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I have just come across a rather negative critique of online language teaching at http://www.teflideas.com/055_The_Drawbacks_of_Online_Language_Learning.html

While there may be some challenges in teaching languages online, it seems to me that the post is unduly negative.  I first address the comments and then state some advantages of online language learning.

1 "only one person can have the mic at any time".  This is not true in OU Live.  The teacher may choose to restrict access to the microphone but it is easy to allow multiple speakers although this might affect sound quality.

2 "Groups tasks - are incredibly hard to initiate and execute".  Again this is not true.  In OU Live, there are Breakout Rooms where students can work together in groups.

3 "Circulating, listening in, praising good language, speaking specifically, demonstrating a point, eliciting errors and answers quietly to a group while others are working is virtually impossible in a virtual classroom".  Again this is not true.  A tutor can be in one of the breakout rooms and address feedback to the learners in that room only.

4 "Instruction gets filtered and convoluted when you put a medium between yourself and the learners. Non verbal gestures are unknown and unnoticed — you can’t point, shrug, nod, or grimace".  Perhaps there is more justice in this comment.  However, there is the option of the text box, which might be more public and allow for another mode for expression.  There is also the possibility of using emoticons.

5 "Teacher led teaching".  This does not need to be the case.  Learners can be asked to work in groups.  Learners also can/should bring their own needs to a class.  Learners can be asked to prepare to lead the session.

6 "whiteboard presentation, which forces all written communication to be typed".  This is not completely true but I am not really sure what the problem is with this.

7 "If a student asks something to the teacher, it’s inevitably typed rather than spoken".  This is not necessarily the case. 

Some other points that seem relevant are the following:

- the OU's online language learning tends to be integrated with the rest of the course (eg online asynchronous discussion forums) so online tutorials should not be seen in isolation.

- online classes allow for learners to be remote from each other and this provides opportunities in that the learners can see and know different things.  The sessions may bring people together who might not otherwise meet.

- sessions can be recorded and in theory, learners might be able to reflect on their performance in a way face to face teachers cannot.

Would anyone care to comment on the original posting or my reply?

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on teaching online in Virtual classrooms

Just a note to say that teaching English synchronously online can be highly effective not only 1-to-1, but in pairs and small groups online as well. I have been running an online school of my own for a few years already, and my colleages and I have been using an in-house developed LMS with virtual classrooms for that purpose. This LMS, which I called the ELN LMS, was designed as part of my Master's thesis at Manchester University (I graduated in 2012, and the topic of my thesis was 'Teacher and Learner Perceptions of synchronous small group work in ELN LMS/LCMS & Skype-Only Virtual Classrooms'). At ELN, which is short for EnglishLabNet, we teach both General English and English for higher level exams online (IELTS in particular). The demand for PAIR and SMALL GROUP classes has been growing lately, and one of the main reasons has been that such lessons are frequently as effective as 1-to-1 ones; to put it another way, many students' logic is "Why should we pay more if the result is the same?". To get an idea of what a class in progress is like (we Skype for voice), have a look at the screenshot on our school's Facebook page - http://tinyurl.com/hz37uzg I am also reachable on LinkedIn http://lnkd.in/7qbF25 , should you want to have a tour of the ELN LMS . Having said all that, my own position is that the problem, if there is any, is not that much with technology, but with the industry pressure, namely 1) the onsite coursebook which is very difficult to replace with web-based materials - the latter take advanced skills to develop, and very few teachers are good at web-based ELT materials design of coursebook level quality 2) the absence of sound e-teaching methodology for those who do wish to teach online in virtual classrooms using IP telephony for voice; those who do teach online, are mostly freelancers and what they do is frequently not documented in any scientific journals (the only notable exception is Dr Nellie Deutsch promoting WIZIQ, but who says that WIZIQ is where we should stop in terms of virtual classroom development? Why can't there be better solutions out there, which are more pair- and groupwork friendly?)
Patrick Andrews

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Thanks for this comment, Anastassia.

I think that groups are often more effective than one to one classes - one to one classes are so intense that it is difficult for teachers and learners.

I think there is quite a lot of awareness of good practice for synchronous teaching and there is a great deal of training for OU Live (and previously for Elluminate) at the Open University.