Skype. Google Talk. WizIQ. iChat. These are names of online learning platforms more and more students are using to learn languages. For many international assignees, this style of training is a good alternative to face-to-face classes. But some clients remain unsure if online training is right for their employees. Here is my Q&A to explain some of the benefits and possible drawbacks of virtual language training.
What does a typical virtual class look like?
In many ways, a virtual class looks the same, because it can include all of the activities of a face-to-face class: writing, speaking, listening, and reading. Speaking becomes absolutely necessary when working online, and it’s easy to review grammar rules via online resources, e-books or other manuals. Every two weeks I hold a writing lesson, switching off the microphone and using only text chat. For reading, I send a link to a newspaper article to the student, who reads it aloud, while I correct his pronunciation and aim to increase his vocabulary.
For conversation practice, I try to involve other speakers so they have contact with voices other than just mine. Examples of this are to arrange a meeting between the student and a colleague of mine, hold a conference call, or if possible, have a guest teacher join me during the lesson. Virtual training is especially good for improving listening capabilities because I can switch off the webcam to make the student focus solely on that skill.
What surprises, positive or negative, do your students have about the online format?
Most students find the flexibility to learn anytime, anywhere, most appealing. It sounds silly, but my students like the idea of learning Italian while eating a snack or wearing their pajamas. Another positive aspect of this type of learning is what I call “filter breaking.” Having the computer between the student and the teacher makes less confident or nervous students much more willing to open up and talk. Since language is so much about communication, anything that makes communicating easier is a big plus. And, since non-verbal methods of communication, such as body language, are limited by the format, it prevents the student from relying on those too much and forces him or her to focus on speaking instead.
One of the challenges with virtual language lessons is the unexpected interruptions with internet connectivity or poor performing computer hardware. This can frustrate both student and teacher. Creating an environment of productivity is important, even with something as simple as maintaining good posture. Students perform their best when sitting at a table or desk when in front of a computer.
Sometimes students who work with a virtual teacher while on assignment might miss the human contact of face-to-face lessons. However, if they start with a virtual teacher pre-departure, they can take comfort in the familiar face waiting for them once they arrive. Starting virtually pre-departure makes their transition faster and smoother, and also allows for better continuity of training than switching teachers post-arrival.
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