Challenges of teaching Business English online
I have been teaching business English online for some time now, and thought it was about time I wrote a few posts on some of the challenges of teaching online and how I deal with them. Today, I will focus on challenges connected to technology and make some suggestions regarding how they can be dealt with. Before I move on though, I will explain what teaching online is for me. The learning platform I use is Adobe Connect and a phone line/Skype. So, what are some of the technology related problems that may lead to anxiety on your or your learners behalf (anxiety is a very soft term , may I just say)
- Connection problems.
You or your learner may have difficulty connecting which is why it is necessary to have very fast internet connection as well as back up plans in case something goes wrong. You could use a phone line or Skype when your online classroom/internet connection is not working. So you may not be able to have a lesson in your online classroom, but you can still have one via phone. Remember always get your learner’s contact info on different types of media (phone, mobile, emails).
- Problems accessing the virtual classroom+technology related web notifications popping up.
I think it is a good idea to create a document or a podcast regarding the tech glitches connected to the software you are using to hold the sessions. Have some sort of reference list related to any notifications the learner may get and explain the steps he needs to take in order to deal with the notifications.This can be your learners’ go to document or video when something comes up. Also, during the first lesson, guide your learners through the steps related to connecting to the classroom and the different buttons in the online classroom. You may even take a picture of the virtual classroom and add notes to what does what.
Example of document with guidance for learners (Pic of Adobe Connect)
- Recording sessions
One of the advantages of teaching online is that you can record the session and upload it to your chosen learning management system (LMS). This is great but you also need to be careful and always ask your learner for permission to record and upload the sessions because there may be legal issues or just simply out of respect of your learner’s privacy. I have had learners who did not want their sessions to be recorded so you must know this beforehand!
- Time management
Managing time online can be quite difficult especially when there are connection problems. Imagine a situation where you are teaching and half way through the session the phone line drops or your learner vanishes from the online classroom. You spend minutes trying to get connectivity back, you ask all the TRQs (technology related questions) and time flies without you noticing. Very often when you are trying to reconnect, you lose track of time, since you are more focused on checking to see if you or your learner are back instead of what time it is. In this case, the only suggestion I can make is realizing that connection problems may be a problem and checking the time is something that has to be done consciously and frequently.
This is the biggest challenge! According to Pelz’s principles of effective online teaching (2004, cited in the Hannover research council, 2009) visibility is essential as lack of visibility may lead to passiveness on behalf of the learner. As online sessions are not face to face, it is important that the sessions are carried out whilst using a webcam. I believe that teachers delivering online sessions should encourage their learners to get and use a webcam. Teachers should also always have their webcam on so that the learners see the teachers face, gestures etc. When using the webcam, the teacher is not just a voice coming from far away but someone the learner can see!
I think this is difficult to tackle. You use your computer as the medium to deliver the session. Apart from your online classroom, your learner is also connected to his email account, Skype or an internal communication system which means that someone may be emailing your learner while you are having a lesson with him. So, you may be going on about negotiation skills, and your learner may be emailing a colleague about a meeting! What can you do? Not much. Try to explain to your learner that the English session is very important and that him being preoccupied with something else during the session, may lead to missing out something important! You could also suggest that the lessons be held in another room and not his/her office.
- Group sessions
One of the benefits of online teaching is that you access your learners workspace with the click of a button. This can turn into a nightmare though when trying to hold group sessions. When having face to face sessions, you go to a classroom and everyone meets you there. When delivering a group session, you try to connect with three different people , in three different offices so all the technical issues get multiplied by three! I only have one suggestion here… try to avoid group sessions!
How do all these challenges affect my business English students?
Good question. Well, time is of the essence for your BE students so you really need to eliminate or at least try to minimize any connectivity problems that may waste your learners time. They are at work and dealing with connectivity issues may even make them want to cancel sessions. You do not want your learners cancelling sessions. Especially when their schedule is already tight!
You definitely do not want your learners to be passive. Interactivity is core to online teaching and using a webcam is a good idea. Another reason why webcams are necessary when delivering BE sessions is because business communication does require the teaching of paralinguistic features and this is when a camera can be useful. You can show your learner what gestures and facial expressions are appropriate/inappropriate/not so appropriate in different cultures etc. Of course, this does mean that as a teacher, you do need to feel comfortable sticking your face in front of a camera and focusing on facial expressions. Well, if you do not, you could also use videos from YouTube : ) which you can send as a link when teaching online. Yay! Another advantage of teaching online-immediate access of online material, websites etc.
Dealing with distractions your BE students may have, is not a piece of cake. You could incorporate them into your session though (if you realize your learner is doing something else instead of paying attention to the lesson) and they could be a great learning experience for your BE student as you may help him/her with a real email he/she may need to send. Bottom line is that distractions do occur and I am still wondering about what the best way to deal with them is.
Dealing with the problems that arise during group sessions is easy. Just discourage group sessions. Group sessions in my experience are more easily cancelled so if possible stick to one to one lessons when delivering business English sessions online.
My final thoughts….
I only touched a few of the problems related to teaching online and how they may affect the delivery of a business English session. Of course, these challenges apply to any online session. I am really interested in what you think so do feel free to comment or make other suggestions. I will be back with more posts on teaching BE online.
Till next time…
Hannover Research council (2009) Best Practices in Online Teaching. [pdf]: Washington. Available at <http://www.uwec.edu/AcadAff/resources/edtech/upload/Best-Practices-in-Online-Teaching-Strategies-Membership.pdf> [Accessed 27 February 2014].