Issues in on-line learning

Types of provider

There are many different types of schools offering an on-line learning component. One of the difficulties for students and clients is therefore comparing like with like. This is almost impossible!

Nevertheless, a number of broad distinctions can be made, outlined below. It is important to remember that providers often fall into more than one category eg. a course can be taken wholly as self-study, or exactly the same course can be accessed as a support to learning with a teacher.

(1) Essentially, an on-line school which may or may not have the possibility of offering a Face-to-face component. Examples: Global English,Englishtown.

(2) Essentially, a “bricks and mortars” language school / course provider which supports their courses with an e-learning component. The course material can only be accessed through buying a course with that provider. Examples: LinguaramaYork Associates.

(3) Providers which offer employees within a company a specific delivery platform. This can be customised and is for use by the teachers employed by that company, to enhance and support their courses, and of course by the students themselves. Examples: C.A.T.S.DynedMacmillan’s English Campus.

(4) Free-standing web-sites which offer language support in some way, with or without a charge. Examples: Gotham writers’ workshop.


There are many controversial issues in assessing on-line language teaching. Many of these pertain to the underlying pedagogical approach.

1. If you attend an on-line language class, do you have a teacher who knows you?

In some cases, no – you attend one of the virtual classes which are run 24 /7. In some cases, yes, you have a personal teacher assigned to you.

2. Feedback: what does “personalised feedback” mean?

Feedback may refer to feedback from the computer, generating automatic feedback on your examples. It may be feedback written by a human being.

Feedback may allow you the chance to amend your answer; it may ask you complete all the answers and then give you a simple “yes” / “no” response. “Intelligent feedback” is a relevant term here – an on-screen clarification which is helpful for the student.

Feedback on discrete items in writing can be done my machine; “freer” writing composition usually needs to be marked by a tutor.

3. Speech recognition software

Is it helpful? Does it work? It seems to work better for students than for native speakers.

4. Skills work

Writing as a skill is easily practised using a computer key-board; the link with speaking is less easy to see.

Many people find it difficult to read long pieces of text on screen.

5. Video

Many people think that video should be watched on a TV, not a computer-screen. Digital video can be of good quality, but the viewing area is still usually small in size in on-line learning.

6. Pedagogical rationale / purpose

“Big picture” concerns include: why do we learn languages? If it is to interact socially with others, how far can this be replicated in an on-line environment? Is grammar treated as “product” in on-line teaching, rather than “process”.

Should a lesson have a learning goal and outcome? Or, is its simple existence on the Internet enough to mean that learners will benefit in some way?
Good interactive exercises engage learners cognitively.

What are the roles of the teacher and the technology? Would a teacher feel that the on-line support is a constraint?

How “blended” is “blended learning”. Some courses are completely “distance learning”, and so can never involve a face-to-face component, but they do involve a real teacher, at the end of an e-mail or a telephone line.

7. Translation

How much is a translation into a language a help? Is the translation offered accurate or misleading?

8. Value of communication tools

Students can chat in English using chat forums, find pen-friends. How much does this benefit their English, when there is no teacher there to moderate?

9. The link between the needs analysis and the course

A face-to-face needs analysis in a language school can identify areas which need work on, and then a programme is drawn up. An on-line evaluation usually gives a “level”, then learners are assigned a pre-written body of exercises. The two processes are therefore very different.

10. The validity of on-line testing

Many schools offer such a test – but it does not take other affective factors into consideration, including personality, motivation, hesitancy etc.

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