Teaching English Online: How to Connect

Amanda Watson Barnett | October 2006


Online learning has often been looked upon with disdain in academia, most likely because of its reputation of being too easy, or a “do it yourself” pedagogy. Some of these fears are substantiated by instructors who are unable to put enough time into their online classroom environment & allow students to flounder with textbook materials & unanswered e-mails. It is now possible to create an online classroom that is richer than a conventional face-to-face classroom. Teaching English online is an opportunity you might consider if you want to flex your teaching muscles in a different environment, escape a difficult commute to school, supplement a full-time income, or work at home due to family obligations. Technological innovations have allowed online learning to be more dynamic, personal, & motivational than ever before.

Despite all of the fears or snobbery surrounding online education, a 2006 Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that, “14 million American Internet users who got their education or training for their career in the past two years say their use of the Internet was crucial or important in upgrading their skills.” Online education is gaining momentum & is important in reaching nontraditional students, the majority of whom are adults returning to education who have different learning styles & needs than younger students. Many online students have multiple jobs, families, & hobbies that they juggle with the requirements of their education. If you are interested in teaching online, it is essential to have a basic understanding of the necessities of andragogy, the methods to best teach adults.


Finding a Position

So where to start, if you want to each English online? First, you have to consider what you’ll be teaching. The most sought after teachers for online English or Communications programs are for the most humble topics: Grammar & Composition. Other common classes are Business Writing & Research Writing. In upper levels, literature- & poetry-based courses are commonly taught by full-time online instructors or adjuncts with PhDs rather than MAs or MFAs. Start by looking in publications such as the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Chronicle Careers online. Utilize search engines to snag the employment websites of different universities. Search websites of online universities you are familiar with—such as University of Phoenix or Capella University—who may already be sending you e-mails to tweak your interest on a regular basis.

Jo Gibson, an adjunct instructor & contributor to the Adjunct Advocate, encourages instructors not to, “be misled by the high visibility of the private for-profit institutions of higher education. The best place to look for an online assignment? State public institutions.” Gibson also emphasizes that community colleges are wonderful to teach for online. In the words of Edward Leach, President of Services for the League of Innovation, “(Community colleges) need to be responsive to an underserved population, & have always been innovative, on the cutting edge.”

A disadvantage of applying to some schools is that they cull their online instructors from their own face-to-face pool. It is hard to break into these departments, but there are plenty of other primarily online schools who are open to “new blood.” Another disadvantage of some online universities is that they only hire adjunct instructors who have PhDs. Starting salaries for adjuncts range anywhere from $1,500 per class to $3,000 per class for a semester. Some schools factor experience into the salary upon hire.

Online professors who bring real world, full-time work experience to the classroom may use this advantage to supplement basic objectives of the course. Many schools value professors who can parallel the full-time work ethic of the students & present applicable, down & dirty, career-related issues. Those with English-related positions in publishing, editing, or technical writing are highly valued in this atmosphere, & students appreciate the dimension that in-the-field professionals bring.


Preparing for & Designing a Course

Most schools, if not all, require instructors to go through course design & pedagogical & andragogical training before being assigned classes. While it is important to feel comfortable with design to teach in the online classroom, Web design experience is not a requirement. Most online course management systems such as Blackboard or eCollege have text formatting editors such as “what you see is what you get,” (or wysiwyg) functions that translate compositions into html for your classroom. Web design experience is still a boon, though, for your curriculum vitae.

Course weeks in online classes are often broken down by links, & you are expected to personalize your course by adding real world experience & knowledge. Some schools provide you with lectures & presentations for each week of your course, & some allow you to develop all lecture materials on your own. The more work you can put into the classroom, the more dynamic it will be for instruction.

Contemporary online professors use audio files & narrate Powerpoint presentations in order to personally reach students. To create interesting & vibrant dialogues with students, departments encourage the use of Impatica, Audacity (a free recording software available online), & RealMedia. Andrew Cavanaugh, Director of Writing for University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Communication, Arts, & Humanities Department, is an innovator & mentor in utilizing media in his department. He states,

The .mp3 file is the most helpful, the most ubiquitous, the least technologically challenging, & the friendliest for students. Creating video presentations using PowerPoint & Impatica is more challenging, but it produces fine results. Creating video presentations using Camtasia or Captivate is slightly more challenging, but the video quality is greater to that of Impatica files. Flash Video Encoder is becoming the industry standard for online video (I heard from one presenter at a conference that it will probably become more popular than RealMedia videos). Therefore, if one becomes familiar with making a video in Flash, one will enhance one’s flexibility.

If you really want to be dangerous in the online environment, learn Flash ActionScripts. Flash is the best tool for creating interactive learning tools on the Web, & ActionScripts are the method through which to create the tools… If a teacher can make such tools, & produce even more sophisticated ones, he/she will enhance his/her marketability, not to mention enjoyment of the classroom.

Although knowledge of these technologies is not always mandatory when applying at online universities, it can elevate your C.V. & give you the power to reach students directly from the start of classes.

Though we find older students in online classes, there are still many young people enrolling in basic level grammar & composition classes. Cavanaugh suggests that the twenty-something generation thrives on the use of new media such as .mp3s. “UMUC’s fastest-growing segment is students between the ages of 20-22,” so creating .mp3s is a way to reach them & appeal to their desire for quick sound bites. Cavanaugh makes particular use of .mp3s to deliver feedback for individual students’ work.

There are incredible professional & personal benefits of teaching online, but some of the most refreshing are the professional development courses & blogs schools offer adjunct & full-time professors. Some of these address issues pertinent to teaching nontraditional students or the use of the many technologies available to supplement a classroom. Many schools also have mentoring programs to usher in new instructors to the online environment. Mentors not only make new instructors feel at home, but they also make sure that all of the online tools are being used appropriately.

English departments strive to break away from merely meeting students’ general expectations & to delight them by using varied forms of accessible media. A mere phone call once in a while also helps to bridge the gap between online & face-to-face communications with students. As personal as online instructors try to make the online classroom, there is always an air of “unreality” surrounding it, especially if instructors limit the use of media in response to text. The more we can incorporate the physical & verbal self into the course, the more real the responsibilities will become for students.

The two main formats in the online classroom are synchronous, or real-time instruction, & asynchronous, the classroom that is suspended in time, where students & professor communicate at different hours & create a constant unscheduled dialogue. Both options have benefits, depending on your availability.

The most intrinsic part of teaching English online is giving feedback to students. No matter how much reading or grammar exercises an instructor assigns, it is impossible to truly help the student without the instructor immersing himself or herself in the text & leading the student in a positive direction. Unless the teacher offers detailed feedback, the students’ worst fears about online instruction will come true—they will be alone with the textbook, teaching themselves. According to George Siemens of eLearnspace.com, the biggest difference between face-to-face & online teaching is, “The role & function of both the teacher & the student. The teacher needs to shift perspective from the ‘provider of knowledge,’ to a ‘facilitator of knowledge.’ The student needs a similar shift—from passive learner to active learner.”

As with face-to-face teaching, online teaching necessitates emotional investment, but even more than traditional classroom learning, it necessitates the effort to be a constant presence in the classroom; to keep tabs on students who might routinely drop out of sight; & to send out quick, reassuring, & tailored feedback so students feel acknowledged & nurtured. Although the first impression of teaching online might be that it is a simple & low maintenance environment prepared in advance for you, it is significantly more challenging than face-to-face teaching, as it requires more organization & immediate response in order to facilitate a communicative & positive environment. The conception of office hours tends to be 24/7 in this world, which can be fair & unfair. If you consider yourself an empathetic instructor, & relish the opportunity to get to know students as individuals, you can provide students with a nurturing community online.


Deciding An Online Career Path

Is it possible to break into full-time teaching online? Cavanaugh states that, “It is probably difficult to gain a full-time teaching job online. We (at UMUC) have about 12-15 full-time instructors in my department, & only about six of them teach entirely online. Universities that teach online seem to rely on adjuncts more than they rely on full-time instructors.” For those part-time English instructors interested in teaching online & in need of a steady salary, it can never be assumed that you will receive a set number of classes each semester, although enrollment is steadily rising for many schools.

Linda Ray Pratt, professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, asserts that the growing trend is to hire part-time in liberal arts. In more distressing news, she states, “Across all disciplines, 41 percent of faculty indicated that they held part-time positions because a full-time position was not available, but in the liberal arts, that figure rises to 60 percent.” Because of reduced federal funding in education, fewer full-time positions are a reality online & in the classroom.

Some believe that the technology beloved by online professors will render the professors themselves extinct. Christopher Cumo of the Adjunct Advocate, states that, “The Web is not a neutral medium. It is a Procustean bed that stretches faculty or lops off parts of them to fit its own dimensions. As a result, faculty may have more to gain by resisting distance education than by submitting to it.” Let’s hope that the person-to-person element of English instruction can keep the online classroom a human, breathing, & evolving organism rather than a collection of prerecorded slides.

In order to fulfill your full-time online dream, it’s possible to apply to several different schools & bulk up your teaching load with four or five classes. As with face-to-face adjunct life, there are few benefits (health insurance, 401K, or 403B) associated with this option. Scour the Internet for all possibilities. The more often you submit your c.v., the more chances you have to attain the online teacher’s dream: grading papers in your pajamas with your cat in your lap, java in one hand, & mouse in the other.


Amanda Watson Barnett is a technical editor for a defense contractor in Washington, DC. She is also an adjunct professor of English at University of Maryland University College & Strayer University Online.


  1. Kommers, Nathan, & Lee Rainie. “Use of the Internet at Major Life Moments.” Pew Internet & American Life Project (May 2002). 17 Sept. 2006 http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Major_Moments_Report.pdf.
  2. Gibson, Jo. “Distance Education: Getting Started.” Adjunct Advocate. Sept.–Oct. 2004: 16-17.
  3. Siemens, George. “Lessons Learned Teaching Online.” eLearnSpace.com (August 2002) 17 Sept. 2006 http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/lessonslearnedteaching.htm.
  4. Pratt, Linda Ray. The Rise of Temporary Faculty Appointments & the Decline of the Liberal Arts. Paper presented at the 49th Conference on College Composition & Communication Chicago. 1-4 Apr. 1998.
  5. Cumo, Christopher. “Is Distance Education the Meteor & Are Faculty the Dinosaurs?” Adjunct Advocate. Jan.–Feb. 2003: 30-31.

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