multi-touch_lIt’s very commonly said by ELT people that online learning can never fully replace learning in the classroom because of the need for social contact and face-to-face interaction as an essential part of the learning process – and there’s a ‘social gap’ if you’re learning in the virtual world. The same argument is made in the ongoing debate – mainly in US higher education – about the rise of the MOOC. The inevitable MOOC backlash is in full swing, and one of the key questions being raised is “how can a mere online course replace the social learning experience of attending a real university?”. But does that make sense to anyone born and raised in the internet era?

Is learning in class always better?

In my post on the flipped classroom recently, I suggested that there are parts of the learning process that can be done just as well (or perhaps better) as online self-study, leaving precious classroom time focussed on speaking and communicative activities and helping students to deal with specific problems. Not everyone agreed with that, and I think it’s a pretty commonly-held belief in the ELT-o-sphere that learning a language in class is always¬†and intrinsically better than learning on your own – because use of language is an inherently social activity, of course. My own experience is that I generally learn most things better on my own, and I’ve never had a particularly good language learning experience in a classroom. A decent online course combined with lots of conversation practice will surely be light years more effective than trying to learn in class with a under-trained teacher and under-motivated classmates. Obviously, being in class with a great teacher and small group of highly motivated fellow students should lead to very rapid and effective learning, but I’ve never been lucky enough to experience that in language learning and I’d be pleasantly surprised if it was representative of the majority of language classrooms. But maybe I’m just not fully factoring in the social gap which is self-study’s biggest flaw? This social gap is obviously a source of reassurance for the bricks and mortar teaching institutions which rely on the orthodoxy that learning is best done by putting a bunch of people into a room together with a teacher.

Real life vs virtual life

Underlying all of this is the assumption that not having a group of people in a room together means a lack of proper social interaction. But is that the case? Well, maybe have a look at how teenagers or young adults use social media and generally interact online and via smartphones. Surely it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that this online interaction is as much a part of people’s social lives as face-to-face communication is. Ever seen kids communicating with each other on their phones or laptops even though they‚Äôre in the same room? That would have sounded bizarre a few years ago but, as we know, it happens all the time now and is completely unremarkable. Does that mean our kids are just screwed up, though? I don’t think so.¬†Social interaction online might be different from face to face communication, of course, but is it necessarily inferior or less real? And if you’re under the age of about 25, does it actually seem different or distinct at all? Maybe, but I think the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ life isn’t what it once was. Digital media and being constantly connected is a central part of our lives – not the appendage that it was in the days of email and web 1.0, only 10 years ago. That’s why we can’t cope with being offline for any significant amount of time – we wouldn’t be bothered by being ‘off the grid’ if we weren’t missing out on real social interaction.

So, if that’s the world in which you’ve grown up, how much credence would you give to the argument that learning through digital media and in an online environment is a second class experience? A decent online course should offer plenty of opportunities (and reasons) for frequent communication¬†and input and support from a teacher and other students (through video chat, forums etc). There’s no reason for an online course to suffer from a social gap, as long as you accept that online interaction can be as real as face to face interaction. For many learners, classroom lessons mean learning at an inconvenient time and on the other side of a traffic-clogged city, and then sitting with a bunch of random people and a teacher who has two minutes per lesson to devote to your specific needs if you’re really lucky. If online life is a large part of your real life, then why would learning outside a classroom necessarily mean a social gap and therefore an impoverished learning experience?¬†If you could learn more efficiently and more cheaply online, then moving away from bricks and mortar learning institutions is going to seem ever more attractive. Once you can get the same formal qualifications, too, then it’s an easy choice, surely? One of the problems with MOOCs is online courses that just aren’t good enough, since they merely replicate the lecture experience found in most universities. Most online courses right now probably do suffer from the social gap, but that shouldn’t be an insurmountable problem.

The big exception would be when your reason for learning a language is primarily social in the first place – in which case, go to class and meet interesting new people and pick up a little bit of the language if you’re lucky!

 

Photo credit: DaveLawler / Foter / CC BY

46 Comments

  1. If I can throw in a small contribution to the natural language acquisition/immersion/Krashen thing. I a) studied Krashen on my MA in Applied Linguistics, b) lived for 12 years in Manor House, an area of North London with a huge and very well integrated Turkish (Kurdish) community, c) tried to learn Portuguese in my mid thirties (both before and while living there); d) have a small daughter just turning 5 who is picking up English very quickly (as well as knowing without instruction how to get past the password on my smartphone and access her favourite games apps); and e) have been an ELT teacher and writer for 23 years.
    From these five experiences I take away, in turn:
    a) Comprehensible input is always a good thing. In fact it’s exactly what I try to achieve in the texts that I write for my ELT books, and in the classroom language that I use with students.
    b) The Kurdish community have all been there since the 1980s. Most of the first generation – the ones who originally came over – have very poor English. They are well integrated. So immersion and natural acquisition isn’t working for them.
    c) I am an intelligent, language aware guy. 2 Masters. But I found learning Portuguese hellishly difficult. After two years of evening classes before going, a year of living there (doing a Portuguese language and culture course at Lisbon University and having a Portuguese landlady), I guess I was only early Intermediate level. I don’t have a language learning brain.
    d) My daughter makes no cognitive effort to learn. English, dance, music, the works. She loves musical theatre and can sing the whole of ‘I’d Do Anything’ from Oliver just by listening to it loads of times.
    e) A few people (10%) are really poor, plodding, language learners. Most people (80%) make okay but slow progress. This is speeded up by being at my language school in the UK in an immersion situation. But they were already making progress without the immersion. A few people (10%, usually women) are really good, fast language learners. My wife is one of those. She is Romanian and speaks every major European language as well as Japanese to high level with no accent. She hears a new, low frequency Japanese word once and remembers it years later.
    Here is what I think:
    I strongly believe that there is a ‘critical period’ at puberty and that we learn completely differently before and after. Before we’re a sponge and don’t need cognitive effort, after it’s hard, cognitive work. Goes for learning a musical instrument, languages, anything.
    A few people continue to learn on a sponge-like basis – my wife, those first generation immigrants who can speak the new language – but they are a small minority. By the way, another small minority can learn through grammar translation.
    At the same time we need to continue to supply comprehensible input. Lots of it. Of course it still helps. Everything does.
    Implications for EdTech?
    Courses, online or classroom, should provide granularity of input and practice. There is no easy answer or simple scalable solution. Some people learn well one way, others another. It partly depends on our personality. It partly depends on whether we are ready to move on internally (enough connected synapses in our brain representing the new material). It partly depends on how motivating the material/teacher is. It partly depends on our own motivation and reasons for learning. It partly depends on … (fill in your own ideas).
    So … granularity, not simplistic scaled solutions.

    1. Paul, I absolutely agree with you. There are so many variables that we will never have a coherent and complete understanding of how we do it and why some people can’t/don’t.
      The psychological aspects of language learning (the part I would put in your final invitation!) must never be underestimated: tolerance of ambiguity, affective filter, ego permeability etc are immensely complex notions and that is partly why I don’t think we’ll ever have ‘proof’ that we truly know what we’re doing and why we’ll continue to stumble through the undergrowth with the very best of intentions!

  2. If I can throw in a small contribution to the natural language acquisition/immersion/Krashen thing. I a) studied Krashen on my MA in Applied Linguistics, b) lived for 12 years in Manor House, an area of North London with a huge and very well integrated Turkish (Kurdish) community, c) tried to learn Portuguese in my mid thirties (both before and while living there); d) have a small daughter just turning 5 who is picking up English very quickly (as well as knowing without instruction how to get past the password on my smartphone and access her favourite games apps); and e) have been an ELT teacher and writer for 23 years.
    From these five experiences I take away, in turn:
    a) Comprehensible input is always a good thing. In fact it’s exactly what I try to achieve in the texts that I write for my ELT books, and in the classroom language that I use with students.
    b) The Kurdish community have all been there since the 1980s. Most of the first generation – the ones who originally came over – have very poor English. They are well integrated. So immersion and natural acquisition isn’t working for them.
    c) I am an intelligent, language aware guy. 2 Masters. But I found learning Portuguese hellishly difficult. After two years of evening classes before going, a year of living there (doing a Portuguese language and culture course at Lisbon University and having a Portuguese landlady), I guess I was only early Intermediate level. I don’t have a language learning brain.
    d) My daughter makes no cognitive effort to learn. English, dance, music, the works. She loves musical theatre and can sing the whole of ‘I’d Do Anything’ from Oliver just by listening to it loads of times.
    e) A few people (10%) are really poor, plodding, language learners. Most people (80%) make okay but slow progress. This is speeded up by being at my language school in the UK in an immersion situation. But they were already making progress without the immersion. A few people (10%, usually women) are really good, fast language learners. My wife is one of those. She is Romanian and speaks every major European language as well as Japanese to high level with no accent. She hears a new, low frequency Japanese word once and remembers it years later.
    Here is what I think:
    I strongly believe that there is a ‘critical period’ at puberty and that we learn completely differently before and after. Before we’re a sponge and don’t need cognitive effort, after it’s hard, cognitive work. Goes for learning a musical instrument, languages, anything.
    A few people continue to learn on a sponge-like basis – my wife, those first generation immigrants who can speak the new language – but they are a small minority. By the way, another small minority can learn through grammar translation.
    At the same time we need to continue to supply comprehensible input. Lots of it. Of course it still helps. Everything does.
    Implications for EdTech?
    Courses, online or classroom, should provide granularity of input and practice. There is no easy answer or simple scalable solution. Some people learn well one way, others another. It partly depends on our personality. It partly depends on whether we are ready to move on internally (enough connected synapses in our brain representing the new material). It partly depends on how motivating the material/teacher is. It partly depends on our own motivation and reasons for learning. It partly depends on … (fill in your own ideas).
    So … granularity, not simplistic scaled solutions.

    1. Steve and Paul – interesting thoughts – thanks. What are your thoughts on big data and adaptive learning? It sounds like you’re saying we need personalised adaptive learning, but that such a thing might never really be possible. The proponents of adaptive learning (e.g. http://www.knewton.com) would say that we absolutely will be able to crack this particular nut. Through data analysis on a vast scale, we’ll be able to find out *what* works, although not necessarily *why* it works.

More comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

TwitterLinkedInFacebook

Other related posts

See all

Am I a Content Creator or a Writer?

Deconstructing the Duolingo English Test (DET)

My English learning experience – 6 lessons from a millennial learner