Why go online (or hybrid)?

For most school owners and teachers, it’s obvious that there’s something intrinsically good about meeting and teaching students face to face. The fear of losing this interaction keeps a lot of schools from moving online, even as online teaching grows in popularity year-by-year.

However, with the worldwide impact of covid-19 having an especially strong impact on schools, it’s become obvious for many that the only way to continue includes a strong online plan (at the very least as a backup). This post is intended to help others go online based on the experience of an English language school in southern Japan.

While at first generally resistant to going online, social distancing and social responsibility, while needing to maintain lessons and cashflow drove the school online as covid-19 began to worsen in Japan. While going online was tough, some important lessons as well as ideas for the future were born of these hardships.

In short, the merits of moving online are:

  • the school can continue in the face of hardships like coronavirus (or other future crises)
  • students who live far away can attend more easily
  • students who would like to come to every class but physically can’t can attend in a hybrid fashion, increasing consistency and attendance
  • both teachers and students can be at ease knowing that in a health crisis they will be protected

The demerits include:

  • technology costs
  • issues with connectivity both at the school and in student homes
  • staff costs needed to manage the transition

Online v. Hybrid

What do I mean by online?

Just that. All the classes are online and the students remote. Teachers might all work in the same office or they might be working from home. In the case of the school in southern Japan, teachers came in to the office and used individual classrooms to deliver classes to students who were homebound as a result of the spread of covid-19.

OK, so how about hybrid?

Hybrid means having classes as usual in the classroom, but in the same setting as a digital conference room, with certain students joining in remotely. Before the severity of covid-19 became clear, we experimented with using Zoom in the classroom to allow students who were particularly sensitive due to the nature of their work (medical professionals) or their families (living with older people). It worked surprisingly well and was less disruptive than we had anticipated.

So, which is right for you?

This depends a lot on your school and use case, but the good point of the setup we will be exploring today is that it can work with both online only and in hybrid classrooms. As the world recovers from covid-19, we can assume there will continue to be a lot of anxiety about possible infection and the risks of spending time in the classroom, so transitioning from online back into a hybrid classroom will allow students who are nervous to continue learning from home while bringing the full classroom experience back online for those ready to attend in person.

What do you need?

It can be intimidating to start shopping for digital education systems. Of course there are interactive whiteboard solutions that cost mountains of money, but that is not necessary for everyone.

Here’s a list of the devices we’re using and some thoughts on how they work:

  • TV display: Depending on the size of your room you can think about how big the display should be. In our case, our class rooms are fairly large, so we decided to go for TVs in the 50-55 inch range. Specifically, we are using this 55″ 4K TV from Iris Ohyama and this 50″ TV from Iris Ohyama, which is from the same series. They are pretty basic TVs but that have plenty of HDMI ports, the quality is fairly good, and above all, they are cheap!
  • TV stand: There are a lot of TC stands out there, but this one by North Bayou had pretty good reviews on the US Amazon and was also quite inexpensive, so we bought one and we have been very happy with it so far. You can see that the welding is a little cheap and the steel is probably not the best quality, but it’s heavy, solid, and doesn’t wiggle around so it’s quite easy to manipulate.
  • Meeting camera: This is a hard part to find these days, but we’ve been using these logicool 920 cameras. They’re fairly inexpensive and reliable, plus they come with a built-in mic so if you want to go really cheap you can just use the TV speakers and the camera mic (which isn’t all that bad actually). They also have a good field of view for hybrid classes where you might want to cram a lot of people into the frame.
  • Meeting mic/speaker: We started out with this meeting speaker from Anker, which is okay for what it is, but not the best for fully-online classrooms. The good points of the Anker Powerconf is that the microphones do a pretty good job of picking up multiple voices in the room and it is battery powered so you can move it around without cables getting in the way, so it works well in a hybrid situation. However, if you’re fully-online it can sometimes pick up a bit of an echo from a single teacher in a closed room. In this case, the standard headset works pretty well. They’re expensive, but we had a few sets handy so for fully-online classes we’ve been using Bose Quietcomfort Headphones. Things like AirPods also work fairly well.
  • Computer: This is not very important as Zoom is very nimble software, however, since we are a Mac office we picked up a bunch of used Mac Minis on Mercari for quite low prices and have been using them. They’re quiet, reliable, and small, which is good in this application.
  • Whiteboarding assistance: One of the great features of Zoom that we really wanted to take advantage of was the whiteboarding functionality. Since Zoom lets you share a whiteboard or even draw on top of PDFs and other shared files, it’s important to be able to use this well for online classes. However, we didn’t want to spend a lot of money on fancy interactive whiteboard TVs and then have to stand by the screen for the whole lesson. So what we did was to use an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil combo to sign in to our own zoom meetings with the audio and video off. This lets us keep all the students and info on the main screen while having a handy way to make notes for the students. In reality, this is the most expensive part of the setup, but we already had equipped all the teachers with iPad Pros for classroom use, so it was easy for us to implement.
  • Peripherals: It’s important to keep everything together, so a nice multi-outlet extension cord, some cables to charge your iPad, an HDMI cable, and some zip ties will finish up the set up.

Total cost (in our case): ~110,000 yen / classroom (200,000 yen including iPads)

Best Practices for Online Lessons

So, how to you make your online lessons easy and effective for your students? Here are a few tips to make it work.

Make time to try things out in advance

If students first experience with Zoom is in the classroom it’s likely that technically issues or students unfamiliarity with the platform will disrupt your classes.

So take some time to make sure your students have all they need and have also done a dry run. It only takes five minutes to call up your student and guide them through the steps and make sure they can connect with you, but it will make them feel much more at ease and make your classes much smoother.

Set up a page with clear instructions

This is a no brainer, but make sure your instructions include iOS devices, android devices, and computers, as everything is a bit different. Having something to refer people to will save you a lot of time in explanations.

Automate lesson invitations with uTeach Cloud

uTeach Cloud lets you access the Zoom api to create lessons (meetings) with a single click on the schedule, and automatically sends the Zoom meeting info & link at a preset time in the morning as well as a preset number of minutes before the class. This means that with a few clicks all of your classes can be set up on Zoom and shared with your students, greatly reducing the time it takes to manage and operate online.

Be prepared for anything

Some students won’t want to join on video, others will have microphones rubbing against their sweaters making noise the whole class, others will have family members arguing in the background. Be prepared! Don’t hesitate to turn off someone’s mic if their background noise is distracting when they’re not talking.

Online lessons won’t always work smoothly. People might hit their data limits and start to lag. Others might run out of battery during a class. Don’t worry! Let the students figure out the technical side on their own without disrupting the flow of the class too much.

Choose a room with a clean background and not much echo

It doesn’t matter much if your room is clean, as long as the area behind you is clean! Also, try not to use a square, empty room, as the echo chamber can make it difficult for learners to hear you.

Things to watch out for

In some ways, online teaching is easier than teaching in the classroom. You don’t need to worry about where to stand so everyone can see the whiteboard, you don’t need to worry if someone forgot their textbook, and you don’t have to fiddle with the air conditioner all the time.

However, there are some drawbacks which can catch you off guard.

Make sure you’re set up to look towards the camera

One of the biggest issues we’ve had it making sure we have everything laid out so that we are looking towards the camera. If you’re using an iPad to write, a TV to display, and you might have some materials, then it’s easy to spend a lot of time looking at your books or iPad and not at the camera. Looking at something in a normal classroom setting is not so bad, but online where the students can only interact with you in the window of the screen, it can be awkward to always have the students looking at the top of your head.

Make sure you set up the screen so that the things you need to look at are towards where the camera is positioned so that you can keep your eyes towards the students. If you are using a speaker-mic instead of a headset, make sure that is also positioned inline with the camera so that it picks up your voice clearly when you’re facing the camera.

Take care to determine a pattern for turn-taking

Our brains can sort out a variety of voices in a crowded room, but it’s much hard to have a variety of voices coming out of a single speaker. To prevent people talking over each other and making the lesson completely impossible to understand, make sure you have turn-taking protocols.

You can use the raise hand feature in Zoom, or for larger classes you might mute everyone and only mute the person you are calling on to cute down on distraction.

If you need to do group or pair work that involves many people talking at once, make generous use of the breakout rooms. They work better than you might expect.

How uTeach Cloud can help

uTeach Cloud was setup with both online and in person learning in mind. With the integration of the Zoom API, it’s super easy to run online or hybrid schools, and to switch between traditional and online when needed.

Some of the key features include:

  • Stripe API integration: bill your students remotely by credit card with Stripe
  • Zoom API integration: one click makes a lesson with automatic reminders sent to students
  • Student reservation calendar: students can easily login to reserve, change, or cancel their classes without needing to contact the school

Using uTeach Cloud and Zoom has allowed us to keep teaching over 250 students online without any reception staff, reducing overhead times and making classes simple for students to attend.