A dive into the challenges of online distance learning

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online distance learning

Distance and blended learning is growing in popularity all around the world. Alongside the opportunities for students and teachers, come real challenges. Some are related to technology and others related to classroom management and community building.

In this second post in his series of four, Professor Mike Rost talks about the difficulties students and teachers face when learning and teaching online – and what we can do about it.

Read the first post in the series: The advantages of online distance learning.

Tech challenges in online teaching

In 2019, access to technology is less of a problem for students than it used to be. Most learners have a desktop computer, a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone – and will generally have internet access, for at least some of the day.

Still, we should not assume all our students have unfettered access to tech. It’s important for teachers to confirm their students are able to readily access the resources they need to participate in online distance learning.

What’s more, most younger students are considered to be digital natives – that is, they grew up with the internet as an integral part of their life. And while most are comfortable navigating new software and solving hardware problems, issues of digital literacy will prevent some students from successfully taking full advantage of online learning resources.

All students, even the most “literate”, will therefore benefit from initial orientation and regular reviews of the courseware you are using. This helps to make sure that they are taking full advantage of the resources within the course that are available to them.

A lack of support creates issues for teachers and students

Though there are a lot of advantages for distance online learning courses, there are some potential pitfalls that teachers and administrators need to be aware of. The most critical is when there is a lack of support for and from teachers.

Situations can arise where an administrator, who is trying to manage a tight budget, thinks that online courses require fewer teachers because classroom space is not needed. When this happens, teachers soon become overloaded and cannot meet the needs of their individual students.

Within a few weeks student engagement may begin to flag – regardless of the type of assignments or activities provided. Unsurprisingly, some students begin to drop out of the course, or just do the minimum amount of work to get a passing grade.

In distance learning, teachers need to have the support of management, so they can in turn support their students through course personalization and individual attention.

Preferably, this should take place through live video conferencing – or at least through regular (individual) emails. This keeps students engaged and allows teachers to provide one-to-one feedback and help them solve learning problems, as well as giving the students a human connection through the course.

The problem of no peer support

As part of my work in course writing and curriculum design, I travel to a lot of countries and visit a lot of diverse classrooms. I recall my first visit to a university classroom in Mexico, and I was struck at how much peer bonding there was during, and especially at the beginning of, classes.

I remember one class where it took a full ten minutes for the arriving students to make their rounds, pausing in front of each of the twenty or so classmates to greet them, always including a light hug and kiss on the cheek, often with a friendly verbal exchange and usually a laugh or smile. I recall thinking then – when are we going to get down to business?

The class went well, with a lot of spirited communicative activities and exchanges, all in English. After class, I asked the instructor about the arrival ritual. Although she was a bit puzzled at first, she said it was “essential to give them an opportunity to connect” and told me that “then they can support each other better during the class.”

Experiences like this one have helped me become aware of just how important personal connection and personal support is for students in language learning. Indeed, the type of personal connection and support you can experience in classroom may be the primary advantage of classroom courses.

So for online courses, it is important to find a way to re-create this. If face-to-face class meetings – even once every week or two weeks – are not possible, I have had a lot of success with synchronous (real time) discussion groups, where we get together and talk about any achievements or concerns students may have.

Face-to-face interaction (with or without the hugging and kissing) helps to maintain a sense of community. If that’s not possible, then asynchronous discussion boards will also go a long way towards keeping students engaged with each other.

Beyond this sense of connection, there is the language partner aspect of language learning. In communicative language learning, it is important to have interactions in which students can test out their developing command of the spoken language. Online courses can simulate spoken interaction, but the face-to-face context adds an important learning dimension.

The question of motivation and engagement online

The challenge of keeping our students engaged and motivated is common across grade levels, subject matter, and all types of institutions and courses – not just in online language courses. So we have to recognize this as a universal problem in education.

Many of our students – more than we would like to recognize – have never really succeeded at learning English in traditional classrooms because the class was “over their heads” or they simply couldn’t tune in.

On the positive side of this issue, distance online learning can improve motivation and engagement. An online course that is pitched at the appropriate level and pace can be very motivating for students, especially when the teacher sets small, short-term goals with realistic expectations. In addition, many students enjoy self-pacing, achieving short term goals, and receiving immediate feedback and recognition for success – all of which can be achieved online.

Moreover, when learners experience success, they exert more effort and become more resilient. It’s a cyclic relationship – and an effective distance learning program will have short activities—micro tasks—that can enhance motivation in this way.   

However, if the only contact students have with their teachers is through the internet, some new challenges come into play:

  • Students may enroll in online courses because they believe the course will be easier and require less of their time and minimal cognitive commitment. So before the course even begins, these students may be prone to disengagement.
  • Online environments can generate a feeling of anonymity – a perceived lack of identity and affirmation – which makes it easier for students to withdraw, or participate minimally, or – as I’ve heard from some teachers – “completely disappear from the course.”
  • Without face-to-face contact, teachers are not able to pick up nonverbal and behavioral cues from students that might indicate the students are disengaged, frustrated or unenthusiastic about participating.
  • Teachers also cannot share their emotions easily with their students and may find it harder to express their enthusiasm, or give encouragement, or show concern.

So it is important for teachers – and course designers – to be proactive! We need to keep these issues of motivation and engagement front and center at all times, and anticipate that we will have to address these issues directly with each new group of students.

Next time Mike will be looking at how to choose an online distance course, so stay tuned!

Pearson English Interactive

To find out more about how you can use distance learning in your own teaching practice, check out Pearson English Interactive, an online course designed for adult learners that incorporates technology with the latest teaching methodologies.

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