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DIGITAL-ONLY CONTENT: Online teaching: How I work with my students in Saudi Arabia

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When I moved back to the United States after living in Saudi Arabia for fifteen years, I went from a full teaching studio of over 50 students along with a mentorship program to teaching a smaller number of students online.

I had been teaching online students in the United States for several years while living in the middle east and now I was flipping the time zones. I moved to Washington state, which is significant because I am literally half a world away from my students. For half the year I am separated by eleven hours, and the other half, by ten.


Teacher tip: Time zones and daylight savings time can have a big impact on who and where you teach. Teach students who live in zones which are compatible with your schedule.


Even though I had the advantage of prepping my students before I moved, the technology setup for my students is as varied as their musical tastes. My idealized version of online teaching involved extra cameras, mics, laptop stands, computers, excellent lighting, color printers, electronic instruments that connected to mine with Internet Midi—oh, and no distractions. Reality is a little different. While some of my students did this, others use a smart phone. And while I get a great angle of the piano from some students, with others, the iPad is on a music stand with the camera facing upwards towards the ceiling. I am lucky to occasionally get a glimpse of hair or a finger with that student.


Teacher tip: Learn the tech of your students. If this means using a smart phone and sometimes not having a great view of your student, either find creative ways to make it work, or choose other students. But before writing off a smart phone, give it a shot. I live in a windy area with trees and sometimes the internet and power go out. I have taught on a smart phone and have had successful lessons doing so.

Bonus tip: If your smart phone users are lego fans, have them build a phone stand using legos. They are awesome!


When I started teaching online, Skype was almost the only option. Once Skype established itself, many other companies joined them with their own online video chat programs. Google Hangouts, Apple's FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, are three of the biggest ones, but there are a lot of video conference programs that do the same thing. I even bought a video conferencing thing on a stick with a motor which can be remotely controlled by the student on the other end called a Beam. After consideration, I choose Skype. With Skype, sending files is easy, you can type text, you can send emojis for positive reinforcement, and, where I live, it is generally pretty clear. However, doing some research about your students' home country is necessary. Many state-owned telecoms don't like free chat programs and block them. So, I am unable to use Skype with certain students. The Beam has helped me there, but so has Messenger, FaceTime, Duo, Hangouts—whatever we can get to work.


Teacher tip: Use Skype if you can, otherwise go with what works in the country where your students live.


Scheduling my students was a challenge, initially. My schedule is determined by the time zones and schedules of my students. Also, expatriates, like Americans who live in Saudi Arabia, tend to travel during school holidays, while Saudi nationals, have a different school schedule and don't travel as much. Since these are my clients, I accommodate their schedules. Also, younger children have a less flexible schedule because of bedtimes, and time differences mean there is a smaller window of opportunity for me to teach them. In the winter, I wake at 4:30 a.m. to teach lessons at 5:00 p.m. in Saudi Arabia. I finish teaching by 10:00 am on days that I teach, though I do have a couple of students who like early morning lessons, so I stay up later on those days.


Teacher tip: The most effective calendar I have found for keeping my online schedule straight is Google Calendar. I set up the lessons in the time zones of my students, that way I am much less likely to miss a lesson because I got confused.

Teacher tip: Know the time of daylight savings for your students if you teach online. It can be different than your own, and students from different countries could have overlapping lessons if the time changes aren't figured out in advance. Even in the US, not all states do daylight savings. 


Tech and calendar sorted, the next thing to tackle for my students was materials and lesson plans. What was I going to teach them? Should I use books, pdf files, photocopies, music I wrote myself? And, who was going to buy it? There are very few stores in Saudi Arabia that sell sheet music. Buying acoustic pianos in a store is difficult as well—generally, they are ordered from a catalog and shipped. Currently, I am doing several different things to secure music for my students. I use musicnotes.com, and imslp.org frequently. I also have music for students sent directly from the U.S. to my husband who is still living in Saudi. I use Sibelius or Finale to create music for my students and send it on electronically. The cost of materials is always charged to the students, and I only photocopy music that is in the public domain.

Written assignments is a problem because I prefer to handwrite my assignments. This wasn't working too well because after spending three or four hours on the computer with my students, I don't like spending extra time typing assignments. Additionally, I don't have a good program for adding musical notes, symbols, or drawings. The solution I have found that works the best for me is called a Rocketbook. It is a notebook with a QR code which can be scanned using the Rocketbook app. It automatically emails pdf files to pre-set destinations. I can write lesson notes and send them to my students immediately, without extra typing. The Rocketbook I use comes with an erasable pen which wipes off when the book is full.


Teacher tip: Use legal materials in the format that is easiest for your students. If printing materials is problematic, use mail. Charge your students what you spend, both for the materials and postage.

Teacher tip: If you send the music to your students. Plan ahead for shipping time. Overseas mail can take longer than domestic, so don't order Christmas music in December if you plan on having your students play it that year.


Now you know about tech and set-up, stay tuned for the second part: How is teaching online different from in-person teaching? 

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May/June 2018 First Looks: Apps for Teaching
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