Using On-Line Courses : Part Two

In the first part of this article we saw how the success of an on-line course could be affected by at least two factors – the quality of the materials provided and the attitude of the students following the course. One way of solving the second of these problems is to use a Blended Learning approach.

In blended learning, the on-line course is not used in isolation, but as one component of the course. It may or may not be the major component, but in any case is backed-up and supplemented by other methods of instruction – face to face teaching, “pen and paper” activities, or whatever. The exact mix of components and types of instruction can vary from situation to situation, making the approach very flexible in terms of student needs and wants, available budget etc. Some examples of the way we have organized blended learning courses for company clients are :
  • A course with a 50/50 split between traditional teacher-led classes (1.5 hours per week) and autonomous on-line study (1.5 hours per week).
  • A course with a 50/50 split between traditional classes and autonomous study – but with the students having a choice between using “pen and paper materials” or on-line study.
  • A course similar to the above but where the on-line course was an additional option. The students could choose or not to follow the course, but if they opted in were expected to commit themselves to a minimum of one-hour on-line per week.
However the courses were organised, certain aspects remained the same, with the aim of preventing or at least minimising the problems which I diiscussed in the last article :
  • The courses started with an orientation session in which the students were introduced to the on-line course materials, the problems they were likely to face were discussed, effective learning and time management strategies were taught and, perhaps most importantly, they got to know the person who would be acting as their on-line tutor, correcting their written work (sent by E-mail) and who they would be contacting by phone for speaking practice. Students are frequently apprehensive about contacting someone who they have never met by phone, and this first meeting helps to get over this problem. Where it is possible, we also use Skype rather than an ordinary phone, with a webcam added so that the student can see the tutor as s/he speaks.
  • The on-line tutor made sure that s/he had regular contact with the students from the first week. All students were asked to complete various tasks within the first few days and to send the results to the tutor. This was intended to get them started and, if the results did not arrive promptly, the tutor immediately contacted the student to find out if there were problems. From then on weekly contact was maintained, whether initiated by the student or the tutor and whether by phone or E-mail. The tutor also monitored constantly, and contacted students immediately if they seemed to be falling behind.
  • The class sessions and the on-line course were closely integrated. In the most extreme case, the group was kept in lockstep : new language points would be presented in class, specific on-line activities set for the week, and in the following week there would be a brief test, a discussion of the topic featured in the on-line materials or some other type of related activity. In other cases the connection was more relaxed, and the students left free to work at their own pace, but the class sessions still followed the same syllabus as the on-line materials. In the initial stages we found it preferable if the presentation of new language points occurred first in the classroom and was then consolidated by the on-line course. This allowed the students to resolve any doubts they had with the teacher before being asked to use the new language.
  • About two thirds of the way through the course a second orientation session was held, again by the on-line tutor. As well as discussing any problems which had become apparent by that time in the course, and the students’ feelings about the course, their knowledge of learning strategies was also extended. One activity used was intended to check that they were in fact noticing when they didn’t fully understand : they were asked to study the presentation of a new piece of language where the explanation for deliberately contradictory (though the students were not told that). Their task was to decide if they understood, and if not to formulate an E-mail request to the on-line tutor asking for help. From that point on, the classroom sessions were less rigid in ensuring that all language was pre-presented – though this was still done with areas known to cause problems, or where the explanation in the materials was not considered adequate.
There are students, of course, who do not need all this back-up. Students who like studying on-line and are already effective autonomous learners can often be left to “get on with it”. In fact they are more likely to swamp the tutor with more e-mails and phone calls than s/he can cope with than to need constant monitoring. However, in our experience they tend to be a minority and usually at a fairly advanced level. Many students, especially beginners who are new to language learning, need the help and support of a tutor and a structured and integrated course if they are to succeed and gradually to develop the skills which will allow them ultimately to become autonomous learners.

Photo provided under Creative Commons Licence by mobology via flickr

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