There has been a lot of ‘buzz’ in recent years concerning virtual learning environments (VLEs), and the many forms of online learning have moved from the fringes to the centre of discussions about the advancement of technology in education. So much has been written about it that one can’t help but wonder whether there are more people writing about VLEs (virtual learning environments) than those who are actually using them.
Even the term is ambiguous: sceptics will ask whether it the environment that is virtual, or the learning. As a fairly new practitioner in the use of VLEs for language learning, I am cautiously optimistic about the genuine learning potential afforded by online environments.
6 reasons to learn a language live online.
1. Study in the comfort of your own home.
There is no question that environment influences learning. An environment that you’re familiar with, that has positive connotations, and that has a relaxed feel will be more conducive to productive learning than a sterile, windowless classroom – it’s a no brainer. It’s great to be able to turn up to « class » in your pyjamas if you so desire.
2. Enjoy the flexibility of being able to select hours that suit you.
Live online language learning can take place early in the morning, during work hours, late at night, even in the middle of the night if you’re one of those fortunate people who don’t need much sleep. You can find language trainers in virtually any time zone so there are no restrictions, and there are free online tools available to help you « arrive » on time for your class no matter where in the world your trainer may be working from.
3. Benefit from a huge variety of language learning tools and opportunities on the Internet with a trainer who is able to help you navigate through them.
I just googled « learn english online » and turned up 186,000,000 results. One of the big problems is knowing where to start. Out of the top ten ranking sites, most are either directories, or sites with a multitude of links for self-study activities that you can access online. How do you know which activites are adapted to your level and to your specific learning style and language needs? Too much choice can be demotivating. Part of the role of a live online trainer is to point you in the direction of resources that are uniquely suited to you.
4. Enjoy personal contact with a personal language trainer or coach who can help you practice using your language in a variety of contexts.
Live online cannot replace real face to face communication, but can be surprisingly close to the real thing. Back to my « learning english online » search, only two of the top 10 are offering live online learning, but in pre-packaged units that may or may not correspond to your needs. Some of the courses on offer have the feel of talking to a machine. This is where personalised live online training can fill in the gaps in classroom language learning as it makes individual tuition or micro-group learning accessible to anyone with a broadband Internet connection.
5. Practice your language in simulated ‘real life’ situations in virtual worlds.
This is the topic for another article, but the realism of virtual worlds like Second Life affords a level of simulation that is far beyond what you could experience in a traditional classroom role play situation. Language teaching in virtual worlds is still a very new and experimental field, and technically quite complex. But for those hardy teachers and learners willing to give it a go, the sky really is the limit.
6. Take control of your learning.
The best language-learners are self-motivated, and know how to leverage their particular passions and interests to help them make progress. I was reminded of this during a brief end-of-semester chat with a student whose mastery of English is quite remarkable compared with many of his peers. My assumption that he had lived in an English-speaking country was unfounded. Instead, he told me of his passion for rap and American movies: he has been able to achieve an exceptional level of English just doing what he enjoys. This is applicable to any kind of learning, not just live online. But the application to live online is the potential for the ‘teacher’ to become more of a ‘personal trainer’ – helping you source materials on subjects you are passionate about and exploiting them for improving your language skills. This is a good recipe for keeping motivation levels high.
4 possible disadvantages of live online
1. Not everyone finds it easy to learn the technology.
Live online learning does require a certain level of digital literacy, and it is not necessarily the best option for people who are easily frustrated by technology. A good trainer will patiently spend the necessary time to ensure the learner is up to speed technically, and will give support throughout the training sessions.
2. The inevitable bugs and crashes, and the time lag which can hinder natural communication when the quality of the Internet connection varies.
Although the technology is improving all the time, these are common problems which need to be faced. But a good live online trainer will always have a contingency plan to fall back on, and technical hiccups can even be turned into good learning opportunities if handled correctly.
3. Absence of body language and other visual cues.
All right, this is where I have to agree with the sceptics. There is no question that this is a drawback in live online learning. In natural communication, and particularly when speaking a foreign language, interpreting visual cues and even lip-reading are important communication aids. Communication via webcam is obviously a great improvement on audio-only telephone communication, but perfect resolution and lagless video are still a way off.
But is this enough of a drawback to discourage learning live online? No, for the simple reason that face to face communication is only one of many mediums where we need to use our second, third or fourth language. These days in the course of our daily work we are just as likely to communicate over the telephone, voice or text chat or video conference. This means that learning to communicate well without relying on the usual visual cues is vital.
4. A lot of educators are excited about live online learning, but the quality of training varies considerably.
One common failing of live online training is the tendency to try and simply recreate the old familiar classroom situation in a virtual environment. Unfortunately this results in having to put up with all the disadvantages of both worlds, while missing out on the advantages. Some excellent teacher training for virtual environments now exists, and things are only going to improve. But in the meantime it can be difficult to know whether you are getting value for money.
When all is said and done, live online language learning is here and happening. It is too early to consider it ‘mainstream’ but it is being adopted in all kinds of learning contexts.
Find out more about live online language learning opportunities with englishonthe.net.