06 Apr Choosing a quality online language education provider
By James Jenkin
Online English teaching – collaboration-based learning – is booming. In China, demand for online classes is growing at 25% a year (ICEF, 2014).
It’s easy to see why. Learners can potentially access a teacher from anywhere, at any time. An ever-growing variety of learning platforms and tools can provide a tailored and engaging experience for students.
Yet many students don’t experience the quality they hope for. Why?
Demand for Web-based English lessons is high, with low barriers to entry. It means many businesses and individuals still offer no more than chatting on Skype – with no trained teacher, materials or study plan.
Reputable providers treat online delivery as seriously as any language program. They invest in teacher training and course development, and take advantage of the medium to ensure a productive and enjoyable learning experience.
Let’s look at three elements an online provider should get right.
1. Good teachers
Studies of learner motivation, both in the classroom (e.g. Dörnyei & Ushioda, 2001) and online (e.g. Ushioda, 2012 ), suggest a teacher’s attitude and ability are central to a learner’s success. Ushida (2005:49) concludes persistence in online learning largely depends on the ‘critical role’ of the teacher.
Therefore, clearly, teachers should be skilled in teaching English as a Foreign Language.
However, as importantly, a teacher needs to know how teaching online is different from teaching in a classroom.
This isn’t just about technical skills. Probably the biggest challenge in an online environment is making students feel comfortable and ‘safe’. The negative influence of anxiety on learning is well-recognised (e.g. Riasati, 2011), and online one-to-one risks creating anxiety due to the intensity of the experience. Basically, it can be scary to be stared at and talked at by a stranger just centimetres away. Children in particular can be fearful of a huge, foreign face with exaggerated expressions.
Teachers need to learn how to create a relaxed environment. They need to apply strategies to avoid making students feel under pressure. They need to know how to engage with students, and know how to use materials and tools to vary interaction patterns.
2. A plan
An online provider needs to offer a plan. Just as in a classroom setting, students need to achieve something tangible, in a lesson and over time.
The plan needs to incorporate both what’s taught, and how it’s taught. Hampel & Stickler (2005:312) argue ‘online language courses, especially at lower levels, need to focus on the form of the interaction as well as the content’. Delivery needs to be tailored for an online environment. Simply recreating what’s done in a classroom ignores the potential of online learning.
The online space has the functionality to make lessons purposeful and provide rich practice opportunities. Yet students often experience courses that fail to maintain a ‘task focus’ or ‘promote interactivity’ (Lapadat, 2002:35).
Ironically, many students choose one-to-one seeking personalized feedback. If course design (or lack thereof) relies on one interaction pattern – looking at and talking to the student – this rarely happens. There need to be activities where teachers can observe and listen to students, so they can provide feedback afterwards.
3. A reliable platform
Technical issues are the main negative issue in a range of surveys: difficulty in accessing the lesson, unstable connection, poor sound quality (Nemati & Thompson, 2011).
Students expect as a minimum a reliable platform and a teacher trained in using it.
A quality provider will go much further. The provider will exploit the functionality of the online environment to create engaging and effective classes.
We all know how challenging it is to learn a language, and choosing a poorly designed and delivered online course can be very demotivating. It’s worth the effort to find a provider that takes the job seriously: one that offers skilled teachers and a well-structured program, and takes advantage of available technology.
Dörnyei, Z. & Ushioda, E. (2001). Teaching & researching motivation. Harlow: Pearson.
Hampel, R. & Stickler, U. (2005). New skills for new classrooms: Training tutors to teach languages online. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 18(4), 311-326.
ICEF (2014). Surging global demand for digital language learning. http://monitor.icef.com/2014/05/surging-global-demand-for-digital-language-learning/
Lapadat, J. (2002). Written interaction: A key component in online learning.
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 7(4), 1-18.
Nemati, H. & Thompson, M. (2011). Factors influencing students intention to take web-based courses in a college environment. In Tomei, L. (Ed.) Online courses and ICT in education: Emerging practices and application. New York: Information Science Reference.
Riasati, M. (2011). Language learning anxiety from EFL learners’ perspective. Middle-East Journal of Scientific Research, 7(6), 907-914.
Ushioda, E. (2012). Motivation matters in mobile language learning: A brief commentary. Language Learning & Technology, 17(3), 1-5.
Ushida, E. (2005). The role of students’ attitudes and motivation in second language learning in online language courses. CALICO Journal, 23(1), 49-78.
James Jenkin has worked in the field of TESOL for over twenty years as a teacher, teacher trainer, curriculum designer and academic manager. He is an IELTS examiner and has an MA in Applied Linguistics from Monash University, Australia.
Image source: shutterstock.com/Tom Wang