What are the integral components of creating content for online language courses? What does each format (in-person vs. virtual) offer, and where do they fall short? What should be taught at what level(s) and how? What are the expected outcomes for such courses? The answers to these questions provide a framework from which to start, but there certainly are other considerations to address. In this article, we will focus on the first two questions and return to address the others in a subsequent post.
Online language courses need more than just the interaction between instructor and student during the appointed time of the lesson. As is the case with most learning situations, students need a variety of inputs, not all of which are easily transferred from the traditional classroom or tutoring session to the online format. Screensharing is a great tool when you want to show videos, explore websites, or use a virtual whiteboard. However, audio (songs, podcasts, and recordings) and video used for listening comprehension can often be distorted or suffer much due to lag. This increases learner frustration and disrupts the learning process. Therefore, any online courses need to supplement learning materials with video or audio content that can be used in a digestible format with little to no loss in quality (e.g. downloaded mp3 or mp4 files).
While written communication can be checked in real-time in online instruction via a chat function, discursive writing practice (page length and greater) requires more time and consideration and is best done outside of lessons. Asynchronous and interactive forum-style discussion boards or threads can really help improve expressing ideas and prepare the student for writing persuasive arguments, whether for business-related matters or other topics of interest. Similarly, reading comprehension is something that takes up a lot of time and should be done mostly outside of online lessons, though short passages could be utilized as training for good pre-reading and reading skills.
Further, speaking skills can be practiced in both online and in-person formats, though sometimes it is more difficult to read expressions and body language through a webcam. Some factors that affect visibility and, thus, the ability to pick up on non-verbal cues include poor lighting, bad choice of background, constant movements and video feed that is zoomed in on the person’s face, which makes it difficult to gauge their body language. The benefit of in-person lessons for speaking practice also includes the absence of talking over one another due to delays in the video feed between participants.
Online content for language courses should include at least the following: grammar lessons, grammar exercises, listening comprehension exercises, reading comprehension activities (passages followed by content questions), and vocabulary for each topic covered. Additionally, it would be helpful to have opportunities beyond expository writing assignments to work on written communication skills (e.g. responding to emails, business letters/memos, creating a short bio, etc.). Moreover, interactive content is crucial, such as self-checking exercises, virtual flashcards (vocabulary), and video and audio clips that the learner can pause or replay as needed to achieve understanding.
Choosing to take a course online can be a convenient, self-paced, and rewarding way for students to improve their skills in a particular language, but teachers must make sure to let students know what to expect in an online format and offer the kind of supporting material and online content that will help students succeed.
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