Saturday, July 9, 2011

Multimedia lessons vs Traditional ESL classes

Having worked for a language school that blended multimedia learning with real-life classroom teachers into a system that I think is one of the most, at least theoretically, efficient learning systems out there, I recently did my CELTA course.

It was an interesting experience going from a very modern way of teaching to using an OHP (which I had thought  were all wiped out by a large meteorite millions of years ago).  I couldn't help but contrast the traditional classroom with what I had been doing in the blended learning system and here are the conclusions that I drew from the experience.

  • The blended learning system has many pragmatic advantages.  You can study when you are free (a very commercially-pleasing characteristic when so many people want to learn English without giving up their income). 
  • You are studying individually so your level is tailored to your skills and not the average (or lowest) of the 30 people in your class.  
  • You can repeat material until you understand it so the class doesn't move on without you.
These are all fantastic advantages but every system has disadvantages too.  The glaringly obvious disadvantage here is less time with the teacher.  If you spend the majority of your time going through the presentation and practice stages with the multimedia system, you spend less time with the native-English teacher.  Of course, most blended learning schools realize this and add extra classes but still the students in this style of learning do not get the attention from the teacher that they would in a traditional school.

But this is where I have to question whether the mentality of the consumer is actually detrimental to their progress.  It is so ingrained in the mentality of the consumer (at least in the markets that I have worked in) that the way to learn English is by spending as much time as possible with native-English teachers.  Even though most ESL teachers are not particularly qualified (most of the Thai ESL workforce have at most one month of teacher training in the form of a CELTA or TESOL certification).

The reason for this demand for ESL teachers is exposure to authentic accents is seen as the fastest way to an impressive level of fluency.  Blended learning systems actually give more exposure as the time spent with the multimedia is comparable to private tuition in terms of the amount of time spent listening and speaking.  That means more time spent listening to recorded authentic accents and less time listening to classmates.

I would encourage prospective students however to look at only systems that blend interactive components not simple video.  This is not engaging and you will find yourself zoning out in a way that is not possible in front of a decent teacher (Cameron Diaz aside).  Assuming that you are using an interactive multimedia system, the disadvantage now becomes the lack of teacher correction.  Because voice analyzing technology is not so far advanced as to be able to correct a multitude of different voices, tones, accents etc, most systems rely on self correction.  Students speak, listen and compare.  Assistance is usually provided to help if you detect something that needs correction.

The moral of the story is this students need to be able to make informed decisions about which type of school is best for them.  Students who need more motivating to learn might do well to have a teacher to push them.  Students who are self-motivated and independent learners might do better with more exposure to learn faster.  As educators, the best thing we can do for our students is to be honest and forthcoming with a realistic presentation of what our system is like but as business people, we are also interested in attracting as many students as possible.  And therein lies the challenge...

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