OTUK Founder on the Future of Online Learning
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Can you tell us a little about OTUK – how you got started, what your mission is, etc?
I founded OTUK in 2012 when I returned to England after a decade spent teaching in Russia. Coming home after such a prolonged absence meant finding a good job was difficult. During my time in Russia I had worked in both public and private education so I had a good understanding of the ESL industry and how schools were organized. I felt that there wasn’t enough choice for students and was disillusioned with group teaching generally. That’s when I started tutoring Russian students one-to-one via Skype with courses tailored to their individual study needs.
As OTUK has grown over the last few years, we have broadened our audience to include learners from all over the world. Many of our British tutors speak additional foreign languages and are able to provide unique insights into the cross-linguistic transfer from the student’s mother tongue. We believe in teaching by example and favor qualified UK tutors who have personal experience of foreign language acquisition.
Can you offer any advice to teachers thinking about pursuing teaching online?
I think all teachers should start their careers in a face-to-face classroom with both group and individual tutoring. This is a good platform from which to build when you start teaching online. If you are not a university qualified linguist (or similar) with a good understanding of the English language, I would recommend taking one of the longer ESL certificate courses, such as CELTA. Avoid any 3-week TEFL courses and other quick-fix qualifications as these tend to lack depth. If you are serious about ESL as a career, invest some time and money to acquire the right qualifications and experience.
The transition from face-to-face to the e-classroom can be relatively smooth depending on the confidence and experience of the tutor. Some material will inevitably need to be adapted to work online but don’t limit yourself to traditional classroom methods. If you teach your students to perceive English as a way of life rather than a boring textbook subject, then you can open up everything the internet has to offer – from Youtube videos to Wikipedia articles and the latest slang from blog posts. Instant access to information in modern English is one of the biggest pluses of working online.
What are some challenges teachers face in an online environment?
Technology is improving all the time so it is important to keep your finger on the pulse. Some tutors find this challenging but there are lots of internet forums out there and a quick Google search will usually provide the right answers. When working with certain countries, internet speed can be an issue, so this is worth considering at the trial stage (we recommend http://www.speedtest.net/). Working over a poor connection can ultimately ruin a perfectly good course. As a tutor, the best you can do is ensure your own technical set-up is reliable and provide learners with advice regarding theirs.
Freelance tutors often find it difficult to attract enough students due to competition from online schools and other self-employed teachers. There are certain guarantees when working for an established company, but the more adventurous may want to try going it alone. Ultimately, building an online presence takes a great deal of time, effort and often money – whether you are an individual or a school.
What makes OTUK’s learning platform appealing to students and teachers?
All of our tutors have come from a traditional classroom background and many were new to e-learning when they joined OTUK. Our teachers often comment on how much they enjoy teaching our students online. It’s certainly never boring because we are working across a multitude of time zones, cultures and languages on a daily basis. E-learning also provides a lot of flexibility for tutors to choose their own hours.
I think students appreciate the fact that we are a specialist UK-based school committed to one-to-one teaching. We listen and take an individual approach to every learner where many providers focus more on generic textbook courses.
What do you think is the future of online learning?
I think the expansion of e-learning is an inevitable fact based on the advancement of modern communication technologies. If you observe how young people interact, it is clear that education will need to adapt in order to keep pace with future generations. The other issue with regard to ESL is the chronic shortage of qualified native English teachers on the ground in countries with an increasing demand for English as a foreign language. There are over 2 billion people learning English as a second language worldwide but not enough physical classrooms to accommodate them. Class sizes are therefore rising along with prices, local teachers are under pressure and standards may be suffering too. In the long run I believe e-learning is the only viable option. It will just take time for this new format to be more widely accepted.