Thursday, February 28, 2013

Effective lessons in a virtual classroom?

When one starts to consider teaching live online, the decision as to how one will effectively teach has to be made.  Is Skype enough?  Is live online teaching really only good for conversation lessons or can one do more?  How does one present teaching material to students who aren't in the same classroom?  How can one engage the students in the virtual classroom?  These are all great questions and I will try to answer each question systematically.

Is Skype enough?
For the most part, this question really depends on the learner and the specific goals that the learner has.  If the learner only wants to practice speaking and does not want to engage in other areas of language learning, I would say YES, Skype is enough.  There are a lot of learners out there that just need and want conversation and so this venue would be good enough.

Is live online teaching really only good for conversation lessons or can one do more?
If a teacher is using a virtual classroom, the lessons can be richer than just straight conversation because of the tools that are available in the classroom.  I will go into detail about these tools in future posts and I already briefly mentioned these tools in the post Skype vs. the virtual classroom. If a teacher utilizes the tools correctly, the teacher can teach grammar, writing, pronunciation as well as other areas effectively.

How does one present teaching material to students who aren't in the same classroom?  The tools that are available in the classroom allows the students and teachers to be engaged in the material so one does not need to consider paper or books if the teacher is able to use the tools correctly.  Screensharing, Whiteboarding, Webtouring are just some of the tools available to the live online language teacher.

How does one engage the students in the virtual classroom?  Personally, I have found the best way to get the students engaged is to use the whiteboard as a tool for them to speak and actually use the language.  The chat function serves as a great feedback tool.

If you haven't already figured out, each of these questions point to the effective use of virtual classroom tools.  In subsequent posts, I will be systematically introducing the different tools in various virtual classrooms and how the effective live online language teacher can use these tools for language teaching.  Check back soon!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Business English Lesson in the Virtual Classroom

One great thing about using technology in language learning is that authentic material can be utilized with great success.  One such activity is for students who are studying English in order to improve their effectiveness at work.  When I started teaching live online, I was also a Business English trainer in many companies in Finland and I found that many of the ideas that I was learning for effective teaching in the virtual classroom could also be utilized in the face-to-face classroom.  One of my goals when teaching business English is helping the students be able to effectively explain what they do in a matter of minutes or in the time it takes an elevator to reach its destination.  Many of my students, online and face to face, work in industries and do jobs that I just don't understand.  Their task, in my class, is to be able to effectively communicate that to me.  If they are successful at selling a product, explaining what they do or whatever to me, then they will, no doubt, be successful with potential clients or even current international clients.  One such activity that I have utilized quite successfully is using the students' company websites.  Many of the websites are multilingual and are many times written in English as well as the students' native tongue.  What I do is have the student screen share and bring up their company website in their native tongue.  We then go through the website systematically as the student introduces the company and/or products to me.  I then come up with a lot of questions so that the student(s) can learn to handle questions extemporaneously.  I have found, through the years, that this lesson is quite helpful to the student as they are learning vocabulary that they really need for their particular industry.  In addition, they are learning to explain things in a way that a native speaker of English would understand.  If you haven't tried this with your business English student, I would encourage you to.  Tell the student in advance so they can study the English portion of their website in order to write down key vocabulary that they can use.  You can also refer to the English website before the lesson to ensure you understand what the student is presenting.

Monday, February 11, 2013

A vocabulary activity for the virtual classroom!

When I was in the LANCELOT course back in 2008, I did a peer to peer activity with a colleague and through that activity where we tested white boards in various classrooms, I came up with another hall of fame activity for whiteboarding.  I have tested it numerous times with intermediate level and above and it works beautifully.  Basically, the topic is on 'personality'.  What you do is separate the whiteboard into two sections (or if you are using adobe connect, put up two whiteboards) and have the students brainstorm as many words that they can think of that has to do with someone's personality.  Once the list is exhausted, have each student write their name on the second half of the whiteboard vertically.  Then have each student choose a word from the list that describes their personality.  Once they have written the words, then have each person explain why they chose that particular word.  Normally the lesson lasts for about 45 minutes, which is ideal for a virtual classroom.  If your class is longer than an hour, I would take some discussion questions from the website 'Conversation questions for the ESL/EFL classroom' which can work nicely into a fluency exercise.  The following pictures are of lessons from Edufire's Adobe Connect and also from a virtual classroom called Instant Presenter.

Advanced Level activity in the Virtual Classroom!

One of my hall-of-fame activities for advanced level learners of English in the virtual classroom is on 'giving opinions'. The following is a description as to how the class session usually goes.  I always start a lesson with some type of small talk activity and normally will have a picture up that might generate some discussion such as the one below.
Then, we go into the activity.  I usually go through phrases that people need for giving opinions using a powerpoint slide and/or illicit the phrases from the student, depending on the level of the student.  Then I bring up a slide where the student can mark whether they agree or disagree with the statement that I am saying.  The student practices listening by listening to my statement and then they will explain their opinion, which allows them to practice speaking.  The following are some of the statements I might use:

1.  It is difficult to have a successful family life and a successful career.  One has to choose one or the other.
2.  Video games are the cause of violence in our societies.
3. It is okay to smoke while pregnant during the first trimester.

I, of course, tailor the statement to the student's needs and will use business topicss or general topics based on the student.  The student will mark on the whiteboard and then the group will discuss the issue.  It is really fun with groups as there might be a lot of differing opinions.  With a one-to-one student, this activity might last more than one week depending on how much the student likes it.

Skype vs. The Virtual Classroom

I was doing a virtual classroom demonstration last week with a possible client and the person innocently asked, 'how is this different than teaching on Skype?' and so I thought I would answer the question here.  Skype is one of the best VoIP software programs out there and if you are just having a conversation with your students and don't really need to use online tools, Skype might just be the best alternative for a live online teacher.  If one is teaching groups and/or would like to make the class more interesting by using tools, the virtual classroom is the best.  I will start with the similarities and then go on to the differences between the two.

When teaching with either Skype or a virtual classroom, there are three areas that are exactly alike.  One, both teacher and student can use VoIP and their web camera for one-to-one classes.  If the teacher (or student) has paid for the option on Skype, they can also see groups in the web camera, but for the free versions, the teacher can only use the web camera if the call is with one other person.  The second similarity is the ability to share one's screen.  This is a nice opportunity for both teacher and student to share resources.  The third similarity is the chat.  The teacher can use the chat to provide feedback or give directions to the student using this function and copy the chat and email the student with feedback.

The following are some tools that a teacher can use in the virtual classroom that cannot be used on Skype.  The whiteboard is one of the best ways to get the student involved in a lesson.  When teaching groups, the teacher can ask the students to write on the whiteboard while one student is talking.  There are many activities teachers can do on the whiteboard.  They can upload matching activities, game slides or use it for free writing.  As illustrated in my last post, teaching beginning level children, I used the whiteboard for the children to answer questions through drawing that they may not have had the vocabulary for.  The whiteboard is just one excellent way to utilize the virtual classroom tools.

Another difference between using Skype and the virtual classroom is the ability to upload video.  I was giving the demonstration in WebEx, which allowed me to upload short videos.  I will usually upload quick videos for discussion.  Alternatively, the student can be directed to a website, but it makes it more convenient for the teacher to have a little control.

Webtouring is another feature that I use for YouTube videos and games and activities.  As previously mentiond, there is less control, but a feature that cannot be used in other formats.

In WebEx, one has the opportunity to annotate and/or write on the screen as one does on the whiteboard while screensharing, which is wonderful if the teacher is showing an online activity.

Blackboard Collaborate has a feature that I really like for teaching groups.  The feature is an online clock.  So, you give your students pairwork and set the clock for five minutes and the teach and students all see the clock.  The teacher can also make the clock invisible to the students for other activities.

One of the big advantages to using a virtual classroom like WebEx, Blackboard Collaborate, Adobe Connect, Spreed, Microsoft Live, or WizIQ is the ability for groups to see each other on the web camera.  In addition, the teacher can record the sessions and have it available for the students to watch at a later time.  One can record on Skype, but it has to be with another program and there is no opportunity to see the class.

So, to summarize, Skype lessons are great for conversation classes yet if one wants to teach groups or utilize online tools such as the whiteboard, webtouring, annotating screenshare, and video, the virtual classroom is a better alternative.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Lessons learned teaching children in a virtual classroom!

One of the last projects I worked on before changing gears a couple of years ago was a project teaching for rural Korean schools in the Microsoft live virtual classroom.  Five nights a week, I taught small groups of 3rd-6th graders.  The students were all in a computer lab and there was a teacher who translated for me.  It was quite challenging and at first I was hard pressed as to how I can make the lessons fun and effective.  The following are a few things I learned to do to keep the students entertained.

First, I made sure that we utilized the whiteboard throughout the lesson.  My first slide was always the same slide and the students were asked how they were and they would circle whether they were happy, sad, tired, fine, etc.  Then I would have a question and there would be a chart and the students would all draw their answers using the white board tools.  They then had a chance to use the vocabulary from the picture to answer the question.  The questions were pretty basic for beginning students, such as:
1.  How is the weather today?
2. What did you do over the weekend?
3.  What did you study today?
4.  What is your favorite thing to do?
5. What is your favorite sport.

Secondly, I tried to use the the webtour function so that we could utilize video and allow the students to work on activities.  I almost always began the class with what soon to be one of my favorite children's songs made by Peter Weatherall, a teacher in Japan, called 'The Hello Song'.  Although, I did utilize other videos, this one was my favorite and the kids would sing along.

Another site I would use while webtouring is a children's site for kindergartener's here in the USA called Starfall, which had some really creative interactive games the students could play.  The only problem with that site was that when a teacher allows webtouring, there is really no control and so I didn't know what the students were really doing, so I had to rely on the Korean teacher who usually told me when they were finished.  I could tell by the students' faces that they were engaged, however.

Thirdly, another site the I frequented, especially for the older students was Barry Fun English , which also has a lot of interactive games, but the students needed to be in teams.  For this activity, I would use the screenshare function of the virtual classroom.  There were language games similar to the Wheel of Fortune, Bingo and other popular games.  I really liked this site and even paid for a couple months subscription as it was so popular. Since I had a subscription, I was also able to download the powerpoint slides that illustrated the vocabulary associated with each game.

So, after two spring semesters of doing this project, I came up with some really great sites and activities to engage the students as they learned English.  The class sessions were only about 45 minutes a few times a week, so the main objective was for the students to learn a bit of English and also to become acquainted with a native speaking accent, which was a great success.  The class size was 4-8 so it was also quite manageable.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


I started this blog a few years back to document my adventure into live online language teaching.  About 2011, I changed gears for a bit and learned about assessment as I worked as an item writer for an assessment company.  We worked as a team and developed language tests for different clients.  I worked with languages I had never heard of before then such as Amharic and Dari.  It was a great learning experience and I will forever be grateful for the chance to work with this company.  Unfortunately, my time with item writing (at least with this company) came to a close on Halloween 2012 as 70% of the team was laid off due to lack of work.  This made me take a long hard look at what I really wanted for the future and I realized that my heart and passion really was in live online language training, so I have decided to promote my company as well as start training teachers again.  We are currently in the planning stage and I will post more about what I'm planning as we have it more formalized.  Keep checking back as I begin (again) to start promoting live online language training!

Here is a blast from the past--part of my assessment for the LANCELOT certificate: