Your video conferencing studio

I don’t think the sound quality of video conferencing is very good. I’ve tried Skype and QQ.  I hear Google is better but I don’t think it will be better by much. All of these things are going to get better and better in the future as connection speeds improve, microphones and cameras and the video conferencing technology improves. In short, video conferencing is the future.

I have seen some “videocasts” made by some bloggers and magazine journalists. They seem to relish wearing the big headset with the attached microphone. I’m not sure why.

When I’m doing video conferencing with my students, I think “TV news”. Teaching online by video conferencing is a whole new game and there is a lot of problems with it and even some general resistance to it. People always think flesh and blood face-to-face is better. I have to overcome that mindset.

So this is something I take as a direct challenge and focus on it and how to overcome it. How can I make the video conferencing experience as positive as possible. And so I have considered my video conferencing studio.

Pay attention to appearance. What is your student going to see?

The whole “work at home” SOHO idea embraces the idea of working in your pajamas but my students will not enjoy looking at me in my pajamas. I make a greater effort at looking nice in a video conference than I do at a face-to-face lesson.

I don’t want a big headset that makes me look like an airline pilot or NFL coach. I use earbuds and a clip on mic.

My window overlooks the garden which is full of mango trees. I turn the desk so that this scene is my background. It is very pleasant.

I look straight into the camera just as all professionals on TV do. They look straight into the camera and you don’t feel they are looking at a machine. You feel they are looking at you. I want my student to feel that.

It is important to be more focused on what the student is seeing and experiencing than what we are seeing and experiencing.

Teaching by video conferencing is a whole new approachfraught with challenges. We have two choices, wait until all the problems are solved and everyone is doing it or we can launch ourselves into it now and start working on these problems, solving them or minimizing them until the technology catches up.

“Text messages help smokers quit” – Can they motivate students?

I have always been interested in research into habit changing efforts that could possibly be instrumental in helping my students. This has led me into studying techniques related to fitness coaching, distance coaching, research into using SMS to remind people to take their meds, using SMS for weight loss, phone calling to coach people quitting drug habits and to support wellness programs, etc. Here is some late news on the same topic. To what Continue reading ““Text messages help smokers quit” – Can they motivate students?”

iPad or iHype?

A teacher was promoting iPads saying, “You can record and publish a podcast or audio to the web from an ipad in your classroom in about half the time it takes a PC to boot up. This kind of speed ease and portability takes a lot of the time wasting out of computer use in the classroom and makes it all run a lot smoother. There’s a lot to be said for that.”

To discuss the Pros and Cons of iPads, it’s really hard to separate the hype about Apple products, isn’t it? I suppose having a computer that starts instantly gives students about a 30-second jump on the day. I’ve been trying to think about iPads and iPhones with a level head and not get caught up in the hoopla. I’ve been checking out all of the iPad users that I come across to see what they are doing and talking with them. I don’t see any of them doing anything with an iPad that can’t be done as well or better on a notebook computer.

The Starbucks is a natural hangout for iPads. You’d expect to find some interesting usage there but what are they doing? I’ve been checking them out. They are:  (1) Watching movies. (2) Reading webpages. (3) Playing solitaire.

It’s kind of comical to see how the screen flips when people inadvertently tip the iPad and they try to tip it aright again.

Although typing is possible, I notice almost no one really tries to do it. I’ve tried it and found it requires much more focus on my fingers whereas on a physical keyboard I am just thinking what I want to say and without looking my fingers work over  the keyboard automatically. I find that I make more mistakes on a physical keyboard if I look at my fingers and think about the keys so I don’t think that’s going to be better on an iPad. Then when people read, watch or play on the iPad they usually have to have one hand to just hold the thing.

I think it’s useful to talk about the Pros and Cons of the iPad. All of those “Top Ten Apps!” stories in magazines just feature either basic programs for word processing or Email or some odd program which might be completely cool but not really needed. They say there’s something like a million apps available now so I have searched those. Either really standard stuff or unnecessary stuff. No “killer apps” that you can’t get for a notebook or smart phone.

He mentioned AudioBoo as a reason to get an iPad but this is available for Windows machines, too.

I would love to buy an iPad if it saved time or could do something that I really needed. Right now it does seem  completely cool but aside from the coolness factor it just seems overhyped. It is all iHype.

Mobile apps for teachers

My old Windows Mobile phone is still going and still doing a lot of work. It’s not just the app you add to your mobile but how you use the apps you have. I have a Windows Mobile phone that runs a mobile version of Excel, Outlook, Powerpoint and Word. Here are some things I do with my mobile:


I keep attendance, scores and other student data on my computer using Excel and this Excel master file is very complex with a lot of conditional formatting, macros and formulas. But I can also do attendance on my mobile using the simpler Mobile Excel and by using the built-in synchronization features it will automatically update my master Excel file. This way I don’t have to take my computer to class.


I teach some smaller classes of managers or other corporate students. These classes are typically 1-6 students. When I want to create an experience[1] for my students and take them to a shopping mall or an interesting retailer like Ikea, I will write the new vocabulary on my phone in Word. Using Word I can make the text quite large. As new words come up, I write them on my phone and show them to the students. After our two-hour lesson, we say goodbye and go our separate ways but after we part I copy these new words to my phone’s SMS messaging function and send them off to each student. As my students are heading home they all receive the list of new words that we just learned that day.

Sometimes I have some vocabulary or other English points that I want to review with my students. Rather than simply writing this down in a notebook, which I often forget to check, I will write it as a Mobile Outlook appointment. This appointment will pop up at a scheduled time, the time when I will be teaching those students. So this material that I want to review with my students will appear “Just-In-Time”. Appointments can be set in Outlook on your computer and then will get synchronized automatically to your mobile.


In researching business English usage, I have visited trade fairs and used my phone to record myself talk to salesmen about their products. I can study the real language used in trade fairs, the types of business terms and sentences, and also my students can get an idea of real business conversations. (Photo: Maotai salesman who tried to sell me some famous high quality Chinese liquor.)

Although I usually use my computer for this, I sometimes use my phone to record students speaking at my first class with them. Then at the last class, students can listen to themselves to hear the difference in their English, before and after.

I have also encountered certain individuals from a country famous for scamming people through Emails that purportedly offer you a million dollars or so if you help them to transfer several million out of their country. These guys, not Chinese, have actually approached me on the street here in China and presented the same deal as the Email spam scam asking me to help
them in this manner. I have used my phone to surreptitiously record these guys trying to scam me. The English is business English and accent from a certain region in the world that my students need practice with.


Sometimes it is easier for me to load the lesson MP3’s into my mobile for playback in the class than it is to play them from my computer. This is especially so when I am teaching at a coffee shop where I usually go to teach managers.


I have put many Conversation Questions[3] into my Mobile Powerpoint. I usually use this when I’m out Engineering an Experience or when having lunch with students in the canteen and I want to get them talking about something. I ask them to choose a number between 1-5 and then flip through the slides that many times to add an element of luck or adventure to the process.


After learning about how business uses Customer Relations Management (CRM) software to develop closer relations with customers, I decided to develop a Student Relations Management platform, I call BOB[2], to develop closer relations with my students. The purpose is to create a “presence” with my students, that I’m not just there for them two hours a week but I’m always around always trying to help them with their English.

I have developed macros on my computer to work with my Excel master file of student data. When I connect my mobile to my computer I can use my computer and macros to send SMS messages through my mobile to my students in the following manner:

* Practice English message – I try to get my students to speak English with each other outside of class. We have sometimes established lunchtime, when they eat lunch with classmates, as a good time for them to do this but they often forget. I have sent reminders to each student to speak English at lunchtime. By using the macros I have developed, I can also send each student a different question that they can ask their classmates to help stimulate discussions in English.

* Student updates – My macros can send each student their individual scores by SMS so they can be aware of how they are doing in class as far as quizzes, attendance, participation, etc.

* News flash – Sometimes a particularly good movie with relatively simple English is showing on TV. I will use SMS to notify my students and invite them to watch it with me by tuning into the program and then using a chat program to chat with me and other students while watching the movie at the same time.

* “Where are you?” message – I can do attendance at the beginning of class and then my computer will send a message to the absent students letting them know they are missing our class. Students realize they are not forgotten.

* Reminders – I can send reminders about upcoming tests or homework that is due.

* Nudges – Research has shown that American students who do not read during the holidays decline in reading skills during the holidays. I figure that my Chinese students probably decline in English skills during the holidays so I will send them an SMS message to remind them to do something in English during these periods. I have developed a whole set of reminders to send to them every couple days of the holiday with a different suggestion of something they can do to improve or practice their English.

* Coaching reminders – I have been coaching some of my corporate students. Coaching involves agreeing on specific study goals with students and then encouraging and checking up on students to help them hit those goals. For example, the student may say he wants to listen to an English mp3 everyday while going to work on the bus. Using Outlook’s appointment function, I can have my phone remind me every morning that the student should be doing this. Then at that time I can send an SMS to the student to remind him or check up on him that he is doing this. My phone’s SMS function allows me to create ten stock messages that I can fire off to my students. Appointments can be set in Outlook on your computer and then will get synchronized  automatically to your mobile.

All of this I have done with four basic programs: Excel, Outlook, Powerpoint and Word. It’s not just the app you add to your mobile but how you use the apps you have.


[1] Engineering an Experience –
[2] BOB –
[3] Conversation Questions –

Ready for the iPad? Maybe not

I’m sure many teachers are wondering if they should make the jump into the iPad realm.

Sometimes you just have to try things out. Sometimes the path is not already prepared for you. You have to blaze your own trail trying out the technology and seeing if you can make it work for you in new ways that you never imagined when you set out.

Several years ago I bought a little Acer tablet computer. It was like a notebook but you could twist the screen and use it like a tablet. It cost much more than other notebooks, $2000, but I wanted to see how a tablet could affect my teaching. It didn’t affect it. Of course, tablets today are much improved. But sometimes you just have to try things out.

One problem I have with the i-Stuff is there is so much hype about it all. People are so gaga over it. Of course that should not turn you off to the idea of getting i-Stuff. We just need to consider what our real needs are and see if the technology can fit those needs. Or could that technology lead us down an interesting road. But that is a decision that we should make without the help of Apple’s excellent propaganda department trying everything they can to make us feel uncool for not joining their ranks. Current reports say that the primary use of iPads is for games.

There is a lot of celebration and hype about the millions of app downloads taking place but one thing Apple will never tell you is that 28% of the “apps” people download are only used once. And how many are only used two, three or four times and never used again?

I don’t want to completely dismiss iStuff for teaching. Maybe they’ll have something we really need. Of course, almost everything for the Apple is duplicated for notebooks and vice versa.

Here is a technology that could take our jobs (it’s coming soon to the other phones):

Engineering an experience!

Call the New York Hilton Hotel and get this information...
Can we engineer an English-learning experience so impressive and even so intensive that we need to remind students to breathe?

A teacher asked me to address the question about what the teacher should do in the classroom. If extensive comprehensible input is doing the heavy lifting of language learning, if the teacher does not need to teach, drill and test students on he/she pronouns of gender grammar, what should the teacher do in the classroom?

Over the years I have mixed together the things I have learned from dozens of TEFL books (many written by Jack Richards and David Nunan, both of whom I interviewed when they came to China) with things I have learned from late-night TV comedians like David Letterman, psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, best-selling business book author Joseph Pine, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Much of this was driven by problems I was having in my teaching. During my teaching career I have received so many complaints about my teaching that it is almost embarrassing. One adult student told me that I was the “worst teacher” he had ever had. Although I have received much in the way of praise for being the “best teacher” many of my students have ever had, I treasure the complaints. I sincerely believe any accurate criticism is worth more than 100 praises and anything really good about my teaching skills came as a result of such complaints.

This set me on a quest to really understand the dynamics of learning, the psychology of managing student motivation and classroom management.

Now what I am doing in my classroom is engineering experiences. By this I mean to create some degree of mental and emotional experience mediated by English.

One simple example of this I have already described. You know how English coursebooks always have some dialog for students to imitate in order to book a hotel room? To create a better experience, many teachers ask students to sit back-to-back. I think this is very good and causes students to focus their listening more and even their speaking to be more understandable. It is a rather odd thing to do in the classroom and its uniqueness also wakes students up from the boring routine of sitting facing the teacher.

But can we do better than that?

How about booking a real room in a real hotel with a real phone call to a real American? And what hotel? I had once shown the movie, “Regarding Henry”, to my students. When it came time for us to have a lesson about how to book a hotel room, rather than do some boring unrealistic coursebook dialog, we called the Ritz Hotel which was featured in the movie. My students were actually calling a real hotel that they saw in a movie. (We also ate a box of “Ritz Crackers” which were also featured in the movie.)

The students were excited and nervous about the idea. All of them were not going to make the call. We’d choose a student. But I let the tension fill the room and hang there, permeating my students’ minds as every student thought it might be him or her doing the calling. As I played back recordings of students from other classes making these calls (which are completely different than any kind of coursebook sample) my students desperately clung to every word in anticipation and some degree of fear that in a couple minutes it might be them talking to a hotel clerk on the other side of the world. Eyes were widened. Hearts were pounding.

For my “volunteer” I always choose one of my most outgoing self-confident students, sometimes the class clown. His English may not be the best but he is least likely to have a heart attack and die in the classroom due to the excitement and stress. Sometimes I tell them that I will choose another student to make the call after him. This keeps them on edge.

All the other students breathe a sigh of relief that they “missed the bullet” this time, but now they are intensely interested in how this phone call is going to go. After all, they might be next. Again they cling to every word to listen to the negotiation of meaning between the clerk and the student. I record the call and play it back so we can talk about what happened. The mp3 is available so students can review it further if they want.

Contrast the intensity of such an experience with the relative boredom of repeating a coursebook phone call dialog. I’m sure that you have done more exciting things with your students and that you have many more ideas. Please share them with us.

I think we can quit apologizing to our students for the boring coursebook and “think outside the book” or make the book exciting. Some teachers dodge their responsibility of providing students with engaged learning saying they have to “follow the book”, that they and the students are destined to some kind of Dante-ish classroom experience, like it or not.

Don’t you think we can do better?


Do not book a room unless you are going to use it. But you can call for information about rooms and facilities. Although it may be afternoon in my classroom and late night in New York, these hotels have 24-hour staff to manage inquiries. To develop skills in understanding different English accents we have called hotels in Switzerland, India and the Philippines. With today’s calling cards these long distance phone calls are quite cheap. I set the phone on speaker mode and put a microphone next to it so the class can hear. Calls to USA 800 numbers can also be made for free by using Skype.

>Replying to students’ Emails


I get a lot of Emails from my students. As I mentioned before, I am seriously spamming my hundreds of students with thousands of messages. So I get quite a few Emails back from them, usually telling me what they are doing to improve their English in response to my tips and encouragement. I also get a lot of Emails of holiday greetings from them during the holiday season. Often they ask me what I’m going to do for the holiday. Sometimes I see my students making common errors in their messages and I would like to send them a little guidance about this problem.

Normally, I could not keep up with such a large amount of incoming messages. I can read them but to try to reply to them all can be a huge effort and I may be only able to manage the briefest of replies. It may seem a little disappointing to the students to not get an answer to their Email but what can one person do? They understand and don’t expect much.

But I want to do more.

I use Microsoft Outlook to manage my Email. It downloads all my incoming messages from my GMAIL.COM account and uploads and sends my outgoing messages.


I use an Outlook function as a simple way to insert stock replies to my students messages. When my students tell me that they are reading a newspaper article everyday or are listening to podcasts from to improve their English, I have 10 different encouraging stock answers that I can choose from to reply to them. One of them is:


If I want to point out a common grammar error I have a rather longer stock reply that explains the problem, the solution and several examples.

I can give really helpful and encouraging replies to students and it only takes me about 10 seconds. If you are a busy teacher and want to give more detailed replies to your students’ messages, here is how you can do it, too.



There you will find a function for creating your signature in your Emails. But the great thing is that you can put any text in there that you want to be able to select and insert into your Emails. When you want to use it in an Email, first you “Reply” to the Email, choose INSERT -> SIGNATURE and then you will be presented with a drop-down menu of all your stock replies and answers that you can select from.

You may want to develop several versions of one reply so that not all students are getting exactly the same thing and you may want to update them from time to time. Of course, this is not a way to deal with all messages but I find it useful to deal with almost all of them.

It really does a lot to help the students feel closer to their teacher. It really helps the teacher to not let the messages go unanswered and to send out some encouragement and guidance.

>Spamming my students with "BOB"

>A teacher asked about spamming my students, “How much time do you estimate it takes to compose and send out a message?”

I use an Excel file and a Visual Basic program I wrote called “BOB”. On one Excel sheet I keep the student names, Email addresses and some other information. On the other sheet I keep the “content” for the messages like message subject and message body.

Most of my BOB messages were taken from Emails I have sent to other groups of students in times past. Indeed, some students may be receiving a message I sent them years ago but probably forgot. So in this case composing a message is very fast. But since all of the messages are short, even if I write a new one it is also very fast.


Keep in mind, each of these messages is stored in the Excel file and is reused. So once you write it, it gets used many times. The BOB program reads the student name, Email address and what message the student is on. For example:

John;; 27

Then the program will check on the content sheet and find message #27 which has a subject line for message #27 and body for #27.

BOB then creates the Email, first with the subject line and the body which begins with “Dear John,” followed by my message. It ends with my signature name and my links like a regular message does.

Recently, I added a place for another line at the end of the message that I can customize. If it is a holiday time, I can send them holiday greetings. If I want to remind all of the students from one class about a homework assignment, I can do it there. If I found a new coffee shop to have my one-on-one class with a manager, I can mention it there.

It takes BOB about 3-4 seconds to make each message. After BOB is done making messages for all the students, it takes Outlook about 2 seconds to send each one out.


Teachers have a wealth of knowledge on teaching that can benefit students. The beauty of this system is that it gets maximum use out of the teachers’ resource of ideas, tips and pointers. The BOB system starts all students on message #1 and then works the student, message by message, through all of the teachers ideas and tips. Every student will receive every tip from the teacher. They will miss nothing. They will receive it in measured spoonfuls every couple days.

If any teachers would like a copy of the BOB spamming program please let me know and I’ll send it to you. I’ll let you have about 60 of my messages that I send out. It works only with Excel and Outlook. (It may not work with Outlook Express.)

>Tablet computers in the classroom

A teacher referred to my experimentation with a tablet computer so I’d like to tell everyone about that. Five years ago I bought an ACER C110 Travelmate 11 inch notebook computer. You can twist the screen on this computer and lay it down on top of the keyboard and use it like a tablet computer. It was quite small and had an external DVD drive. I bought it here in Guangzhou and it cost 16,OOO Rmb. This was rather expensive but cheaper than the larger Toshiba computer that could do the same thing. When I bought this I was intrigued about the possiblities of using a tablet in the classroom and wanted to experiment.

I still have this computer and am writing you with it now. A corner of the computer broke off due to an accident. I was running across a busy Guangzhou street and the buckle on my computer bag, heavily laden with not only my computer but those immensily weighty Interchange Teacher Books, broke and my bag hit the street hard. The corner broke off my computer and now the WiFi no longer works. My computer looks terrible today and even my students beg me to get a new one but I’ve grown attached to it the way an old man gets attached to an old easy chair or a favorite pair of old slippers.

But I have to say that I am not satisfied with the computer as a tablet. It was not as easy to use as I hoped to move around the classroom and make notes on students. With the computer in one hand and the special pen in the other, I could not talk with students and then very quickly look up the student on my Excel sheet and make a notation.

What I wound up doing is making notations on slips of paper and at the end of class transferring these to my computer. One of the main things I note in this way is the IELTS speaking level of the students.

I sacrificed the DVD drive for this tablet computer. My next computer, which I’m shopping for now, will have a built in drive. I think this will be more useful for me than the tablet function.

I now have a Windows Mobile phone. This phone runs Excel and I’ve tried to keep my student list on this. I also can write on it like a tiny tablet computer but the whole process of finding the student’s name amongst 40 other names and making the notation is more cumbersome than jotting it on a slip of paper and then entering all the info in a couple minutes after class.

>The future just ain’t what it used to be

>A teacher describes his experience at using tele- & videoconferencing in teaching: “While teaching in France I was asked to teach on an online course. IMHO it was a disaster. People came and went from the virtual room and nobody seemed to know what was going on. It was a bit like one of those horrible dreams you have about having no control of a class. I think it MIGHT work IF you have the opportunity to meet the students in the real world before you go virtual – and have a limited number of well-motivated students.”

I think we have to keep in mind that this is a moving target, very dynamic, constantly changing and improving. People, including our students, are using VOIP and videoconferencing more and more. Managers and staff in offices are using this to communicate with each other and with colleagues around the world. Everyone will get used to the protocols of usage and behavior.

It’s not that it is a special tool for English teaching. It is becoming an increasingly common way of communication with all people around the world and something that we can use, too.

It is quickly reaching the point that it is not a cheap and convenient way to teach English but it is a more realistic way of teaching English because it is the way our students are actually using English. My students here in China report to me that of their spoken English communication, about 95% is on the phone and about 5% is face-to-face. Yet, just about ALL of our English teaching is face-to-face. So I think teaching by VOIP, videoconferencing and even by telephone, with all the associated difficulties, are not only authentic but necessary mediums for teaching.

Additionally, improvements are being made on audio and video quality. In ten years, many of us will be sitting down at a table looking at a life-like video image of our student(s) on the other side of the table. Except for the fact that it is two-dimensional instead of three, it will be the same as being there. I and many of you have seen demonstrations of this technology already.

It is no longer called “videoconferencing”. Rather, it has become “Telepresence”.

That is an interesting term to ponder, “Telepresence”. Teachers could work in tandem. The primary face-to-face teacher could hand off to a telepresent teacher for ten minutes to explain some aspect of English and then carry on. When a question comes up he doesn’t know how to answer he could bring up a colleague.

In a Friedmanistic style flattening of the world, teachers can be anywhere teaching students who are anywhere. These dynamics will change many things about our profession in unusual ways. British teachers living in the UK may find it more difficult to compete with British teachers living in China or India where the cost of living is vastly cheaper and a lower salary can be accepted. Indians have mastered call centers, even adopting American or other accents, and it wouldn’t take too much for them to teach American English or whatever flavor is desired to anyone anywhere.

The future just ain’t what it used to be.