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Japan, India, Online English Writing - Online Archive

Anecdotes and experiences of a language services entrepreneur from India

July 02, 2010

Online Teaching and Learning – Relevant for Writing?

This is the first in what I intend to be a series of fortnightly posts that outlines our experiences and learnings in teaching writing online.

When we set up the written English education division of the company (Cactus Communications) in early 2005, we were driven more by idealism than by market research. We felt that writing could certainly be taught online: assignments and teachers’ evaluations can be easily passed back and forth over a learning management system, and MS Word allows teachers to give really detailed evaluations of learners’ writing. However, we didn’t know if anyone else was doing that. We also weren’t sure if an online learning model would appeal to Japanese learners. Still, we got started. We had a bunch of talented and budding English teachers, and they did a lot of work in the first few months to develop writing courses, course materials, the teaching medium, etc.

Five years later, I can look back and say that online teaching and learning of written English certainly works. We’ve not only grown in the number of learners from Japan that we impact every month, but also had numerous interesting opportunities to develop customized writing courses, especially for universities and companies.

I think a key advantage of teaching written English using a computer is the opportunity for the teacher to go deep into the learners’ writing. Teachers can edit the learners’ writing, use macros to quickly insert correction codes, insert comments neatly in any part, and of course write out detailed suggestions. Imagine doing all that on paper: the resulting evaluation may not even be legible!

Then, the online medium forces the learner to interact in writing with the teacher. Our teachers use the private, one-to-one forums to interact with learners, breaking the ice, and motivating and supporting learners. As learners communicate in writing with their instructor, whether to clarify their doubts or to simply converse (often they write about their lives), they begin to experience its purpose as a practical tool for communication, building their fluency in the process.

I think more teachers and educational institutions should start using computers and the Internet to teach writing. It’s not difficult to get started, and the teaching and learning process could become more enjoyable and effective.


August 17, 2010

Techniques to make online writing courses work

Online ELT has not caught on in a big way, and there are a number of reasons. Two reasons that immediately come to mind are logistical problems (how to set up and use the IT infrastructure) and the fact that the teacher can’t be around when the student is writing. However, if the student needs a lot of writing practice (not necessarily in exam-simulation conditions) and personalized corrections, there are a number of advantages of teaching writing online, which I’ve covered in my previous post. But before this can be done, the common problems in online courses need to be addressed.

Some of the common problems are insufficient guidance (no teacher leading the learning process), excessive focus on self-study, and the expectation that learners will figure out a study schedule that works for them. Educators are left with the question – Is the student really learning?

These problems can be overcome through some techniques: personalized attention for each student, making sure that the course is more about practice than self-study, a space for the student and instructor to interact (preferably in privacy), an encouraging teaching style, and a strong administrative and operational support system.

The last point is often ignored, but this is also critical to the success of the course. The support system should help with the student with the scheduling of the course, counsel the student if they’re stuck somewhere in the course, function as an intermediary between the student and teacher if needed, and resolve any complaints or problems the student has.

As for the platform for online courses, open-source learning management systems offer a quick solution. The open-source LMS Moodle is being increasingly used by English language teachers, and from personal experience I can say that Moodle works for online writing courses. In fact, Moodle was frequently mentioned in the JALT conference last year.

So, to make online writing courses work, teachers need a strong focus on individual students, a good support system, and an easy-to-use LMS. While that sounds easier than it actually is, it’s certainly not too hard!


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