Monday, November 29, 2010

Can An Online ESL/EFL Course Work?

By Maria Spelleri
Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

Yes, I believe it can.

Some might think that an online ESL course is acceptable if nothing else is available to the student, but I don’t agree. I think online ESL courses have the potential to be just as effective as face to face courses.

Why not ESL online?

To instructors who say ESL can’t be taught online I ask “What do we value in our face to face courses that we worry won’t translate into bits and bytes?”

I’m willing to bet it’s the social aspect, the opportunity for cultural interaction and exploration, the bond among students and their instructor, the smiles and kind words, the active and collaborative learning.  We fear losing this humanity in the virtual world.

Many of us who have been students in online courses have taken “old school” online courses which look something like this:

“Read Chapter 6.” (All by yourself because there is no one with whom to talk it over and no one to whom you can address a question.)

“Then click on this link to answer the questions.” (Ten multiple choice or T/F questions that tell you “Right!” or “Try Again!” )

“Finally, go to the Discussion Forum and discuss the question provided.” (This is an artificial discussion in which you will write anything to fulfill the requirement and then provide a similarly mindless comment to a peer like “I agree with your point, Bruno” because that is how you get 5 extra points.)

End of unit.  Repeat next week.  Ho-hum.

There is no humanity in this kind online environment and only the hardy survive!   However, with the right course and activity design, the right technology tools, and some creativity, we can create courses that replicate the social aspect of the face to face courses we love.


One of the most important features of any course is interaction. Students who interact become engaged and engaged students are focused, curious, and primed to learn.  Three crucial levels of interaction are student-to-student, student-to-instructor, and student- to-content/ materials (Moore).  If we think about our face to face ESL courses, this can be exemplified in pair work, the instructor involved in the lesson/ interested in the students’ lives, and the students engrossed in learning activities that address their interests and needs. The way to have a successful online ESL course is be sure these three levels of interaction are all present in the virtual environment.


Luckily, the technology exists to make this happen. Online courses today can provide student-to-student and student-to-instructor interaction through both live and recorded voice, through synchronous or non-synchronous writing, and through live streaming webcam or webcam self-recordings.  Student-to-content interaction comes from having a variety of engaging activities and learning objects from all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Here’s a sample of some online ESL activities and objects that I have seen and a few tech tools that help in creating them. Most activities should look familiar from your face to face courses:

  • Read and discuss or listen and discuss via voice or text. (VoiceThread)
  • Learn vocabulary and grammar or complete a task using a content-rich website.
  • Small group chat via voice or text. (DimDim)
  • Recorded or live presentations. (VoiceThread, narrated Powerpoint)
  • Student created quizzes and student-led reviews.
  • Collaborative writing activities, peer review of writing. (GoogleDocs)
  • Role play, listen and repeat, listen and create. (Jing, Skype, AdobeConnectNow)
  • Drill and practice.
  • Cloze, fill-in, and multiple choice exercises with instant and meaningful feedback.
  • Timed activities for reading, writing, and speaking.

What can’t be replicated online can be approached in another way.  The key is to look at the objective of the activity, hold that objective in mind, and think how else that objective could be accomplished with the tools of the online course.  No learning objective need ever be sacrificed.


I’m not taking the position that teaching ESL online is better than teaching it face to face. However I will stand by my belief that given the right design and teacher involvement, it can be as good, as effective.

I also won’t sugar-coat course design and say it’s easy; it takes a lot of time and work up front, even if your school runs a full-service course management system like Moodle or Blackboard.  But once you have created a course, you really just need to make small or partial changes each semester; you’ll never have the huge initial time outlay again. Instead, spend your work time interacting with students online, guiding them through the course, facilitating collaborations, taking part in their activities, commenting on their work, and providing individualized feedback and help. (I can honestly say I have more contact with my students on an individual basis in my online course than in my face to face course! Who would have guessed?)

Just today I returned some paragraphs my students had written.  They had been submitted online, and I used Adobe to underline and mark up some parts. Then, using Jing I created a “screen capture” video of their paper as I recorded myself talking to the student about it and pointing things out at the same time.  Now my students not only have my markings on their paper, but  also a  recorded video of me walking them through the revisions they need, which they can watch as often as they have to.  There’s one thing, at least, that may not be easy to replicate in the time constraints of the face to face world!

Resource:  JOLT- Journal of Online Teaching

Moore, Michael G. “Three Types of Interaction.” The American Journal of Distance Education. Pennsylvania State University, 1989. Web. 20 Nov. 2010.


Comment from Tamara
November 30, 2010 at 4:38 am

Great posting!

I taught my first online Pronunciation class a few months ago, and I was delighted by the individual connection I felt with the students even though we were (literally) thousands of miles apart. Teaching the course was VERY time consuming; I checked in every day to see how my students were faring and to address any questions. I know that being confused in a classroom setting (where you can simply raise your hand and ask a question) is very different from being confused in front of a computer all alone! But, the hard work and time paid off and I am ready to teach online again.

Comment from shawn jensen
November 30, 2010 at 6:11 am

I have taught an online Citiznship course this summer that was fantastic, those students that participated were upper level and had computer skills. I am getting ready to teach an online writing course and several courses to help support a Medical Assistant program for ELL students. I love the Jing resource and would love to have more input as to what works online and what does not and other cool resources. I am especially interested in how a pronunciation course would function on line.
thanks for any help!

Comment from Maria
November 30, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Thanks for commenting, Tamara and Shawn. First, I have to say I would also love to hear how Tamara ran a pronunciation course on line. Second, Shawn, an important thing about what works online is to remember that just because an appliation is cool, doesn’t mean we should use it. I’ve seen some courses that are full of bells and whistles, but I believe you shouldn’t have more than 1 new technical thing for a student to learn in an online course. In a course management system, they’ll already be learning how to answer questions, use a drop box, email, maybe a discussion forum. We shouldn’t overwhelm them by making them use lots of other stuff also. In some of my courses, I am using VoiceThread as their “new” application, and in another course, Jing.

I’m glad you are interested in Jing. And this is not a plug- but I recently paid only $15 to them to upgrade from the free version and now I can create webcam of myself and not only of my screen. Now, there’s not too much point in showing your talking face for the sake of showing your face, but imagine if students could see your mouth for a pronunciation class or if you could use your hands to demo something- even opening the text book and walking students through the pages- just like you are in front of the room. And if you learn Jing, you can make little movies to demonstrate to students how to use other aspects of your online course. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video must be at least 2 thousand!

Comment from Tamara
December 1, 2010 at 2:21 am

I agree that low-tech may be less intimidating for students, which is ironic, considering the online environment. But, maybe that’s because I am fairly low-tech myself.

For my pronunciation class, students did lessons that were created (by another teacher) using Softchalk. I added short videos (just me and my digital camera) and we used WIMBA for students’ recordings and my responses. This was the most useful tool because WIMBA allows students to privately record within CE6 and it allows me to respond privately about their successes and challenges. I also used SKYPE for my “office hours”.

However, I think the extra effort I made to keep in contact with the students (constant emailing within the site and to their personal email addresses) was more important than the tech tools I used.

Comment from Dave Kees
December 3, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Great ideas, Maria!

I can hardly wait to look up all the links and see how I can incorporate them into my training.

Thanks so much! Keep ’em coming!

Comment from Rene Lozano
March 19, 2014 at 7:16 pm

Can you please help me. Am starting a online EFL online program and dont have a clue how to do it.

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