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October 10, 2013

Online learning and the demise of the ‘social gap’

eltjam-logo.jpgIt may be an increasingly popular way to learn English, but will studying online ever completely take over from learning in a classroom? An interesting post (and follow up discussion) by Laurie Harrison over on eltjam.

It’s very commonly said by ELT people that online learning can never fully replace learning in the classroom because of the need for social contact and face-to-face interaction as an essential part of the learning process – and there’s a ‘social gap’ if you’re learning in the virtual world. The same argument is made in the ongoing debate – mainly in US higher education – about the rise of the MOOC. The inevitable MOOC backlash is in full swing, and one of the key questions being raised is “how can a mere online course replace the social learning experience of attending a real university?”. But does that make sense to anyone born and raised in the internet era?

Is learning in class always better?

In my post on the flipped classroom recently, I suggested that there are parts of the learning process that can be done just as well (or perhaps better) as online self-study, leaving precious classroom time focussed on speaking and communicative activities and helping students to deal with specific problems. Not everyone agreed with that, and I think it’s a pretty commonly-held belief in the ELT-o-sphere that learning a language in class is always and intrinsically better than learning on your own – because use of language is an inherently social activity, of course. My own experience is that I generally learn most things better on my own, and I’ve never had a particularly good language learning experience in a classroom. A decent online course combined with lots of conversation practice will surely be light years more effective than trying to learn in class with a under-trained teacher and under-motivated classmates. Obviously, being in class with a great teacher and small group of highly motivated fellow students should lead to very rapid and effective learning, but I’ve never been lucky enough to experience that in language learning and I’d be pleasantly surprised if it was representative of the majority of language classrooms. But maybe I’m just not fully factoring in the social gap which is self-study’s biggest flaw? This social gap is obviously a source of reassurance for the bricks and mortar teaching institutions which rely on the orthodoxy that learning is best done by putting a bunch of people into a room together with a teacher.

Read the full post from eltjam.

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