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What do you think eLearning means? This question will generate a myriad of different responses in the language teaching community: substituting live teaching for digital activities; integrating digital materials with classroom teaching; teaching via video conference; etc. Unfortunately, the most fundamental perception of eLearning may be as a way to cut training costs. From my own experience of the French market, where I work as a digital learning consultant, there have been several changes over the past decade in terms of state funded training that have pushed trainers here more and more towards eLearning. The mainstream, commonly-known solutions, such as Macmillan English Campus and Rosetta Stone, claim to be designed with language training pedagogy at heart, promising ease-of-use, widespread trainee adoption and lower overall training costs.

 

Let me take the example of one well-known solution in particular: English360. Their promise is simple – create your teacher account, design interesting, interactive online courses, making use of existing, high-quality Cambridge ESOL materials on everything from General to Business English, even exam preparation, and you’ll up and running in no time. In their own words: “Use English360 to create and deliver blended learning quickly and easily – with no set up fees or installation required, as an educator you’ll be up and running in an hour!” So how has English360 faired in terms of delivering on this promise?

The solution has been around for almost a decade now, and has recently received its first major update, bringing it in line with more modern competitors. Nevertheless, the number of teachers successfully using this platform as a sustainable eLearning solution is a mystery to me. Neither my surveys nor my extensive contact with trainers in France has turned up anyone fitting that description, not to mention the lack of trainer activity in the English360 user community. This, in my opinion, is partly the fault of insufficient teacher training materials on how to integrate the platform effectively with existing training programmes, but more importantly that eLearning platforms such as English360 are not appropriate for every teaching context. Trainers succumb too easily to the novelty of using digital tools for language training, investing countless hours developing what they think will be the ultimate solution to their language training pricing issues, without giving any fundamental thought to whether eLearning will bring any real, meaningful benefit to their teaching.

 

My advice for deciding whether or not to adopt eLearning, and how to do so, is simple. Ask yourself what the need, not the desire, is for the inclusion of digital tools in your training. If you’re convinced the need is pedagogic, not financial, try passing your reasoning through the SAMR model of technology integration (Further reading). Imagine a trainer who’s decided to start creating eLearning activities to complement their classroom training. They create a list of sentence gap-fills to practise a target grammar point. The learner fills in their answers, clicks a button, and the eLearning platform shows feedback on which answers were incorrect, with a grammar explanation as support. This would be defined at the bottom level of SAMR – Substitution. The technology is a direct substitute for an offline task, with no functional change.

 

“Nonsense!” I hear you say, “The online gap fill is fun and interactive, it gives immediate feedback and allows for repetition, it can be completed anywhere, anytime, on the train on the way to work for example,” and you’d be right, in terms of pure functionality. But what if I give my learner the same gap-fill on a piece of paper? I ask them to fill it in out pencil, check the corrections on the back of the sheet when finished, reading the included feedback and a grammar explanation. They can then rub out their answers and try again if they’ve make mistakes. Is technology really necessary here to enhance my activity? My learner can still complete their activity anytime, anywhere they want, and they don’t even need a username and password to do so. Each stage of the task has been transposed online. Simply creating digital versions of the same language activities we’re used to doing face-to-face or for homework is not enough to justify the use of technology.

 

For a more practical example of technology use, consider the role-play portion of a lesson conducted via video conference using Adobe Connect or similar software. This permits trainers to periodically split participants into ‘breakout rooms’ – individual chat rooms where smaller subgroups complete the activity in private. The trainer can ‘jump in’ at any moment to check progress and answer questions, and finally bring the whole group back together for feedback. SAMR would consider this an Augmentation (the tech substitutes for the offline task, with functional improvement) of an analogue activity. Physically moving learners and having the trainer run from room to room to check their progress would obviously be an inefficient and time-consuming way to conduct a lesson.

 

If, in the same online lesson, the trainer includes a shared Google Document that all of the participants can edit live and simultaneously, discussing changes and posing questions over the video conference while doing so, we could be forgiven for thinking our online lesson has reached the higher level of Modification (the tech allows for significant task redesign). Editing a paper document simultaneously in a classroom with multiple learners fighting for space on a page would be somewhat ridiculous. That said, one could argue that the same activity could be otherwise achieved by asking the group to bring a laptop / tablet computer to a physical classroom to allow editing the document while sitting together in person forming the same comments and questions. The activity itself is certainly a modification, and therefore the use of Google Docs is more than justified. The choice to deliver the activity via video conference, however, is not.

 

There are, of course, clear and undeniable cases where technology offers an improved solution to conducting training. One such example would be where it is difficult or impossible for your trainees to meet face to face due to distance or time constraints. In this context, approaches such as video conferencing, chat groups, and even 3D avatar platforms such as Second Life, make perfect sense. It is, however, extremely important that despite the easily distracting new possibilities this can bring, we pay no less attention to our choice of activities and teaching strategies. Pedagogic design for language training in an online context is not well documented, and we cannot assume it will be as simple as what we are used to in the classroom. Conversely, the approach need not be so different, as our hard-earned, tried-and-tested teaching techniques can, with the right innovation, be adapted for the digital realm.

 

If, for example, your classroom approach generally follows the traditional ‘Present – Practice – Produce’ model of language training, there is no reason your online sessions should be any different. We normally use handouts, book pages, video and audio material, etc. to conduct the presentation and practice portions of new language points. These can easily be transposed online through scanned pdfs, shared online documents, and the YouTube sharing feature in Google Hangouts for example. As for production – role-play preparation and subsequent feedback can be digitised through email, with the role-play itself taking place during the video conference. A trainer could even conduct the role-play in broken-up stages using the voice messaging systems in WhatsApp or Skype, creating a novel, low-stress quasi-conversational experience.

 

With these simple, free solutions, the teacher is not required to make any changes to their pedagogic process, simply the media through which it is delivered. The trainee is also afforded the advantage of enjoying the same lesson sequences and quality, highly-effective activities they are used to from classroom participation. As a happy coincidence, this approach to teaching online can also reduce training costs by permitting the trainer to not be present during moments where the trainee is preparing, recording and submitting their work. This reduction in teacher presence time, while maintaining trainee participation time, translates into a higher overall hourly rate for the trainer.

 

In conclusion, language trainers need to take a hard, objective look at their reasoning for considering eLearning as a meaningful tool for their training. An urgent need to reduce training costs is simply not enough, and can quickly lead to clients negatively evaluating training. When the need is clear and undeniable, integrating digital tools and methods can be a successful and sustainable improvement to a training offer. Otherwise, it may be seen by both trainer and trainee as a lamentable compromise on training quality, or a well-meaning novelty doomed to become, ultimately, a waste of time and effort. Richard Osborne is a Blended Learning consultant based in Montignac, France. 

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Richard is currently conducting a survey of language trainers on the subject of online training habits.

This survey will help him to develop a new online platform for language instruction. With your help, this platform will be better able to respond to your needs.

In return for completing this survey, he would like to send you the results of this survey, and a token for a special offer on a subscription to our platform once it’s completed, should you be interested.

All personal information and answers will be kept strictly confidential.

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Osborne Solutions has also produced a white paper titled ‘The Miracle of Blended Language Learning’. Get it for free now.

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The views expressed in this post are those of Richard Osborne and Osborne Solutions. 

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3 Comments

  1. Thank you for your detailed well thought out answer. Now, I feel like a snake that has just eaten a small elephant.

  2. Richard,

    I did not understand why you singled out English 360 for criticism but your other comments were fascinating to read. I wasn’t familiar with the SAMR model and I found it quite interesting. You showed us how to use the SAMR model to think about how to move a classroom activity online. Thank you!

    It seems here and on your website you try to make the point that “reducing costs” is not enough of a reason to consider elearning But, if elearning does cost less and if reduced costs are driving purchasing decisions I would think that this alone is plenty enough reason for businesses to consider switching to elearning.

    I have a question. Do you feel that the demand side of corporate learning in Europe (worldwide?) is overall increasingly more about standardized learning processes than responding to the needs of individuals?

    1. Hi Michael, thanks for your comment.

      I singled out English360 because it’s one of the most complete examples of an eLearning solution specifically designed for language training. A study by a consulting company I work with, Linguaid, showed in 2015 than English360 was the most used language eLearning platform in France (Wickham, Frimond, 2015). For me it provides the perfect example of what most language eLearning platforms offer – a quick and easy way to start teaching online, which helped me make my point about easy getting sucked into the trap of believing their promise and ending up with countless wasted hours of content creation, leading to unused and abandoned online courses. I wanted to say that deciding to teach online should be well thought through, beyond the choice of a platform full of features and promises, if it’s to be successful.

      I totally understand your point – from a business perspective choosing eLearning as a training solution is a no-brainer. What I wanted to say was that this choice may help the training budget, but at what cost to training quality and impact? In fact, your point there and your question fit perfectly together. The trend in eLearning in the wider training industry is absolutely moving towards standardisation, and I believe this presents a danger to language training that is already taking a toll on training quality.

      Obviously in the wider corporate world of training, the more standardised the learning path and content can be, the more cost-effective we can make the training. The move towards standardisation has been going on for a long time, and for different reasons. The biggest example of standardised training content was at the peak of the MOOC craze – putting university courses and private training online in the form of recorded video instruction coupled with stop-and-check quizzes. The industry opinion was very much ‘lose the teachers, make learning free and universal’. The problem was that with very little individualisation, it was up to the learner to self-motivate and find their own personal attachment and meaning in the training. In the end, completion rates of such self-access, standardised eLearning has been consistently disappointing (Tyler-Smith, 2006). This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the concept, and I personally love the idea of universally accessible education. There are some fantastic examples like the Khan Academy – if you haven’t seen Sal Khan presenting on TED.com, I highly recommend checking him out.

      The problem is that this standardisation was inevitably noticed by private and in-company training organisations as a cost-saving technique, which led to the cliché horror stories we’ve all heard (or even experienced) of corporate eLearning being forced on employees, with sophisticated log-in time tracking techniques making sure nobody escapes the boredom without getting written up by their line manager. The focus seemed to be more on driving up completion rates by any means necessary rather than looking at how to increase trainee satisfaction and training impact, which individualisation has been shown to do (Gamrat et al., 2014).

      Now, as higher levels of training evaluation are becoming more important in the corporate training world to demonstrate return on investment, companies are looking to turn their low-impact, self-access training into engaging, ‘gamified’, personalised learning experiences. Go to any eLearning expo or conference outside the limits of language training and see what’s on offer. Almost all the stands you pass will be offering some new, innovative (and often unproven) method of increasing trainee motivation and the resulting impact on job performance. Serious Games comes to mind as a perfect example of one of these offers. Branched, pre-made conversations with 3D characters in professional situations allow trainee to feel like what they do matters, as their choices make a difference to the outcome of the training session. This, and other examples such as badges, social learning, points, leader-boards, etc., show how even individualisation is also undergoing a process of automation in an attempt to cut costs.

      In terms of language training, these kinds of eLearning providers will barely look your way unless you come with high trainee numbers – often in the thousands to justify the cost of such complex automation. The only example of successful language training automation that comes to mind is Dyned, an old but highly advanced eLearning platform with automation and scalability at its core. For those of us working as freelance trainers or in small to medium sized training organisations or schools, these cost-cutting measures are well and truly out of reach.

      We are also one of the few examples in the corporate training world of a soft skill, i.e. developing a permanent, job-independent, personal skill, that is treated as a hard skill, in the sense that corporate training managers, in my experience, often demand the kinds of clear results and metrics that are expected in hard-skill courses. This leads to the idea that standardised eLearning with automated individualisation should be possible, and even that the same positive results of other digitally trained hard skills should be achievable. Such a misconception damages our argument that individualisation in language training is crucial to its success, and that this can only be achieved by one-on-one, in-person testing, followed by training that favours personalised, meaningful communication with the trainer above automated, standardised training content. Anyone who teaches language knows this to be true from experience, but it can be very difficult to convince a company training manager, even more so as their other training offers move more and more towards standardisation and automation with attractive cost-saving results.

      I hope that answered your question, and sorry for going off on a bit of a rant. I think you raised a very important point and I wanted to take it a bit further, as the trend you mentioned is as I said, in my view, damaging language training quality and its impact.

      Let me know if you have any follow-up points or questions.

      Richard.

      Gamrat, C., Zimmerman, H. T., Dudek, J., Peck, K., 2014, « Personalized workplace learning: An exploratory study on digital badging within a teacher professional development program. » Br J Educ Technol, 45: 1136–1148. doi:10.1111/bjet.12200

      Tyler-Smith, K., 2006, “Early attrition among first time eLearners: A review of factors that contribute to drop-out, withdrawal and non-completion rates of adult learners undertaking eLearning programmes.” Journal of Online learning and Teaching, 2(2), pp.73-85.

      Wickham, A., Frimond, J., 2012 “Le marché de la formation langues à l’heure de la mondialisation” http://linguaid.net/etude-linguaid-2015

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