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What do I need to teach online?

I well remember my first ever lesson over the internet: it was before my days of working for Outreach Tuition, I hasten to add. I had been teaching a student during term-time, and was just ready to set off on holiday with my family when I got a phone call from his mother reminding me that I had offered to continue teaching him during the summer.

"I’m off to France!" I protested.

"Could you do a lesson over the Internet or something?" his mother implored. I thought for a few minutes and reckoned I could probably do that, as we both had Apple computers and could both use FaceTime. So it was that a few days later, thanks to the marvels of modern technology, I sat in the corner of a bar in France doing a lesson by FaceTime with a handheld whiteboard as my sole teaching aid.

If you can do a lesson with a 2010 MacBook and the included software, in the corner of a bar in France (my diligent research had indicated that the bar was quiet in the middle of the afternoon and had good Wi-Fi), you can do a lesson almost anywhere. It led to an interesting evening in the same bar afterwards, I must say. I don’t recommend it as a regular plan, though.

The basic necessities you need to run any lesson remain of course: a laptop; some sort of communication software; and a fast Internet connection. I should add a decent table to that basic list: the kitchen table will do for most purposes, although meal times and family traffic mean that it is a workable solution rather than an ideal one. However, if all you have is the kitchen table, it will do.

I recommend taking a bit of time to work out beforehand exactly where to sit. Lessons go better with a neutral background, and I preferred to look out at the room, with a neutral background, somewhere you can control the room with a glance - to remind interlopers to be quiet as they make tea, raid the fridge, etcetera.

It’s also worthwhile spending a bit of time adjusting the height of your computer: if it’s too low you tend to be looking down at it, with the result that you look as if you’ve got far too many chins, and tend to slump forwards. If you raise it a bit higher on a pile of books or similar you’ll be looking forwards or up at the screen. Take it from me, as a former photographer, you look far better with your head angled slightly upwards.

A cheap Bluetooth keyboard will help you avoid uncomfortable typing positions, and you can buy one on e-bay for less than £10.

It is of course important to think about your network connection. The best thing to have is a wired connection to your Internet router, using an ethernet cable. This offers the best speeds and reliability, but is usually less practical than a Wi-Fi connection. It's a good idea to check that the ideal seating position also offers a good connection.

For a first lesson, I would recommend picking on a subject that you already know, and have reliable resources for. When I started using teaching online, I persuaded my teenage son into taking part in a 'trial' lesson. He made the mistake one day of complaining that he didn’t quite understand something from a school maths lessons, so I made him do a lesson with me over the Internet. It felt a bit strange to hear him in the next room as we shouted to each other about various aspects of the communication, but it did mean that I could have a good idea of what he was doing, and we could easily sort out various problems that came up as we went along. I could even have a look to see what he was seeing - just to be sure my resources were working as they should have. And I recorded it. Playing it back later was tooth-gratingly excruciating - but I learned about how many times I say ‘Erm’ and a few other irritating verbal and visual habits. On the positive side, I noticed how mistakes that I had thought looked disastrous were, in fact, barely noticeable.

Most of the time I have been teaching online, I have been lucky to have a better set-up that the kitchen table. I had already turned a spare bedroom into a office, so it was quite easy to equip my office to serve as a classroom as well. The only thing I really needed was a whiteboard. Whiteboards and tripods can be really expensive, but do remember that your online board doesn't have to be as robust as a traditional class one for obvious reasons. I spent about £20 on mine and, although it used to collapse every now and again, it served its purpose - and still does.

If you are thinking about turning a spare bedroom into an office, it is well worthwhile, in my opinion. You do not have to make drastic alterations - i.e. you can still use it as a bedroom if necessary, but it does mean that you have an ‘office’ space, where the rest of the family can be taught not to interrupt. It is also useful to have a door to close once the working day is over.

I had been attempting to turn a book I have written into an audiobook so I did put quite a lot of work into improving the video and audio quality of my set-up - but I don’t think it is really necessary for teaching. I have tried doing some lessons with the professional-quality microphone I had bought, and to my mind the additional quality was barely noticeable. Indeed, the professional microphone seems to be more sensitive to background noise, to be honest.

So, in conclusion, it is quite easy to set up to teach online with very basic equipment.

A computer and an internet connection are all you really need. A table is certainly useful, and a write-on whiteboard would come fourth on my list of essentials. The Outreach Tuition online learning platform offers many tools for teaching professional lessons, including an interactive whiteboard, so you don't really need any special software. I would, though, recommend some practice with the platform, as many of its useful functions can be quite hard to find and some are rather counter-intuitive.

If you have some experience as a teacher and a library of favourite resources, you should be well set. Other things such as an office are desirable but not essential.

A cabin in the garden is even better, and building one yourself can be done with some knowledgeable friends - but I may go into more detail about that in a subsequent post.

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