Recently I had the occasion to read Joanna Malefaki’s comprehensive (and occasionally tongue-in-cheek) overview of the advantages of being an online teacher. I also had the privilege of meeting Joanna in person earlier this year at BELTA Day. As soon as BELTA started with their “Meet the Speaker” series, I knew I was going to attend her talk “Do’s and Don’ts of teaching Business English online”…until I discovered that Marek Kiczkowiak and Chris Holmes were going to be speaking about NNEST-related misconceptions in the same slot! In the end, I opted for the latter, using the time-honored scientific method popularly known as eeny meeny miny moe.
The topic of Joanna’s talk appealed to me because it was the only one, apart from my own, to address some practical issues of online instruction that day. I don’t think of myself primarily as an online instructor (or an offline one, for that matter), but as I’ve been teaching almost entirely in an online environment for the past year, I find posts, articles and talks on the subject increasingly relevant to my situation.
Having read Joanna’s post, I thought I’d throw together my own list of perks. Although there will undoubtedly be similarities, it’s worth noting that, unlike Joanna, I teach in an asynchronous environment. More specifically, I teach a semester-long undergraduate course in writing skills in Moodle. So, what do I like about it?
Advantages applicable to online teaching in general
- You can sleep in. Possibly this sounds self-centered or frivolous, or both, but I’m dead serious. The fact is, I’ve worked for private language schools since 1997, and that means…well, that means your schedule is often crappy. You teach in-company courses in the mornings, so you have to wake up at 6 and put on your bright and perky smile as you wait with the surly security guy for your students to show up at 7:30. Which they do, late, yawning and saying they haven’t done the homework. “That’s okay,” you say, contemplating various forms of torture, careful not to drop the smile. (It’s not always like that, but you know what I mean.) Then you teach again in the afternoon and evening, and when you come home, you prepare for the class you have the following morning. Sunday evenings are also reserved for Monday morning lesson plans. That’s a whole lot of Sunday evenings since 1997. So being able to sleep until a more decent hour, followed by breakfast and a coffee during which I don’t have to smile if I don’t feel like it, feels wonderful.
- Your schedule is less stressful. I don’t spend half my day in public transport, going from client to client, lugging books around, missing lunch, waiting around twiddling my thumbs for the one-to-one student to finish their meeting/phone call/email before they’re ready to settle down to English class. Oh, yes, I almost forgot the thrill of one-to-one clients cancelling at the last minute!
- It’s cheaper. All you need is a computer and broadband connection. I definitely spend less on public transport, unhealthy on-the-go snacks, book bags or folders, as well as clothes and makeup.
- It’s challenging and fun. I’m not saying I know everything there is about classroom instruction, but after 17 years of teaching there’s a certain element of déjà vu when I walk into a class. There is obviously comfort to be drawn from this, and there are always different activities you can try out to avoid getting stuck in a rut, but online everything is new to me. I enjoy designing the course and moderating it: selecting the activities, making podcasts and screencasts, designing quizzes, reading and commenting on the students’ learning journals, and more.
- You gain a new set of skills. A lot has been written over the past month about the future of teachers and whether they will eventually be made unnecessary by tech advances. This is not the topic of this post, but I do recommend that you watch the excellent eltjam IATEFL talk on what educational technology means for ELT. As someone who has struggled to keep a small business (a language school) afloat through the (aftermath of the) global economic crisis, I can only see advantages to being open to whatever is going to allow you to keep your teachers employed.
- It permits you to carry on working for your institution even if you no longer live in the same town/country where the institution is based. This flexibility may, of course, not be important to everyone, but if, for instance, moving abroad was not your career choice, it counts for a lot. Hopefully, this uninterrupted collaboration will allow me to continue teaching face-to-face at my institution when I return. I can practically guarantee this wouldn’t happen if I dropped off the radar for a couple of years; someone would take over my course, and that would be that.
- Your professional engagement isn’t (temporarily) over when you move to a new country. Like the previous point, this one assumes particular importance when you may not have a job lined up, and as a NNEST you may have difficulty securing one. I’ve heard of the term trailing spouse used to describe someone moving from place to place at the whim of the personnel decisions of the company their partner works for, but this is not a designation I feel comfortable with.
Advantages applicable to teaching writing skills online
- Students actually get to do a lot more writing than in a face-to-face environment. When I taught the same course offline, we did a range of interactive activities in class: presentations, discussions and games, and the students did most of the extended writing at home in their portfolio, which they would hand in three times per semester.
- More authentic written communication takes place. The instructor was the sole audience for the students’ writing efforts in the face-to-face class; hardly conducive to getting them to exert themselves beyond what was strictly necessary, for instance, write 250 words on a given topic, include a topic sentence for each paragraph, etc. By contrast, online everyone can see almost everything an individual student writes – in forums, wikis and learning journal entries – so they’re writing for a wider audience. Wider than just the instructor, at any rate.
- Less outgoing/weaker students participate more than they would in a traditional class. If you’re discussing a topic in class, talkative students will often dominate the discussion, even if you try hard to make sure most people get to say something. On the other hand, if everyone is required to participate in an online discussion, they will. Or they won’t get a grade.
- You can consider the feedback you want to give more carefully. In class teachers are sometimes asked questions they don’t know the answer to. This is absolutely fine; after all, it’s a great opportunity to demonstrate that the teacher is not the ultimate vessel of all knowledge, but that some responsibility for their learning lies with the students. However, you sometimes do wish that you’d known the answer to a question because it would have been pertinent to the subject under discussion or useful for all students to know. You sometimes want to point the students to a useful resource which they can use for further research. It is certainly possible to bring up the point at the beginning of the next session, but it may not seem as relevant any more. Online, you can highly personalize the feedback and tailor it specifically to a student’s needs.
My experience with teaching online has been positive overall, though I wouldn’t be in a hurry to say that an online course is inherently worse or better than a face-to-face one. While I was putting this list together, I considered a number of points I didn’t like so much, but finally decided to leave those for another post. The list isn’t meant to be exhaustive and is definitely determined in large part by the context I work in, so do by all means let me know of any advantages I’ve overlooked.