Online or offline

Yesterday, the results of an interesting study (the National Study of Online Charter Schools) were released. The findings are particularly relevant to all those involved in education (teachers, lawmakers, education providers, etc).

The report, from researchers at the University of Washington, Stanford University and the Mathematica policy research group, found that those students doing online courses in ‘virtual classrooms‘ are doing less well academically than those who attend conventional schools, with face to face contact with teachers.

Researchers found that only 2% of online schools outperformed their conventional equivalents in reading. In maths, no online schools were better, and 88% were “significantly weaker”.

Two of the reasons for this lower attainment were posited. Firstly, that learning in virtual classrooms very much depends on levels of motivation and the extent to which learners were focussed on and engaged in their work.

The authors of the study also go on to say that these two reasons were ‘exacerbated by minimal student-teacher contact time’ online.

This should concern us, especially given the exponential growth of online education providers, the exaggerated claims made by some of these same providers, and the fact that investors see the education sector as being one of the great future investment opportunities in Brazil.

Although the study was limited to Charter schools, and attainment levels in maths and reading, I think we might be able to apply these findings to English language teaching.

For it goes without saying that the physical presence of a teacher, regardless of the subject matter being taught, can have a very positive bearing when it comes to motivating students, and getting them to engage in the lesson and remain focussed.

However, the issue of having or not having physical contact with a teacher is especially pertinent when we consider learning a language. For the physical presence of an interlocutor, in this case the teacher, is such a fundamental prerequisite in learning to communicate.

I would argue that there is a qualitative difference between having physical face to face contact with an interlocutor and being in contact via a computer screen, such as is the case with English Town or Verbal Planet. Firstly, there is the question of ‘immediacy’. Talking to someone on a screen somehow doesn’t feel ‘real’. This is important because most of our learners want to be able to communicate with real people in real situations. Secondly, there is the context in which the communication takes place. This is largely restricted in online courses to a tutor sitting in a chair behind a desk. In a classroom, on the other hand, teachers are able to create a myriad of different contexts. Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, when you communicate through a screen you lose a lot of the nuances of non-verbal communication, such as body language.

That is not to say that online courses do not have some benefits. There may be certain groups of learners who will benefit. For example, those people who need English to communicate through conference calls, or those people who are unable to attend English language lessons in a ‘conventional’ school.

Having said that, I think that we need to be skeptical about the claims made for online learning. This study helps throw some light on these claims. Needless to say, more studies need to be undertaken before we start jumping on any online learning bandwagons.

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Dominic Walters

I am CELTA and DELTA qualified and have an MA in Educational Psychology. I have been teaching English since 1991, working in Brazil, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugual, Egypt and the UK. I am a DELTA, ICELT, CELTA, FTBE assessor and tutor as well as a CELTA online course tutor. I am also an examiner for the Cambridge, IELTS, Trinity exams.

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