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Online Teaching: Is the genie out of the bottle?

20th May 2020

By Alan Dunleavy

Two months ago, when we made the transition to online teaching in response to the pandemic, I was skeptical about the emergence of online as a serious long-term threat to conventional ESL classrooms. Now I’m not so sure. What has happened since then?

Initially the experience of teaching online was like sailing in choppy waters. Connection issues; problems with file-sharing, audio clips, microphones;  students who lacked the right equipment; WiFi reliability; and the challenge of keeping students from distracting themselves online during a lesson; all made the online classroom feel like a poor substitute for the real thing.

The process improved however, with the purchase of microphones by students and adoption of the Zoom platform helping a great deal. For my part, I began preparing more visual materials on Word and PowerPoint to give students something to look at and make the lessons more engaging. After a month the lessons had become smoother and more consistent.

Many teachers are now teaching remotely within countries and even across borders. You no longer need to be located near your students. The whole world is open to the online teacher and more and more of us are beginning to enjoy the experience and take it seriously as a long-term option. It turns out teaching remotely can be both fun and rewarding. You can make a cup of tea in your own kitchen in between lessons, and save having to commute twice a day to the office.

The question of student engagement is more ambiguous admittedly as, on the one hand students are less inclined to distract each other or chit-chat in their native language when they are separated physically, but, on the other hand, you never know whether or not they have another tab or window open on their computer screen to distract themselves. Online games and social media are temptations for the teenage and younger learners and this is tough to regulate in a group setting.

Parents I’m sure were initially skeptical as well about whether or not online lessons would represent value for money as compared with conventional classes. However I think, like teachers, parents may be gradually warming to the idea, as the process becomes smoother and the lessons more productive. There may be convenience for parents too as they save time picking up students from the academy and driving them home. Students too may appreciate being able to learn from the comfort of home.

It is still early days of course and, although the jury is still out (especially for students taking exams at the end of term), I no longer see online as a temporary aberration and believe it will become a permanent feature of ESL teaching. Although classrooms will presumably fill up again after the pandemic, there could be a new demand for online lessons and teachers may find themselves increasingly splitting their schedules between remote and in-house lessons.

From the perspective of schools, priorities include justifying the price of a lesson and striving to make online lessons as effective and engaging as those in a conventional classroom. Looking forward to next term, schools have to make tough decisions regarding classroom space. Some may choose to reduce overheads by occupying smaller premises or using fewer rooms, while making online a larger part of their overall schedules. For those who own or rent classrooms these are major choices and of course the preferences of the students and parents will be a key influence.

Another factor for schools offering online lessons is whether or not to hire teachers who live abroad. Although initially reluctant to do so, I think teachers who work remotely have generally proven themselves to be reliable and the efficiency of online file sharing plus the numerous channels in existence for coordination between employer and employee have facilitated this process greatly. Hence schools may consider hiring remotely on a permanent basis and reduce the number of staff who physically come into the premises. This would coincide with reducing the number of classrooms being maintained by the schools. The extent to which such a trend will materialise is uncertain but we can imagine how ESL schools may look and operate next year or even for many years to come.

To sum up, I think the genie may well be out of the bottle. Although many will miss the buzz and atmosphere of a real classroom, the convenience and efficiency of online will appeal both to working professionals and students who commute. Online will probably become a larger part of the ordinary ESL school’s offering, if not a complete replacement. Teachers who acclimatise to online teaching will be rewarded as they will have many more options and could do more teaching from home, or even spread themselves across multiple employers. Academies may find it advantageous to hire remotely or reduce the size of their premises. Online Teaching hence shouldn’t be seen as a temporary phenomenon but as a permanent change in the industry. Adapting to this trend will be key to both the competitiveness of schools and the employability of teachers. The environment has changed and survival now requires adaptation. Just as in evolution, those who adapt quickly will be better prepared for what the future holds.

Alan Dunleavy

Alan is from Dublin, Ireland and has been teaching English since 2016 in Poland, Spain and The Czech Republic.

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