Saturday, 8 February 2014

E-Learning: how can we motivate and engage students online?

In my previous post, I looked at Virtual Learning Environments in terms of their pedagogical affordances - but this was chiefly through the eyes of a teacher who already meets face-to-face regularly with their students.

Today, however, I'd like to look at E-Learning and E-Moderation in virtual learning environments. I'll do so initially in general terms, but later consider what this means specifically for language teachers thinking of teaching in online environments.

As Russell Stannard has pointed out in an earlier post, e-moderators have a vital role to play in establishing a sense of community in online environments. In many ways, the key thing for teachers to get right here is to establish a sense of "teacher presence" right from the course outset. I feel the following excellent video from Learning To Teach Online explains this very well!

To judge from this, there are plenty of teachers who feel that they're doing something especially worthwhile in teaching online! I'm also quite tempted…but speaking as someone who is currently thoroughly enjoying their first MOOC but has yet to teach online himself I'd like to give a quick analysis of what I think may be the pros and cons specifically for language teachers.

Relevance and Rationale
The reach of e-learning is potentially global, as the current growth of MOOCs demonstrates. Big names in this space like Coursera have attracted a lot of interest/comment (not all of it positive), but speaking as a teacher I think it's terrific that courses like "Developing Business English Teachers" (a course I'm taking now with EVO2014) enable the likes of me to learn from and interact with dedicated professionals all around the world. If it works so well for me, why not language learners?

The fact that students can work at their own pace and interact asynchronously with course tutors or watch recordings of webinars they couldn't attend at the time is also another plus. It's a flexible format and many busy adult learners need that.

Playing devil's advocate, one may also question whether "communicative" classrooms really are the most equitable learning environments. Of course, teachers may mean well, but it is not always be easy to draw introverts out, even if they are fully engaged with what's going on. A number of tutors in the LTTO video above clearly feel that the online environment - if moderated well - is a more "democratic" space, in which shyer students can feel encouraged to express their opinions.

Propensity to foster language learning
The points made above all clearly count in e-learning's favour. The fact that there's a written record of what's been said, or that videos placed online by a tutor can be replayed can also foster language acquisition as it makes revision of learning points much easier.

However, the lack of face-to-face interaction is potentially quite a minus. Nuances in communication may be missed if one cannot read another person's body language. Plus there is certainly the potential for people to go off-topic and demonstrate less-than-perfect "netiquette" towards each other in ways that can be harder to resolve online than face-to-face. E-Moderators clearly have to be good at communicating "ground rules" at the start, model civility, and be ready to intervene. Life can become awkward if something goes wrong and gets out of hand while you yourself aren't online!

Also, naturally enough, speaking in groups doesn't really seem to be possible here. Monologue podcasting may be an option for some learners, but it's not so likely that balanced skills development can take place in an online environment, and advances in communicative competence will chiefly be written, rather than oral. To me, this implies blended learning is a superior model.

Overall, I'd say I'm intrigued by E-Learning/E-Moderation and would be willing to give it a go. Demand for it is certainly healthy. However, objectively my preference would be for Blended Learning, even if there's not so much of it about yet. What do you think?


  1. Hi Philip,
    I wanted to find out more about MOOCs and so took part in one in December - ELT Techniques: Listening and Pronunciation hosted on WizIQ run by Jason R. Levine.
    It was also held over five weeks, like the EVO we've just done, but in this case there were over twenty tutors who each held a webinar and set a pre-task and post-ask for us to do. We weren't required to follow them all of course, that would have been too much, but could pick and choose the ones we were interested in.

    Over 2,000 people signed up but I noticed that in the end only 58 people did enough work to receive a certificate. I believe this is quite a normal percentage for a MOOC, we saw out of the 200 people signed up for the EVO, a much smaller number actively took part.

    One thing which surprised me was the amount of interaction which was possible. Each presenter commented on the posts for their particular sessions and there were also dozens of facilitators whose job was to comment on as many posts as they could. Jason appeared to be everywhere, answering any questions.

    The result of this was that, although we did the tasks alone, it also felt like part of a community, although not as cosy as EVO.

    I'm going on a course on e-learning in a few weeks. I think I share your preference for Blended Learning, I like the face-to-face element, but perhaps I'll learn something I can incorporate.


    1. Chris, thank you very much for your considered response! It's interesting to hear about other MOOC experiences, too.

      I certainly agree that the EVO2014 course we did together had a remarkable "closeness" to it - those who persisted to the end really did seem to feel they'd got to know each other, don't you think? I think that happened for a reason: the BESIG online moderators absolutely understood the importance of establishing "teacher presence" in E-Learning environments.

      With regard to market acceptance of blended learning as an alternative mode of instruction, I think there's a degree of unfamiliarity to be dealt with at first. HR/Training and Development don't see it as competing with E-Learning so much as face-to-face tuition, and that's their initial frame of reference: they need to be shown the added value.

      Having read one or two studies now, it seems countries like Singapore are quite big early adopters, but others like Brazil and Hungary are just getting started. So it's probably a case of planting acorns and being patient.

      Anyhow, thank you very much for stopping by and commenting! Interactivity makes the whole blogging process a lot more reflective and personally satisfying.