The Drawbacks of Online Language Teaching: Using Skype, Webex, and the many Derivates

October 2015

Now virtual classrooms are commonplace due to the obvious cost advantages for schools and students, it’s essential we analyse their value from a pedagogical perspective. For me, the issues that make virual classrooms a poor substitute for face to face teaching boil down to one word: interactivity.

Having two or more people speak to each other — In online teaching only one person can have the mic at any time. This is because the software was intended for conferencing and telephony so it makes sense not to have people talking simultaneously. In language classrooms the opposite is needed.

Group tasks — are incredibly hard to initiate and execute. You can’t mingle among people, you can’t dish out slips, or any other discretely written information, you can’t take people off to one side or out of the room. As well as this, learners have little personal, social, or simply human connection with the people they share the feed with, and thus have far less need or motivation to actually say anything to each other.

Monitoring and feedback issues — Circulating, listening in, praising good language, speaking specifically, demonstrating a point, eliciting errors and answers quietly to a group while others are working is virtually impossible in a virtual classroom. Everyone hears everything or nothing.

Attention and direction issues — Instruction gets filtered and convoluted when you put a medium between yourself and the learners. Non verbal gestures are unknown and unnoticed — you can’t point, shrug, nod, or grimace. You can’t be a physical focus of the room, there is no physical movement at all which is vital for adding energy and changing the dynamic. At the same time, distractions from the learners’ home and electronic environments are all the more prevalent.

In an area like language teaching, where the learners lack competence and teacher instructions are often highly specific, confusion and silence arising from teacher talk is the default situation throughout the class, not just at the beginning.

Teacher led teaching — This default passivity with people not participating and frequently exiting the feed, forces the teacher to simply talk more in what becomes essentially a radio show. This mode of operating doesn’t induce skills-based learning and puts pressure on teachers who are already generally underpaid in an online context. Therefore the optimum class size for online teaching is one-on-one, the clear drawbacks of which I’ve written about here.

Whiteboard issues — Very limited writing dexterity with a mouse makes for ridiculous whiteboard presentation, which forces all written communication to be typed. There is no getting students up to the board. While freehand images and conceptualisations must be forgone altogether, fostering both the detriment of understanding and the unwanted increase in teacher talk.

Teacher answering questions — If a student asks something to the teacher, it’s inevitably typed rather than spoken, which as well as being lazy, can take a relatively long time to read especially if it’s verbose and hard to read. Not only this but the class has to be stopped for everyone while the answer is given or indeed typed. Online teaching slows everyone down and wastes a lot of time while students are sat in silence and attention inevitably wanders. In a face to face class, you could be clearly telling the student and importantly, showing him or her, in real time while everyone is busy.

All these drawbacks I’ve outlined lead to one word: inefficiency. Online teaching plays to affective factors that eat away at time, focus, and learning. Tech doesn’t have to impose such constraints on teaching. On the contrary, it should be used to free teachers up and allow us to implement communicative activities. The problem is that conferencing and telephony software were not invented with the language classroom in mind, and thus ironically they make our job less technical, not more so.