Yes, it is possible to teach online as a self-employed tutor and earn a decent income, even make a career out of it. If this is an idea that you are considering, but you need concrete tips on how to start, read on. But first, why would you want to become an online tutor? The teachers who have asked me for help with transition to online teaching have mostly had one of the following reasons:
- They were seeking for a work-from-home extra source of income that did not entail working for a low-paying online teaching company with questionable methods.
- They were interested in fully transitioning to a self-employed job.
- They were preparing to go travelling long-term and needed to come up with a way to fund their trips.
For those who recognize themselves in 1., 2., or 3., (and anyone else interested in the topic) I have decided to publish a series of articles with hands-on tips on online teaching. This is the first one in the series and is focused on the very basics of starting online teaching. In the following posts, I will deal with more specific topics such as online teaching tools, methodology, lesson planning and similar, so feel free to subscribe to the blog so you can get notifications when a new post is published.
I switched from face-to-face English tutoring to online teaching when I became interested in integrating more technology into my classes. Since at the same time I admittedly got tired of having to commute to students’ homes to give them classes and was also preparing for a long trip to Asia, online teaching seemed like the most logical direction to take. What I did not expect was that it would prove considerably more rewarding than traditional teaching, both professionally and financially.
If you are still wondering if online teaching is for you, take a look at the essential questions to answer before starting to teach online.
What Benefits of Online Teaching Did I Discover?
Here is what I like about online teaching:
- Mobility – i.e. the ability to teach from literally any place that has Internet connection. For example, I managed to give online classes even from some remote towns in India with not so optimal Internet connection.
- Material Storage and Organization – Sure, when you do f2f classes you should also be well-organized and store all your activity sheets online, then print them out before the class or work on them with a student from a computer. However, I have found out that when your classes are online and you tend to share all the learning sheets and other resources with your students, you automatically need to assume a greater responsibility for keeping these files updated and in a logical sequential order. This facilitates not only students’ and your work, but also the transition of your material to an LMS and creation of online courses, if you one day wish to do so.
- Multimodality – Online teaching can entail much greater engagement in multimodal activities than face-to-face classes would, even if technology-enhanced. I am saying can instead of does because the level of multimodality your students will experience depends on the activities you develop for them. For example, having a 1-hour online conversation session with a student is considered online teaching, but there is little multimodality involved, whereas an online class that includes activities done with various Internet tools can result in highly multimodal content that is much more rich and stimulating for your student. Why is multimodality important? It enables better input comprehension as meaning of a message is reinforced when presented through various modes (think of how we use emoticons and GIFs to support our textual communication). Incorporating multimodal activities also facilitates teaching groups as opposed to individuals as it caters for their inevitably different learner needs and preferences.
What my students like about online classes:
- More Authentic Learning Environment – Most of my students perform everyday activities and spend considerable time online, so it is more than logical that they will embrace online learning as more comfortable and natural too.
- Home Comfort – Same as for teachers, having online classes saves the time you would otherwise spend commuting.
- Highly Personalized Learning Environment – The difference between taking an online course and a private teacher-led class is that the latter can come with content, instruction, feedback, and emotional support that are absolutely adapted to the individual learner (at least until AI advances to the extent that all of that can be computer-generated too).
What Teaching Online is NOT
There are two big mistakes teachers usually make when starting online teaching:
- They think of it as online version of face-to-face classes. While there are many similarities between the two, online teaching necessitates some additional competences and adaptation of lesson planning process, methodology, etc.
- (This mostly applies to language teachers) they think online classes can serve only for conversation practice. This misconception stems from the failure to acknowledge all the other affordances Internet technology has for learning and is one of the biggest reasons why my students were always initially hesitant to give online classes a try.
What You Will Need to Start Teaching Online
If I had to make up an online teaching beginner kit, the following items would be included (for step-by-step instruction Infographics, scroll down):
Knowledge of Learning Theories. This actually applies to any teaching setting as we teachers should experiment with different learning and knowledge theories continuously. As a teacher, you can start from the knowledge you already have because it is to a large extent applicable to online learning. For example, if there is a theory you particularly believe in, try to come up with ideas about how it could be applied to the online setting. Then, expand on your knowledge by studying new theories that are more relevant to online learning (e.g. Connectivism, that was well reviewed in Ryan’s post). However, do not make the mistake of postponing your transition to online teaching to the moment when you feel fully confident in your knowledge. The truth is as technology evolves, so do ideas on how it affects learning, meaning we all have to constantly learn new things and reorganize our existing knowledge. Therefore, you will probably never feel you have sufficient knowledge, so my best advice is to start teaching now and learn on the go.
Teaching Approach. Take some time to reflect on what kind of a learning environment you want for your students. Does the teaching methodology you currently use fit into that image? If so, come up with ways of using the same methodology in your online classes. Otherwise, consider changing your approach until you create a learning environment you see as optimal for your students. For example, I have always placed greatest emphasis on learner-centred, interactive and collaborative activities, so the majority of the online activities I create also entail interaction and collaboration between learners. As with learning theories, new teaching approaches suitable for technology-enhanced education emerge constantly, so it is a good idea to start combining them with your approach.
Technological Tools. Before anything, I have to point out that the following suggestions are based on my personal experience and by no means represent the ultimate guide to setting up your online classroom. In fact, I would appreciate hearing experiences from other online teachers (you can share them in the comments below, or just drop me an email), so that we can combine our insights.
You need very basic technology to start teaching online:
A video conferencing platform such as Skype or Zoom. Both have a basic free-of-charge plan hat will suffice for your beginning. The advantage of basic Skype is that most students are already familiar with it (which is actually a considerable advantage), whereas Zoom wins in the collaboration domain as it allows for web conferencing and recording of your classes. Since the very beginning, I have been using Skype and its basic plan (although its business package costs only $2 per month) simply because it has all I need, which is:
- Video conferencing feature – You should be able to talk to your student while seeing each other.
- Screen sharing option – Very often the most efficient way to demonstrate something is by sharing your screen, but you will also want to ask your students to share theirs, for example, when they are completing an exercise on their computer. More about it will be covered in the following posts.
- Textual Chat – This will be your white board replacement. There are other options for creating a virtual white board, but I find Skype chat quite effective since it is already integrated in the platform and retains previous text messages.
Apart from Skype and Zoom, there are some other video conferencing options that might be more suitable for larger groups of students. Take a look at the eLearning Industry‘s top choices.
Next, you will also need a file-hosting service such as OneDrive or GoogleDrive that allows for storing and sharing files. For my classes, I use OneDrive as I find it more user-friendly than other drives. I typically create a folder for each lesson and allow access to my students. I will write about online lesson planning in more detail in the following posts. Your cloud will also serve you as a place where you can keep track of the payments, draw and consult timetables, review homework, etc.
A Good Payment System. In order to get paid for your classes from abroad without risking huge transaction fees, it is best to set up an online money transfer account, such as PayPal. You should do this well in advance because the setup process takes some time. Also, make sure you discuss payment immediately after a student has accepted your offer so they can have some time to open their PayPal account before your next meeting in case they already don’t have one. I firmly believe upfront payment is the safest way to go as it creates a commitment on both parts – a student has paid for a certain amount of classes so it is in his/her interest to attend them and your obligation to provide them. After all, everyone who has ever given private classes knows that students who take them do so out of their need for flexibility and possibility to occasionally disappear and reappear, which is why commitment is so important in the first place.
Advertisement. Once you set up the basic technology (video conferencing tool, file-hosting service and payment system) you can start advertising. Start with your former and current students and propose a shift from face-to-face to online classes. Working with a familiar student will help you gain confidence in your online teaching skills. However, the beauty of online teaching is that you can find students in an corner of the world so make sure you advertise abroad as well. The first step is to find out where the demand for your subject is high. Then, find their local advertisement websites and platforms and post your ad. If you have some knowledge of their native language, even if limited, show it immediately. For example, I was aware that in Spain most people struggle to achieve fluency in English (even when their grammar is spotless), so I advertised my classes on the local webpages and a few platforms specifically intended for private tutors (e.g. tusclasesparticulares.com) and I wrote both in Spanish and English because I knew many students feel more comfortable knowing their teacher can understand their language even if slightly. Before long, I had quite a few inquiries in my mailbox, most of which were written in a mix of English and Spanish, which showed me students indeed were attracted to the possibility of expressing themselves in their native language when necessary.
Additionally, you can try advertising in Facebook groups or even setting up a profile on a freelancing platform such as Upwork.
The 3 Problems You May Encounter and How to Solve Them
- Problem 1: Existing students may be skeptical about going online. They have had negative experience with online classes or are simply prejudiced.
Solution: Always offer a demo class for free. In this class, try to show off as many different interesting activities as you can in order to attract the student (but beware of causing cognitive overload). The majority of my students confessed they had had completely different expectations before they accepted the offer to take the free demo class.
- Problem 2: You feel online communication can prevent establishing a good connection between you and your students. Admittedly, although video conferencing allows you to see the person you are talking to, the visual cues such as facial expressions, body gestures and similar are much less readable than in face-to-face interaction.
Solution: Make a conscious effort to connect personally with your students. It is true that video conferencing for some may feel artificial, but this can be compensated for if, for example, the learning activities are fully personalized. In addition to catering for your learners’ needs, you also need to clearly show interest in who they are as persons. Try to remember some personal stories they decide to share with you and bring them up as you see fit. Maintain regular email communication and make sure you always give them feedback when they send you assignments. Don’t forget that connection needs to be established on both sides, so do incorporate activities that show who you are as a person too (e.g. play a competitive game with the student or find some shared likes and dislikes) and try not to shy away from sharing some personal stories, too.
- Problem 3: Teaching online seems to you like so much more work than traditional teaching. Not only is it time-consuming to create all those stimulating activities (and then try them out and make sure everything works well), but it also feels you are working all day long because you are answering emails timely, assessing assignments as they are completed and making sure you keep up with student discussions and other activities where your feedback is of importance.
Solution: There is no other solution than to accept this. Initially, you will spend many hours designing your lessons until you learn how to optimize the planning time. In addition, your daily and weekly workload will feel heavier and you will notice that some activities take days (instead of planned few hours) to complete. The key is to understand that this workload might not necessarily be heavier per se, but rather more scattered throughout the day thus creating the impression of never-ending work. However, there is no easier way to lose your students than be absent for long or fail to give timely feedback. In other words, a part of personalizing your learners’ experience is creating an online community where your presence is felt. Of course, this should not mean 24/7 availability, but some flexibility on your part is required.
Are you thinking of starting teaching online? Feel free to share your concerns or ask questions in the comments below!