The number of companies offering online language learning is going through something akin to an algal bloom. To borrow another metaphor, this time from the animal kingdom, perhaps it’s time to try to sort the sheep from the goats.
Broadly speaking online providers offer either language learning materials designed for self-study, a tutorial service of some description, or both. Each of these services can be good, bad or undeniably appalling.
So, what makes good self-study content? There are no hard and fast rules, but I think we could agree that there are a number of key criteria:
- Online material should have been written by people who know something about second language acquisition. This is a subject that provokes all sorts of disagreements, but most people in the profession would probably agree that languages are not best learnt simply by heavy doses of grammar translation (for example).
- Material should also be instructive. It other words, it should be as effective as a good teacher at explaining why the language behaves in a certain way. This probably means it should be interactive on various levels; not simply indicating whether an answer is correct or not, but also explaining why.
- Material should also cover as many aspects of the languages as possible. Not just grammar and vocabulary, but all the skills, pronunciation, colloquial language use, etc.
- Crucially, online material should be interesting, relevant and motivating. In short it should be fun. If the material is dull, students will quickly switch back to YouTube (it only takes a couple of clicks).
- User interfaces should be both attractive and intuitive to use; you shouldn’t need a course in order to be able to do the course.
- The materials should be accessible on different devices: PCs, laptops, tablets, phablets and quite possibly mobile phones, although small screen sizes can limit the sort of activity that’s feasible. Students should also be able to use the browser or operating system of their choice.
- Stating the obvious, but the programming the makes the material interactive needs to be glitch-free, on all devices and with all browsers.
- Students’ work should register on a Learner Management System or e-learning platform so their progress can be tracked and time spent studying recorded.
- Students should be invited to give feedback about their study materials and encouraged to make suggestions for improvements.
- Last but not least, online material shouldn’t include content that is designed primarily as a marketing tool and has little or no pedagogical value. For example, progress tests that are designed fool students into thinking they’re making more progress than they are; or voice recognition graphics that delude students into thinking their pronunciation is accurate to 72%. Voice recognition software is getting better and will become useful at some point, but we’re not there yet. The same could be said of adaptive learning software.
What about the tutorial service? The key criteria here are these:
- Are the tutors proficient speakers of the language themselves? No, this doesn’t necessarily mean “native speakers” but a B1 level simply isn’t enough.
- Is the provider employing fully qualified professional language teachers or are they happy to contract students or retirees looking for a little extra income?
- Have the tutors been trained to teach online? It is different enough from classroom teaching to warrant some form of training.
- Crucially, are the tutors working out of a 24/7 call centre, or are students assigned their own tutor to work with? Knowing their students obviously helps teachers focus their tutorials on their students’ needs and also helps them anticipate any difficulties they may have. Not knowing who you’re going to be talking to makes everything a lot harder for both teacher and student.
Predictably enough there tends to be a direct and clear relation between quality and price (see graph). Professional language tutors cost money, as does well developed self-study material. As a rule of thumb, if it’s cheap (or perhaps even free), it might be useful, but it’s likely to disappoint. If you are able to afford the higher end products (top right-hand corner of the graph) you’re likely to make more progress.
Of course a similar argument could be made for traditional, classroom based teaching.