Thoughts

On the Rise of Online English Teaching

The popularity of online English teaching seems to be increasing at a remarkable rate. I say teaching here, not learning, because it is mostly teachers that I have met who are moving into online classes rather than the students who are signing up for them. Still, if there are so many teachers making the shift, there must be plenty of students around to keep them busy. I’m sure.

It is certainly not something that appeals to me, but I will elaborate on my own stance more later. Something I find particularly interesting is that most of the people I speak to who have never tried online teaching—like myself—agree that they would not be interested in it. Further, the majority of people I speak to who have done online teaching and have since moved back to the classroom—usually having left an institution that ran online classes— also reflect that the online classes were not ideal.

Those who have done it and moved away tend to cite the same positive feature: it’s more convenient. This of course can be said from both the teacher’s and the students’ perspective. The availability of online classes certainly increases access to learning for students who cannot, for whatever reason, attend classes in person. And indeed, the reasons are manifold—from prohibitive prices and geographical barriers, such as distance or an inability to drive, to more personal reasons, such as social anxiety perhaps. These reasons do go a fair way towards convincing me that the online model is a good thing, and I have definitely come to the conclusion by now that it does have its benefits.

Still, I am far more often told by teachers that the thing they most liked about it was the convenience, the ease of preparation, etc., and this cannot be the foundation of a good education, I am sure. Making the teacher’s life easy is absolutely beneficial—a happier teacher is a better teacher, I’ve no doubt—but it cannot be the sole or even the primary feature of an education model. Meanwhile, many of the challenges that teachers describe are challenges not just for themselves, but have negative impacts on the learning process.

For example, teachers say that it is weird teaching online because the interaction with students is not completely natural, and the disconnect caused by this is almost never completely overcome, it seems. I can attest to this general effect to some extent from my experience interviewing teachers over Skype; with a long enough conversation, comfort does creep in eventually, but it’s rarely the same as sitting face to face with someone in the same physical space.

And of course, what’s weird for the teacher is weird for the student. I believe that a particularly important part of teaching is connecting with students. This means different things with different students, and it does not mean seeking to become friends with everyone you teach. But developing a personal relationship where the student feels comfortable with the environment and with the teacher is essential, and it seems that the online model consistently is an obstacle to this.

An extension to this, and perhaps even more important, is the matter of interaction amongst the students themselves. By far the best way for students to practise English in the classroom is with other students. Teachers in physical classrooms devise roleplays, establish simulations and play interactive games that involve students moving around the room and speaking with each other. Ideally, the teacher’s own presence during these activities will be minimal.

There might be some very specific online circumstances that would allow for this, for example if the teacher connects with a group of students who are studying together and only the teacher is at distance. Also, there could be some benefits to having multiple students connect through a multi-way conference call, such as simulating telephone conversations to practise the relevant language and perhaps for some formal interactions. On the other hand, the same problems described above can be experienced in one-to-one lessons in a physical classroom, although I am also opposed to this dynamic for those very reasons.

Speaking through a screen to a lone student, or even to multiple students in different locations robs the students of extremely important opportunities to practise using the language they are learning. Creative opportunities are severely reduced and interaction is limited to only very unnatural communication in most cases.

Also on the list of ways online teaching is easier for the teacher, rather unsurprisingly, classroom management usually makes an appearance. However, I see a flip-side to this that again gives me cause to object. Some of the most frequent comments that I make following classroom observation are those related to monitoring. Particularly in formal schools here in Indonesia, teachers are often far too happy to hang around at the front of the classroom while their students are busy filling in gaps and turning pages in the textbook.

I strongly encourage all teachers to spend the times when their students are busy not sat at the desk at the front of the room marking homework or else just glaring at anyone who dares to talk, but instead moving around the room watching the students more closely, making sure they are doing what is expected of them, making sure they’re not struggling silently, not making basic mistakes that need to be addressed and just generally being available to the students should they need your assistance. We call this monitoring, and it is one of the fundamental techniques of successful teaching.

The online model might make certain parts of this easier, but what it removes is all possibility for the teacher to be discreetly present. Teaching from a computer screen means you can either sit silently while the student works uninterrupted, or else you can interrupt them and ask to see their work, but you cannot peer subtly over their shoulder or glance at them from across the room. This might sound like a very specific concern; nonetheless, it is one that I consider of utmost importance.

I realise I write this against a backdrop of dramatically changing times. More and more universities are making their degrees online in an attempt to keep up / compete with fully-online learning networks such as the Khan Academy and Coursera. Of late, MOOC platforms steal the focus of almost any conversation about developments in education’ it certainly seems that online learning is the way the path is taking us. To say anything against this direction does seem to put me in the minority, and certainly makes me appear old fashioned and left behind. And I do worry that that is the case. Perhaps I am just out of touch.

Whatever the case, I maintain that the benefits of learning in a physical classroom with other students far outweigh the convenience of the online classroom. This is not to say, however, that I wish to see the online movement stymied entirely. Certainly convenience is a good thing, and as someone who values education above almost all else, I believe that anything that leads to more people having access to education should be promoted.

I simply think that physical classrooms are always better than online ones, and I further think that some things are better suited to the online platform than are others. I am looking into a number of online programmes for myself right now. There are numerous great professional development resources available online and at distance. They value of these though, in my opinion, is that they are mostly about increasing knowledge. They are dense and deep sources of information on specific fields, and that information has been structured and presented in ways that are manageable. Time spent watching videos, reading papers and listening lectures can certainly result in increased knowledge, provided you are an effective listener, of course.

But this is not the same as developing the skills that are needed to apply your new knowledge. That requires more a practical process. And of course, online programmes can attempt to incorporate practical elements, perhaps by setting follow-up tasks and asking the participants to report on their performance; participants might even be asked to submit videos or other such evidence of their applications. All of this can help take a step in a more practical direction, but it will still never be the same as having hands-on access to practice in the classroom and direct interaction with the teacher and the other students.

What’s more, the last few paragraphs have been describing the kind of professional development courses that I am looking into as a teacher trainer. They have a focus on expanding knowledge of methodology, theory and common practice. They’re great for broadening that foundation, but they cannot offer a fraction of the learning potential a teacher encounters in the classroom. The key to getting the most out of these programmes is doing the course, reading the material and then putting it into practice in the classroom as soon as possible, self reflecting and adapting along the way. What a good on-campus programme aims to do is bring that entire process—learning, practising, evaluating, improving—into the delivery of the course so that when the student graduates, they have truly learned how to apply the knowledge.

For some professional development courses, the online model works just fine, as long as the student is dedicated to self-development. However, for something like learning a language, which is practical at its very core, I am not convinced that the same applies. Language without practice is somewhat impotent. Learning just the theory of the language is of little value, and completing worksheet activities alone with your teacher’s face on a screen in front of you is not a great way to develop your ability to communicate in that language.

Yes, there are many things that a teacher can do to mitigate the weaknesses of online learning, and there are certainly some programmes that work better online than others. I am by no means condemning the entire concept; and as I have just described, I have used and will continue to use online learning programmes myself. I do strongly feel however that on-campus learning will always provide more value insofar as the students have access to it.

People talk about online learning being the future of education, and I see a surprising number of people in talks and online forums eager for to see online learning replace on-campus learning. I see great things for the future of online learning, truly I do. Above all else, I see great opportunities for more people to get an education than ever have before. But I cannot endorse a decline in physical classrooms.

If I am mistaken about this, if I am merely being old fashioned, then I suppose time will tell. But the idea that people learn better away from other students simply sounds wrong to me.

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4 thoughts on “On the Rise of Online English Teaching

  1. I think your concerns are very valid for a basic English course, Karl. However, for training more advanced students in Business English, it’s not as much of a problem doing it online. I’ve taught nearly 800 hours online over the past few years, to over 100 students (all 1:1 via Skype). That ratio should make it clear that most of them take multiple lessons with me; indeed, some have been studying with me for several years. We do the exercises together online, and we talk about business scenarios involving their work in order to introduce/reinforce their specific job-related vocabulary. I still train face-to-face in companies with groups, which I prefer, but I don’t find the online training to be inferior based on the fluency level of the students I’m accepting, nor for the more advanced language/soft skills training I’m limiting myself to providing. Try it, you’ll like it!

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  2. Brad, thanks a lot for your comment. Very happy to see some personal perspective brought to the conversation. There are some interesting caveats in your comment that certainly seem to promise better quality. I also gather from your comment—though please correct me if I am wrong—that if given the choice, you would still prefer to put each of your online students into a physical classroom?
    Again, I see the value of offering classes online for those that don’t have access to physical classroom for one reason or another, I just worry when I hear people talking about the online learning revolution and the death of the physical classroom.
    I suppose I might try it if something comes up… Have you had any experience teaching multiple students in a single online lesson?

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    1. No, I wouldn’t prefer my 1:1 online students to be in physical groups any more than I’d prefer my 1:1 face-to-face students to be in groups (except for the fact that any 1:1 is more tiring, since it’s so much more intensely focused). Usually my 1:1 training becomes a mix of Business English and specialized coaching, based on specific work needs, unique presentations, pronunciation problems, test preparation, etc. So other than teaching a course on, e.g., presentations in English where I’m doing the same work with the individual student that I would do with many students in a group class, the 1:1 lessons will always be more tailored and specialized. Whether s/he is in the same room with me or connected by Skype over thousands of kilometers is basically irrelevant.

      No, I haven’t ever done group training online, simply because I don’t think the technology available to individuals at the moment is adequate to handle the bandwidth required. I’m sure it works a lot of the time, but I often find it difficult to maintain a clear connection with a single person in, say, China; adding more simultaneously would probably result in one or more participants being unable to join in or even getting disconnected for technical reasons. However, I’m open to the idea if/when the capabilities improve over time.

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      1. Ah, I didn’t mean putting individuals into groups; I just meant moving from online to physical classrooms, but you went on to answer that anyway.

        Certainly the technology available is central to the discussion, and as the tech improves, the value of online classes will undoubtedly increase. Still, for now at least, I maintain my position that the classroom will be overall of more value than the Skype call.

        I’m open to the idea that that could change in time, but I am doubtful, to be honest.

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