E-Learning In An Emergency: A Language Teacher’s Tips For Adapting To Education’s New Normal

E-learning is now the primary mode of instruction for millions of students around the world. An experienced language instructor offers her insights on creating an engaging blended learning curriculum combining language apps and video lessons in the face of new challenges.
Empty classroom

According to UNESCO, the coronavirus pandemic has forced school closures in 185 countries, disrupting the education of  over 1.5 billion primary, secondary and university students globally. From one day to the next, schools closed, universities delayed the start of term, and many companies required non-essential employees to work from home.

In the field of education, the pandemic has brought sudden, radical change: a shift from learning in a traditional classroom to new, largely untested online formats. Universities, schools and educational institutions had to switch to virtual classes and distance learning overnight. Teachers are now confronted with questions about which online teaching platforms to use, where to find quality digital resources, and how to deliver quality instruction in a challenging and unfamiliar environment. Many professors and teachers are new to online teaching and struggling to adapt as rapidly as the situation demands.

This has a special resonance in the field of language learning, where the classroom is often seen as a “safe place” in which teachers ideally develop a rapport with each class. For communicative language classes, it’s essential to create an environment where people feel comfortable practicing their speaking skills and interacting with one another. Some language educators now find themselves trying to recreate this sense of community in an online environment, while familiarizing themselves with conferencing tools and adapting their classroom-focused materials for use in online sessions.

Needless to say, the situation has negatively impacted both language teachers and learners affected by school closures. However, the current school and university shutdown could also be seen as an opportunity to explore new pedagogical methods and to further develop the e-learning field by combining established tools and approaches with new innovations. Teachers and students alike can rethink not only traditional methods of teaching but also how we think of education more broadly and the role of digitization within this field.

What a Blended Learning Course Can Offer

A great example of how combining technology and online tutoring can help address the current need for digitization and flexibility is Laura Capitani’s “Web-based interactive Italian A1-A2,” offered at the Language Centre of Maastricht University since 2013.

Laura Capitani – a passionate Italian teacher and enthusiastic techie – recognized in the early 2000s the impact that the internet might have on learning and teaching a language and started to explore new possibilities to integrate technology in her lessons. For seven years, Laura has been using Babbel as the syllabus for her beginner-level Italian courses and has built up a unique program which brings together elements of blended learning and flipped classroom models.

In Laura’s program, students start learning Italian using Babbel’s lessons. When they have completed all assigned lessons, they revise and practice using extra activities Laura creates and assigns using other apps such as Quizlet. After this consolidation and review, students then prepare for meeting their language instructor online. In the online session, students have the chance to clarify any grammar doubts, but above all to practice their speaking skills. As one of Laura’s students explains, “During my Skype calls I learned a lot from having to talk Italian all the time. Also sometimes I did not understand the grammar explanation on Babbel, so therefore it was good to have a teacher to ask [questions].”

Laura’s method of combining interactive activities via the Babbel app with online tutoring has proved an effective way to learn languages online: technology on one side, combined with a human touch on the other. The app allows students to learn at their own pace, while their tutor is there to provide support and give them an opportunity to practice as well as individual feedback on their speaking skills. Another of Laura’s students commented: “I have been learning various different languages through various different means for many years now – from language schools with 20 people to private lessons via Skype – but so far I find that this method is one that really fits the 21st century (and my personal) standards for what language learning should be.”

The students’ feedback on this program shows how the mixture of technology-based activities and online tutoring is a concrete and effective way to learn a language. Students appreciate the blended learning wishing to be able to follow other languages courses with the same format: “The [beginner-level ] Italian A1 course by live instruction plus the app was a wonderfully constructed learning experience. It combined immersive and enjoyable exercises with engaging optical and aural stimuli.”

Laura’s model is easily adapted and scalable for different contexts: it could work well for corporate training where a company’s employees working in different cities could attend the same language sessions online; it could also be implemented in institutions for adult education, such as private language schools, the German Volkshochschulen (adult education centers), or even—as Laura’s experience demonstrates—at the academic level.

As Laura points out, “flipping the classroom” to a blended learning environment using web-based interactive learning activities allowed her to apply differentiated learning strategies, personalising the learning path for each student. According to her students’ needs and inclinations, Laura can individualize each learners’ course with assignments and provide extra material in order to support and develop skill areas like listening or writing. This means more autonomy and freedom to move at one’s own pace, and more individual feedback.

Laura’s online sessions take place in a one-to-one environment where the teacher dedicates their time exclusively to the single learner to practice their speaking skills in fun and interesting conversations. Laura believes, however, that, “the model can be easily applicable to entire classes with 10-12 students, and in this sense, technology makes it possible. Most video conferencing tools such as Zoom allow teachers to create separate rooms where students can work in pairs or in groups and interact with each other.” 

Best Practices for Implementing Blended Learning in the Virtual Classroom

As a highly experienced teacher and online tutor, Laura is very familiar with the obstacles and difficulties facing teachers at the moment. She has some advice and best practices to help others make their first steps into the digital teaching environment:

  • Choose only one reliable video conferencing tool and explore its functions step by step and not all of them at once. It is important that you feel confident using it with your students. Don’t panic! If you haven’t quite mastered all the functionalities at the beginning, learners will understand. 
  • Have your students speak in groups, in pairs or with you. When they come to your online sessions, they want to speak as much as possible and practice what they have learnt with the app. Create activities such as role plays or set up short debates to encourage discussion and longer speaking turns. 
  • Personalize the learning experience of each student by suggesting supplemental resources according to their needs. If they need to improve their reading skills, you can have them read an article and sum up the main information for your online session (on local newspapers or newspapers distributed on public transport systems like Metro news are short and the vocabulary is not so difficult). Or if you think that your learners need to review a specific grammar topic like the articles or tenses, spice up and vary the syllabus with the unique activities you can create with an easy-to-use online application like LearningApps.
  • Prepare a precise learning path that your students can follow autonomously and describe precisely which Babbel lessons they should take at which steps. 
  • Integrate both the asynchronous and synchronous lessons with extra material, for example using other apps such as Quizlet Or you can use videos from YouTube which are related to the topic you have been dealing with.
  • Compared to traditional classes, learners can miss the human touch or the warm and welcoming atmosphere of the group. Develop a personal relationship with the online group, and use your body language and your facial expressions to overcome the distance. And of course, don’t forget to have fun during the lesson!

Note: Babbel is currently providing free access for one month to students affected by school closures. For more information about this offer, please click here.