The web is out there, gathering ever more droplets, and we're all connected... But if we're going to teach online and make a reasonable living from it, what do we teach and how do we get connected to our potential students?
In 2006, after five years full time language teaching in an EFL context, I returned home to Australia for a quick break. One of the things I did during that break was check out language teaching opportunities there (or now, here), basically because my wife and I had just had our first child and plans were starting to form to make a return to my home country a little later on. It didn't look all that promising or appealing in terms of income or career prospects, and there certainly wasn't much in the way of escape from the heavily institutionalized format of language teaching I was already starting to somewhat loathe based on my EFL experience.
At about the same time, as audio and video finally made its way into Web 2.0 in more accessible formats, I decided that one of my more promising futures possibly lay in online teaching. I imagined connecting directly with students, avoiding schools and "middle men" as much as possible, being my own boss, and harnessing the burgeoning power of the Internet to possibly access an almost infinite number of willing students.
I returned to Australia in early 2009. Now, in early 2010, I have my own sort of online school (if I might call it that - given that I'm the only teacher and also the director, content writer, webmaster, and designer!). I make triple the income I ever made (even in senior management positions) in institutes or universities, working roughly half the amount of hours - all of which I decide myself in terms of scheduling. I have students from more than 40 different nationalities from more than 25 countries globally. I take my little boy to kindergarten, mind our little daughter two days a week while my wife attends her classes, do the shopping and a fair amount of the cooking as well, and - for the first time in a decade - I have a three day weekend that I can devote almost entirely to the family.
Sounds like bliss, doesn't it? Well, it is!
I've been contacted by a lot of people recently wanting to join in or at least get tips on how to set up something similar. If you're an experienced teacher in an EFL setting thinking about your future, with better income, more creative freedom, and the priceless prospect of more family time, either where you are now or once you head back to home turf, I definitely recommend giving online teaching serious consideration.
But here's the thing. To do it well, and to make serious and stable money from it, teaching online is not an overnight decision followed by instant success. This is the hard advice I need to give a lot of people who contact me about this sort of thing. It's not like just looking for a new place to work. For me, it was a process that began in 2005 and only came to fruition of the full-time income sort in late 2009.
If you're going to teach English online, there are plenty of very helpful guidelines about the place, but I would recommend you seriously think about the following four factors in particular:
- WHAT exactly are you going to teach?
- HOW are you going to teach it online?
- WHERE and HOW are you going to find paying students for your teaching services?
- WHEN are you going to start teaching online?
Now, I'm going to skip the second element there for the purposes of this post, mainly because I think a lot of teachers are already aware of the different technologies at their disposal for teaching online (or can easily find out more about them). I want to focus more on the first, third and fourth considerations there, because I do think this is where so many prospective online teachers slip up.
1. WHAT exactly are you going to teach?
Doh - I'm going to teach English of course! If only it were that simple, and anyone who has taught English in any setting will tell you it certainly isn't. There are a multitude of strains within ELT, but the ones with the most potential for online teaching with a half-decent prospect of getting paid well for what you do are:
- Preparation for formal English tests
- Business English
- English for Academic or Special/Specialised Purposes
I do a bit of business English and ESP, but by far and away my runaway success has been with preparing students for formal English tests - especially TOEFL, IELTS and TOEIC.
Let's get something straight here. I don't particularly like tests, or teaching "to" them. In a perfect world I would much rather teach English for the communicative and interactive sake of it. But the facts are that formal English test-based qualifications drive a massive part of what the world does in terms of teaching and learning, and results on these tests can be life changing (or alternatively "life limiting") for so many students.
The weight, influence and overall importance of test results makes this an area where your specialisation will be very attractive to a large number of students who are actually willing to invest financially in their own development. Generally speaking, I've found that students who want casual conversation practice with a teacher are most usually expecting to pay that teacher far less per hour than the spotty teenager in the local McDonald's earns by flipping burgers (including not having to pay anything at all). Students who go online to look for teachers who can help them pass crucial language tests are more willing (generally) to pay that teacher a good wage for a professional and highly relevant service with potentially highly beneficial outcomes for them.
However, even within the testing sphere, there are particular specialisations that are more relevant and attractive to online students than others. By this I am referring to specific kinds of skills - most especially speaking and writing. These are the areas of tests that are the most difficult and intimidating for most of the world's EFL students. They are also the areas that benefit most from actual interaction and application with a live human interlocutor. The plethora of free or pay-for multiple choice automated webpages out there can't really help most students to learn to speak and write well. These are still the skills where a good teacher shines and has (what should be) unassailable advantages over webpages and coursebooks.
Another hugely important bonus to focusing your online teaching business on test-prep skills is that you are selling your services to potential students who usually already have a fair amount of proficiency with the language. This means you can market your services in English and interact with students who can (for the most part) actually understand you (crucial for avoiding misunderstandings about the actual services and how they will work online) - which of course also means you avoid the limitation of only attracting students of particular nationalities or first languages. You have a wider net to cast.
So, budding online English teacher, my first pieces of advice to you (remembering that I'm only advising from my own targeted experience here) are:
- Focus your online teaching on test preparation, business English, and specialised forms of English (but in that order!)
- Focus on services that build and develop more proficiency with speaking and writing in particular
2. WHERE and HOW are you going to find paying students for your teaching services?
Most newbie online teachers start looking for online students and end up at one of two sorts of places:
- online "marketplaces" offering services that connect teachers and students
- actual online schools or companies that on-sell online teaching services
There are real problems with both of these avenues. They can be good for getting a bit of initial experience with online teaching, but if you're already fairly good with basic web 2.0 technology options, already good at teaching and want to build something that can actually make you a decent and sustainable income, I'd be advising you to avoid these places like the plague.
Well, if you've taken a look at companies who directly hire online teachers, the answer will be obvious to you. I haven't seen any that paid more than $20 per hour - and those that were generous enough to offer $20 were exceedingly rare: most pay in the range of $5 - $15 per hour. They also almost without exception come with a whole set of frustrations about when you can teach, what you can teach, how you teach, and to how many students at a time. Welcome back to McEnglish. Might as well stay in an institute and teach - at least you'll have sympathetic colleagues to bitch and complain to/with/about, and there will still be chances to hit the pub at the end of the week and "take the edge off" with like-minded teachers :-)
The online marketplaces aren't that much better, albeit for different reasons.
The way most of these so-called marketplaces have panned out, basically teachers are getting more students based on their willingness to lower their prices to what can only be called ridiculously low levels (see some excellent comments on this sort of thing from the very clued-in Kirsten Winkler). On the one hand, welcome to the prospect of potentially earning about $5 per hour in order to compete with hundreds of other teachers. On the other hand, welcome to the prospect of having say 10 years teaching experience and earning the same pathetically low rate as the newbie who has entered the marketplace with (or even without) the most paltry teaching qualifications.
Oh, and then pay the actual online company anywhere from 15-30% of your earnings for the privilege of having your specialised teaching services potentially reduced to a sort of commodity where all that matters is who can do it for the cheapest rate...
These companies will tell you that they're actually finding you students. Yes, they are - students who are mostly after a bargain, and see you in a massive line up with other teachers - all of whom are competing with you. These companies also tell you that they give you the chance to share lesson plans and ideas with other teachers. Yep, right - let's all help each other compete (um, with each other) and reduce our individual value as teachers even further!
There appear to be some exceptions to this, including a new line of marketplaces that charge a universal set price to all students irrespective of which teacher or course they elect to go with. The advantage here is that teachers start to compete based on their skills and rapport with students rather than on price. But for me, well - sorry - this is potentially a return to McEnglish again, and I don't particularly want you telling me how much I should earn per hour or telling my students how much they should be willing to pay me.
There are other (more promising) exceptions, too. I particularly like italki because it has such a handle on China (such a massive market, and one which is generally insulated from seeing most options out there on the broader web) and is very flexible and non-prescriptive in terms of what teachers charge and which particular interactive platform they choose to use. They also have one of the lowest commission fees going at present.
I'm also really excited about Engo.net, and not just because I know the owner/designer personally and had some input in the design and direction of the service. Engo.net is being built by a designer who seriously listens to both teachers and students, and finally maximises the potential of asynchronous audio applications, which I believe have been overlooked in the hype of live video and miss a lot of what makes learners tick, and what can be achieved across different time zones. But more on Engo.net on this blog fairly soon...
Yet another important exception (in my opinion) is English360, which is going in exciting directions in terms of actual content for online learning (including opportunties for teachers to actually profit from the materials they make as well as the learners they teach). They are also doing an outstanding job of not rushing anything and doing a lot of listening to both teachers and learners. English360 is a professional outfit which I think will only really attract professional teachers, and I'm happy to plug and support companies like them :-)
I should stop this line of thought now, and just finish with the point that most of these online providers and "connectors" (noting the exceptions listed above) are good if you're just dipping and playing with the idea of teaching online. They are not the best option if you are seriously looking to become independent, get noticed and build a real niche with excellent income-earning potential.
I've learned three very important things when it comes to attracting the right students to you as an online teacher in your own right:
- Online learners are usually independent, and results-oriented. Evidence is very important to them.
- Most learners begin their quest for an online teacher with a search on Google, Yahoo, or Bing.
- Social media is by far the best way to connect with potential online learners, and in fact is also the most effective way to get the best listings in search engine results.
So what did/do I do? All of the following:
A. I make a lot of teaching videos and upload them regularly to YouTube
B. I participate in a variety of different forums where English language learners come for help or advice
C. I have my own forum where I distribute free materials, videos, comments etc.
D. I have a Facebook page dedicated exclusively to my online teaching business
E. I blog regularly about English (not here on this blog - elsewhere) for language learners
Note that all of these activities also focus on the area of English I already identified above (test preparation). Note also that I don't treat all of the various social media mentioned above as a free advertising medium - I use it as a social media participant and use it to generate evidence. I use it to create a range of places where potential learners can not only find me, but also get to know me a little, interact with me personally, and see whether I know what I'm talking about.
If you can learn to respect social media for what it is and use it to maximum effect, it will bring you a lot of prospective students in its own right. One thing, however, is to set some careful and effective boundaries in terms of what you're willing to do online for free and what is more suitable for setting aside as pay-for language teaching services.
But (and here's the thing) the search engine spiders attached to Google, Yahoo, and Bing love things like YouTube videos, blog entries, tweets, and forum comments. And those 400 million Facebook users? A specialised fan/business page on Facebook can have a very long and targeted reach indeed...
Want to test out my theory here? Go to any search engine you like and type in something simple like >TOEFL speaking<. Depending on which engine you use and from which geographical location, you will find between 2 and 5 links to my online teaching business on the very first page of search results (and in many cases I appear in the number one slot).
Then there's the majorly important issue of generating student testimonials. Based on my own research of sign ups to my pay-for services, something in the vicinity of 60% say they went with my services because a friend recommended it to them and/or they read a positive account of me on one of the various social media platforms. With my focus being on test preparation, many of my students get good or even great scores on their tests. Given that this can result in life-changing opportunities for them, they're understandably ecstatic and usually comment about it to anyone willing to listen. Actual test score achievements reported by actual learners is pretty powerful stuff - more of that all-important evidence I've been harping on about in this post. If you're good at what you do and it generates genuine results for your students, to some degree you won't have to worry about marketing your online teaching business. Your students will happily market it to other potential students for you - and they'll probably do it much more effectively than you ever could.
So, basically, what I'm trying to point out to you here is that there are much more effective ways of finding potential students than using some of the so-called online learning marketplaces. These methods can give you great search engine listings in your own right, and through the magic of social media actually help you to connect with these students and generate the all-important evidence that you might be worth a student's investment.
Now, of course these sorts of things don't happen overnight. Don't expect to make a couple of YouTube clips, start a Facebook fan page, tweet a few times, and end up enrolling students the next day. And this brings me to my final point - which is all about timing.
3. WHEN are you going to start teaching online?
This could happen very soon for you - even tomorrow, but chances are it's going to take significantly longer than that, especially if you're going to stay independent and not pay others to bring students to you.
As I mentioned at the start of this post, there was a period of roughly three years between me making a decision that I eventually wanted to do a lot of independent teaching online and then actually ending up in a position where I had a viable online teaching business.
This is not to say that three years is like some sort of industry standard 'gestation' period for building online teaching services. It's not so much the actual amount of time in years as it is the sorts (and volumes) of action undertaken as a build up.
Here's a bit of a list of some of the things I did - not necessarily in strict order, as several overlapped or are still overlapping - over that period of three years:
- I began to focus more of my teaching skill (in face-to-face institute settings) on test preparation.
- I bought a lot of test preparation resources and studied them fiendishly (but also critically, determining what they were doing well or not so well).
- I offered various supplementary classes in my institute targeting test preparation for free.
- I began to write a lot of my own test prep materials, and let my institute use them as well.
- I got some of the more enthusiastic face-to-face students to try some online classes with me (with the permission of my employer), to learn about how the online medium was different to f-2-f teaching, and also which applications were the easiest to access and use for both myself and the learners.
- I started writing blogs and participating in forums where test preparation was being discussed. A little later, I started my own forum and then began to make YouTube clips.
- I offered a lot of free access to practice materials and help/advice through the various social media applications I was becoming more active with.
- I started giving free feedback for online speaking and writing submissions from test takers. Prior to shifting to a pay-for model, I'd scored and commented on something in the range of 2,000 speaking submissions and 3,000 thousand essays.
- Based on all the free materials and teaching, I started generating a lot of positive testimonials from students.
- I created a couple of different websites where my experience, materials, etc. could be gathered and began to link my forum and YouTube entry signatures to this centralised location.
- When all of my resources reached something of a critical mass (not just in number but also in terms of quality, overall views, search engine listings and PageRank), I sectioned off some for pay-for access only, and made these pay-for services extremely cheap.
- Things began to become clearer in terms of what was feasible to offer for free and what should be pay-for. I made some decisions, stuck to them, and continued to work on both aspects (free versus pay-for). The "free" aspects basically became quick comments and advice in the forums, blogs, YouTube and Facebook endeavours, while the pay-for products became more numerous, more detailed, and (gradually) more expensive.
- Finally, once I'd moved country and given up all of my f-2-f and coursebook writing commitments, I launched the online teaching business as a full-time focus for me. In what I think was a very important twist, I did not lauch or commit to the business until I was in a financial position to not need income for at least 6 months.
So there - in terms of the "when" and "how", that is what worked for me. Other online teachers may be making a lot more than me, and may have graduated to this stage more quickly or via other means. It's only one account and you would do yourself a service by reading around and hearing how other teachers have "made it" online.
But I will say these things in finishing:
- It is possible to teach online and make a very good living from it, if you're willing to focus on the right areas and work really hard at them
- It is possible to build your own independent business, and free yourself (and your online learners) from the institutionalized curse of ELT
- You can find more (and better) students willing to pay you a reasonable wage for your specialised service through things like social media applications than most commission-charging "marketplaces" will ever be able to provide
- Teaching online is enormously enjoyable and rewarding, and can bring you a bigger range of students than most f-2-f EFL teachers are likely to experience
- With each passing day, there are more potential learners coming online, and they're becoming more skillful and confident with this medium
- Teaching online and preparing material and techniques for online delivery are constant discovery processes, which generate their own special kind of motivational energy
- Teaching online is about the closest I've ever come to genuine freedom and flexibility in English language teaching
Still considering teaching online? Both of this blog's ravens (Huginn and Muninn - "thought" and "memory" respectively) advise you to definitely give it a whirl - but be ready for a long haul!