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. http://www.ajde.com/Contents/vol3_2.htm.