“… the success of the online learning experience isn’t as tied to the technology we choose as it is to the way teachers and learners engage with it”
I was recently discussing with a colleague whether foreign languages can be learned in an online environment or not, a frequently debated issue in Modern Languages Departments today. Interestingly, both sides of the argument turn to the same question to frame their positions: Can current technology in a distance learning environment support the kind of student engagement and interaction believed to promote language acquisition or not?
I will not attempt to answer this question here, since there exist solid bodies of research to support both positive and negative responses (a Google Scholar search – or any other more reputed educational research database – will render sufficient studies to build the case either way). Rather than arguing for a yes or no answer, this reflection is about unpacking the presuppositions that make this question even possible. In my opinion, questioning whether languages can be learned online reveals conflicting assumptions about what online learning is, how language learning happens, and why learners may be interested in fully online courses.
Online learning and language learning
Doubting the effectiveness of language acquisition in a distance learning environment presupposes a view of online learning as radically opposed – and inferior to – learning in a face-to-face setting. The main contrasting point between both learning spaces is assumed to be the nature of communication: mostly asynchronous in an online course vs. mostly synchronous is a traditional class. This emphasis on communication as the determining factor for the success of the learning experience is anchored in a particular theory of language acquisition and its pedagogical implications.
This theoretical and pedagogical approach is the Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) methodology that currently dominates foreign language instruction in the US. In this approach, learning is assumed to happen in meaningful and purposeful interaction in the target language. Acquisition is not a process of habit formation through repetitions and drills, but rather the result of engaging with comprehensible input and negotiating meaning in conversation with another user of the language. Learning goals are tied to communicative functions instead of grammatical topics (i.e., “students will be able to narrate past events” instead of “students will be able to correctly conjugate verbs in the passé compose”), and the emphasis is on interactive classroom activities such as role plays, surveys, open-ended discussions, and interviews. The underlying assumption is that learners need to do something with the language and use their linguistic knowledge in contextualized “real” world situations. This focus on doing in interaction versus simply knowing in isolation is the same premise behind the active learning pedagogy associated with socio-constructivist approaches to education.
Online learning and the online language learner
Going back to my point about online teaching being considered as the opposite of face-to-face instruction, this view also rests on the assumption that learners in an online course cannot be as actively engaged in the learning experience as they are supposed to be when they attend a physical classroom. In the socio-constructivist ideology that currently dominates foreign language instruction (and most disciplines), learning is an active, not a passive, endeavor and it depends much on the students taking responsibility and ownership for their own learning. Questioning whether this degree of learner engagement is possible in fully online language courses reveals misgivings not only about current technologies’ affordances, but also about learners’ motivations to take a language class online.
If you took a foreign language class 30 years ago, you probably remember being lectured on grammatical rules and practicing the language through repetition, rote memorization of vocabulary, and verb drills. The generalization of the communicative methodology has considerably shifted the way languages are taught: students are now expected to converse, sing, and perform in the target language, to be extroverts who don’t mind sounding like toddlers in public and are OK with making mistakes as they develop their linguistic skills in interaction with their peers. For many learners, this is a huge step out of their comfort zone and they inevitably resist this active learning pedagogy. Some learners’ (specially the introverts’) apprehension for active pedagogy in the foreign language classroom is understandable if we consider that classroom participation, because it is deemed crucial for the learning process, often counts for a significant portion (15% and even 20%) of their final grades. When their motivation to take a foreign language class is simply to fulfil a graduation requirement, these students may prefer online courses, guided by an unfounded belief that conversation in the target language won’t be an important piece of those courses.
So, can a foreign language be learned online?
Going back to the question that triggered this reflection, the point that I am arguing for here is that the answer depends much on teachers’ and researchers’ backgrounds and beliefs about technology and language learning, as well as the students’ motivation to learn a language online. My biased answer is that today’s virtual classroom can replicate the interactive experience of a face-to-face environment. Synchronous communication is possible through videoconferencing (Skype, Appear.in), individual engagement with the content can happen through gaming tools (Kahoots, Quizizz), spontaneous speaking practice with Extempore is a great way to build fluency, presentational skills can be practiced with Voicethread, online collaborative writing activities (wikis, for example) are excellent for joint meaning making in the target language, and developing cultural competence is easy with the wealth of authentic content available online.
The caveat to this is that the success of the online learning experience isn’t as tied to the technology we choose as it is to the way teachers and learners engage with it. Our own assumptions about how languages are acquired, our beliefs about the value of asynchronous versus synchronous communication or interactive talk versus self-talk in language teaching, our preconceptions about the types of learners who take language courses online, our ability and motivation to adapt current technologies’ affordances to our learning objectives, as well as our bias towards certain teaching methodologies and how they should be implemented all influence the way we approach online course design. Students’ perspectives and expectations based on past learning experiences are equally important. Arguably, learners in an online environment can exert significant control over their degree of engagement with the content, with their instructor, and with other learners. Thus, students’ motivations and assumptions about the role of interaction and active learning for their success are paramount to the effectiveness of our course design.
Next time you engage with your colleagues on the topic of online language courses and their effectiveness, it may be helpful and professionally enriching to stop for a moment and unpack the assumptions about online learning, language acquisition, and the online language learner that each person brings to the discussion.