Online Learning – a Help or a Hindrance?

A very controversial question and one which evokes strong and convincing arguments on both sides. There is no doubt that the use of social networking sites, forums and Skype for learning English is very helpful indeed. You might also argue that the ease with which learners can access free resources is also a positive development…or is it?

Information Overload

With so much information available at the touch of a button (or screen!), are learners really absorbing and digesting everything they read? The answer is probably not. If you had access to an online dictionary or a dictionary app, would you really remember what a new word meant a few days after you’d found it, used it and your immediate need for it was over? Again, it’s unlikely. Why store information in your brain when you can store it in your smart phone’s 10GB memory?

This is what many people are calling information overload, and it’s not just a threat to language learners.  A classic example of this is illustrated in the blog post, Pancake People and Online Dictionaries.  Because we know we can rely on the internet to deliver the answers, we become both greedy and lazy in our quest to devour a mass of information we don’t need whilst not trying as hard to remember something we can so easily revisit later.

The Light at the end of the Tunnel

However it doesn’t need to be this way. Knowledge of this issue could help educators to encourage learners to use the internet in a way that can help them to remember information in the long term. If a student needs to look up a word, surely the rules should be the same whether they are in class or not. Therefore it might be wise if students were encouraged to keep a log of these words, create different sentences in which the words could be used, and make an effort to use the words again.

What do you think? Is online learning something that educators should use to help students, or should students be discouraged from using it?


11 thoughts on “Online Learning – a Help or a Hindrance?

  1. I don´t believe that learners should be “discouraged “from looking at and experimenting with absolutely anything they can access in their target language. However, we have to remember that different students learn in different ways and for some , the on line approach to solving their problems may be just what they were missing in a more communicative classroom situation, where because of their own shyness, or vulnerability they do not ask questions and therefore may easily slip through the teacher´s net… The question may be a wider one in that we have to ask if as native speakers we read in the same way when it´s on screen or in an e-book. Have our own habits changed in the way we process information? I would say that it is our duty to help learners access the web, with all its quirks and complications, cos in the end what we´re trying to do is help them function in English, and as over 85% of the web is in English what better resource is there?

  2. Yes, all tools in the target language should be made available and the learners should be trusted to choose what is most effective for them. Just because an educator finds a tool ineffective does not mean that the learner will react the same way.
    And I have a question regarding the term online learning. Is it to mean “solo learning” only or does it include “one-on-one (with tutor) learning” ?

  3. Great comments, thanks both. In the article above, the term ‘online learning’ refers to solo learning as opposed to one-to-one learning with a tutor. Apologies, this should have been more clear. In response to your comments would you not agree that particularly as the web is such a huge resource, students should be guided and well informed on how to choose the best and most reliable tools for solo learning? This is what would happen in any university library after all.

    • Yes, of course, guidance by all means, but not discouragement. Perhaps negotiations might be in order, if the learner comes forth with a suggestion.

  4. What kind of guidance are we talking about here? Part of the beauty of the web is that it takes you down paths that you didn´t know you wanted to go down, or that were even there. If it is tool of discovery for a native speaker, well so much more so for a learner. Of course, I am thinking about adult learners here. Give students the means to access the How and the What will come by itself

  5. re guidance.
    On our Unitec Department of Language Studies moodle site we have recently added two student zones. Both of these have IT support and language sites we recommend – one is generally higher level IT skills and language level and targets different students within the department, the other is lower level IT skills and language so the sites are often accompanied by screencasts to show the student how to access and use the site. The lower the IT/language skill, the more you need to scaffold them.
    I agree with discovery but frustration is a great deterrent to using the web and scaffolding them provides the steps towards self discovery, increases confidence and independence.

    • I agree that frustration can be a deterrent but it can also be that special factor that pushes you over the hurdle and on to the next step. Spoon feeding is only valid for so long, real understanding in real time on a solo learning basis comes from dealing with the frustration and breaking through to the next step.. Using the net in this way becomes a real tool for discovery and not only a doctored learning experience, set up by someone to lead you down a pre-planned path with objectives that are not your own.

  6. Hi I think we agree but for really low level learners in language and eliteracy frustration does not push them over the hurdle from my experience, it just causes them to shut down and revert to what they know. Of course at higher levels this is justified. Students with little or no experiene of using computers, let alone the internet, have to learn how to navigate with help these days or they just get lost in information overload.

  7. I concede that point. It is just hard to imagine today, at least here in Barcelona, that anyone at all can still be a virgin as far as computers and the net are concerned!!!!

  8. Actually there is no problem with most nationalities in ESOL or any students in our existing education systems – from 5 in New Zealand they are introduced to computers BUT those who are refugees have, almost without exception, literacy skills and computer knowledge which need considerable scaffolding and support. Often the ESOL class is their first contact with a formal education as they have usually spent most of their time in refugee camps. Luckily they have good communicative skills and are eager to learn. They are the most receptive to screencasts showing them how to navigate and improve literacy skills.

  9. If planned appropriately, and webpages/resources are given to students ahead of time, they are definately a help. However, if students are sent on a “Google Hunt”, they may return with incorrect or outdated information. I personally love the use of online learning when working with ELLs, to clarify instruction, or to provide additional support. Again, resources must be researched and provided before expecting gains.

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