When I first became a teacher of English as a second language, I was advised that it would not be easy to earn a decent living in my chosen field. Consequently, I explored various sources of supplementary income from tutoring to translation. I tried online essay correction but found the pay was really poor. Then I discovered live webcam tutoring.

I was excited by the possibility of holding face-to-face conversations with people on the other side of the world.  I welcomed the opportunity to broaden my teaching horizons and gain virtual overseas teaching experience. At the same time I could enable English language learners to practice English conversations in a friendly, relaxed environment. I could even tutor local clients without having to spend time or money traveling around town.

Equipment

All you need to set up as an on line teacher is a fast, reliable internet connection, a free video chat application such as Skype, a webcam and a computer headset.

Logitech HD Webcam C310
Amazon Price: $29.99 Buy Now
(price as of Jun 14, 2016)

Although it is possible to use the built in camera in your laptop or smartphone, the video quality may be quite poor. It is therefore a good idea to invest in a decent webcam, which will set you back between $30 and $70. Also, using a separate computer headset instead of built in speakers will give you better audio quality and cut out background noises which could distract your clients. Cheap headsets start at less than $10, but these are very flimsy and have poor quality audio. I currently use a $60 gaming headset. It has good quality stereo sound, comfortable ear pads and an adjustable headband.

Logitech Wireless Headset H800 for PC, Tablets and Smartphones
Amazon Price: $59.99 Buy Now
(price as of Jun 14, 2016)

Working for an Online School

I started out working for an online language school. I found schools by doing Google searches and then submitted employment applications through the websites that I found.  Jobs are also advertised in on line job boards such as Dave's ESL Cafe or the ESL Teachers Board.

Skype meeting ayvak & nancyajones 2008oct16Credit: Nancy Jones via Wikimedia Commons

There are many good online schools, but there are also unethical schools as well as outright scams. Therefore, as with any online venture, you need to proceed with caution.

After having located a potential employer, Google the company's name and check out on line reports, blogs and chat rooms.  Another excellent resource is the company's own website. As you examine the website, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the website appear professional?
  • What is the application process for prospective teachers? A legitimate company will expect teachers to be qualified and have a stringent application process.
  • How much do they charge their clients? The school will probably pay its teachers approximately 50 percent of their client fees, so this is a way to estimate your earning potential.
  • How do teachers get paid?  I personally prefer PayPal because it is quick, convenient and secure, and you do not need to provide personal financial information to the school.

Be suspicious if you encounter any of the following red flags:

  • The potential employer asks for details of your bank account or other sensitive personal information. 
  • The pay is too low.
  • The application process seems too easy.
  • You are promised potential income which sound too good to be true.
  • You are asked to pay money up front.

Freelancing

Once I became established as a webcam teacher I also began teaching individuals on a freelance basis, both overseas and in my own city.

Because I was working in the classroom at the time I never actively pursued freelancing as a full time endeavor. However, a lot of teachers are now promoting themselves on social media and YouTube. The environment is becoming more and more competitive and an independent online teacher needs to be entrepreneurial and tech savvy. To be successful it takes knowledge, time and effort to design and set up a website or blog and to attract clients through creative internet marketing.

In this video Teacher Diane explains some of the ways she markets herself online

Teaching Techniques

Good teaching is as essential in the virtual classroom as in the real one.  It is important to establish learning goals and give well prepared lessons.

Plantronics headset in use on HP500Credit: By Pinback66 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A successful online teacher also needs to use teaching techniques which are appropriate to the medium. Your students see you only as a face on a screen. Therefore, rather than using whole body language as you would in a classroom setting, you need to engage learners with lively facial expressions. Obviously, you will also use the chat window of your video client differently to a white board in front of a class. You can use messages to supply vocabulary, correct sentences, and demonstrate grammar in context. However, if you like to draw diagrams on the board in class, consider using Power Point slides.

Since you are teaching in a virtual classroom it also makes sense to use virtual ESL resources. I have found a lot of excellent free ESL material by doing Google searches for a grammar point or topic area. Some of my personal favorites include Teflpedia Conversation Questions and Breaking News English. I also like to find interesting authentic news articles to discuss with advanced learners.

The webcam is a communicative medium. It is great for listening and speaking practice as well as communicative practice of target grammar structures and pronunciation (if you have a good quality headset!). Reading can be assigned as homework and taken up in class through comprehension and discussion questions. Writing can also be assigned for homework. If the learner types an essay up as a Word document, they can e-mail it to you and you can mark it using the "track changes" function of Word. Internet research tasks also make great homework projects.

Pros and Cons of Online Work

There are a few disadvantages to on line work. Working alone can be isolating. Because you are working across international time zones, you may find your self working at unsociable hours. I live on the West coast of North America and most of my clients live in Japan. Because of the 17 hour time difference I teach from mid-afternoon into the late evening. In addition, I need to schedule regular breaks because working at the computer can cause eye fatigue and headaches.

School of OpenCredit: Public Domain via Creative Commons

However, the advantages more than outweigh the disadvantages. I have no travel expenses, and my commute to work is the minute that it takes to sign in to Skype. I also enjoy combining a relaxed work style with freedom and flexibility. Although I sometimes work late into the night, it is my choice, and I can also schedule days off whenever want. My work is also as portable as my laptop, and it travels with me wherever I go.

When I got my first webcam in 2003 I felt like a pioneer in cyberspace. I could not even check out whether my new toy worked properly because I did not know anyone else who actually owned one.  Internet video was unreliable and Skype did not exist. The state-of-the-art platform was the now defunct Windows Messenger. It was pretty unstable, and I often experienced static interference, disconcerting time lags between the audio and the video, and frequent dropped calls.

A mobile video call between Sweden and Singapore made on a Sony-Ericsson K800 (2007)Credit: "Video Call" by Kalleboo - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Video_Call.jpg#/media/File:Video_Call.jpg

Nowadays, bandwidth and speed have vastly improved and people are video chatting with Skype, Facetime or Google Hangouts. They chat from their laptops, their tablets and their smart phones. They do it at home and on the go. And as the technology continues to improve  who knows what creative possibilities the future will bring?