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To go online or not to go online in the EFL/ESL classroom

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Go online in EFL/ESL classroomHow do teachers decide whether to go online in the EFL/ESL classroom? Chantal Hemmi suggests that a hermeneutical process to finding out about student progress and future needs can help. Chantal teaches at the Center for Language Education and Research at Sophia University. She is also a series consultant for Q: Skills for Success, Second Edition, advising on online integration.

A hermeneutical process is all about being a good listener and observer of student progress over time: ‘Essentially, hermeneutics accords an important role to the actors and demands sensitivity and ability to listen closely to them’
(Young and Collin, 1988:154).

With increasing learner access to both authentic materials as well as materials written for language learners online, teachers are faced with a question: Shall I go online in class or not? The same goes for homework. One way to make this informed choice is for teachers to think critically about the aim of the lesson. Here are some questions we could ask ourselves:

  1. Will the activity raise interest in the new topic area?
    Is it more effective to go online to stimulate interest in the subject, or do we want in-class activities that incorporate an interactive, kinesthetic element with the use of cue cards or pictures to encourage students to brainstorm activities interactively?
  1. Do we want to go online to do a reading or listening exercise, or a vocabulary learning activity for input? Can this be done more effectively online, or are your students in need of more face-to-face scaffolding of content and language before you go online?
  2. Are we encouraging students to develop their autonomy by going online to do some research on an essay or presentation topic? Do the students have access to a library from which to borrow books or download reliable materials? Which is the better option for them, to go online or to use paper-based publications, such as books?

The choice must always link into the aims of our courses.  We have to bear in mind the strategy we want to take in order to develop students’ knowledge of the content, the language they need to function in the class, and also the opportunity for students to think critically about what they are learning. Teachers must decide what mode of input and output we want in order to scaffold the content, language and skills students need to deal with communication in our diverse global communities.

How do good teachers that I know find out about what is authentic to the learners? Some go for needs analysis questionnaires. Others opt for interviewing or focus groups where you set a list of semi-structured open-ended interview questions that you want the learners to discuss.

In my view, teaching itself is a hermeneutical process of finding out about where the students are with their learning, what they have learnt and what they are still not confident about, and how they want to get the input, online or through basic scaffolding through classroom interaction, with the teacher facilitating the construction of new knowledge or language input. A hermeneutical process is all about being a good listener and observer of student progress over time: ‘Essentially, hermeneutics accords an important role to the actors and demands sensitivity and ability to listen closely to them’ (Young and Collin, 1988:154). Not only should we be a good listener and observer, but also we should have the ability to choose tasks that best fit the class learner profile, based on our observations about where they are with their learning.

Thus, a hermeneutical process of finding out about student progress and future needs does not only look at snapshots of learners at a point in time, but looks at what happens over a term, or over the whole academic year. For example, a short speaking or writing test taken before mid-term can show a snapshot of the student’s ability at that point in time.  But we can include different modes of assessment such as group interviews, presentations, and essay writing tests to see what kind of progress is observed over time. The key to making the process hermeneutical is to construct a dialogue through online or paper based learner diaries so that students can reflect on their progress and about what they are learning. The teacher can make comments about student observations and thus sustain the dialogue over a period of time.

I myself learnt through experience that when I am still being controlled by the actual technology, blended learning cannot help to manifest the aims of the course.  The beauty of an effective blended learning journey will only be actualized when the teacher gains control over the technical as well as the methodological knowledge and skills to design courses so that in every lesson, the teacher knows why he/she is going online or choosing to stay with face-to-face input. Blended learning is a site of struggle, because the teacher has to question his/her role and to become skilled in making those important decisions that are going to play a crucial role in the design of our courses. Ultimately the aim is to conduct activities that benefit our learners with varying needs. Finally, blended learning also gives the teacher and students opportunities to explore effective modes of learning and to make the learning experience authentic to the learner.

References and Further Reading

Garrison, D. & Kanuka, H. Blended learning: Uncovering its transformative potential in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education 7 (2), 2nd Quarter 2004, 95-105. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/10967516)

Young, R. & Collin, A. (1988). Career development and hermeneutical inquiry. Part I : The framework of a hermeneutical approach. Canadian Journal of Counselling 22 (3), 153-161.

 Walker, A. White, G. (2013). Technology Enhanced Language Learning  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

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