A beginner’s guide to teaching online, part 1: which platform to use?

I’ve been teaching private online lessons for TOEFL iBT since 2010. By 2012, I had left local schools and was earning 100% of my income from teaching online lessons. There are a lot of questions about which of the many platforms – Skype, Google Hangout, Wiz IQ, Join.Me, Go to Meeting – is best for teaching online.

Let me tell you what you need, and what I use.

What do you need out of an online platform?

This is the first question to answer, since you only need to cover these basics, and any other features are just additional bells and whistles. At its core, there are really only four basic things that an educational learning platform needs to do:

  1. Teachers need to see their students and be seen by them.
  2. Teachers need to hear and be heard.
  3. Teachers need to show their notes for presentations and explanations and watch their students produce English.
  4. Teachers need to share materials and collect homework assignments as easily and quickly as possible.

For better or worse, there are dozens of ways to meet each of these four core needs.

The thing is (especially because most students are new to online learning and have some trepidation), you want a platform which feels easy to use. The easier, the better. With that handful of options, the choice comes down to cobbling together a few quality free, or low-cost platforms – or paying a monthly subscription to conveniently access this functionality from a single platform.

How to see and be seen, hear and be heard

In online lessons, students are choosing you because they like you and want to learn from you. The clearer your video and audio are, the more ‘Digital You’ is like ‘Real You’, the happier students are, and the more likely they are to continue studying and recommend you to their friends. There are so many ways to share video and audio between students and teachers for private lessons, but top options include:

  • Wiz IQ (which is an ‘all-in-one’ paid service that bundles other functionality along with video and audio chat)
  • Skype (which you have probably already used for video conferencing or instant messaging; it’s free or paid, depending on their business model in any given year – but it is always extremely affordable)
  • Zoom (which is another ‘all-in-one’ option with both free and very cheap paid versions)

What about Platform X, Y or Z? I’m purposefully leaving off many platforms like Google Hangouts. You can ask why in the comments, but it’s mostly because new communication companies and services proliferate faster than baby rabbits on Rabbit Island in Japan. There are countless options for video or telephone conferencing or screen sharing. By the time I write this list, a dozen new programs will have been born. It’s easy to spend loads of time downloading, testing and niggling, only to find the time would have been better spent teaching or gathering new students. So, until someone literally pushes a new option under my nose, I’m sticking with Skype, Zoom or Wiz IQ.

The platforms’ similarities

Demos – If you are so inclined, you can request a demo from both Wiz IQ and Zoom. They are thrilled to let you test drive their platforms. Sales reps from both companies are super friendly and helpful. If you don’t want to wait to see it, just head to YouTube and search ‘Wiz IQ demo’ or ‘Zoom teleconference demo’.

Standard Stuff – All three services broadcast your video and audio to your student, and transmit your student’s video and audio to you. Wiz IQ, Skype and Zoom all allow you to change audio settings about which microphone or speakers/headphones to use. They all also let you turn your video camera on or off, so you can hide yourself even though your student keeps hearing your voice. (This could be useful if you’re doing a listening activity, or simulating a listening or speaking situation in which the student cannot see the speaker.)

Recordings – No matter what kind of lesson you’re doing, it can be extremely useful to have a recording of it. Recordings allow students to review, absorb more and make greater progress. Zoom and Wiz IQ both have the capacity to make recordings of your lessons within the platform itself. To record Skype calls, you need an extension – Ecamm’s ‘Call Recorder’ for Mac and ‘Pamela’ for PC.

Chat – Also, each of these big three services have a built-in chat function so you can message by typing. This is useful for overcoming tech glitches, maintaining contact with a student when the call drops unexpectedly, co-ordinating the precise start time of a lesson, or making notes on the fly about what to add to homework or review lists.

Invisible Technical Stuff – It isn’t really possible to give a definitive answer on which platform has ‘better’ audio or video because there are so many variables that have nothing to do with the platform. Performance is impacted by the teacher’s computer’s processor, video and audio card, RAM, the quality of devices (webcam, microphone, speakers, etc.) and internet signal. It’s then multiplied because the student has their own set up of all this as well. Wiz IQ claims their platform is superior to Skype but there isn’t an actual technical explanation as to why that would actually be true. When I test drove Wiz IQ, I wasn’t convinced that their audio or video was any better than what I already get from Skype. I know there will be people who argue with me, but I think most differences in the perceived quality of Skype and Google Hangouts can actually be chalked up to an outdated laptop without enough RAM or really slow upload and download speeds which gum up the transmission of video and audio. And for visual quality, if you’re using a single 75 watt incandescent lightbulb to light your space, no platform can fix that.

Sooner or later, the internet will have a bad day. Your calls will drop. Your face will get frozen in an unflattering frame. Something will go wrong. The best approach is to readjust your philosophy. In all these situations, take a breath, smile and call the student back, carry on right where you left off.

Tech glitches are only as big a deal as you make them – and ultimately, if you have quality components and hardware, you will see that these platforms are virtually the same in their ability to beam Digital You to the world.

The platforms’ differences

Ease of Use – This is the biggest difference because Skype is undoubtedly the best-known platform and requires the least rigmarole to get started in. Students almost always already have Skype installed on their computer, with an account ready to go – or have a family member who understands it and can help with at-home configuration. If a student has a smart phone, then Skype’s icons for starting or accepting calls intuitively make sense, so the learning curve is virtually non-existent.

Zoom is also very easy to use (but if you struggle, they’ve got 24-hour support which had me speaking with someone in less than 60 seconds). There is an app to make using it on mobile devices. You just click a web link and you agree to open an application through your internet browser. No download is required, so within a few seconds, you have a new internet window with a control panel very similar to Skype. However, you have to provide your student with that link, so you may still find Skype useful.

Wiz IQ needs to be downloaded to your computer. Wiz IQ’s app didn’t function properly when I test drove the software in April 2015. Also, the Wiz IQ representative still connected with us initially on Skype to make sure I downloaded and set up the program correctly. So even Wiz IQ folks still need to have Skype installed on their computers. Point made.

Aesthetics – There are aesthetic differences in the way that Skype, Zoom and Wiz IQ compose the visual layout of the chat box and video portion. No one is ‘better’ in that sense. If you like the way a platform like Wiz IQ looks and feels, use it! Alternatively, if you’re happy with Skype, you can go a long way for free, or nearly free.

Privacy – Wiz IQ and Zoom both claim they are encrypted so if you have privacy concerns, you might be happy to pay the monthly fee in exchange for peace of mind. As a free platform, Skype has no guarantee that your data won’t be used for nefarious purposes. Unless you’re divulging state secrets in your English lessons, it may never matter.

My choice

I have logged thousands of hours since I started using Skype for online lessons back in 2010. More recently, as I started teaching groups, I turned to Zoom for its simplicity and ability to record and call quality with larger groups. At the point that I need to facilitate proper pair work, I would rely on Zoom or WizIQ for their ‘breakout rooms’ (this is the ability to put students with a partner, so you can create small group discussions and then bring everyone back to the ‘whole class’ experience).

I won’t be uninstalling Skype anytime soon, as it’s an initial contact point and back-up communication method. So, for the purposes of a one-to-one teacher, I doubt you need more than what Skype offers for free. Just upgrade your computer and internet package.

Don’t miss the rest of the series, A Beginner’s Guide to Online Teaching: Parts 2 and 3, where we discuss how ‘screen share’ restores your sense of agency and how to curate and share digital materials with your students.

Featured image credit: JulyYu via Compfight cc Text added by ELTjam.

Jaime Miller is the director of online school English Success Academy.  She also shows ELT teachers how to establish online careers that keep their schedules full.  Click here for more info.


19 thoughts on “A beginner’s guide to teaching online, part 1: which platform to use?”

  1. Fantastic advice, Jamie – really clear! A great start to the series, and I can’t help feeling there’s probably a Beginner’s Guide to Teaching Online book in the making. And there’s got to be a market for it; I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s struggled to understand why my video connection keeps breaking the internet ;o)

    • Daniel I have reservations about entombing advice about online teaching in a book format… but an e-book could work, yes. 🙂 We got your video connection sorted out just fine in the end. How are your blazing fast download speeds going now? hehe

  2. Thanks for this interesting and helpful post. I am sitting here wondering about course programme / course content, and to what extent my context is applicable: Needs Analysis driven course in a UK private language school.
    Let me imagine that you have four students from various countries who all want a lesson at GMT 7:00 every Tuesday and who have prepaid for a block of six lessons. You are going to teach them as a group using Zoom.
    How do you decide the course programme? Have they signed up for an advertised course with known topics and skills and language areas? Is there a negotiated element?
    Would be fascinating to know more. Thanks

    • Paul, can you clarify a bit more? Currently, my team and I only teach private lessons for TOEFL iBT — so the courses are tailored to the learner with whatever blend of exam prep, skill-building, or accent clarification that the student needs. In the context you’ve described above, it sounds like students are signing up for generic “English classes” without having pre-defined goals. Or… The school’s Lesson Coordinators are telling potential students that the teacher will figure out how to teach six learners whatever they need?

      • I was wondering about your experience where you have a disparate small group all signed up for an online course. How you make them less disparate, in terms of aims etc.
        My own situation in a PLS may or may not be relevant. Here I have groups of 4 people all studying Business English with me for two weeks in a conventional classroom setting. I begin day one lesson one with a Needs Analysis to see which skills (discussions, meetings, telephoning) and topics (marketing, cultural awareness, strategy) they want to cover on the course. Then I plan the course program based on this. So the content is negotiated and tailored.
        You say that your lessons are private (meaning 1:1 not group?) and geared to a specific exam, so that is a long way from my situation.
        But I guess my situation is reasonably close to that of many followers of this blog.
        In terms of course content, Skype lessons 1:1 are never going to be a big problem for an experienced teacher. But working with a group of individuals with nothing more in common than wanting to learn English and shared availability at a particular time is (I guess) going to be more difficult.
        I just wondered if you had some experience here.

        • Sorry for my delay! I don’t know why I didn’t get the notification for this.

          “Business English” is a huge area. “Exam prep” is also huge. If we get at the core issues, they are the same logistical issues: 1) The school says “we can help.” 2) Each student comes with an expectation for improvement — which is often very vague and unexplored. 3) The teacher is supposed to deliver. It doesn’t matter what kind of lessons — or if they’re group or private. The same 3 things come up everywhere.

          I have worked in many schools where I was given a group of students and I needed to find a way to make it work. In a traditional school, I used to do Needs Analysis as soon as possible and talk with the students at the beginning. I would align their expectations as best I can and find a way to create a sort of patchwork lesson plan that encompasses the majority’s needs the best.

          Honestly, I loved teaching group classes because of the energy they created BUT I always found issues with the curriculum in group lessons. It was like being handled puzzle pieces from lots of different puzzles and being asked to put them all together. Depending on what the Lesson Coordinators / Sales Team says, these issues can be exacerbated…

          I used to work at a school which claimed to use Suggestopedia — although NONE of the teachers were trained in it and the sales team had personal experience with neither Suggestopedia nor the teacher’s odd blend of teaching styles — and there was no accountability system whatsoever beyond profit and bonuses for positive customer feedback.

          Students were level tested and they were grouped pretty accurately. However, the sales team was selling to such a warped incentive structure that they said just about anything to get students to enroll. “It’s suggestopedia, so you just sit and relax! The English will just come to you so easily… You don’t have to do anything!”

          Of course students in my lessons were disappointed to discover I had no magic Matrix-like machine! And if they didn’t review, they wouldn’t remember… *sigh* After I realized what was happening, I started our first day totally differently — with a massive dose of reality and expectation management.

          I quit after a couple months.

          I never worked in anywhere else so extreme, but it taught me a lot about the mess that evolves when the admin, teachers and sales team are working at cross purposes.

          Now, I make sure that my lessons are marketed and sold in a way that is in alignment with what actually *can* happen in a lesson. I do a lot of pronunciation work with students, and beyond my initial presentation of the concepts, a student’s improvement (which needs to be significant and measurable in spontaneous speech) doesn’t happen in a group environment.

          My Lesson Coordinator actually does a preliminary needs analysis BEFORE students get into lessons — not after. If a group is being put together, this is even more critical. Otherwise the lessons are just for short-term profit. Students sense the “patchwork” nature of lesson plans and may question how they benefited — which means they wonder how valuable the lessons are, and so they are unlikely to recommend the school to their friends.

          So… Not to ignore your question but… Is it really your problem to fix?

  3. Nice post – the 4 key questions are really helpful for newbies to online teaching.

    The school I work for has been offering online classes for the last 18 months. We originally opted for Wiziq rather than Skype (I hadn’t heard of Zoom prior to reading this but will take a look) because Wiziq offers added functionality that is useful for language teaching; in particular the media player, which allows you to upload and play Youtube videos inside the virtual classroom with playback that all class participants and the teacher can hear. The break out rooms are a must too if you plan to have more than 2 or 3 students. Larger groups, without break out rooms tend to be too teacher centered. However,the problem with Wiziq was downloading / installing it. So many students /potential students had problems getting into demo classes with us that we decided to try other options. Wiziq sales team are also pretty aggressive, which we found appoying. We’re currently using Skype for Business which is easier to set up but which has less functionality than Wiziq. If you only intend to teach one -to -classes, I’d go with with normal Skype.

    • Mark, I agree with your comments about Wiz IQ. It is certainly useful for a teacher to have temporary control over playing media to the students, but (like your team) I cannot rationalize sacrificing the student’s user experience (and certainly not the first impression) just for that. Zoom doesn’t have the ability to upload videos directly into the platform but the Zoom team is super responsive and I’ve already made a couple requests for them to upgrade their platform so… You could ask for this. Until then, it sounds like you’re sorted with Skype for Business.

  4. Jamie,
    Congrats! I am impressed by your life in all it’s faces.
    I have been teaching French on Skype for 3 years , and love it. Nevertheless I don’t know how to get the word out and find more students. Can you advise and/or help me with that?

  5. Congrats on making it 3 years online, Veronique. That’s a big milestone for sure. There are loads of ways to advertise online but I have found that students don’t really respond to it very much — and I never felt very comfortable with that level of advertising. Teachers aren’t internet marketers, so we have to use different ways to promote ourselves online. Something that doesn’t feel icky. What you’re asking about (the intersection of teaching and ethical, authentic promotion) actually snowballs into a really big issue pretty quickly. Click here to check out my blog posts about that. If you carefully follow the “5-Step Map” I talk about right from the start, you naturally get so many referrals that you don’t need to do much promotion:


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