Videoconferencing software

Once you decide to work online, you are faced with one of the most important questions. What is the best video conferencing software out there? The choice is endless and it seems that every day, it gets bigger. My platform of choice is Zoom, but I adapt to the students and academies I work for. I’d like to present and compare three video conference platforms I currently use – Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Skype.

I believe that choosing the best online teaching platform is the key to success. You want software that you are most comfortable and confident with. One that gives a lot of options but at the same time isn’t overwhelming for the users. When I first started teaching online, I wanted to limit myself to one platform only. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the reality. At first, I wasn’t too thrilled about being using different software. It can be a bit confusing and requires more preparation and watching tutorials for each one. However, after a few months, I came to terms with it and started enjoying this variation.

Zoom

My first and obvious choice was Zoom. It’s the most commonly used platform in Spain. All the students know and understand it, which means that I need to spend less time explaining its features. If you teach 1:1 classes, it’s a great option, as you can enjoy basic features without any issues. The problems appear if you have more than one student in your online group. The free Zoom version has a 40 minutes time limit for conferences with more than two participants (click here to check all Zoom plans). On top of that, the free version doesn’t offer breakout rooms or any other ‘fun’ options that you may want to use from time to time. It’s a safe and quick solution, as all the rooms are password-protected, so you offer some form of safety.

One of my all-time favourite Zoom features is annotations! Last year I taught hybrid classes to YL. It’s quite easy to control the input and work of in-class students, but I struggled with the online ones. I spent a solid chunk of my class, explaining different Zoom ‘fun’ tools. Of course, we often drew together on the whiteboard or played pictionary, but I needed something more. That’s when I realized that my online students can prove their participation by writing their answers on the screen! This tool made my in-class students a bit jealous, but it also convinced a few of them that online classes can be an option in case they can’t be physically present at the academy.

Here’s an example of how I used to use annotations while making sure that students follow the lesson. The exercise is taken from Kid’s Box 4 workbook by Cambridge University Press.

Zoom’s ability to share the sound without sharing the screen is something that I appreciate a lot. It’s also one of the functions that either doesn’t exist, or I simply can’t figure it out when using other programs. There are times that I want to observe my students as they’re listening to see how they feel about certain parts of it. As I write it, I can hear my CELTA tutor saying that my intuition doesn’t mean hard evidence. I beg to differ! In a typical classroom setting, we can easily observe students and notice the parts they find easy and the parts that they struggle with. If I have to share the screen to share the sound, obviously the videos get smaller! If you have a larger group, some of your students may disappear from your view. That’s why I want to see all my students while they complete a listening task. In this way, I get a better sense of what they may need help with.

I guess my main issue with Zoom is the lack of permanent chat. I often ask my students to write their answers in the chat, or I write new words with their definitions, for everyone to see and remember anything new. However, once you end the meeting, everything that you’ve created disappears. It is possible to save it, but more often than not, I forget to do it.

If all of your students use Zoom and you want to keep it that way, then I would suggest looking into paid plans. Paid versions start from €13.99 per month.

Microsoft Teams

To be perfectly honest, when I first started using Microsoft Teams in May 2020, I hated everything about it. Around the same time, I used to teach via Zoom, and everything about this software seemed so overcomplicated. I must say that I quite enjoy it now, and it is one of my favourite teaching platforms right now, especially when dealing with groups.

Microsoft Teams has it all. First of all, you can keep in touch with your students, individually or in groups, all in one place! Chatting feels much more personal and less formal than emailing. Another great feature is a permanent chat, which I often use to control spelling, seeing sentence structure, or writing new vocabulary. It’s a good way to engage all your students and make sure that everyone pays attention.

Moreover, you can assign and store all homework on the platform. No more lost papers and emails! This program is so massive that I’m yet to discover the plethora of ‘hidden’ functions. If you have large groups, you can control the attendance and the statistics of all the late-comers.

In regards to the class itself, I used to be very unhappy and chose Zoom over Teams for one simple reason – no breakout rooms. That’s not a problem anymore. They aren’t as intuitive to use as in Zoom, but it’s not rocket science, and with just a few minutes of playing around, you can figure out your way around them.

There are a few things that I would have to complain about. First of all, the bugs. My typical problem is with the built-in whiteboard. I can see and use it without any issues, but more often than not, my students see nothing. Unfortunately, it seems that once this error occurs, the only way to fix it is by restarting the meeting, which let’s be honest, isn’t the best option. Another complaint is about sharing computer sound on its own. It seems that there is no other way of sharing the sound without showing my screen. If there is a way, then I assure you, it’s not easy to find!

Despite some drawbacks, Microsoft Teams is becoming my favourite video conference software to use with small groups. Oh, did I say that you can also record and then share the recording with the rest of the team? No more ‘Sorry, but I was absent’ excuses! Your students can rewatch the video at any given time, and if you work for a company, your boss can check how it’s going without being too invasive. Most importantly, it’s not that expensive. The full version of Microsoft Teams costs €10.50 per month per user. This price includes full access to Microsoft Office 365, so overall it seems like a better deal than Zoom (click here to check all the paid plans and what they offer). 

Skype

Now, that’s something I didn’t think I would use ever again. Skype – the video conference platform that I used to use before it was cool. The same platform that I forgot about for many years. Yet, here I am using it again! To accommodate all of my students, I always suggest my platform of choice, but as it turns out, not everyone is familiar with Zoom. One of my student, originally from Russia, said that she is more familiar with Skype. I agreed.

I must say, many things have changed since I used it years ago. The design of the programme looks the same. Imagine my surprise when I connected for the first time, I listened to the classic Skype connecting music and began my lesson. I quickly realized that the free Skype version is trying to compete with the big guns out there. It’s possible to share your screen and sound now! Just like in the case of Microsoft Teams, there is no way of sharing the sound without sharing the screen. It’s a shame, but I guess it’s not too bad.

With Skype what you see, is what you get. There is no full version of Skype per se, but you can invest in the Skype for Business account. I haven’t explored this idea too much, and to be completely frank, I don’t think I will. In the free version, you can call up to 99 people (at the same time!) and continue talking without any limits for 24 hours. There are no breakout rooms, so maybe it’s not the best option to use it to teach groups. I guess if you don’t want to spend money or can’t afford the paid Zoom or Teams subscription, Skype is a good alternative to teach small groups, up to 3 people. In this way, you avoid the need to create breakout rooms and still get to enjoy a positive video conference experience.

Another issue is the lack of a built-in whiteboard. My solution to this problem is to go to my trusty online whiteboard and share my screen. It’s not an interactive experience, but it is an experience nonetheless. The good thing is the chat! I miss that dearly in Zoom. I can always write a quick message, share any files or links. They stay there forever and can be accessed at any given time.

Did I mention that it also has a built-in speech recognition with subtitles? It can be a fun feature to play with, but take it with a grain of salt. It comes with some errors!

That’s almost what I said.

Preply

Ever since I started my solo journey, every day felt like a battle that I seemed to be losing. I was trying desperately to get new students when I saw a post by Martin Sketchley in which he talked about his statistics on Preply. I got somewhat interested, as Martin is a professional and wouldn’t use a non-reputable website, but also because once again – I needed new students! I first created my Preply profile in January 2022 and then got stuck for a month on a video. I finally found some motivation, sat down and recorded the video, sent it to Preply and decided to forget about it as I didn’t want to be too disappointed. Much to my surprise, my profile got approved the very next day.

Preply is relatively simple to use. First of all, you create your profile for free, so even if you aren’t too successful at getting students, you don’t experience any losses. Another great thing is that you don’t need any special software to use it. All you need to do is open the browser, enter the classroom, and you are good to go. By now, I have had more than 10 hours on Preply, and I am happy with the quality of service and the tools it offers.

The best tool is the instant booking feature. I never liked talking to my potential students and trying to sell myself. For a change, I don’t have to do too much. I get a notification on my phone/email saying that I got a lesson booked, and all I need to do is prepare myself and show up. Within the first 48 hours of being on the platform, I booked seven trial lessons and raised my prices by $10. Now my calendar is full, and I finally feel like what I do is worth it. I even got overwhelmed and made my profile invisible as it felt like I won’t have enough time to relax.

Another available feature is a set of built-in courses that technically should help you skip lesson planning. It’s all great in theory, but from what I’ve gathered so far – not many students enjoy it. I have toyed with this idea of just opening a course and speaking for an hour, but most of my Preply students want me to go over grammar points with them – just like they did at school! I try to stay away from it and make it a bit more fun and interactive, but those who have used Preply before and followed the courses told me that they are useful but a bit repetitive. Lucky for me, I have plenty of resources and ready-to-go materials that need just a tiny bit of change, so even though I have a lot of new students, I can provide them with a high-quality service.

There are some buts. First of all, students pay for all trial lessons, and 100% of it goes to Preply. Then for the first 20 hours, the commission is 33%! As I wanted to get new students, I asked for a price lower than usual and needless to say, I am making peanuts compared to my other classes that I do on my own.

Remember how I said that it’s so great that I don’t need to talk to my students before they book me? Yeah, it’s not all that great. On my profile, it clearly says that I offer classes for teenagers and adults. I have decided that since I work on my own, I don’t want to teach children online. As it turns out, not everyone likes to read those pesky descriptions, and I got booked to teach a child. I always message my students to tell me something about themselves, and when I found out that these were lessons for a kid, I had to decline. Of course, people are understanding, but it adds a little bit of anxiety.

From the technical point of view, Preply is great, but not my favourite. I love that the calendar is well-organised, but I can’t reserve some of the future scheduled classes ahead of time. I have a few students who became regulars on Preply and like their routine. Unfortunately, they usually schedule two weeks in advance, so someone else may steal their spot. I managed to find a solution for it. I have informed my students that their favourite hours are available only for them, but since I wanted to avoid someone else taking that time, I blocked them for everyone. If my students want to book a class, they normally schedule it at a different time, and then I reschedule it for their proper time. It’s a bit of a hassle, but I guess it makes some of my students feel special that I have dedicated this time just for them.

And don’t get me started on screen sharing! I love screen/sound sharing on Zoom. It is so simple! That’s why when I see the Preply share window, it instantly gives me a headache. When I entered the classroom on my own and tried sharing a separate screen, it worked well. However, when I wanted to do the same in class, of course, this option conveniently disappeared. I also enjoy sharing sound only from time to time. Guess what? If you want to listen to something on Preply, you need to share your entire screen to do that. Very inconvenient.

I try avoiding screen sharing on Preply at all costs, as it makes everything look just wrong. This is why I started using their built-in whiteboard. This is something that I normally wouldn’t do on Zoom, but may get into it soon enough. I now copy and paste pictures, diagrams, write important information and most importantly, encourage my students to use this feature with me. I feel like it makes classes way more interactive, and I can see them doing all the work. It can get a bit annoying at times, but we are still learning!

Final thoughts

The type of video conference platform depends on learners’ preferences, class types and number of people. Right now, I’m going to stick to the combination of those three platforms and see how the situation develops with time. Do you know of any easy-to-use and relatively cheap solution that would satisfy all of my current teaching needs? What platforms do you use?