5 Benefits (and Caveats) of Teaching English Online via Skype

blog_Lingohut_picDespite its prevalence, the Internet is still somewhat shrouded in mystery. When you tell people that you teach English online, you may find yourself being met with furrowed brows or askance glances. Indeed, though people have no problem using the Internet to manage their mail, taxes, shopping, entertainment, news, and banking (among other things), it appears that they draw the line at English class. “Can Skype really take the place of face-to-face interaction?” they ask, suddenly concerned about the legitimacy of the system into which they just entered their full name, address, and social security number.

Yes, teaching English on the Internet comes with its own unique set of challenges. But it also opens the door for countless opportunities. When it’s done right, online classes can be rewarding for both teachers and students, in addition to providing a stable income. Here are some of the benefits that online teachers enjoy, along with the challenges that come with them.

1. You can be flexible with your hours . . . but you need to have a clear cancellation policy.

Perhaps the most obvious advantage of teaching English online is that you have incredible flexibility with your schedule. If you’re a night owl, you can fill up your evenings, and sleep in the next morning. Indeed, your students will come from all over the world — so if you feel inspired to teach at two in the morning, this might be a reasonable hour for a student in a different time zone.

This flexibility is great — but beware that you don’t want your schedule to be too flexible. It’s common for students to consider online classes to be less of a concrete obligation than classes at a school or institute. As a result, cancellations can be frequent, so it’s best to be clear about your cancellation policy from the get-go (I recommend requiring at least 24 hours’ notice).

2. Working from home is convenient . . . but watch out for the warning signs that you’re becoming stir-crazy.

blog_Lingohut_coffee_picEnjoy a nice cup of coffee while teaching in your local café.
Image: Toshihiro Oimatsu / flickr

For some, working from home is a dream. You can go to the bank, work out at the gym, or buy groceries in peace when the rest of the world is at work. You don’t have to commute, and thus avoid traffic jams and crowded trains. As an added bonus, your lack of commute means that you add an extra hour (or two!) to your day that you otherwise would have spent in transit, which you can spend teaching more classes, running errands, or napping.

However, being cooped up at home all day can make one a little stir-crazy. Indeed, if you find yourself wearing pajamas at 6pm for the third day in a row, consider changing your surroundings. That’s the beauty of online teaching: you’re not constricted by location, so feel free to camp out at your favorite café. Or if you’re feeling really adventurous, try working from a different city, or even a different country: you can travel all over the world and still teach, as long as you have a solid Internet connection!

3. You can connect with different people from diverse cultures all around the world . . . but you have to adjust your teaching accordingly.

“Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.”- Henry David Thoreau

Before I started teaching online, all of my students were exclusively from Buenos Aires, Argentina. As a result, I got used to what they struggled with — I was an expert in illustrating the difference between the letters b and v, as well as explaining the semantic subtleties of the prepositions “in”, “on”, and “at”. When you teach online, however, suddenly you will have students from all over the world. This is great, for many reasons — you have the opportunity to meet interesting people from across the globe, all with different lives, opinions, and experiences.

It also means, however, that you will have to tailor your lessons to your students depending on the language that they speak. For example, in Mandarin Chinese, there are no articles; thus, a learner from Beijing may struggle with the difference between “a” and “the” more than a learner from Paris, whose language contains definite and indefinite articles (like English). Similarly, English word order may be easy for learners in Venice, as Italian also features subject-verb-object word order. But it may be a significant hurdle for Korean speakers, who are used to putting verbs at the end of sentences, after the object.

4. You will learn about the seemingly infinite marvels of the internet . . . but you won’t be able to rely on print books for lesson planning.

English textbooks are a boon for teachers — they provide a cogent study plan, and can be used as a crutch when you just didn’t have time to prepare your lesson. But unless your student has the same book as you, or is willing to purchase it, it’s not easy to use textbooks in online classes (although online versions are becoming increasingly popular).

There’s a silver lining, however, to bidding adieu to your textbooks. If you haven’t already, you’ll discover the plethora of high-quality — and free — resources that are available on the internet. To name just a few, you can find lesson plans based on short films; you can administer listening tests to assess your students’ comprehension skills; you can read English-language blogs specifically tailored to help learners; and you can can check out a wealth of free classroom activities from LingoHut. You’ll have no problem creating interesting, dynamic lessons from material that exists online, and you’ll find inspiration in others’ work.

5. It can take a while to get used to the technology . . . but it will open up so many possibilities.

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Skype, the most popular service for teaching classes online.

Unfortunately, the Internet still isn’t perfect. Indeed, dropped Skype calls are the bane of online English teachers, and finding the right technology to conduct your classes will require some time and troubleshooting. But once you find the right platform — whether it be whether it be Skype, Zoom, or Google Hangouts — you’ll be able to take advantage of the cool features that this technology has to offer.

My favorite tool is screen sharing, which is possible (and free) on all three of the programs mentioned above. With this tool, your student can watch what’s happening on your screen in real-time. This is especially useful if you’re teaching students who otherwise would be unable to access certain media. For example, many learners in China are unable to access certain music videos or movie clips on YouTube, but with screen sharing, you can show them the videos during class. If you want to display a clip from Netflix, but your student doesn’t have an account, no problem — just play the video and share your screen, and voilà!

Two tips about technology in online classes: first, use headphones (and ask that your students do the same), as sometimes the video can delay for a second or so, which creates a distracting echo on the other end. And second, look at the camera, not the screen — though it may seem a bit unnatural, it will give the appearance that you’re actually looking at your students, which more readily mimics face-to-face interactions, and adds a personal touch to online classes.

Yes, some people are hesitant about the idea of teaching online (but curiously not hesitant about the idea of spewing all their personal information in a Facebook status). However, as the Internet continues to grow, teaching online classes will only become more popular. Indeed, there are some obstacles associated with giving classes on the Internet. But ultimately, teaching online will connect you with both diverse students from all over the world, as well as the wonderful and supportive online teaching community — which, to me, outweighs any obstacle, and makes teaching online an excellent, accessible, and convenient option for any English teacher.

Paul is an English teacher in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups. You can check out their free language level tests and other resources on their website. Feel free to visit their Facebook page or contact paul@languagetrainers.com with any questions.