I remember one ill fated job interview, during which I was asked how computer-based instruction could reduce costs, while increasing quality and reach. Well, it seems that this job and me, we weren’t a good fit…
E-learning is expensive. Good e-learning is even more expensive. You need good STUFF – texts, videos, exercises. And you either need a large & engaged community of learners (as a few online communities and a handful of supercharged MOOCs muster), or instructors. Ideally, you have both.
If you have neither, e-learning just ends up as a digital clone of a textbook. A good textbook. An interactive textbook. But a textbook nonetheless.
Some educational challenges can be solved by just handing around a pile of textbooks. If you have committed, determined, resilient learners with excellent study habits and top-notch meta-cognitive skills, a pile of textbooks may be all you need – your learners will use this basis as their foundation on which to construct the rest (such as study groups, opportunities for practice, etc.).
Let me ask a mean question (and, keep in mind that I ask this question as person who regularly takes, and occasionally finishes, MOOCs): Are there any advantages to language learning MOOCs (check, e.g., this list) that go beyond the flexibility of time & location the medium affords? Most language learning MOOCs offer less opportunity to actually communicate in the target language than a mediocre face-to-face course would. Most language learning MOOCs offer little to no differentiation – they tend to be even more one-size-fits-allish than your average face-to-face course. They may be cheap or free to take – but they certainly are not cost-neutral for the creators of MOOCs (though they are profitable for the platforms on which they are hosted). So, why should we create language learning MOOCs?
Critical mass. Let me repeat: Critical mass.
You can take a business English class basically everywhere. Yes, you can make it more affordable for students (by letting universities or other funding organizations pay for them). You can make them accessible for people working rotating shift, people with limited mobility, people who struggle with face-to-face communication, and those living in very rural areas. By putting it online, by increasing flexibility of time and space and reducing the face-to-face component, you can create learning opportunities for some learners who cannot easily access face-to-face courses. That’s nice.
But they really, really rock when you turn your attention away from those languages that dominate the market, and look at the lesser taught languages.
|Advertising for English classes at a Frankfurt rapid transit railway station, May 2016|
Today, you basically cannot leave your home without stumbling over an English language class. But how about those languages that have fewer learners, and fewer teachers? Languages like Frisian?
This week, FutureLearn’s new MOOC – Introduction to Frisian – starts. I live in Berlin and Frankfurt. I doubt there are any courses in Frisian in either of the two cities. Nor do they provide communities of Frisian speakers I could easily tap into. With a bit of research, and a willingness to travel, I can certainly find a language school willing to teach me Frisian. But why should I make such an investment if I don’t know if I’d actually like the language?
For three weeks, there will be a community of Frisian learners, directly at my finger tips. A place where I can experience the language, get a first taste, a kind of sneak preview. Perhaps it will whet my appetite, so that I continue seeking the elusive face-to-face courses in Frisian. Perhaps it will just be a few hours of fooling around with language. But there will be a bunch of other learners around, something that would be very difficult to recreate in any one specific city (outside traditionally Frisian speaking areas). It creates the critical mass needed to HAVE a language class.
I love this. And while I do not want to disregard the value of the run-of-the-mill Business English MOOCs, I hope that more MOOCs will follow this lead and offer an opportunity to learn languages that may be more difficult to learn outside a very limited geographic area. How about Sorbian? Or Friulian? Heck, even a language like Estonian might be difficult to learn in most of Europe! Your learners are out there! Create a place where they can meet each other, and grab those textbooks, and start learning!