Saturday, September 24, 2011

Web-based learning and Improving English abroad - A guest post by Lindsey Wright

This time, you'll be reading a great piece by Lindsey Wright. I'm very happy to have her as my first guest blogger. And I'm positive you'll enjoy it as much as I did.

Lindsey is a writer from Seattle, US. And she is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She writes about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning, and the possible future of education.

Web-Based Learning and Improving English Abroad

As English increasingly becomes the world language in academia and politics, more and more international students are turning to web-based learning to master this language. Many countries include English instruction as a part of mandatory public education, but there are many more people without access to in-person language instruction. This being the case, it's very important for web-based English study programs and online college courses to have a set structure, to use technology in innovative ways, to provide feedback to learners, and to be mindful of students' languages of origin and culture. Quality English instruction can help facilitate the trend towards better international relationships and communication. Without good standards for instruction, the many people attempting to learn English will have a poor grasp on the language they need to succeed, either in English-speaking countries or abroad.

To get a sense of English's status as the new world language, consider that in 2001 380 million people learned English as a first language, 250 million learned it as a second language, and around one billion people are in the process of learning it worldwide. These are consequential numbers because the resources necessary to teach English to a billion people around the globe on a face-to-face basis simply aren't available. Accordingly, computer-based language learning has seen a huge increase. It began with the use of computer-assisted language learning programs, but has now spread to an online learning experience that includes interactions between students and instructors.

One of the original critiques of web-facilitated language instruction was the lack of structure and classroom control. A study by The Open University indicated that language students learn better in tightly controlled online learning settings. Therefore, it's pivotal that online English classes have a set curriculum, avoid rolling admissions, and have distinct assignments and progress checks. Using a classroom-inspired structure allows students to reach the necessary stepping stones in a straightforward way. Open forums, message boards, or chat rooms without a schedule or set protocol are not an effective way to learn English but should rather serve for quick fact-checking or community-building among English learners.

Secondly, modern technology can allow students to interact with their fellow learners and instructors in new ways. The inability to hear students actually speak the language has been a roadblock to effective online English instruction, but with the advent of webcams, Skype, and YouTube, it's now an obstacle easily overcome. Online classrooms should utilize these technologies to ensure students are gaining the ability to speak English correctly. After all, most learners want to learn the language in order to speak it themselves, not just to understand others' speech or comprehend only written materials.

Online classes can use forums or blogs as venues for students to post video or audio of themselves reading aloud and get feedback from fellow students and their instructors. This can even be especially useful for university students and academics who can read and write in English but need extra instruction in pronunciation. It's this type of interaction in learning that's most exciting about web-based instruction.

Next, online instruction must include feedback with more depth than empty praise. Meaningful feedback is crucial to learning and understanding a language. Online instructors should highlight students' specific strengths and particular areas that need work. Web-based English instruction should include weekly instructor-student feedback focusing on specific areas of weakness for students to improve.

Finally, online English instruction should be cognizant of students' first languages. Classes should be separated by language of origin if necessary, but at the very least instructors must be particularly mindful of the varying kinds of difficulties English learners with different native languages tend to encounter. On that note, quality instruction must be challenging but not impossible. Loosely dividing classes into beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels can also ensure that students are working at the right level of competency and allow instructors to cater to specific needs more readily.

For the one billion people in the process of learning English, regarded by some as the hardest language in the world to master, online instruction offers a convenient and affordable way to learn and grow. Unfortunately, some parts of the Web have not caught up with the modern demands for quality instruction. By making small changes and having a dedication to international learners, web-based English instruction can help make the world smaller and allow for better collaboration and understanding.


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