Still not disruptive web-based language learning

Jonathan Dykes runs a group of language schools in Barcelona as well as one of the first online schools, Net Languages, which makes for a unique perspective on the merits and shortcomings of both. This post first appeared on his blog.

Christmas 1997. I remember it well, chiefly as I spent most of the holiday developing a business plan for a bright idea I’d had: to use the internet to teach people who, for whatever reason, would never make it into one of our language schools. The plan must have had some merit as it persuaded several people to invest and lo, Net Languages was born in March 1998.

Two of the key members of the start-up team were my esteemed colleagues, Scott Thornbury and Gavin Dudeney. They put together a team of content writers and techies and masterminded the first courses, which were launched in September 1998.

I’m not entirely certain that we were the first company to offer online language courses but we might well have been. (Would that merit an entry on Wikipedia?)

Back in those days, most people were still using dial-up connections with a download speed of 256k, so options were limited. I distinctly remember an expert in the field saying that he couldn’t imagine ever being able to stream video across the internet. How times have changed.

Yet in some respects, they haven’t. Despite the fact that there are now hundreds of ways of learning languages online, bricks and mortar language schools still flourish in many parts of the world.

Personally, I’m delighted that we can still operate viable language schools alongside our online courses. But I’m a little bit surprised that the online option hasn’t disrupted our traditional business to a greater extent. Why is that? Why do students (especially adult students) still make the effort to attend traditional language schools and pay their (generally speaking) higher fees?  Let’s think of some possible answers:

1. Access to the technology

Access to the necessary technology isn’t yet widespread. That may have been the case 15 or even 10 years ago, but I’d bet a small fortune that the majority of students who attend private language schools these days have very good internet connectivity and all the hardware they need. Probably more than they need.

2. The social element

The social element is missing online. Again, this may have been a convincing argument 10 or more years ago, but since the rise of social media, more people spend more time socialising online than they do face-to-face. This suggests they don’t have to go to a language school to meet people to hang out with. On the contrary, studying online they can ‘meet’ and chat to people from all over the world.

3. Effectiveness

Online teaching isn’t as effective. Well, we could debate this one loud and long, but most evidence I’ve come across suggests the opposite. In other words, courses that are either entirely or partly online are generally more effective than courses that are 100% classroom based. Is this because studying online involves assuming a greater degree of responsibility for your own learning? Possibly. Could this turn some people off? Possibly.

4. Discipline

People need the discipline of studying at fixed times. This is certainly something that most language schools insist on. Online learning gives people the option to study whenever it suits them, which ought to be an advantage. ‘You never need to miss a class’ is something that most online language education providers argue, but perhaps this freedom is too great for some people. If you can study at any time, it’s easier to find an excuse for not studying right now. Procrastinate or learn. Again, it comes down to taking greater responsibility for your own learning.

5. Bad experiences in the past

People may have tried a crap online course and come to the conclusion that all online courses are crap. Well, there is an incredible amount of rubbish out there. Even large companies with budgets hundreds of times the size of Net Languages’ annual turnover are capable of producing material which, if it teaches anybody anything, achieves this more by accident than design. Also, given that second language acquisition is a subject that challenges even the experts in the field, most consumers will probably judge a product by its price (if it has one) and/or by its bling factor, rather than by its ability to effectively teach anyone anything. Once bitten by the bling factor twice shy?

6. The role of the teacher

The presence of a teacher throughout the learning process. Maybe that’s it. Maybe a certain proportion of students simply feel that they need a good, professional teacher with them all the time. Someone who will answer their questions, correct their mistakes, smile at them when they’re making an effort and generally show interest in them and motivate them to improve. Perhaps these are the people who are keeping language schools open. But what happens when they discover that they can have their own teacher online? Maybe not all the time, but often enough. (At Net Languages we offer courses with and without a tutorial service. What’s more, students who choose to buy the service get to work with the same teacher throughout their course).

7. Too much screen time

People spend all day staring at screens and prefer to do something different when it comes to learning a language. I’ve heard it said. Of course an image projected on a whiteboard in a classroom is tantamount to looking at a screen and digital projectors are becoming standard pieces of kit in most language schools. We assume students value and expect digital classrooms, but could they end up having an adverse effect on our schools? Perhaps we should pull the plug on anything electronic and adopt Scott’s materials light approach to classroom teaching. Would that help keep the bums on the seats in language schools and off the seats at home? Or would students feel they’re being short-changed if we took all the tech stuff away?

In short: what is it that keeps students turning up to class rather than turning on their computers? It could be a combination of all of the above, although if I had to pick one, my vote would go to number five. That’s the one most of our own students mention when we ask them the question.
Image by andertoons via Compfight cc Text added by ELTjam.

25 thoughts on “Still not disruptive web-based language learning”

  1. Reminds me of lots of past conversations! and I agree with all the points you make. But why, I keep asking myself, must it be either/or? Isn’t it possible to have different business models which flex the online/face-to-face elements in ways that offer the best of each, as well as answering many of the human issues you raise above (discipline, social context etc)? plus offering a range of price points, which must be of interest to learners in poorer far-flung places.

    Reply
  2. Blue Ocean Theory (W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, INSEAD) is very useful here. I’ll lay it out quick and describe its importance for disrupting language schools.

    Blue Ocean Theory goes like this: industries have value curves. A value curve is like a bar chart that states how much an industry values each thing. For example, maybe restaurants value price, convenience, and taste. Imagine a world where all restaurants value price and taste highly, but convenience only a little. You could find a blue ocean (little competition) by changing the value curve. Like maybe you value convenience and price highly, but taste only a little. You can also find a blue ocean by adding elements to the value curve–like maybe you add entertainment (in addition to price, taste, and convenience).

    Sometimes companies find blue oceans and the old red ocean keeps on going. Like McDonalds found a new value curve in the restaurant industry, but they didn’t destroy high dining. Other times the new value curve steals away all the old customers. Like the telegraph did in the Pony Express.

    Back to language schools. The things Jonathan listed (except 5) are all items on a value curve. But let me lay it out a bit different. Here’s a list of things language students value (plus how brick and mortar schools / online schools value them):

    Technology (Brick and Mortar School: Medium, Online: High)
    Social (B&M: High, Online: Medium)
    Effectiveness (B&M High, Online: Medium)
    Discipline (B&M: Medium, Online: Low)
    Teacher (B&M: High, Online: Low-Medium)

    and I’ll add one more:

    Convenience (B&M: Low, Online: High)

    I think that’s a pretty fair estimation of how students see it. In general, the overall curve is lower for online schools, but it’ll depend on what a specific student values. Someone who’s all in on technology and convenience will learn online. Someone who’s all in on social and discipline will go brick and mortar.

    Final point: For online schools to be successful, they need to do one of two things. Either demonstrate to students (through marketing) that the online school values the things they care about more OR add a new element to the value curve that the brick and mortar school can’t possibly have. The first strategy would be like Japanese cars taking over the American market by showing consumers that their cars actually have more things the consumer cares about. The second would be like, say Google taking over advertising by adding elements newspapers didn’t have.

    Jeremy
    http://stuartmillenglish.com

    Reply
    • Excellent points Jeremy – and a very useful analysis. Online learning makes a lot of buzz, it is favoured by investors, who have little interest in teachers, obsessed as they are with scalability and huge returns on investment – and most of the time, loses money hand over fist, apart from one or two shining examples of success based on good practice, hard work, motivated teams and a constant push to adapt systems to clients (examples such as Intercountry Management, Ecsplicite, Gymglish…). Precisely because the investors backing this model don’t value the things that students do – quite the opposite. The trainer/coach/guide is at the bottom of their priority list, but at the top of student’s priorities. Love the Blue Ocean analogy!

      Reply
    • Love it great reply. Value add is the things and not many schools are actually adding value online or not. I think times are tough for the poor schools online, or not. The fact is that the business model of the language school has chnaged.

      Reply
  3. Hi Jonathan

    This is a really interesting article. In the section on effectiveness you say “most evidence …suggests …courses that are either entirely or partly online are generally more effective than courses that are 100% classroom based.” Could you let us have the references for this research please?

    Thanks

    Mike

    Reply
  4. I’ll save Jonathan the time. From a meta-analysis of more than 1,000 empirical studies…

    “The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes—measured as the difference between treatment and control means, divided by the pooled standard deviation—was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction
    with conditions taught entirely face-to-face.”

    http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED505824.pdf

    U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, Washington, D.C., 2009

    Best,

    Gavin

    Reply
  5. Gavin,

    The study that you cite actually raises questions about the relative effectiveness of online learning when measured against certain powerful intervening variables. The study highlights something which we all understand as teachers- that class size (especially group classes vs. 1-to-1), time on task, and pedagogy can account for a great variation in the success of students. Here I quote from this same study.

    Interpretations of (the) result, however, should take into consideration the fact that online and face-to-face conditions generally differed on multiple dimensions, including the amount of time that learners spent on task. The advantages observed for online learning conditions therefore may be the product of aspects of those treatment conditions other than the instructional delivery medium per se.

    Furthermore:

    Analysts examined 13 online learning practices as potential sources of variation in the effectiveness of online learning compared with face-to-face instruction. Of those variables, (a) the use of a blended rather than a purely online approach and (b) the expansion of time on task for online learners were the only statistically significant influences on effectiveness.

    Furthermore:

    Despite what appears to be strong support for online learning applications, the studies in this meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium, In many of the studies showing an advantage for online learning, the online and classroom conditions differed in terms of time spent, curriculum and pedagogy. It was the combination of elements in the treatment conditions (which was likely to have included additional learning time and materials as well as additional opportunities for collaboration) that produced the observed learning advantages.

    Reply
  6. I’d like to throw some recent personal experience into the discussion.

    1. I recently did a webinar for my publisher with around 500 attendees (teachers) from all over the world, and at the end I mentioned my teacher site PaulEmmerson.com and my eLearning student site BEhereBEthere.com. The first had lots of hits in the next hour or so, the second hardly any.
    2. Soon after I did a talk at BESIG called ‘Adventures in eLearning’, and the talk referenced BEhereBEthere. The session was packed and there was lively discussion. In the days following the conference, traffic to BEhereBEthere didn’t increase one bit, but there was an uptick on PaulEmmerson.com (which I didn’t mention at all in the talk).
    3. I post regularly on LinkedIn, in their various Business English groups. If I have a new article or slideshow on PaulEmmerson.com (BE classroom tips and techniques), I post. If I have a new eLearning course for students on BEhereBEthere.com (with blended classroom activities), I post. Comparing the two, I get a much stronger response in the first case – in terms of website hits.
    4. Exact ditto with Twitter and Facebook. I am less active there, but do tweet/post when there is something new on both sites. New stuff on PaulEmmerson.com gets far more retweets etc than new stuff on BEhereBEthere.

    My overall conclusion from the first five months of BEhereBEthere is that blended learning is still seen by the majority of ELT teachers as a threat. They are reluctant to send students to a website because it undermines the reason for the student being there in class in person. It undermines the teacher’s role. Blended learning has taken off where there is no danger to the teacher’s role because learners have an obligation to be there (high school, corporate training). Where the teacher wants to create their own face-to-face vibe, and their job depends on it, (language schools, clients of BE freelancers), it’s a different matter.

    That doesn’t stop me from pressing ahead with BEhereBEthere, because:

    a) There have been some real positives – my email subscriber list for BEhere is growing fast, and ‘average duration on site’ is also increasing rapidly. That suggests that people who find it like it.
    b) I hope a growing number of teachers will indeed start to use it in class. It might just be ‘early days’.
    c) I hope to get directly to learners who don’t attend classes and schools. They will take much longer to reach, and have lots else available to them.
    d) I hope that BEhere acts as general brand-building for my print books. I need to see an uptick in print sales to justify spending the next few winters on BEhere with no money coming in. I do have a family and mortgage to support!
    e) It’s the most fun I’ve had since riding on a donkey in Upper Egypt.
    f) I read Seth Godin’s blog every day and do buy in to his central argument. Namely that the ‘mass market’ is largely dead, and the trick is to connect authentically with a niche. If only 0.5% of Business English learners worldwide discover my site, and enjoy their time there, and (eventually) are willing to pay a small subscription for premium elements, then I have a business model.

    For me personally, the jury is still out on web-based/blended/classroom debate, and I’m happy to play a long game.

    Reply
  7. I’d agree with #5. There are a lot of poor courses. But also – would taking an online course really give someone the confidence to speak a language? I could study Spanish on an app like Duolingo, but I wouldn’t necessarily feel confident enough to talk to someone in Spanish. Why? Because I wouldn’t have been speaking to a real person as I was learning the language. So I also agree with #2.

    Some programs have online tutoring components with native speakers. That’s probably helpful, but it still might be awkward for some.

    Also, what about the assessment component? How are students placed in their respective courses? How is feedback given? Is pronunciation corrected, for example?

    I know some online programs have technology that can “rate” a speaker’s pronunciation, but these components may feel unnatural. The L/S component of online learning is challenging.

    The author of the article makes the point that more people are socializing online. That’s true. Most online socializing, however, is R/W based. People type status updates and read their friends’ posts. I feel like I barely speak to anyone on the phone anymore, as it’s so easy to send a text. Some businesses are following this approach with customer service. ZocDoc allows me to book doctor’s appointments without picking up the phone. Amazon lets me report damaged or missing items without having to speak to a live person. Many companies, like GoDaddy, have instant messenger style customer service programs.

    Right now, I’m using The Economist’s adaptive GMAT prep program. It’s web-based, and has a mobile app. I really like it so far. I haven’t taken the GMAT yet, so I’m not sure how effective it will be. It has, however, helped me better understand some of the components that are usually tested on the GMAT.

    The best things about this program:

    1) It presents useful concepts and has clear explanations. It uses diagrams to explain difficult concepts.
    2) It will force you to keep practicing a concept until you show improvement. If I get a question “1” wrong, it will give me more practice, and then give me a new question that’s similar to question “1.” I learn by doing, so this has been very effective for me.
    3) Wrong answers have useful feedback.
    4) It feels “human,” at least for a computer program. The whole experience feels like a conversation, spliced with tons of practice.
    5) You can access tutor help on any question. Tutor help is text-based.
    6) The UI is clean and easy to navigate.
    7) There’s a good balance between learner input and production. Some GMAT books have pages and pages of concepts and equations…followed by a few questions. This app presents a concept, gives you some practice, and then teaches you a little bit more.

    Reply
  8. Very interesting thoughts and ruminations.Regarding #5, I believe that the “bad experience” of some learners is often related to exaggerated marketing claims (“Learn a language in 10 Days”) and unrealistic expectations: In our attempt to attract customers we, the online language learning industry, want to make it sound fun and easy. Becoming fluent/proficient in a language takes time, discipline and persistence. It’s not difficult per se, but it takes more time than many casual learners are willing to commit. Attending classes is already more of a commitment than doing online or CD lessons when it’s convenient!

    Reply
  9. Thanks for your comment, Mike – you’ve made a very important point and I agree wholeheartedly.

    Jonathan’s claim that “courses that are either entirely or partly online are generally more effective than courses that are 100% classroom based” is repeated often, including by Gavin in his comment above and also in ‘Digital Literacies’, which he co-wrote with Hockly and Pegrum. Jonathan did not provide any references to support this contentious claim but Gavin did, although it was the same one in both cases: the 2009 US Department of Education report.

    As Mike as pointed out, that report includes some major caveats which have not been acknowledged in Jonathan’s post, Gavin’s comment or in ‘Digital Literacies’. For example:

    “The main finding from the literature review was that…Few rigorous research studies of the effectiveness of online learning for K–12 students have been published.” (xiv)

    And the entire last page of the Executive Summary:

    “In recent experimental and quasi-experimental studies contrasting blends of online and face-to-face instruction with conventional face-to-face classes, blended instruction has been more effective, providing a rationale for the effort required to design and implement blended approaches. Even when used by itself, online learning appears to offer a modest advantage over conventional classroom instruction.

    “However, several caveats are in order: Despite what appears to be strong support for online learning applications, the studies in this meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium, In many of the studies showing an advantage for online learning, the online and classroom conditions differed in terms of time spent, curriculum and pedagogy. It was the combination of elements in the treatment conditions (which was likely to have included additional learning time and materials as well as additional opportunities for collaboration) that produced the observed learning advantages. At the same time, one should note that online learning is much more conducive to the expansion of learning time than is face-to-face instruction.

    “In addition, although the types of research designs used by the studies in the meta-analysis were strong (i.e., experimental or controlled quasi-experimental), many of the studies suffered from weaknesses such as small sample sizes; failure to report retention rates for students in the conditions being contrasted; and, in many cases, potential bias stemming from the authors’ dual roles as experimenters and instructors.

    “Finally, the great majority of estimated effect sizes in the meta-analysis are for undergraduate and older students, not elementary or secondary learners. Although this meta-analysis did not find a significant effect by learner type, when learners’ age groups are considered separately, the mean effect size is significantly positive for undergraduate and other older learners but not for K–12 students.

    “Another consideration is that various online learning implementation practices may have differing effectiveness for K–12 learners than they do for older students. It is certainly possible that younger students could benefit more from a different degree of teacher or computer-based guidance than would college students and older learners. Without new random assignment or controlled quasi-experimental studies of the effects of online learning options for K–12 students, policy-makers will lack scientific evidence of the effectiveness of these emerging alternatives to face-to-face instruction.”

    Is this report the origin of the apparently widely-held belief that ‘blended is better’? And, Gavin, why did you not mention these caveats in your comment or in ‘Digital Literacies’?

    Reply
    • When people write books, articles, papers or conference talks they tend to draw conclusions from a body of literature – this is quite often done on a selective basis. However, since coming across that report a few years back I’ve taken the trouble to read quite a few of the projects which formed part of that meta-analysis and there is indeed a body of evidence to back up what I wrote. There is also evidence elsewhere to the contrary. That’s what ‘research shows’, often – depends where you look. I’ve looked in a lot of places, and I’ve been running fully online, blended and entirely f2f course for best part of eighteen years and my observations suggest that online is at least as effective. Your mileage may vary, of course – and, as noted by almost anyone, anywhere, you can always find an opposing view to pretty much anything. I can only say that the work I’ve done in those eighteen years leads me to believe that many of the conclusions of that report have some validity. I could dig out a lot more for you, but I’ve got the day job to look after first.

      I’m reminded of a blog post by my colleague Nicky: http://www.emoderationskills.com/?p=531

      There’s evidence out there, for sure.

      Best,

      Gavin

      Reply
  10. @Gavin,

    You said, “many of the conclusions of that report have some validity.” My guess is that the conclusions that have the most validity for LANGUAGE LEARNING (not math, etc) are that time on task, the relative size of class, and the pedagogy used in class contribute more to the differences observed than ANY other factors.

    My guess is that if we could exactly reproduce the conditions of an online class face to face (1 to 1, same amount of time on task, same learning materials) that we would see sightly better results in a face to face class OVERALL. In other words, that face to face learning is slightly superior when ALL other factors are held constant.

    To make assertions that online classes are educationally superior while not holding these other factors constant is like saying that “we have proven that birds, with feathers removed, can’t fly as well as their feathered cousins.”

    Reply
  11. Actually Gavin I am sorry as I should have been more forthcoming in my original comments.

    I teach online and offline classes using the same materials, in one-to-one classes that usually extend over the same fixed period of time (45 or 60 minutes). I teach some students in both face to face and online classes. My students are mostly children (90%). With my small sample size for adults I haven’t been able to discern any significant learning differences between online and face to face classes.

    With primary school age children I find that face to face classes tend to be more productive for most of the students (I would say 50-60%). I find that many beginning students at this age do not understand how to study and need help understanding their tasks at a very micro level. Being able to use my physicality in a face to face class (pointing, touching, moving, holding, patting them on the back, etc.) can sometimes be the difference between a child quickly understanding something and slowly understanding something. I have found that when the flow of understanding is interrupted in children in an online environment it is often hard to return to a neutral spot where instruction can begin again.

    I have found that in face to face classes it is easier to reset to a neutral point in situations where there is a misunderstanding in class (note: I can speak my student’s 1st language competently). I believe that it may be possible one day to solve this problem with online tools that let me mimic the physically of a face to face class.

    Reply
    • Mike,

      Not much to argue with there, I don’t think – all seems very sensible to me apart from the point about using the same materials f2f and online. This, I believe is a mistake. I think for online instruction to be successful you have to start from a position that it’s not the same as f2f instruction and that you need to design materials specifically for it. For years people have converted books and worksheets into PDFs and called them online courses, and I think if anything is going to contribute to failure online then it’s probably that.

      But yes, I think young kids like to jump around and that, and quite rightly. And don’t think young kids should be learning in front of screens, as it goes. Or at least not exclusively – the odd activity here and there, but the social aspect of learning at that age suggests to me that online courses aren’t a great idea.

      Gavin

      Reply
  12. In defence of the effectiveness of at least some Web-based courses, at least for some people, I offer the following customer statement, which we received earlier this week:

    Fourth question. How important is the Internet to you?:

    In my point of view, The internet has an important role in my life and marvelous technology to get the best knowledge, trade and study. In 2003 I first time joined virtual classes of Syrian Virtual University which taught us the best English course ever which was from Netlanguages. I joine Netlanguages again for my daughter. If there are some people I have to thank and never met before ideally Netlanguages team should me one of best 5 a long with the internet and Microsoft inventors. My life was better with you all. Thank you

    Reply
  13. @Jonathan

    (My comments below should not be interpreted to dismiss or demean the wonderful letter you received above.)

    However, your original question was framed as follows:

    “Personally, I’m delighted that we can still operate viable language schools alongside our online courses. But I’m a little bit surprised that the online option hasn’t disrupted our traditional business to a greater extent. Why is that?”

    The heartfelt recommendation letter above offers little direct support to your (generally tacit) notion that the Internet based language learning experience, per se, is generally superior to an in-class language learning experience. To support such a conclusion in the case you just cited, you would need to have had a school of your own operating where this man took your online course. For language schools, the big advantage of the Internet is that it can extend best practices to places that have not been exposed to best practices before. But this is a purely business advantage rather than an educational, social, or psychological advantage.

    The letter you received demonstrates that the Internet permits “the very best” to compete with local schools which have not been challenged by high level competition before. But this is much different than competing head to head with off-line schools that themselves follow best practices.

    I am an Internet supporter, but in drawing conclusions I believe it is wise to make head to head comparisons. That being- your program off-line against your program online- holding class size, materials, and class time constant.

    Reply
  14. Gavin,

    For me, in my teaching, online and face to face classes are identical in the most important respect- that I am dealing with a single individual.

    When I hear people talk about online vs. face to face instruction I never hear them talking about how the two modes are actually two sides of the same coin insofar as it relates to individual learners. It is as if the two spheres were competing with each other. Instead, what we learn from one should be folded into the other so that we never talk of which is inherently better only what we have learned from the one that can contribute to the other.

    Reply
  15. Interesting debate. But what do we mean by “online learning”? Or “purely online learning”? It might be useful to define the terms clearly, because they’re used in so many different ways. In my view, online learning can mean either :
    1. entirely autonomous e-learning resources (with no synchronous or asynchronous interaction with a trainer/guide/coach/tutor), or
    2. a combination of e-learning and varying degrees of online interaction with a trainer/coach/guide/tutor (which I tend to call online or distance blended learning), or
    3. pure online interaction with a distance trainer (etc..), sometimes called “live learning” (for instance some of the platforms that offer language training through skype or webex, or telephone courses such as those proposed by Telelangue, gofluent, ecsplicite and so on). Some will object that telephone training cannot be confused with online training, but today telephone and web-based communication technology are merging – most have us have VOIP phones – so that it’s getting harder and harder to see the difference.

    What is very clear to me (and I believe to most people today) is that the 1st model – pure e-learning – which is based on the flawed 1990’s concept of self-access learning, has consistently failed in the field of language learning, from the point of view of results. It failed when those programmes were in CD ROM format and it failed again when they were transferred onto the web as e-learning, in a far more primitive and less media-rich version. Some of the companies promoting it made money of course, at least for a time – but then packaged learning methods sell thousands of courses yet how many people who buy them go further than the 1st chapter or actually learn a foreign language thanks to them?
    In my research and experience in the field, this model of self-access e-learning obtains on average a 10% completion rate with learners (at any rate here in France). Very similar to the most recent statistics reflecting completion rates on MOOCs (7,6% at the last count). So this model has been progressively abandoned.

    Which is partly why everyone talks about blended learning today (meaning many different things to different people, but basically a mix of interaction with a trainer…and online resources of different kinds). The other reason of course is that digitalisation is blurring the lines between the 4 businesses of language training : B&M F2F trainers, “live learning” or telephone training providers, e-learning providers and publishers. Vertical integration at the top end of the business is developing fast – witness the recent purchases of Telelangue by Berlitz, of Wall Street institute and GlobalEnglish by Pearson, of Tell Me More by Rosetta Stone. Most telephone training companies are also developing a blended learning model. And the big corporate e-learning providers (Tell Me More, Speex, Cyberteachers, Global English, EF online and Gofluent) have all developed what might be called “virtual blended resource centers” in which the e-learning programme they started out with is only one resource among many others, including “live learning”. This trend is likely to accelerate in the coming years.

    Again in my experience, blended learning can be remarkably effective, but everything hangs on the time, resources, experience, enthusiasm, persistence and talent of those who design, build and run the system. And also on the training, skill and motivation of the trainers who interact with the learners. In very many cases, it has been a failure. The hastily put together model that you could call “bundled learning” (2 or 3 different educational providers assembling their resources to create a multimodal package), does not work well, mostly due to lack of coherence and integration. Poorly designed blended courses, with insufficient human interaction with the learner, mediocre e-learning resources, poor quality follow up and evaluation tools, inexperienced, untrained and unmotivated trainers (etc..), or trainers whose role is simply to tutor the e-learning resources, also tend to fail.

    An approach that you might call “trainer-led, learner-centered integrated blended learning” for want of a sexier term, is at least in my experience, when it’s well designed and managed by competent professionals, the most likely to succeed.

    So like everything else in the world of learning, there is no magic bullet, no tried and tested model that will guarantee fail-safe results. Everything hangs on how it is done and who is doing it. That’s why point 5 on the list is probably the main reason why online learning hasn’t taken off as predicted, despite the initial enthusiasm and why most online providers are still heavily dependent on investment capital.

    Those who wish to explore this further can check my paper on the subject here : http://issuu.com/gofluent/docs/from_blended_learning_to_integraaated_lea?e=3537125/1388376

    Interesting development – Pete Sharma is now providing a full blended language learning course called “Getting Blended Learning Right” at iTDi :
    http://itdi.pro/itdihome/petesharma.php

    Reply
    • Excellent points, Andrew. There is just one thing I would like to add. I don’t think we can talk about whether ‘online learning’ is possible without breaking ‘learning’ down into some constituent parts.

      At its most simple, we have to at least distinguish between instruction that leads to passive understanding on the one hand, and activities/tasks that lead to active production on the other.
      Or, following the same track but getting just slightly more complex, we can take Michael Swan’s model that I posted on my own site some years ago with his permission:
      http://www.paulemmerson.com/articles/two-out-of-three/

      He says in this article that you need 6 elements in language teaching, and all have to be present for effective learning to take place. He calls these Analysed Input and Analysed Output, Intensive Input and Intensive Output, Extensive Input and Extensive Output. The first two more or less correspond to ‘controlled practice’, the second two to ‘less controlled practice’ and the final two to fluency work.

      OK. Now I strongly believe that for passive understanding, entirely online is fine and works. Your #1. In terms of Michael’s model I would say that passive understanding is Analysed Input + Analysed Output (listen and repeat) + Intensive Input. Of course I am both a writer of self-study books and the owner of a self-study website, so I have to believe that. But 35 years in teaching and countless discussions with students makes me convinced that by reading a book and doing exercises, WITH ATTENTION, or doing equivalent activities on the web, DOES lead to some kind of passive learning. It IS possible to passively learn how to make a cake by reading a recipe. If you read the recipe several times, and if there were follow-up exercises after the recipe to revise and test your understanding, even more so. Some people don’t need the recipe, and that’s great. In language learning terms they are the ones who just pick it up naturally and we won’t see much of them either in our classrooms or online.

      But is is obvious that entirely online, your #1, doesn’t work for active production. Here we need tasks, real communication, teacher feedback, etc. You need to actually make the cake, get it wrong, try again, and so on. We need some kind of blended element, your #2 and #3.

      In terms of Michael’s model, active production equates to Intensive Output + Extensive Output. That leaves one part of his model in a grey area: Extensive Input. I can’t speak for them, but I think that the people behind Newsmart might argue that they are working in this area. The ‘Management Tools’ section of my own BEhereBEthere website currently has just one text, on Leadership, but it is in the Extensive Input area. So I guess I have to believe that online-only is possible here too.

      So, in short, I don’t think we can have a sensible discussion about ‘online only’ vs ‘some form of blended’ without breaking down what kind of learning (passive or active) we are talking about.

      Reply
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