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Moving from Face-to-Face Teaching to Online Classes

Teaching online is fairly similar to teaching face-to-face (F2F) in many ways, in other ways it is very different. This means that some of what works well in your traditional F2F classroom will not be as successful in your new online lessons.

Although this is a common move for teachers to make nowadays, there are some things that you should consider when preparing for your first online classes. Some of the natural rhythms you base your teaching on in a physical classroom will be different. For example, I found the slight delay on some video calls really confused my teaching style at first. This showed up in my teaching as a lack of confidence. Prior to this I had not actively noticed how much of my teaching was based on reacting to my students. Once I realised this, I adjusted my teaching accordingly (pausing for longer than I would naturally to allow for the technology) and had some great feedback from students once again.

I had initially assumed it would be very similar to my previous teaching experiences, I had not considered the differences and how they might alter my teaching, so this threw me at first.

The key for anyone moving from face-to-face to online teaching for the first time is to remember that teaching online will be different, teaching online using different tools and technologies will be different as well and you need to allow yourself time to adjust and plan.

How different are online and face-to-face teaching?

Let's start with what remains the same:

  • Lesson planning fundamentals - you still need clear lesson aims and a plan for your lesson.
  • Clear communication - ensuring that you communicate throughout the lesson is just as important for learning as it is in a classroom, how you do this might be different e.g. typing new vocabulary into a chat box instead of writing it on the board.
  • Varying interaction patterns and creating quality interactions are still signs of a successful class - it can be easy to slip into "being the presenter" mode when teaching online. Aim to set up activities for students to work together or to speak to you or to present and be recorded to vary interactions.
  • Design of materials is important - this can be daunting for some teachers, but having materials designed to be read from a screen (sometimes a small screen if the student is on their phone) is important. As you would in class, think about the end use of any worksheets that you create.
  • Motivating students is a big part of your role - this is true in many types of teaching and finding engaging ways to work will encourage students to learn and customers to return.
  • Building rapport is a fundamental - in online lessons the student still needs to feel comfortable making mistakes, still needs to see how the lesson content relates to them and their aims - you still need to get to know your students.
  • Assessment and feedback - these can be harder to picture in an online class, especially if you like to add hand written notes to students work, but they are still key to good teaching and learning, the format of them might change but they should still be there.

And what are the differences?

  • Your students might not understand how your online classroom works. They have experience of being taught in a face-to-face classroom so know what is expected of them but you may need to show them how to use the technology in your online classroom, explain etiquette, show them what to do if they have questions or tech problems. This doesn't need to be a big deal. You can provide a short email introduction with screenshots or videos, allow time at the start of a lesson with a new student to go over the basics or use a technology they are more likely to be familiar with (e.g. Skype) 
  • It is easier to quit online lessons. This means that you need to focus on engaging your students more and that you should reach out and check in whit students who are beginning to lose interest. For example, if I have a student who misses a lesson, shows up late, leaves early etc. I will email them to check in, ask them if they are OK, see if they are still working towards the same goals and ask how I can help them more or in a different way. That is normally enough to reengage them. 
  • Students who choose online learning tend to be self-motivated.  This means homework and self-study will usually be completed and lesson time is often valuable as an extension of their extended "book-based" learning. I have found it useful to acknowledge the work they put in outside the classroom, self-directed or set by myself. I also give them opportunities to bring up what they are studying and to focus on it in the lesson if they choose to.
  • It is easy to leave out feedback when you teach. If, like me, you are used to providing feedback via writing, nodding, gesturing in a physical classroom it is important to realise that a lot of this gets lost when teaching online. Explaining how you will be providing feedback (typed up notes) and when (after the lesson) will allow students and you to focus, without losing out on this valuable piece of the lesson. 
  • Tech is your responsibility. I know this one can be hard to control, especially if the issue is on the student's end but it is your classroom, so they will look to you to help them. This doesn't have to be complicated (depending on the software you use). For example, I have a student who answered our Skype call complaining that I was too loud. We use only Skype audio because his internet connection is too poor for video. We always do this, my settings remained the same. The issue here was that his volume was turned up. He, however, dealt with this (or didn't) by telling me to stop shouting (which I wasn't) in an aggravated manner. To get on to the actual teaching I had to (very quietly) talk him through turning down the volume on his phone handset. It is rare I have a student who has chosen online lessons and has this level of tech-ability, but if I had not talked him through the steps we would not have been able to proceed with our lesson.
  • Student to student interaction can be tricky. This is another one that depends on the software you use. If you are on something free like Skype or Zoom, the students can see each other. If you are using more expensive conferencing software you can even set up breakout virtual rooms for discussions, which is fabulous, but pricey. In most cases it is tricky to set up pair or group work during online lessons. I make time for this outside of our lessons, setting work for pairs in between lesson times - the students simply Skype each other. During lessons I also call on students in turn to ask for their opinions, responses to other students; a type of moderated group interaction to ensure everyone is involved. Different things work with different groups.
  • Classroom management is a whole different ball game. This is true if you are teaching adults or young learners. Not being in a physical classroom with your students can change your teacher presence. To combat this be sure to make the classroom rules and consequences/rewards clear at the start. If it is appropriate have the parents of the children present for this part of the first lesson, so that they can help with enforcement from their side of the computer. With adults ask them to turn off their phones/tablets/notifications to get the most out of their investment in your lessons. Make it clear how they can ask for changes/questions/contribute, so that disruptions like people talking over each other aren't as likely.

I don't want to put anyone off of teaching online, I know this list can seem a bit daunting. Just like when you teach anything else that is new to you, preparation is the key. Set yourself up for success by planning for these changes.



Join me and the community in The Business of Teaching Membership to get practical skills, mentoring, support and community to help you get your freelance teaching business off the ground.

If you are thinking about becoming an online or freelance teacher our ebook is a good place to start;  Getting Started in Online and Freelance Teaching Ebook

 Written by Claire Collis, Founder and Managing Director of The ELT Skills Academy



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