Sanako is a Finnish Educational Tech company helping schools and language teachers to improve language teaching efficiency and results.
In this blog post, we discuss the main potential problems when setting up a virtual classroom for your language class. We also describe 4 different ways teachers can set up their virtual classrooms and start teaching online!
In recent years there has been a boom for online learning solutions even in the public educational segment. Schools and universities across the globe have been high adopters for online learning management solutions (in short LMS) and for general virtual classroom software tools. For a self-paced learning subject, LMS tools work incredibly well and deliver on their promises for flexibility and distance learning opportunities. They also make teachers' lives easy in assigning assessments and collecting the exercises back from the students.
But for a subject like language teaching, there is often a need for a variety of features that LMS solutions or generalist virtual classroom tools are missing. Not every subject transfers well from in-person and classroom teaching to online environment and language teaching is definitely one of those subjects. A major part of teaching and learning new languages is based on speaking, listening, and conversational exercises: this is the space where dedicated virtual classroom solutions for language teachers excel in relation to generalist LMS and video-meeting solutions.
Many language educators are currently trying to figure out how they can set up virtual language classrooms and which digital tools offer the best way to teach languages remotely.
What are the most common problems teachers face when setting up a virtual classroom?
Bad connection and slow speed:
Firstly, you should make sure that your's and the students' computers and internet connections are fast enough and working as they should be. Having a bad connection is super frustrating, and in the worst case you can easily lose a big part of the allocated teaching time because of these problems. This problem has a higher potential to occur when the class includes a lot of remote students and especially if they join the class from multiple countries. A test session or letting the people know that they should join the first session 10 minutes beforehand is a good way to get everything set before the actual online class starts.
There are lots of free online conferencing tools on the market which are also hugely popular in online teaching, but not all of them are equal in connection quality. Lots of teachers prefer Zoom over Skype for this reason as they have experienced it to be more reliable.
Losing focus and control:
How to ensure that your students keep their focus on the task when they are attending remotely? Traditional classroom-based language labs and on-premises classroom software offer the benefit that teachers can manage students’ attention by being physically in the same room but as well by managing their computers as many teacher-led language learning software comes along with classroom management features: teachers can block students’ internet access and for example autostart the exercise at hand. Many of these features are impossible to do with online-based software solutions due to internet browsers' technical limitations. When your students work from home, they can easily lose their focus and even multitask while doing their exercises.
Many teachers have said that the best way to make their job easier is to spark their students’ motivation to learn. If students like the software that they use for learning they are much more motivated to keep their focus. Gamification and great software design are the keys here: this is why most popular language learning solutions have a gamified approach to keep the students engaged.
Best educators know this and they also incorporate motivational aspects to their teaching regardless if they are using any virtual classroom software or not. This, of course, depends on the grade level where you are teaching as this might not be a problem at university level or in space where the students have joined the language class of their own will and potentially even paid a fee for it.
4 ways teachers can set up a virtual classroom for their online classes
1 - Use Skype, Zoom, Google Meets, or some other generalist video-conferencing tool:
One option is just to use a basic online conferencing tool to discuss remotely with students. In addition to basic live audio broadcasting and group conversations, the teacher can share their screen and walkthrough learning material together with the students. These generalist virtual classroom tools are great for setting up a virtual classroom with little or no cost, but the downside is that they are not built for language teaching and learning and therefore they offer a very limited set of language learning specific features and exercises. The biggest limitation is that there is no way to pair up students or set them to smaller groups; only one person can speak at one time which makes the individual time spent on speaking very limited (Zoom is an exception into this as it already includes a feature to divide the bigger session to smaller sessions which could include more than one person).
(Read also our comparison article where we discuss which virtual classroom software is the best for language teachers.)
2 - Adobe Connect, Zoho Showtime, and other online classroom solutions dedicated for teachers:
Think of these as web-conferencing tools boosted with educational features such as collaborating on documents and assigning ready-made exercises for the conference participants. We might call these as Online classroom solutions, and they work like this: firstly, the teacher sets up materials for the class, like reading and writing materials, and then shares these with the students inside the online classroom solution. An online classroom solution has a wide set of teaching and learning features as it is built especially for educators. The downside for language teachers is that these are not built especially for them and language teaching often differs dramatically from general subjects as it demands more time for the students to be able to speak and take part in live conversations. These online classroom tools usually miss the most commonly used language learning functions like recording individual students' speaking and pronunciation practices, which are essential features for language teachers.
3 - Do-it-yourself virtual classroom by combining multiple online solutions:
Online classroom solutions often come with a license fee, so some innovative and conscious teachers might play with the idea of building similar functionality by combining their chosen set of free digital tools for their online language class. Luckily there are ways to do this and the results are often quite satisfactory.
For example, just using Skype and Zoom for getting every participant into the virtual classroom gets the group discussions going, and then sharing exercises from Google Docs for instance covers already a huge part of the needed functions for basic exercise types. The teacher can for example tell the students to watch a specific Youtube video, share the link for this video via the conference tool’s chat function and then tell students to answer a ready question set that she shares via a quiz tool like Survey Monkey or Google Forms.
The major setback in DIY solutions is the overhead it creates in admin work and managing all the content and keeping track of students' progress. It is also time-consuming to create and design the exercises as teachers are missing the tools to create language learning exercises such as oral language assessments, or gap-fill exercises. In addition, it’s close to impossible to get all the students to practice their conversational skills as online conference tools usually allow only one person to speak at any given time.
4 - Virtual classroom designed and built just for language educators:
Many companies, like Sanako, from the language teaching and learning segment, are offering online teaching and learning solutions designed for language teachers. As these online solutions are meant for online language teaching, they incorporate all the needed and selected features that a modern online language teacher and foreign language class demands.
In addition to smooth conference connection, the language teacher can usually assign students to pairs, triplets, or to their chosen group size without messing the audio connections and creating a mess. This allows all of them to spend most of the class time on the most important language skills like speaking. The teacher can also create and assign language learning specific exercises such as pronunciation exercises, listening comprehension, gap-fill, or translation exercises, assign the students to watch a video and answer a set of questions or they can even tell them to listen to an audio file and record their own voice as a second track to this file and then submit it back to the teacher.
Which of these virtual classroom methods is the best for you then?
Choosing which one of these 4 options is the best for you comes down to the requirements you need from your virtual classroom solution. Even the mentioned free tools are great if you do not demand too many features tailored for language teachers and you are willing to spend some extra time on manual work! But if you are a professional language teacher who is motivated to help your students to practice their speaking and pronunciation skills and to be actively practicing their core language skills during online classes, then a dedicated virtual classroom solution for language teachers is the best option for you.