction exercises, developing business vocabulary and more.
- Working with the company website – getting the learner to translate the gist if there is no English version, otherwise using it to help you understand more about the ways the learner uses English in the workplace. Do they contact clients on a regular basis? Do they have to speak on the phone, attend video conferences, go to meetings in the clients’ countries?
- Using any interruptions or changes, of the kind mentioned above, as a springboard for discussion. It’s all too easy to get a mindset of ‘Let’s get back to the exercise because that’s what we’re supposed to be doing’, as we probably would in a classroom. In the online learning environment, it’s often more helpful to go with the flow and let the learner talk about the realities of their working life.
The main thing, as with most teaching, is to be flexible. I find it useful to have a look at news affecting the learner’s country or industry before the class, for instance – the BBC news site often has short articles on different countries in the World section, or entertaining video snippets that can be shared both for a quick listening practice and a discussion topic. Often just a headline or tweet will give you the right amount of material for a short lesson where concentration may be difficult and interruptions are likely – or, if the class ends up being cut short or suddenly cancelled, you have something manageable to send over to the learner for homework.