A beginner’s guide to teaching online, part 2: screen sharing

This is Part 2 of 3 in the series. If you missed Part 1, click here.

I’ve been teaching private online lessons for TOEFL iBT since 2010. By 2012, I left local schools and earned 100% of my income from teaching online lessons.

Below, I’m comparing Skype, Zoom, and Wiz IQ to see how they differ in terms of their functionality to ‘share your desktop’ or ‘screen share’. If that’s a new concept, no worries! This is simply the ability to transmit a live video feed of your own computer screen to any students who are watching. When you screen share, your video feed gets replaced by a video feed of your computer screen so your students can see exactly what you’re clicking or typing on your desktop, Microsoft Word, or PDF documents. And vice-versa. Without the ability to do screen-sharing, I get a stressed, helpless feeling.

Again, there aren’t too many globally accessible options for this and the top three are more than adequate here.

You can’t afford to overlook this in your ESL lessons

Once, a teacher told me he was nervous about teaching important stuff online, or translating his offline teaching presence into a digital version. I remember this feeling of stress exactly. It’s true that online, you have to re-learn ways to do all the things you do instinctively in the real world – like pointing to special information, or opening a book for a student to save time, or craning your neck to see what they see.

The way to overcome this online is by actually seeing what your students are looking at, or what their mouses are hovering on, or what they’ve typed. This way, I can adjust the pace of the lesson to make sure everyone is comfortable.

Screen sharing is not an optional feature of an ESL teaching platform. You need it so you can respond spontaneously to tech challenges or questions about grammar or vocabulary that pop up in a one-to-one ESL lesson. It’s also what makes or breaks an online reading or writing lesson.

Or, if you’re like me and you enjoy writing things down for students, then sharing a screen while you write with a digital pen/tablet mouse pad can bring the human element back to your ESL lessons. For years, I’ve been using Wacom’s Bamboo (which is basically a mouse shaped like a pen that only writes on a special mouse pad – I show mine in the photo here).

I use the Bamboo to write in programs that support hand-writing. Microsoft Office’s OneNote is the best for this. Here is a screenshot that I took after teaching a vocabulary lesson. I started with a blank white canvas area and drew my diagram, explaining as I went. This particular snapshot of my lesson may not make so much sense in retrospect, but hopefully it illustrates that once you get used to writing with a digital pen, the sense of physical freedom that you have in reality is restored.

The platforms’ similarities

Getting It Done – Wiz IQ, Zoom and Skype all allow either teachers or students to share a live feed of each other’s desktops. From the visual tests I have run, they have comparable quality. The students can resize their screen and by making it bigger, and they can clearly see your screen. When both student and teacher are plugged into wired internet connections, and plugged into an electricity source, the screen share function is the same.

The platforms’ differences

Organization of the Control Panel / Dashboard – When you physically use each of the platforms, you’ll discover that they are organized really differently. You should choose what will be easiest for your students to use.

No matter which you go with, you should take a tutorial before teaching any lessons with it – and you should provide your student with YouTube tutorial videos to view so they get an introduction before they take a lesson with you. Watching tutorial videos takes maybe 10 minutes maximum and orients students. That way, they’re not paying you to teach them how to use the platform (which makes you look really professional and results-oriented).

Zoom is very clean – most of the options and functionality is accessed by clicking various buttons and menus from the main control panel. (Because of this, at first glance Zoom appears to have limited functionality, but everything you need is in there.) However, the most important thing, screen sharing, is prominently featured on the control panel. And they did us the favor of highlighting the button green. Your students couldn’t miss it!

Skype is also quite clean but I often have to lead students through the sequence of buttons that need to be clicked to activate their screen sharing. With lower level students, or those who have struggle with listening, this can be tedious. Skype also displays differently on a Mac than a PC, so that can cause additional delays.

When you look at the Wiz IQ control panel, pretty much every function is already visible. For me, it feels cluttered, but I can understand that for other people this is ideal, as everything is there. The ready access to everything delays the need to teach your students functional tech vocab like ‘hover’ and ‘on the next screen’.

Cost – Skype is a bit ambivalent about charging for the screen-sharing service. Over the years, there have been times when I needed a subscription plan to screen share. However, $30 a year – or $2.50 USD per month – is an extremely small price to pay, especially if you spend dozens of hours every month in lessons.

Zoom has a free version so, if you’re just teaching very small lessons that are shorter than 40 minutes, you could get away with using it until your online teaching schedule expands and you’re earning enough to warrant investing more in your systems. Zoom’s paid versions are also very reasonable, though, especially considering all the free 24-hour support.

Currently, Wiz IQ is the most expensive option, with current prices starting at $16 per month (but they also offer solutions for hosting and distributing your digital content, which we’ll talk about in article three of this series).

Annotation Options – Handwriting digital notes or highlighting like in the picture above is a workaround I do because Skype doesn’t include any built in ‘white-board’ or ‘annotation’ services. But, my students have never had the opportunity to do what I do because they haven’t invested in the same tech gadgets. Zoom and Wiz IQ both include extensive options to highlight, draw, add notes or otherwise mark up whatever you’re looking at. So if saving on annual subscription costs with Skype is appealing, don’t forget you will still need to spend that money in other areas.

Multi-Device Support – All the apps claim to work on any device – and they do, with varying degrees of success. I’m not busting anyone’s chops here; programmers nowadays face daunting tasks with screen sizes ranging from 24-inch behemoths to tiny little smart phones. If that’s not a mathematical headache, I don’t know what is. Wiz IQ’s app support needs the most development, but Skype also struggles to show horizontal landscape screens with an iPhone or narrow tablet that is oriented vertically. Honestly, though, multi-device support is a moot point for me as an online ESL teacher because I only feel professional teaching on a real computer. I once tried to teach a guy who was on the go – and after about the fifth time of him calling me from his car, with no ability to write down anything or recall concepts we previously discussed, I required all my students to be in an environment conducive to learning. That means a big computer. For my purposes, multi-device support doesn’t matter.

Malfunctions – I don’t expect any teaching platform to work 100% in 365/24/7 (physical buildings have their own problems like power outages or broken photocopiers; life goes on). I have found a common problem with Skype crops up with countless students, despite my computer set up or internet package. Sometimes doing screen share gums up Skype. When this happens, I drop our call and call my student back right away. No one has ever complained about this, asked for a refund or canceled their future lessons because of it. A breezy attitude and staying focused on learning outcomes will overcome whatever tech malfunctions pop up.

My choice

I have recently been converted to Zoom because it puts recording and annotation in the hands of students for the best price. However, even today, after five years online, I still use Skype to see and be seen, hear and be heard, share my desktop and see my students’ desktops. Especially if you are teaching materials-light ESL lessons like pronunciation or conversation, it is unlikely that you need anything more than Skype either.

Make sure you don’t miss the final article in A Beginner’s Guide to Online Teaching, where we dive into ways to distribute actual lesson content (like materials, audio files, homework and more).



Image credit: Wacom Bamboo Tablet and Microsoft OneNote lesson screen shot, Jaime Miller.

Featured image: 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.

7 thoughts on “A beginner’s guide to teaching online, part 2: screen sharing”

  1. Thanks for these reviews; I’d never heard of Zoom or the Bamboo.
    I’m using Google Docs with my students. They don’t need to have a gmail address to access documents, and I can set privacy levels so that only they can see their work. We can both be in the document at the same time, we can see where the other person is, and it’s easy to leave comments at the side of the page (we often have mini conversations offline where I highlight a problem and they reply with possible solutions).

    The biggest advantage of screen shares, for me, is that weaker internet connections seem happier to support screen share than video, so it helps to reinforce the teacher-student connection when we can’t see each other.

  2. I am a retired engineer trying to work with my grandchildren (14,12, and 8) individually online. I have selected to use Skype on Windows 10 desktop computers.

    What additional devices do you recommend for:
    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 (hand-written on paper) drawings, equations, and written English.
    4. Teachers need to share materials and collect homework assignments as easily and quickly as possible.
    Thank you so much.

  3. Special thanks for writing this article. I often teach math but and write-down my problem on a digital pad showing the students. I need a system that allows the student to write their bit and share it with me so that we both can see the same work…..any suggestions?


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