Online learning and the demise of the ‘social gap’

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’re 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 thoughts on “Online learning and the demise of the ‘social gap’”

  1. yes…Yes…YES!!! POWER-SHARING this immediately!

    To my mind, it is clear: the pertinent question is no longer, “How could online learning ever replace the physical classroom?” It will soon be, “How were we ever satisfied learning from one teacher, one textbook, and one group of learners in one room with the door closed to the rest of the world?” It is no accident that this is happening at greater speed in ELT than it is in other areas. Since the dawn of the communicative approach we’ve pushed for the use of authentic materials and bridging the gap between the classroom and the “real world.” The only thing better than bridging that gap is to gradually-naturally-do away with the language classroom altogether, for it is simply not as diverse, dynamic, nor as actively social as the Internet-connected world outside.

    Reply
  2. yes…Yes…YES!!! POWER-SHARING this immediately!

    To my mind, it is clear: the pertinent question is no longer, “How could online learning ever replace the physical classroom?” It will soon be, “How were we ever satisfied learning from one teacher, one textbook, and one group of learners in one room with the door closed to the rest of the world?” It is no accident that this is happening at greater speed in ELT than it is in other areas. Since the dawn of the communicative approach we’ve pushed for the use of authentic materials and bridging the gap between the classroom and the “real world.” The only thing better than bridging that gap is to gradually-naturally-do away with the language classroom altogether, for it is simply not as diverse, dynamic, nor as actively social as the Internet-connected world outside.

    Reply
  3. Oh definitely overblown – reminds me of the same argument used with home schooling. Not true at all.

    However, I do think there are other things that learning in a classroom provide that can’t be equally got online, no matter the technology (at present). They may or may not fall under the category of “social”.

    1. Pragmatic and cultural understanding. Online tends to have very limited face time and that is also only “face”. Of course, this applies more so to a non homogeneous classroom.

    2. Peer pressure. Don’t underestimate this. Many online courses fail because students don’t feel compelled to attend. Facts bear this out and there is an amazing attrition in online courses that doesn’t happen in face to face. Also might be due to better relationship building that happens between teacher – student in a regular classroom (more contact time).

    3. Reliability / usability. A classroom isn’t going anywhere and will seldom suffer from a flood, electrical shutdown or other such malfunctions that online classrooms still suffer from. I find online, even more so than face to face, classes have so much time wasting, getting started, turn on this, how to click that …. lost time. This will decline in time.

    @jason – what are you smoking? Just clicked on your link and see only snakeoil for sale. 3 levels in 18 hours of study? I guess it all depends what you call a level …..

    Reply
    • @David thanks for your thoughts.

      2. Peer pressure is a negative influence, not a positive, it inhibits speaking in class, stacks of research to prove it (Horwitz et al). Also, what is more important, mere “attendance” or mastery?

      Snake oil eh, you make me laugh, you obviously haven’t listened to it or read what Prof Stephen Krashen called it after listening to it,

      “Remarkable, a major contribution to what we know works.”

      There is very scientific reason behind Jane’s improvement but most of the ELT community would rather keep the blinkers on because it maintains their delusional love of the front of the classroom.

      Here’s the peer reviewed paper I wrote and was published, do please have a read:

      http://englishoutthere.com/home-page/beginner-to-intermediate-english-speaker-in-six-lessons

      Don’t worry, I fully understand that my position advocates the dismantling of the current status quo. All empires come to an end and this one is on seriously borrowed time.

      The Canadian govt worked it out a few years ago, coming to the conclusion that 1000 hours of ESL in a classroom produced the same speaking improvement as 100 hours of NO ESL (Evaluation of the Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) Program. http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/evaluation/linc/2010/index.asp)

      Call that a great system?

      Reply
  4. I think, like David, it’s the self study aspect that online learning falls down on. The sense of obligation that a lot of people need to be motivated to study. Slightly different, but calling on a similar degree of self-reliance is my current private FCE class. I’m away on holiday and have planned and given them instructions for 3 x 1hr lessons of self study, telling them to meet at the same time and place (lunchtime in their workplace) and do the lessons together. I will be very surprised if they do it simply because my being away will take away the obligation. If I could put the lessons online, I’m not sure it would make them more likely to do it.
    It’s a particular and rarer kind of student that learns a language well by themselves and the most fluent English users I know are entirely self taught. So it’s the types who’d never have gone to class in the first place that will be the ones who successfully complete online courses. It’s not a social gap, it’s a motivation gap that has to be bridged and always has been.

    Reply
    • Nicola, as an ELT with 15 years of classroom teaching experience (including several years of FCE and CAE prep), I strongly beg to differ. What you’re describing is what students enrolled in a physical classroom class do (or don’t do) on their own when their teacher isn’t present; what’s on the horizon is greater numbers of students more motivated to learn English (not to mention other languages and other subjects) because they are not confined to classrooms and prescriptive curricula. Self-study? On the contrary, they will (and already are) able to avail themselves of countless inspiring teachers, coaches, mentors, and peers from all parts of the world. I work with them-thousands of them-every day in formal and informal spaces where I teach online.

      Reply
    • Nicola,

      Excellent comment. Motivation is key.

      Here’s another point I’m surprised people aren’t mentioning. No matter how much more social media connects us, it doesn’t seem to be having the effect of actually encouraging people to do things entirely on their own to a greater extent. Study after study shows that those people who use social media use it precisely for that – to connect and be more social – and this has a spillover into our face-to-face lives. In a word, people who are more socially active on the web search out ways to be more socially active in person.

      For me one of the key problems with learning institutions nowadays is not that they’re not moving towards online learning quickly enough, but that they’re not changing what they offer in class to compensate for students’ changing expectations. If an institution had a sensible mix they would understand how what they offered online could compliment the F2F environment and viceversa.

      What about an institution where classes weren’t necessarily divided up strictly by levels? Where “classes” were transformed into workshops and project groups around skill areas or practical needs for work, travel, etc? Where learning the culture (through talks, films, debates and presentations – by students or others) became central to learning the language in a way that it never has quite fully been done. In short, institutions which sought to engage students in novel ways. All of these scenarios can become more possible if we use tecchnology and online learning intelligently.

      Online technology creates opportunities for blended learning and, if we are on the lookout, ways to transform the F2F experience. One thing we should be wary of are purists and utopians who promise us “an end to learning as we know it.” Revolutions that throw out the baby with the bathwater seldom get very far and social gaps are not bridged by substituting new gaps for the old ones.

      Reply
  5. I have about 30 years of teaching and teacher training behind me. I am computer literate, use Facebook, Twitter and other online social networking sites, have created IPA fonts from scratch and love my state of the art mobile phone. I say this just to assure the reader that while I am over 60, I also use and understand the digital age having been involved with computers and the internet since their dawn!
    Several times in this thread, contributors have cited poor teaching as one of the reasons that ‘traditional’ classrooms have failed and that may be true but surely then we should be focusing much more on quality initial teacher training programmes. I can find no reason here to suggest that online teachers will be / are any better!
    Picking up another fragment: the ‘peer reviewed’ Beginner to Intermediate in 6 Lessons left me entirely unconvinced! I think it was the “This result proves it is possible to quickly and inexpensively transform… ” etc which stopped me in my tracks. There is no proof here, just an anecdote.
    It is the forceful claims of the purist online exponents which turn me off; I have nothing intrinsically against the idea of online learning, I think it has its place but why should it be the next ‘big thing’? It reminds me very much of the push during the 70s and 80s to find the ‘ideal method’ for language learning and teaching. There isn’t one. We stumble and fight our way through the undergrowth of language acquisition hurdles and that, I think is the way it always will be since the variables involved in language acquisition are too many and too diverse for us to ever create The Ideal Method. The best we can do is to train our teachers better, use all available technology and good quality face to face learning according to student needs. And that is for me the only key I can really hold on to: student needs. In the rush to use this device or that, I find very little mention of what our *students* actually need – I could be wrong but I think that in the face to face environment, it is easier for the well trained teachers to constantly assess where his/her students are at any given moment and respond meaningfully and instantly.

    Reply
    • Steve, I’m with you all the way on the need for better and more wide-spread teacher training for classes “on the ground” (as well as “in the cloud”). Yet I don’t see the future of English learning (or of language learning or of learning anyhing, for that matter) as being class or course-based in the traditional sense.
      As I write this, a dozen or so learners are on my Facebook page debating the uses of ‘as long as’ and ‘so long as.’ They are citing examples from texts, creating their own sentences, asking one another questions, dropping links to websites, and having a blast doing it. A regular group of teachers from around the world will weigh in periodically to help out. The majority of these learners do not have the opportunity to take English classes with engaging, well-trained teachers in physical classrooms equipped with the technology needed to learn socially with peers around the globe. They would love that, of course; but is it realistic to think we could provide it, no matter how hard we worked at it?

      You asked why online learning should be the next ‘big thing’ but I don’t think it is fair or accurate to conceive of it as a new method or approach. For ELTs and ELLs, isn’t it more of a tool to promote interactive and real-life use of English in ways we have been struggling to achieve in the classroom? (see my post above).

      More to the point, as educators we can debate whether people should or should not learn online and whether this will or will not promote acquisition of a new language better than taking a traditional class; but in end, students, freely exploring the Internet to connect with others and using it to gain knowledge and understanding, will be the ones to decide. We often speak, as you just have, about the importance of tuning in to what our students really need. The fantastic thing about learning online is that they finally have the power to go after it themselves.

      Reply
      • Absolutely, Jason. What you describe is exciting and generative! We have no disagreement.
        Where I differ from some is in assuming that classrooms are out and online learning is in. There is room for both and there must be room for both.
        I do feel though that those of us who are challenging the idea and practice of MOOCs etc are automatically classed as dinosaurs for not immediately embracing the new tech but there is a large middle ground for people like me who have always kept up to date but are mature enough not to dive into every new approach head-first! You should bear in mind too that I embraced (and trained in) Silent Way and Suggestopedia as well as CLL, TPR and other ‘exotic’ approaches way back in the day when such things were considered heretical by the main stream. So I don’t want to be accused of being frightened of change (you haven’t, Jason) by people who don’t know me simply for challenging a view.

        Reply
        • Steveh,

          I will chime in with David here to say that I LIKE everything you’re saying here.

          There is avery interesting parallel as well with much of the debate I’ve seen in my own country, the USA, about the supposed “failure” of public schools while most data actually points out the opposite, that they are doing and have always done a very good job despite the obvious challenges.

          This argument has similar dynamics. Firstly, that there iscan attempt to get one to accept a false premise: that the traditional F2F classroom is hopelessly out of date and failing students. Secondly, that any attempt to question the way the “new approach” (online learning, tech transformation) might be implemented effectively immediately leads to your being critisized as some kind of hopelessly out of touch Luddite while it seems to me that those airing those attacks hold far more extremist, purist and exclusionary views .

          Needless to say this makes it difficult to hold a measured and reasoned debate on the subject.

          Reply
    • @ Steve, you wrote,

      “Picking up another fragment: the ‘peer reviewed’ Beginner to Intermediate in 6 Lessons left me entirely unconvinced! I think it was the “This result proves it is possible to quickly and inexpensively transform… ” etc which stopped me in my tracks. There is no proof here, just an anecdote.”

      I just looked up the definition of anecdote,

      “an·ec·dote
      ˈanikˌdōt/Submit
      noun
      1.
      a short and amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person.
      “told anecdotes about his job”‘

      How do…
      1. Hours (every second of contact time) of authentic audio recording (with dates and times embedded from when they were first uploaded),
      2. The oral and written testimony of the students involved.
      3. The assessment, after reading and listening to the audio evidence carefully of one of the world’s foremost experts on language acquisition and,
      4. Proper academic peer review of a paper,
      … constitute an anecdote?
      I’d love you to explain that to me, after all you’re an English teacher.

      The old “who knows how people learn a language, we’ll keep on battling” rhetoric or as you put it, “We stumble and fight our way through the undergrowth of language acquisition”, to me anyway, and teachers like Jason Levine illustrates why English teaching as we know it is definitely on the way out very soon. This has happened in so many professions and industries so far. ESL is no different. There is no going back, there isn’t even any standing still (as that is effectively going backwards). We do know how people acquire languages. We do know how to enhance our natural ability to acquire language using technology. And we can prove it.

      What is holding us back is the fear, understandable yes, helpful to learners and their progress no, of a large group of people who are trying not to change.

      This is a normal human reaction. Don’t worry. But every situation like this, since time began, has resulted in those who’ve poured scorn on the wider and deeper use of appropriate technology (yes backed up by evidence) having to retire or retrain. That is the option facing everyone and things are going quickly now.

      Finally for now, a request to other readers, if you wish to criticise some audio evidence, please can you at least make it obvious that you have listened to it? Maybe Steve did listen…I’ve had people who fear change listen to it, but not hear it. Know what I mean?

      Reply
      • Sorry, I was referring of course to the term ‘proof’ and this was anecdotal evidence rather than perhaps, an actual anecdote. I won’t look up ‘proof’ and offer a definition here, my guess is that most people know what it means as they knew what I meant! So, no I didn’t listen, I was distracted by the claim that something had been proven by one student’s results…
        As to the rest, your defensive pose suggests that you haven’t read what I said. I have no fear of technology nor of change (indeed I have pushed all my career for change and still do) I am for a balance which responds to student need. I can’t put it clearer than that.
        It seems to me that those who argue loudly for the ‘new technology’ expect to be attacked and find it hard to accept that there are those, me amongst them, who won’t attack but will challenge with the aim of achieving some clarity and balance. I am not arguing against the technology, I am arguing (rather too strong a word) for that which is needed. I am certainly not pouring scorn on the technology – it serves me well. So don’t lump all those who you think are against you together, positions in the digital world are not just binary!

        Reply
      • re-reading this thread, I noticed that I had forgotten to celebrate the fact that apparently we now know how language acquisition occurs! Jason West tells us: “We do know how people acquire languages. We do know how to enhance our natural ability to acquire language using technology. And we can prove it.” (As an aside, I wonder who this ‘we’ is.) This is fabulous news and will save us all from doing any more research into such old-fashioned and out-moded ideas as, for example: negotiation of meaning, teachability and other applied linguistics puzzles. I await with some interest the publication of the ‘Compleat Language Acquisition Guide’ so that I too can buy the associated technology which is proven to assure my and my students’ acquisition of foreign languages.

        Reply
  6. I really apologize for this comment but I can not for the life of me figure out what the thesis of the author is in this article (or is it merely commentary?)

    Typically I look for the thesis in the initial paragraph of an article and here is what I came up with:

    Possible Thesis #1- “It’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. “

    Do you mean, “ELT people quite commonly say that online learning cannot fully replace off-line learning because the on-line environment is inherently missing important social elements?”

    Possible Thesis #2: “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?

    Do you mean, “To someone raised in the Internet era it makes sense to say that an online course can replace the social learning in a University.”

    Oh the writer also said: 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.

    To which I disagree by saying: I think it is a pretty commonly held belief in educational circles (supported by research) that smaller classes are generally better than larger ones with tutorial classes (1 on 1) being far and away the best. I would add that many claim (and many are guided by the belief) that reading produces the best language learning results. As far as I know reading is still a solitary activity.

    I almost get the feeling that something important is being touched on in this essay but I can’t quite put my finger on what this is. Sorry. I usually try my best to make salient points in affirmative (or falsifiable) sentences.

    Reply
    • Hi Michael – thanks for commenting.
      I wouldn’t claim that there’s a fully worked through thesis (yet). The aim was to put out some thoughts and some responses to what I’ve seen in comments on previous posts here and have heard in ELT over the years – and, hopefully, to elicit interesting thoughts and opinions from others who know more about the topic than I do!

      In response to your specific questions:
      1. Yes, ELT people do commonly say that online learning can’t match classroom learning because it’s missing important social elements – and given that the online world is increasingly as much as a part of real social life as the offline world, that makes less and less sense.
      2. “To someone raised in the internet era it makes sense to say that an online course can replace the social learning in a university” – yes, of course, assuming the aim is to primarily to acquire knowledge.

      And on the final point about smaller classes – I don’t think that’s disagreeing with anything I said. I would expect that any situation in which you get more feedback, input and support would be preferable. My point is that this doesn’t require being in a room together, in a situation as inauthentic as a classroom.

      – A good classroom-based course can work very well
      – A good online course can work just as well (although many in ELT don’t seem to believe this).
      – Social trends, technology advances and economics mean that the rapid rise of learning outside the classroom is inevitable, whether people like it or not. So, let’s think about how to make online courses better.

      Reply
      • With you all the way, Laurie! Would just like to reiterate that small group classes and one-to-ones can be done far more easily “in the cloud” than “on the ground,” both in terms of cost and accessibility. Learners raised in the (lowercase ‘I’) internet era have much to look forward to.

        Reply
  7. @ Steve, you wrote,

    “Picking up another fragment: the ‘peer reviewed’ Beginner to Intermediate in 6 Lessons left me entirely unconvinced! I think it was the “This result proves it is possible to quickly and inexpensively transform… ” etc which stopped me in my tracks. There is no proof here, just an anecdote.”

    I just looked up the definition of anecdote,

    “an·ec·dote
    ˈanikˌdōt/Submit
    noun
    1.
    a short and amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person.
    “told anecdotes about his job”‘

    How do…
    1. Hours (every second of contact time) of authentic audio recording (with dates and times embedded from when they were first uploaded),
    2. The oral and written testimony of the students involved.
    3. The assessment, after reading and listening to the audio evidence carefully of one of the world’s foremost experts on language acquisition and,
    4. Proper academic peer review of a paper,
    … constitute an anecdote?
    I’d love you to explain that to me, after all you’re an English teacher.

    The old “who knows how people learn a language, we’ll keep on battling” rhetoric or as you put it, “We stumble and fight our way through the undergrowth of language acquisition”, to me anyway, and teachers like Jason Levine illustrates why English teaching as we know it is definitely on the way out very soon. This has happened in so many professions and industries so far. ESL is no different. There is no going back, there isn’t even any standing still (as that is effectively going backwards). We do know how people acquire languages. We do know how to enhance our natural ability to acquire language using technology. And we can prove it.

    What is holding us back is the fear, understandable yes, helpful to learners and their progress no, of a large group of people who are trying not to change.

    This is a normal human reaction. Don’t worry. But every situation like this, since time began, has resulted in those who’ve poured scorn on the wider and deeper use of appropriate technology (yes backed up by evidence) having to retire or retrain. That is the option facing everyone and things are going quickly now.

    Finally for now, a request to other readers, if you wish to criticise some audio evidence, please can you at least make it obvious that you have listened to it? Maybe Steve did listen…I’ve had people who fear change listen to it, but not hear it. Know what I mean?

    Reply
    • Sorry, I was referring of course to the term ‘proof’ and this was anecdotal evidence rather than perhaps, an actual anecdote. I won’t look up ‘proof’ and offer a definition here, my guess is that most people know what it means as they knew what I meant! So, no I didn’t listen, I was distracted by the claim that something had been proven by one student’s results…
      As to the rest, your defensive pose suggests that you haven’t read what I said. I have no fear of technology nor of change (indeed I have pushed all my career for change and still do) I am for a balance which responds to student need. I can’t put it clearer than that.
      It seems to me that those who argue loudly for the ‘new technology’ expect to be attacked and find it hard to accept that there are those, me amongst them, who won’t attack but will challenge with the aim of achieving some clarity and balance. I am not arguing against the technology, I am arguing (rather too strong a word) for that which is needed. I am certainly not pouring scorn on the technology – it serves me well. So don’t lump all those who you think are against you together, positions in the digital world are not just binary!

      Reply
  8. @Michael, this is how it was put (re the Canadian govt research),

    “LINC had improved the language abilities of students in the areas of reading (by 0.88 benchmark level) and writing (by 0.51 benchmark level) but not in listening and speaking beyond what they would have gained from living in Canada.
    But, by the time students reach 1000 hours the gains attributable to LINC rise markedly.”

    So, 1000 hours of ESL (and in the paper they state that ESL as it was taught during the study can be extrapolated to cover the majority of global ESL provision, i.e. the teacher training is fairly uniform) , which would be a year of 19.2 hours per week of classroom study, has no discernible benefit over 1000 hours of just living in Canada and not being taught ESL.

    Here is the page in the study, it is in ‘key findings’:
    http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/evaluation/linc/2010/index.asp

    Reply
    • My version reads: But, by the time students reach 1000 hours the gains ascribable to LINC jump to 1.3 benchmarks for listening, 1.2 for reading and 1.7 for writing.

      What I think they are saying is that 1,000 hours after people participate in the program that the benchmark gains increased in listening, reading and writing. Post tests like these are marks of a good study.

      Of course we have no idea what their benchmark was or how big a difference 1.0 was. What is interesting to me is that this study suggests you can have an improvement in listening, reading and writing without one in speaking. Maybe this was the results the course was designed to produce…..It is, in my estimation, quite possible to design a course that produces exactly these results.

      In fact, maybe we are only seeing how a class that spends time on these three skills can suck time away from time spent improving speaking. Although Krashen would probably argue that gains from reading should produce gains in speaking.

      Anyway I can’t quite figure out the relevance of this study to your approach. I certainly don’t think it provides ammunition to dismantle the status quo.

      Reply
      • We seem to agree, Steve, except it still sounds like you’re saying that learning online is a method, such as the Silent Way, Suggestopedia, et al. This part I don’t get. I teach an MA Tesol Methods course and can’t imagine including learning online as a method. Could you explain a bit more what you mean?

        Reply
        • Jason, sorry that’s not what I meant at all! I too taught a Master’s course on Methodology (not online though!) and trying to pass off online teaching/learning as a method wouldn’t hold very much water! No, I was trying to demonstrate that I have always investigated ‘stuff’ and tried to find out as much as possible about it – never simply rejecting it out of hand, sometimes against the stream of current opinion. I was studying under Caleb Gattegno and Lonny Gold when these approaches were being called “Pseudo-scientific gobbledegook” by a well know academic who shall remain nameless!

          Reply
  9. @Michael, this is how it was put (re the Canadian govt research),

    “LINC had improved the language abilities of students in the areas of reading (by 0.88 benchmark level) and writing (by 0.51 benchmark level) but not in listening and speaking beyond what they would have gained from living in Canada.
    But, by the time students reach 1000 hours the gains attributable to LINC rise markedly.”

    So, 1000 hours of ESL (and in the paper they state that ESL as it was taught during the study can be extrapolated to cover the majority of global ESL provision, i.e. the teacher training is fairly uniform) , which would be a year of 19.2 hours per week of classroom study, has no discernible benefit over 1000 hours of just living in Canada and not being taught ESL.

    Here is the page in the study, it is in ‘key findings’:
    http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/evaluation/linc/2010/index.asp

    Reply
  10. Re MOOCs – I read on the Seth Godin blog that the drop-out rate from MOOCs was really high. I can’t remember the figure and I can’t find the post online, but I think it was about 90%. That’s fine – we’ve all done gym membership/language evening classes/yoga whatever only to drop out after a couple of lessons. What isn’t fine is if the provider charges you a lot of money upfront, rather than a monthly sub that you can back out of in a few clicks. Sometimes a provider’s business model actually depends on people keeping up a sub out of inertia and blaming themselves (I’m too old to learn/I never was any good at languages/I’ll spend more time on this site next month). As more and more online ELT offerings appear over the next few years, let’s remember to ask: What is your drop-out rate? Can I easily unsubscribe in a few clicks? And let’s remind learners: If you’re not engaged and interested and going back for more, it may be that the site is cr*p and boring even though it’s online – it’s not necessarily you that is the problem.

    Reply
    • Paul a salient warning I think. However, it reminds me that f2f classes can also have high drop-out rates! The difference, perhaps, is that in the real world (as opposed to the virtual world of MOOCs) teachers and DoSs notice their students are falling off and call them up to find out why! And then, crucially if they want to stay in business, they make appropriate changes. As to the business model, that too is reminiscent of the typical language school payment schedule; you buy a course (usually) not a few weeks of a course. The most important point you make, in my view, is the 90% drop out rate. If that’s true (I have no data available so must accept yours) then, yes something is going wrong. That could be in the quality (or lack) of the course or it could be a result of unreasonably high student expectation – a common reason for later disillusionment in language learning. It’s a tricky balance we have to find when preparing students for a course between creating motivation by raising expectations and avoiding later disappointment by making realistic claims and predictions.

      Reply
        • Thanks Paul; an interesting read. I’d like to see some of the original research they’re doing…
          Reflecting on all this: it reminds me of the debate about fast food in the UK in the late 60s! Two distinct and vocal camps formed, the fors and the againsts, each arguing the logic of their case, little was heard from the ‘wait and see’ camp! The consumer was left doing whatever s/he did, with occasional dabbles into the new and growing ‘high-tech’ food! In the end of course we find that traditional food lives alongside fast food as they both serve a different purpose. But interestingly, many feel that fast food doesn’t provide sufficient nutrients!

          Reply
          • Interesting food analogy, let’s continue with it, what technology should be used for is to exponentially increase the kind of activities that support natural language acquisition (immersion?). That is definitely possible and I can prove it.

            This debate gets polarised ideologically because a lot of what goes by the name of ‘edtech’ or ‘elearing’ is just people liking shiny new things and listing the apps they have downloaded.

            You can exponentially increase the amount of the right kind of activity for learners to improve their speaking rapidly using just Skype and some PDFs and MP3s. It’s about the interpersonal learning experiences primarily and how to amplify them.

    • Right on, Paul. I love the fact that most MOOCs stink; it is forcing people to rethink and reconceptualize online learning. It’s hardly rocket science: the more socially connected the physical classroom is, the more learning that takes place (higher homework completion and attendance rates are part of this); the same is true for MOOCs. And the best ones are free and may remain that way as in the future sponsors will likely flock to the MOOCs that serve people best.

      I ran my first MOOC for English language teacher CPD in August and will do another in November. Please check out this vlog post I did yesterday where I talk about it (there’s a link to the MOOC there as well, if you care to join us-even if it’s just observe what’s going on. You can pull out at any time. :D) ww.teachingeslonline.com/online-learning-jason-r-levine/

      Reply
  11. 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.

    Reply
    • 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!

      Reply
  12. 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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply

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