Happy Birthday! Now let’s talk facts.

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On February 6, 2018 I started working on this website and made a long list of things that I had to work on. Let’s talk about some of these today.

Backstory

Before I found out about Moodle and H5P, all the lessons I’d made were simple Google Documents. While it worked for my students, I felt like something was missing, something like interactivity, the opportunity for students to go through a lesson once more in their free time to revise what they’ve learned. I started wondering if there was any value in what I offered to my students. With these thoughts in mind, I began researching what could be done to improve what I already had. That’s when I found out about Learning Management Systems and started working on transferring the lessons I had to a system.

It was not an easy start, I spent a whole month adding my existing lessons into the system, often having to adapt, rewrite or scrap some parts of them as the software I was using had its limits (And finding out a way around them was interesting). Not to mention that I had no previous experience in maintaining a website.

All I wanted was to add more value to the students and that was what I hoped I was doing. I lost track of how many times my website would stop working but I was curious to see it through and, one month later, most of my students welcomed the changes so I felt like I was doing the right thing.

Blogging

I originally intended for the blog to give my students extra practice with the things that we’ve covered during our lessons. Think of it as a free gift apart from the time we’ve spent together. That’s when I realized that I should add exercises to my blog so that they could not only read about these things, but also practice them if they wanted to.

I also figured that by making weekly updates that would make me more disciplined and help me develop as a teacher (I’m the kind of person who’s lazy but responsible and that’s a terrible combo for teaching English).

Sharing some of my lesson plans was my way of helping other teachers, as well as getting some useful feedback to improve what I’ve already made.

Videos

In Summer, I decided to experiment and try making videos to attract more attention to the site and the courses. I made a small list of rules my videos should follow in regards to length, content, how I should talk about different things, e.t.c.

Surprisingly, the only video that was able to be somewhat popular was my first video that got 1956 views. Maybe it’s because I tried to push it through different Facebook groups or someone was looking for tips for IELTS and stumbled upon it by chance.

Either way, I spent countless hours shooting and editing each video and I decided to stop doing that for now because I felt it was a better idea to spend these extra hours doing something more useful for my students.

The numbers

Over the year, I can share the following numbers:

Unique visitors: 4761 (I think no more than 2500 of them were human)
Top 10 Countries by visits: Ukraine, Great Britain, Russian Federation, the USA, Poland, France, Kazakhstan, Czech Republic, Belarus, Turkey.
Operating systems: Windows (56.2%), Android (35.6%), Linux (6%), Macintosh (1.1%), iOS (0.8%)
Downloads: 294. The Pearl lesson plan proved to be the most popular one, being downloaded 49 times. I hope it was as useful to my colleagues as it was to me! 🙂
Spam: Over the year, I’ve received 110 spam comments and around 12 marketing offers through the form in the Contact Me page.

Questions?

Let me walk you through a few myths and assumptions about online teaching.

Will teaching online make me spend less time on planning lessons?

Yes and no. If you’re planning to work for an online language center, perhaps you’ll get lucky and have all the necessary materials at your disposal. If you really want to create your own course, that’s a whole different thing.

One of the reasons why I opted to use an LMS such as Moodle was the assumption that it would save time on preparing for the lessons and automate testing. I can say that if you’ve already created a lesson and plan to use it for another student then it does save your time, but you need to factor in all the time you spend planning and then adding the lesson into the system in the first place and that can take quite a while. And creating tests requires you to use a special syntaxis for the software to accept and grade answers.

Is it difficult to create new lessons from scratch?

Let me put it this way: it’s not that difficult to create a lesson around a video or an article you found online. But creating a course which is progressive, balanced, dynamic and doesn’t just jump from one topic to another is not as easy as it seems.

Whenever I add a new lesson for my General English course, I consult with The Core Inventory for General English to make sure that I’m not teaching rocket science to a student of a lower level. It’s not always perfect, but the more I get to know the students, the easier it becomes for me to work with them because I listen to them. I know that I share the responsibility for their result so I must give it my best or look for other career options.

I also have to analyze the language or vocabulary an article or video has and think of how I would teach and practice it during the lesson, as well as how it would fit into the tests I make after clearing each topic. What kind of useful language or discussion can the video generate from the students?

That’s why it’s very important for me that the video I use should be engaging and relevant to the students. Another thing I have to think of is how the homework would reflect on what we’ve been doing during the lesson and doing all of that isn’t something one could realistically do in an hour.

Why can’t you just use a textbook, like everybody else does?

Because that’s illegal.

Sure, I can look at the books I’ve used in class for some inspiration, but copy/pasting things is not an option. Not to mention that coursebooks are specifically made to use in classrooms with groups of learners and you can’t just take what’s available and expect it to work with an individual student (or online). The same applies for those cute photocopiables in the book which make use of each and every student in a group. Apart from that, using authentic materials which reflect real-life situations gives your students a really natural exposure to the language. Your students are also free to interpret the materials in whichever way they want. Coursebook authors acknowledge that and tend to mix authentic materials with pseudo-authentic, adapted ones.

What’s better? Authentic materials or coursebooks?

A few years ago I would argue that authentic materials are always better, but now, having more experience making them, I can say that coursebooks offer a structure which any teacher can use and if the teacher lacks experience, a coursebook will offer lots of activities and a sense of security (If I don’t know what to do, I’ll just use the stuff in the book). It was also created by a group of professionals which can be seen in its presentation, the images it offers, as well as in the total package you’re getting (Students Book, Workbook, Teacher’s Book).

Another point why coursebooks might be better is, based on my experience, if you tell your students that you’re using books published by Cambridge English, OUP, Pearson or Macmillan, they’ll tend to take their learning more seriously while talking about a course that you developed from scratch makes a lot of students doubt your professionalism (And no, having ELT certifications is not as convincing as you may think it is). You need to show your students why the lessons developed by one man could be more useful to them than materials that a group of people spent days, months and years developing.

If you’re aiming to develop a complete, organized and effective course that uses authentic materials exclusively then, once you finish making it, you’ll still end up with a… coursebook. Your coursebook. 🙂

Will being self-employed make me earn more money?

Well… Teaching online hasn’t made me rich yet. 🙂

When creating Enska, I didn’t emphasize making money. I wanted to take what I’ve been doing to the next level. If I was aiming to make more money, I wouldn’t have bothered blogging, I wouldn’t change the system that worked for me, I would just take a lot of students and do the same things we’ve done in a regular class. I preferred focusing on the value as the more value you give to your students, the more likely they are to recommend you to their friends and that’s what’s important to me.

For those of you who are interested in teaching English (or any other subject) online, before you set out to create your own website, try to answer these questions:

1. Am I ready to take complete responsibility for all of my actions?

Back when I was working at language centers, I didn’t have to worry much about student attendance, about students complaining or about the curriculum because someone else was doing it for me.
If the students had any concerns, they would voice them to the manager.
If the students were unhappy with how you work, they would talk to the Director of Studies or, in the worst case scenario, to the owner of the school.
If your students suddenly decided to stop studying English, they would leave and the managers would give you a different group.
It wasn’t your responsibility and you were protected from all the negative consequences that such actions could cause.

All of that will change once you start working for yourself and you should be ready for that.

If your students end up leaving, you’ll be the one looking for a new student or group.

I don’t mean to scare you. I personally think that these conditions give teachers the best motivation to work harder for their students but you may or may not share my point of view.

2. Do I understand that teaching online using my course requires a lot of different skills which aren’t necessarily related to ELT.

Do you know what Error 524 or MySQL mean? What would you do if you got an error like:

Fatal error: $CFG->dataroot is not configured properly, directory does not exist or is not accessible! Exiting. 

If you haven’t started looking those up on Google then maybe this is not the perfect job for you. You should expect to run into different errors, issues, bugs, crashes and data loss when you first start working on your site, but your students don’t have to know about this, find a solution so that they wouldn’t have to deal with it. And if you haven’t found one yet, think of an alternative, joke about the imperfections, use them as a way of starting a conversation to show your students that you can work in any conditions.

You also need a range of soft skills to attract students and keep working with them, as well as a basic understanding of how graphics editors work (I use GIMP) to name a few.

3. If I start doing something, do I have what it takes to keep working on it for years?

After spending 6 months on the website, I started thinking that a 9 to 5 job is actually great because when you go home from work, you stop thinking about all the things you need to do and relax. That never applies to your own thing though.

Sometimes I worked on a problem until 2-3 AM because I had a lesson coming up and I didn’t feel prepared for it or the website wasn’t responsive enough. I’m trying to maintain a better work-life balance, but there’s so much more I need to do before I can find some extra time for myself.

It may sound a bit crazy, but this is actually common for many people. Some people I know spent almost a decade working on their business before taking even one short vacation. I think Kevin O’Leary made a good summary of the sacrifices that people can make to become successful.

There are so many questions that need to be answered before making such a big step but I feel that this post is already too long so let’s stop here for now. If you’ve answered no to any of those questions then don’t be disappointed. Perhaps you just need more time or experience to make a big decision. Take your time, analyze your strengths and weaknesses, keep learning because if you teach people then you have to understand that your work is never done and people always learn something new regardless of their jobs.

So there you have it, a (not so) quick look at how teaching online works for me.

If you have any questions that you’d like to ask – feel free to leave a comment.

And I’ll conclude my longest post with a link to the Paradoxical Commandments. I would often read these commandments when I was feeling down or thought about giving up teaching altogether. I hope these commandments will help you as well.

See you next Saturday. 🙂

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