By Clare Voke
Just as when we teach face-to-face, teachers also need to carefully consider how we set up our online classrooms to ensure they are comfortable, open, friendly and conducive to language learning.
Of course, this can change from context to context (eg adult classrooms tend to look different to young learner ones), but there are some key areas you should consider when setting up your online teaching space, whatever your context.
Your hardware is an important part of the set-up. Your laptop doesn’t need to be state-of-the-art but should be in good working order, and you should have a stable and reliable internet connection. You may want to invest in a good web camera, too, if the built-in camera is not up to standard.
When the learners can see you clearly, they are more likely to be engaged and willing to ask and answer your questions.
Have you ever been in an online class where you can only see the top of someone’s head? Make sure this doesn’t happen to you by positioning the camera correctly so you are central, and your whole head can be seen.
You will also need to think about what kind of table or desk you are going to place your laptop on, so that you are not hunched over or craning your neck. Your computer screen should be positioned at eye level, at roughly an arm’s length away, so you don’t need to lean forward or squint at the screen. Your eyes should fall naturally just below the top of the monitor. Consider getting a monitor stand or finding a way to raise your laptop rather than risking a bad back or neck.
Try to make sure that the lighting is good for your online classes. You don’t want to seem like you are teaching in the dark, or be too well lit. The learners should be able to see your face clearly, and you should be able to look at the screen without glare.
You may need to position some lights or close a curtain until you get the right amount of sunlight or artificial light, and change your position depending on the time of day.
This one is tough, as you can’t create space where there isn’t any. I’ve seen learners take classes from laundry cupboards, which is obviously not conducive to learning or teaching. Try to find a space where you can comfortably lay out all the things that you need for your lesson. If you don’t have enough space at home, you could ask your school or workplace if you could use an empty classroom. If not, try to clear a corner of a room and make your work area as uncluttered as possible.
Noise is another thing to consider. Do you have a child taking online lessons in the same room or is there drilling happening next to your building? Finding a quiet space may be difficult, but try to reduce the amount of noise where possible. Sometimes a good headset can help, and remember to switch off your microphone when not speaking if the noise is continual.
What will the learners be able to see behind you when your camera is on? Do you have relatives, pets or children walking around behind you? Is there anything on your shelves or walls you don’t want them to see? Check and make changes where you can.
Depending on your video-conferencing software, you could also try using a virtual background, although pick a neutral one rather than something distracting like an outer space or Wild West theme.
If you are teaching young learners, it might be nice to turn a wall or corner of your room into a classroom, with colourful pictures, weather posters, flashcards, etc. These are the sorts of things you would expect in a young learner face-to-face classroom.
Of course, many of the above ideas also apply to your learners. Talk to them about how they set up their own online classrooms. Are they in a place and position where they feel comfortable and ready to learn and participate? Do they have everything they need nearby? Can everyone see them clearly?
By thinking about all of these, you will create an inviting learning atmosphere, minimise disruptions and provide a positive, open learning experience for your learners. A little bit of planning in this area will also help you feel confident, comfortable and ready to teach.
Hockley, N. & Clandfield, L. (2010). 'Part A Software and Liveware', in Teaching Online: Tools and techniques, options and opportunities. Surrey: DELTA Publishing, pp. 7-30.
Pearson, A. (2021). ‘Bringing More of a Classroom Feel to Distance Learning’, Edutopia [Blog]. Available at edutopia.org/article/bringing-more-classroom-feel-distance-learning. Accessed 11 November 2021.
You can find further ideas on the above, and more, in the following Trinity Teach English Online unit:
To get an idea of what the course is like, try our free sample unit containing examples of videos, interactive tasks, texts, and lesson packs from across the 10 units.
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Article by Clare Voke
Clare Voke is a director of teacher training and she oversees the running of various teacher training courses, such as the CertTESOL and DipTESOL. She also writes and produces online content and courses for English teachers.