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Covid-19 and the Future of Learning

January 17, 2021

For many of us, the pandemic has massively altered how we live our everyday lives, how we engage with others, and how we do our jobs. The impact of the virus on education has been huge, with many institutions closing their premises and moving to online learning. This sudden need to teach online has required language teachers to re-invent themselves in some ways, as we come to terms with the different parameters and limitations we’re now working in, and develop new skills to try and be as effective online as we were in the physical classroom.

In many ways, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how effective an online learning environment can be, and how even language learning – which requires a lot of meaningful interaction and not just passively internalised input – can still work reasonably well. However, I wouldn’t say that the online learning environment naturally lends itself to effective language learning and teaching, and I’ve found myself having to challenge students’ preconceptions of what online learning is all about. Some students assume that online learning is always asynchronous, that they can just log in whenever they have time and do the tasks on their own. Others recognise that lessons can be synchronous, meaning they have to log in at the same time as the teacher and the rest of the class, but once they’ve logged in they feel it’s OK to mute themselves, switch their cameras off, and just go about their day while listening to the lesson running in the background.

Presumably these assumptions stem from previous online learning experiences, or simply because people who aren’t language teachers aren’t very aware of the fact that you can’t acquire a language if you don’t actually use it. And sure, there are occasions in the language classroom where it is appropriate for students to sit passively and listen to the teacher clarifying a grammar point, and there are also lots of ways in which asynchronous learning can be beneficial to the language learning process. But language is all about communication, and language learning therefore requires lots of meaningful interaction. While an online environment can still allow students to engage actively with each other and with other sources of language, it does perhaps lend itself more naturally to a unidirectional model of learning, where the content is pre-selected and then presented to the students, whose role is merely to passively absorb and digest that content.

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This unidirectional approach doesn’t work well for language learning, but I’m a bit concerned that it isn’t just students who expect their online learning experience to be like this. The rise of online learning that has resulted from the pandemic, and a surprisingly (to me) widely-held belief/acceptance that learners can simply be passive recipients of knowledge, allows courses to be developed and presented as products – pre-packaged, off-the-shelf commodities for learners to “consume”, in an order predetermined by the provider. Even live, synchronous language teaching is now used by private companies to present heavily scripted, McDonaldized materials that ensure there is little or no opportunity for students to express their own ideas – unless those ideas happen to coincide with the content. Mark Carrigan’s recent blog post draws on the work of Erich Fromm to show how this whole approach to learning is problematic, and how active, critical engagement with the learning content is crucial for learning to have any kind of transformative impact.

A lot of educational institutions (mine included) seem to be looking at ways for online learning to continue to play a dominant role in teaching and learning processes, even after a return to classroom-based teaching becomes possible. But if their motivations for doing this are grounded in assumptions that online learning is all about developing materials in advance and presenting them as consumable packages for students, it may become increasingly difficult for those of us who value meaningful engagement – and student contributions as sources of learning rather than merely checks that they’ve “got the right answers” – to find spaces in the curriculum to allow that kind of engagement to take place.

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24 Comments
  1. Ken MacDougall permalink

    A good post, Steve. I think lots on institutions, mine included, are seeing this as an opportunity to push through ‘reforms’ that have long been on the agenda. I’ve just finished a round of exit tutorials with a group of pre-intermediate learners who were all enthusiastic (and surprised) about the synchronous classes, but less so about the asynchronous content. I think we, thankfully, are a long way off getting any sort of useful and meaningful pre-packaged content.

    • Thanks, Ken. It’s clear that it is possible to make effective use of technology to provide a high-quality learning experience. Like your learners though, I feel that language learning without live interaction is definitely not likely to be very effective. Of course this doesn’t mean that there’s no place for asynchronous online learning, but surely live interaction is preferable. And again, to assume that the asynchronous stuff should be pre-packaged (especially those tasks that are automatically marked) is to deny students opportunities to engage fully and critically with the content, for example by providing answers that the materials writer didn’t think of but which are still perfectly valid, or at least worthy of discussion.
      Cheers,
      Steve

  2. Tyson Seburn permalink

    We’ve used the last year to start focussing on the shortcomings of our curricula, especially with regard to areas where, perhaps, we have focused too much time compared to what’s actually needed. Being online fully has highlighted that we could better reduce content to more essential, and spend wiser time synchronously with that content. It’s helped reconceptualise what homework means as now that becomes part of the essential asynch learning and teaching, rather than simply we-didn’t-finish-so-do-it-later.

    • Ken MacDougall permalink

      I think you are right Tyson. The asynchronous stuff needs to be tied more tightly to the live and the live needs to be more tightly packed with the good stuff. I think I am trying to do it but taking a broader, institutional look at it is obviously preferable.

    • Yes Tyson, I agree with both you and Ken. The pandemic has forced us all to re-evaluate what we’re doing, and no doubt most of us are realising that what we were doing wasn’t perfect. My concern though is that we’re now going to start making decisions about our future teaching and content while the pandemic is still going on. My workplace, for example has started to develop a new digital learning strategy, and I was at a meeting recently where everyone was talking about how wonderful digital learning is. I agree that it is, or it can be, but that doesn’t mean that online teaching is better than classroom-based teaching. There’s a lot of chat these days about technology-enhanced language learning, but what we’re dealing with at the moment is technology-imposed language learning: we’re teaching online because we have to, not because it enhances things. For me, any strategy for using online learning in the longer-term future needs to include the question “but is it any better than if you were in an actual classroom?”
      Thanks for your thoughts,
      Steve

      • Aha. But shouldn’t we also be asking “Why/how is the classroom activity better than this online thing that we’ve made?”
        Failing or refusing to ask that question, due to nostalgia or comfort, risks missing out on the potential gains that high standard blended would bring about. As mentioned in another comment, there are high numbers of potential learners out there who have been unable to attend face to face learning due to caring responsibilities, work, ill-health or geographical isolation.

  3. Great post! I feel this year has catapulted us towards the blended learning that my organisation always hoped to have, but we as a team never really had time to create. Now we have lots of asynch content and teachers skilled in online learning. I keep my fingers crossed for an enhanced blended approach in the future. And feel that my students are now more autonomous than they’ve ever been, as they have plenty of supported content (and have realised that language learning doesn’t only equal turning up to classes and the teacher magically inputting language into their brains).

    • Ken MacDougall permalink

      Emily, I agree. Not sure that all teachers are as skilled as they could be. My institutions sink or swim approach left many floundering.

      • Agreed. There’s still a distance to travel, but our giant leap has been a positive one, I feel.

    • Hi Emily,
      Good reminder that unidirectional learning and passive students can also be a problem in a classroom-based environment. I suppose it’s like most things – you can do anything badly, whatever the context. There is definitely potential for online learning to develop learner autonomy, but that might require a blended approach, to begin with at least, to make sure students are scaffolded towards becoming successful online learners. Otherwise there are risks of exclusion or non-engagement.
      I think your workplace has been online-only since the start of this academic year, right? Have there been any issues with students becoming excluded from your courses or struggling to engage?

      • Oh no. None whatsoever. Nada. Nothing to see here. Shoosh, Steve. 😂
        Emily, sorry to intrude in your comment, but couldn’t resist.

  4. You’ve had me thinking since yesterday about this move toward even more rapid consumerisation of (higher) education, especially with regard to the asynchronous content created by teachers. Because universities are supposed to be developing knowledge and contributing to good practice, there is a case to be made that these bits of content could be developed as Open Educational Resources with Creative Commons licenses or something similar. This stops universities charging for access to them, and requires them to provide something on top of what is already available on the internet for free. That move would hopefully help keep a few more teachers in jobs and actually teaching, and the materials created between several (thousand) institutions (worldwide) means that there are rich pickings to provide the best courses we can. Of course this is idealistic, but far from impossible, I think.

    • Hi Marc,
      Yes, I agree that technology could be used in a very positive way, like you suggest. But let’s face it, how likely are universities to construct a situation that means they’re unable to generate income from the dissemination of knowledge? As long as higher education is based on capitalist principles (and in most countries it is), this can never happen.
      Or have I misunderstood what you’re suggesting?
      Steve

      • Hi Steve,

        No, I don’t think you have misunderstood me. What I suggested, in the making materials open, is just a way to ensure that universities can’t sell what is already free. If we make it so that the only possible thing they can sell is teachers and their assessment, I think we can mitigate some of what is likely to get worse.

  5. Good to read and the pandemic will, I’m sure, change the nature of not just language learning, but education in general in future. A blended approach of synchronous and asynchronous lessons to supplement F2F learning will become the norm, and many institutions have already been using asynchronous learning usefully. The biggest benefit I can see is for students who are learning from remote areas,Or who cannot leave home for personal reasons and for whom there can now be fewer barriers. I agree wholeheartedly that a synchronous class is best for genuine spontaneous communication, and the skills that teachers have now acquired in planning and conducting such classes will not be wasted. Thanks, Steve, for prompting the discussion.

    • Hi Anne,
      Thanks for your comment. You’re right that online learning can play a key role in widening access to people who live in remote areas or those who, for whatever other reasons, are unable to attend physical classes. But then there are also risks of exclusion for people who lack the IT skills or equipment. For online learning to be an entirely positive addition to our set of capacities as providers, we need to be discerning about how to use it, why and when, and also we need to make sure our learners have (or develop) capacities to use it as well.
      Nice to hear from you as always,
      Steve

  6. Interesting article.
    I’m chuckling as it read because I’m torn.
    Your points about the crucial interactivity are persuasive, but I also think that the pre-packaged, reusable artefacts do have a useful part to play as long as they are locally designed and built.
    It could free up tutors to focus on the vital live interaction if some of the repeatable “input” was “delivered” in self contained packages. 😉
    And I am in definite agreement that a whole course (as opposed to resource artefacts) that purports to be self-delivering would be a horrible, pale imitation of learning and teaching.

    • Thanks, David, and yes, it takes enormous self-discipline to study a whole course online and the general interaction with others can be a loss in cross fertilisation.

    • Locally-designed materials are certainly more likely to be relevant to student needs, David, yes. Still though, if the task merely requires students to read a text/watch a video and then answer some questions, or do some very language-focused gap-fill style exercises, and if all the “correct” answers have been decided in advance and students’ performances are evaluated in terms of how many of those pre-decided answers they’re able to provide, this is the sort of thing I have a problem with.

      Of course, I realise that the tasks don’t have to be like that – students could be asked to read a text/watch a video and then react to in in some way that allows them to give their opinion or relate the content to their own worldview/life experience. Or they could be given a list of language items and then asked to create a text (oral or written) that uses those items. I’m just a bit sceptical as to whether the value of such tasks will be seen to outweigh the additional teacher time required to evaluate students’ performances. The unidirectional tasks can be marked automatically, while the others require a real teacher.
      Am I being too sceptical? My own experience tells me I’m not, but maybe I’m being presumptious…
      Cheers,
      Steve

  7. geoffjordan permalink

    Hi Steve,

    You say: an online environment tends to lend itself “to a unidirectional model of learning, where the content is pre-selected and then presented to the students”.

    And replyng to Tyson, you say: “For me, any strategy for using online learning in the longer-term future needs to include the question “but is it any better than if you were in an actual classroom?”

    I agree. Surely we miss a huge opportunity to re-think ELT if we only focus on adapting present syllabuses and materials to an online environment.

    Drum roll: this is our chance to seriously question the efficacy of current practice. Let’s take this chance to critically examine what we’re doing and to honestly assess the efficacy of coursebook-driven ELT. And, should we be persuaded by the evidence from 60 years of SLA research that task-based language teaching (TBLT) is more efficacious, then why not pay serious attention to how TBLT can be used in an online environment? .

    Those with a vested interest in protecting coursebook-driven ELT highlight the difficulties of making any real changes to the way things are. The suggestion that teaching should be based on working through a series of pedagogic tasks (motivated by the view that students learn by doing – they develop their interlanguages by using the L2 for communicative purposes and focus on form as and when the need arises) is dismissed as utopian and unworkable – in ANY environment,

    Contrast this with the view that TBLT is particularly suited to online environments. Locally, Neil McMillan has done much to bring González-Lloret’s (2015) book “A Practical Guide to Integrating Technology into Task-Based Language Teaching” to our attention, and Neil’s work at the Open University of Cataluña, and in the online course on TBLT offered by SLB, does much to support the view that online environments can be used to deliver excellent L2 courses. Neil’s not alone, of course. There are an ever-growing number of academics, teachers and teacher trainers working on realistic alternatives to the present paradigm, a paradigm based on the commodification of education which leads, in the case of second language learning, to huge profits , huge injustice, and very poor results.

    Changing to a TBLT approach to ELT requires some initial investment in order to produce the syllabuses and materials and to re-train teachers. This “heavy lifting” stage is the one that sceptics emphasise. But the investment is peanuts compared to the investment commercial companies put into coursebooks, and its returns are multiple and lasting. A network of local groups sharing resources is feasable, and, once again, Neil McMillan is showing the way, leading SLB’s initiative to create a shared open access bank of TBLT materials, and its promotion of the values of teacher cooperatives.

    Best wishes,

    Geoff

    • Hi Geoff,

      Nice to hear from you, as always, and I’m very encouraged by the positive tone of your comment. You’re right of course that online learning doesn’t HAVE to fall into Freire’s banking model with pre-packaged learning “products” designed for either passive consumption or highly prescriptive production. And it’s great to hear Neil is doing such good work in spreading the message that technology can also be used to great effect in the application of TBLT. He’s right of course, it is possible; my concern is simply that for many stakeholders in ELT it’s not preferable. It’s far easier to make money out of a highly commodified, prescriptive programme than a student-driven, flexible programme. This kind of programme is also much easier to control, quantify and predict, which means it also fits well into highly performative cultures like state-funded education.
      I suppose the arguments are the same but the location has changed. But yes, this change of location creates possibilities to re-position TBLT as a highly legitimate approach to online teaching and learning. For this to happen though, we need more Neils! Speaking of which, I know that TBLT enthusiasts Neil Anderson and Neil McCutcheon have both been delivering practical TESOL programmes online lately, so maybe a Neil-led paradigm shift is just on the horizon. Here’s hoping.
      Take care,
      Steve

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