Using On-Line Courses : Part One

On-line courses would seem to offer two important advantages over a regular class-based course:

- They’re cheaper than class courses.
- They’re more flexible in terms of where, when and how often the student chooses to study, and the pace at which s/he chooses to work.

But do they really work? Can students achieve the same results working on-line as they would in a teacher-led course? The answer seems to be : it depends. It depends on the course, on the student, and on the way the learning experience is organised. In the first part of this article I’d like to look at the problems that can occur with on-line learning and the factors which may undermine their success.

The Course

It goes without saying that the student will only learn effectively if the course itself is effective. What is the methodological approach to teaching language and skills? How is the course structured and well graded is it? How suitable is the content in terms of the students’ age, interests and communicative needs? How varied and motivating are the activities provided? These and many other points are no different from, but no less important than, those you would need to ask when evaluating any course. However, when considering online courses, there are additional things to take into consideration.

  • How much help and explanation is provided for the students (a dictionary, grammatical explanations, tapescripts etc) and are these only in English or available also in the students’ own language? How accurate and easy to understand are they?
  • How easy is it for the teacher to monitor the students’ progress? Can you see the answers they have given? Is there some sort of result for each activity – for example a percentage evaluation of their correct answers? Can you tell how much time they have spent on-line and which units/activities they have completed?
  • Does the course provide online or other contact with a teacher, either to allow students to ask for any help which might be necessary, or for general speaking practice and correction of free written activities? Is there any possibility of contact with other students?
  • How actively does the course allow the student to learn? Exercises requiring the student to simply click on answers, click and drag words, or even type in a few words encourage a passive and superficial approach to learning which may allow the student to progress receptively, but does not always result in improved productive competence.

The Student

So far, I haven’t found any online courses which fully satisfy all the requirements I’ve listed above. But then that would be true of almost any type of course, and there are certainly online courses available which satisfy enough criteria to be worth using (1). However, even when the course is perfectly adequate, it is not necessarily successful because of factors stemming from the students themselves and their working situation.

  • Some students simply do not enjoy working on-line, and will not feel motivated to sit down and get on with the course however good it is.
  • Others, though declaring themselves to be interested in doing the course, lack the self-discipline or time-management skills to actually find the time to study. I once switched a class from teacher-led lessons at a fixed time each week to autonomous on-line learning. Whilst they had had no problems in attending an hour’s lesson per week, plus travelling time, none of them managed to find an hour per week to dedicate to on-line learning.
  • Students who are theoretically expected to study during working time find that they are often constantly disturbed by phone calls, other colleagues etc and are unable to concentrate fully on the course. This is a particular problem in open plan or shared offices where they can’t put a Do not disturb sign on the office door.
  • Students in shared offices often feel inhibited about completing the speaking activities included in the course. They may also find that listening activities disturb the others or are made more difficult by the background noise in the office, but this is easily resolved by the provision of a pair of headphones.
  • Some students feel uneasy about contacting a teacher who they have never met personally, especially if this contact is spoken (for instance by phone or Skype.)
  • Students often lack the knowledge of learning strategies which would enable them to use the course most effectively. They may skip around the course ineffectively, always look at the tapescripts before doing the listenings, never take notes of the new vocabulary etc.

These then are the problems. In the second part of the article I’ll look at some of the possible solutions and consider how the effectiveness of on-line learning can be maximised.

(1) If you have had experience of using a specific course which you like, leave a comment to tell us what you thought were its advantages. After trying several, we now use the Netlanguages courses. Click on the link for more information about the courses they provide and to see sample activities for each course.

Photo provided under Creative Commons licence by openg via flickr

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