Experiencing language learning online

Afbeelding van Oberholster Venita via Pixabay

Since the beginning of the Corona virus restrictions that began midway through March, many language institutes, including LTC, have had to adapt their teaching to an online environment. For our own teachers this has been an exciting challenge, but what about our students? What has it been like for them to switch to an online platform to learn new language skills?

Losing meaning online?
Since language is everything to do with communication, whether in speaking or in writing, we might imagine that the lack of face-to-face classes would cause problems. For instance, much of our understanding and interpretation of the spoken word comes from visual cues: facial expression, gestures, body language etc. Without this personal interaction with a teacher and other students, it could retard the development of an individual’s understanding – or that’s the assumption, anyway.

The rise of online communication
However, since 2006, the world has seen the rapid development of social media, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, all of which have increased people’s online interaction tremendously. Young people these days barely remember a world without this kind of communication. Indeed, every year an increasing amount of people’s daily connectivity takes place digitally: WhatsApp is now the messaging system of choice for millions of us; self-made videos, photos and conversations are swapped thousands of times a day.

As for real time video chat, Skype was the first to present opportunities for online meetings, whether social or otherwise. Since it was launched in 2003, many companies have used its live video conferencing possibilities to conduct international meetings and job interviews. Then in recent years, an increasing number of language teachers have offered Skype teaching, so the precedents were there long before the virus struck.

Real-time or not? That is the question
However, online teaching can be both synchronous (real-time with video), which is suited to speaking skills, or asynchronous (non real-time and text oriented), which is more fitted to writing skills. During this current period of no face-to-face teaching, both types of online language classes have seen a boom. But do the students actually like them?

In a recent survey, nine PhD students who followed an asynchronous online English Academic writing course were asked if they preferred following an online course to a classroom course. A surprising seven of the participants ‘completely agreed’, and all of them confirmed it was ideal for them. This type of course clearly received a resounding thumbs up from these students.

More feedback came from another course that had to switch from face-to-face to online when the crisis began. Three of the eight students wrote in afterwards to say how pleased they were they’d been able to finish the lessons online. They also mentioned how well they thought it had worked. It certainly seems that for academic writing skills at least, asynchronous online learning is well received.

No easy way out
Interestingly, however, during a subsequent course for business writing (also asynchronous), one of the students said: “Having to produce text [every week] is very effective. Certain struggles come to light and there is no easy way out [but to work at it].” This suggests that because there is no immediate interaction, the students cannot avoid doing the work, as they might do in a classroom setting.

However, the same student went on to say: “On the other hand, being online, some grammar parts and feedback, or structuring tasks and time often feel very 'floaty'. I tend to scan the information more instead of deep reading and internalizing it. I can tell by not being able to remember it as well.” This comment could imply that online language learning requires more concentration than a face-to-face class.

In physical classrooms, the students get input from other students as well as the teacher. Online, it is entirely down to them to read, learn and digest all the material. On the other hand, the student admitted: “I really like giving feedback and to have the feeling of teamwork. Others' weaknesses are most of the time very relatable.” The course concerned involves regular peer feedback. This helps the students to feel they aren’t working in a vacuum, an important aspect in online learning during these weeks of social distancing and isolation.

The Zoom phenomenon
But what about real-time video classes. Are these as effective as face-to-face classes for students practicing speaking skills? The rise of the Zoom platform for meetings and classes has made a tremendous difference to the online classroom. Teachers can present materials, use a whiteboard and also separate students into small groups where they can practise tasks in so-called ‘breakout rooms’.

“I really like this way of working,” one student commented during a recent Cambridge exam preparation class. “It’s great that you can teach us the theory and then we can practise it on our own before you check in with us.” The group for this course consists of school teachers who also made some observations about their pupils. “We find they concentrate much more [in the online lessons] than they usually do in class. In fact, they’re producing better work than they normally do because they aren’t distracted by their fellow students.”

Pointing to a path for the future
In general, then, it would seem that online learning has support from the students as well as the teachers. Perhaps it’s because it’s the only option at the moment, but the response has generally been enthusiastic, and the level of commitment has been strong.

“I’ll quite miss this when things go back to normal,” one PhD student said to me in a recent Zoom session. “Of course it will be nice to see all my colleagues again, but this way of attending class is so convenient.”

And maybe that’s an indication of developments to come. With modern technology making such facilities available to so many, language learning online has never been more appealing. For many, it might even be preferable to attending physical classes. The experience has shown us that we have many more strings to our bows in the future than we ever imagined possible and that students, as well as teachers, have enjoyed the new challenge.

  • Valerie Poore - LTC - 2019

    Valerie Poore was born and raised in England but later moved to South Africa where she gained experience in Marketing and Communications, both as a practitioner and as a trainer. She returned to Europe in 2001 and has been working for the Language and Training Centre (EUR) as a freelance teacher and trainer since 2002. During this time, she gained her Master’s in TESOL, specializing in English for academic purposes. Valerie currently teaches writing skills to both business and academic students. In addition, she writes articles for magazines, as well as publishing her own books.