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Language Learning and MOOCs – what Coursera can teach polyglots

Say "MOOC"...I’m taking a quick break from my busy studying schedule to write this post. It’s not the first time I’ve written about MOOCs and the importance of online courses for language learners. But this time, I’m reporting from “within” – so how can foreign language study change with online courses booming?

1. MOOCs matter to learners and teachers

A few years after their tentative launch, everyone is paying attention. Massive Open Online Courses have taken off, and there is no denying that the climate of education debate has changed for good. There is even a petition (which you can sign here) to make MOOC a default format for university education in the future.
This development – being able to access quality education without geographical, social or financial constraints – is something that we probably can’t fully assess in terms of future impact. Nobody knows how learning will change as a result. No university has its future policies fully figured out in view of the MOOCs. But is it really all so positive and ground-breaking?

2. MOOCs and their shortcomings

For language learners, the open online course format sounds like a dream. It’s free! It’s flexible! No more commuting to classes, no more tutoring fees?
Well, not all is rosy. The online course has two major flaws that are quite hard to fix – and their significance for anyone willing to study a foreign language is immense. I noticed them both as I’m passing through my Coursera modules at the moment (highly recommended, by the way: Psychology and Gamification). What are the two drawbacks?
The first problem is the course structure. Almost everything is tutor-led and asynchronous. This means that the lectures, tests and assignments are prepared in advance, the right and wrong answers are pre-planned, and the criteria for passing or failing the course are set out the moment it begins. That is very useful for most disciplines. Unfortunately, it completely misses the point of language study – where negotiation, communication and live interaction are the only ways to develop communicative competence.
The second problem can be called “MOOC inertia.” It’s not always there, but I can’t help but predict its presence for some course takers. When everything is presented to you and your interaction is limited, there is a tendency to withdraw and to only participate in the course in a minimal way. You do enough to pass each weekly assignment, but not enough to fully benefit and meaningfully engage with the content. It takes a brilliant moderator to energize online audiences, and this is something that MOOC creators still need to learn. For a future poyglot, there would be nothing more frustrating than waiting for days to see a reply to their comment – or hoping in vain to find a chat partner in an empty (or apathetic) forum.

3. Language learning and MOOCs – possible developments

So does this mean that polyglots are doomed to miss the whole open course revolution? Will we be the only ones holding on to classrooms and face-to-face contact?
There is no doubt that this can’t be eliminated. The idea that you can learn a foreign language fluently while clicking through dialog boxes and multiple-choice tests – this is what the new education is trying to sell us, but the hardcore polyglots aren’t buying it. There will always be a need, at some point, for face-to-face time and real communication challenges.
But MOOCs can take the load off classroom time, too. They can focus on presenting those aspects that need to be taught and understood. Grammar rules, listening activities, vocabulary presentation – these can be helped by online delivery, so that learners can focus on meaningful communication when human contact phase happens. This – when done right – can be the ultimate solution to language learning.

4. Did online courses help you learn a language?

This is just a very quick introduction to a debate which, I’m sure, will be going on across the education arena. Two video resources worth exploring here:

Daphne Koller explains why MOOCs matter (before they mattered), and
Anant Agarwal explains why MOOCs are still important (after the hype and the hiccup stage).

What are your thoughts on this? How would you use the online course delivery to learn a language? Let us know!

(Photo credit:Creative Commons License A Watters via Compfight)


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