Image by Flickr user nkcphoto. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Image by Flickr user nkcphoto. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A few weeks ago, Laurie wrote the first of five posts on the Edtech trends of ELT, covering online learning. In his post, he wrote:

it’s only a matter of time before someone is teaching English via a MOOC – either delivering courses through the existing platforms or creating an ELT MOOC (honestly, why has no-one actually done that already?).

Here’s why: there’s a good chance it won’t work.

In a recent edition of The New Yorker, Nathan Heller wrote an extensive, informative article on MOOCs, posing the question, “Has the future of college moved online?”. He offers a balanced take, for the most part, despite several passages which suggest he pines for a more traditional model of face-to-face education:

In Cambridge, when the weather starts to warm up, fragrances return: first, there’s a soft, faint scent of earth and fog; the grass comes back; and trees begin to blossom in the courtyard of the old-books library at Harvard. Groundskeepers set down mulch.

You don’t get that sat in front of your PC.

Heller defines a MOOC more succinctly than I could ever manage:

A MOOC is “massive” because it’s designed to enroll tens of thousands of students. It’s “open” because, in theory, anybody with an Internet connection can sign up. “Online” refers not just to the delivery mode but to the style of communication: much, if not all, of it is on the Web. And “course,” of course, means that assessment is involved—assignments, tests, an ultimate credential.

He goes on to say that ‘many people think that MOOCs are the future of higher education in America’.

But what role do they have in the future of ELT?

One of the thrusts of the article is that the implementation of MOOCs is generally easier (and, by extension, more successful) in more quantitative disciplines; a circuits-and-electronics course is one example given. Where they become more problematic is in the teaching and assessing of qualitative subjects, specifically the humanities. Ian M. Miller, a graduate student in charge of technical production for a history MOOC at Harvard, is quoted as saying:

From a computational perspective, the types of question we are asking in the humanities are orders of magnitude more complex.

Which leads us to ask, Doesn’t the teaching of a foreign language present an even greater level of complexity? And, if so, what chances does an ELT MOOC have of ever being truly successful?

There are two features of MOOCs which are especially problematic from an ELT perspective. Heller quotes William W. Fisher III, a professor at Harvard Law School:

Two features that can be found in most of this recent wave of online courses are: first, what could be described variously as the ‘guru on the mountaintop,’ or the ‘broadcast model,’ or the ‘one-to-many model,’ or the ‘TV model. The basic idea here is that an expert in the field speaks to the masses, who absorb his or her wisdom. The second feature is that, to the extent that learning requires some degree of interactivity, that interactivity is channelled into formats that require automated or right-and-wrong answers.

Let’s unpick that.

One of the ways that communicative language teaching differs from the style of teaching that many of us received at university is the absence of the ‘guru on the mountaintop’ model. Teacher Talking Time (TTT) is discouraged, as it limits Student Talking Time (STT). (I can’t have been the first trainee to have been taken aback by the concept of pair and group work on my CELTA course; I’d never encountered it at university, despite studying French and Hispanic Studies.) For fans of the communicative approach, the ‘broadcast model’ of a MOOC represents a step backwards in terms of ELT pedagogy, even if it’s a step forwards in terms of the use of technology.

Now, that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker. There’s certainly room in ELT for top-down instruction; after all, the goal of communicative language teaching is to reduce TTT, not eliminate it altogether. And many of the most successful ELT coursebooks follow a broad PPP (Present-Practice-Produce) approach, which would seem to lend itself well to the MOOC format (provided you could find a suitable solution for presenting and assessing spoken output).

The bigger issue, I would argue, is with the second feature that Fisher outlines: that interactivity in MOOCs is ‘channelled into formats that require automated or right-and-wrong answers’.

Interactivity is key to successful language learning. In fact, in his 2005 article Dogme: Dancing in the dark?, Scott Thornbury lists ‘high on interactivity’ as the number 1 feature of his imaginary course Dogway, a coursebook that ‘(by promoting dogme values,) both subverts the prevailing paradigm, and sets a new industry standard’ (an objective of MOOCs, too?). How could the level of interactivity required of a successful language-learning course be achieved in the context of a MOOC? Multiple choice questions can test our understanding of words or our grasp of grammatical concepts, but the business of communication is too messy for right-and-wrong answers.

The answer would seem to lie in some sort of compromise, in the use of the online space to deliver certain content and the face-to-face space to produce and assess communicative competence. As Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard, put it to Heller:

Part of what we need to figure out as teachers and as learners is, Where does the intimacy of the face-to-face have its most powerful impact?

But at that point we’re not talking about MOOCs anymore; we’re talking about blended learning, or the flipped classroom. And can a blended course or a flipped classroom ever be truly massive? Can a course like that accommodate tens of thousands of learners, like some MOOCs do? Can it ever be truly open, if suddenly there are geographical constraints or time zones to navigate? And if it’s not taught entirely, or predominantly, online, is it really a MOOC at all?

We’ll no doubt see the emergence of ELT MOOCs, but the successful ones are unlikely to follow the format and structure used in the US Higher Ed context. An evolution of some kind will be needed, and that’s where it’ll start to get really interesting.

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