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E-learning: a new way to learn languages online

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New technologies help students improve their languages; if the e-learning business is booming, does it mean we don't need a physical teacher in front of us anymore?

'The term 'e-learning' has been overused'

When, after university, I enrolled in an online specialisation course for teachers of Italian as a foreign language, it turned out to be a nightmare: the platform was technically deficient, the participants' backgrounds were too different and the course activities were something I wouldn't have proposed to my fifteen-year-old brother. After two months I abandoned the e-learning course. According to the EU commission, this is the ‘use of new multimedia technologies and the internet to improve the quality of learning, by facilitating access to resources and services as well as remote exchanges and collaboration.’ ‘The term has been overused,’ argues Joe Hegarty, Intel Innovation Centres director of business operations. ‘Technology is now clearly embedded in all modern learning solutions.’

E-learning in context

(Photo: ©.Fabio/ Flickr)Language e-learning initiatives can be traced back to the early eighties. Personal computers were becoming increasingly normal parts of everyday life. Web-based training (WBT) came through interactive methods such as chat rooms, instant messaging and discussion threads. Over the years the focus shifted from the technology necessary to make available this sort of teaching-learning exchange (developing of Learning Management System platforms and standards), to the dimension of the learner, on methodology and didactics. The learning environment heavily influenced the learning process. Learners are not sitting in a glass-box, closely monitored by their teachers. They need to get their hands dirty in adapting themselves, constructing the competences they themselves need.

With their propulsive elements, social networks and the boom of web 2.0 applications are a force to be reckoned with. Contemporary research has tried to maximise the ‘collective’ potential of e-learning, without letting the digital borders limit the social creativity and inspirational interaction only teamwork can produce. Anna Kirah was raised between Taiwan, Japan, China and the US, and is very conscious of what it is to try to view the world from a different perspective. ‘Personalised learning environments can be effective ways to learn skill sets, but not unless they can be adaptable to team thinking and team work. My fear is that we kill creativity when we limit collaboration.’

Germany into the looking glass

In Bochum, a special e-learning platform for all courses at Ruhr-University allows teachers to set up new courses, upload exercises and other materials in different file formats, including video and audio files. Learners can also publish their oral and written works on the Blackboard Academic and discuss them with others. For example at the beginning of their Dutch language course, learners create a simple homepage on the Blackboard, just to present themselves in Dutch. This page will be expanded with other progressive assignments. Errors are also corrected online – learners can improve their skills getting hints and monitoring their fellow students blurs. ‘The big advantage is the very enriching fact of temporal flexibility, the exchange with other students and teachers and the media diversity on such a platform,’ says Nicola Jordan, Swedish teacher at Ruhr-University.

‘Even the best e-learning-tool cannot replace the complex processes of face-to-face communication’

‘Even the best e-learning-tool cannot replace the complex processes of face-to-face communication,’ Jordan goes on to argue though. ‘They still play the main role in our everyday life. Courses remain an important part of language learning’. Dutch colleague Hendrik Neukäter adds that ‘media communication cannot replace the real contact, because of the reduced possibilities to transmit emotions, which are very important for language learning.’ E-learning is attractive because it provides flexibility. ‘An e-learning-tool is effective if it is varied from a classroom-situation; for example, to hear one's own voice and to decide then whether the other students should also listen to my linguistic expression,’ Neukäter explains.

Professor Dr. Michael Kerres, chair of media education and knowledge management at the University of Duisburg-Essen, predicts a growing proliferation for online learning. ‘The use of e-learning is progressing worldwide, even if it is slower than many predicted.’ E-learning plays a major role in his own life. ‘I use the internet almost everyday to catch up on the latest developments in my field, to exchange opinions with colleagues or even to blog. Nowadays, it means the use of all digital media for information, communication, learning and education.’

Aware of our tools

Motivation is a key factor in achieving success in language learning. Having a full-bodied, energetic and crazy teacher, powerfully emanating Chinese discipline and scribbling furiously tons of characters on a long blackboard in front of us is inspiring. But the possibility to listen at one's pleasure and ease the Thai lady repeating difficult sounds is a definite plus. Cum grano salis, e-learning applied to languages is both fun and a well of infinite resources. We need just time and familiarity with both the net to spot the best picks.