Exploring Alternative Modes of Teaching-Learning: A Case for E-learning

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The vast strides made in technology; the globalization of world economies and the acceptance of English as a world lingua franca necessitated the training of diverse and large populations in various countries of the world. In India, such heterogeneous populations, requiring different skills could not evidently ‘fit’ into the traditional classrooms. There was a dire need for alternative paradigms for delivering education. Open and distance education (albeit with some resistance in the beginning) methodologies are now an acceptable alternative for delivery of education at all levels.

Hand in hand with this, there have been significant developments in ELT pedagogical theory which has impacted our professional thinking. Rejecting the behaviourist model which was teacher-centered, the communicative – interactive and the constructivist models have firmly placed the learner at the centre of the learning process, although teachers and teaching managers have not been able to harness the full power of the learners’ drive (Roe and Richards, 1994). This fortunately fitted in well with the Distance and Open Learning methodology where the learner necessarily is the driving force requiring a “managed learning” situation with the least disruption to his/her life or work while at the same time keeping costs to the minimum. Here the teacher apparently has no overt role but nevertheless has to concentrate on encouraging learning to take place.

In the changing situation, the demand for listening and speaking skills (so far entirely neglected areas in ELT) made it imperative for their inclusion in the curriculum in a meaningful way. The more recent English language programmes of IGNOU such as Functional English, Communication Skills for computer students, Communication Skills for the BPO sector and so on have an audio component which includes the listening and speaking skills as an integral part of the course material sent to each student in the form of a CD which they can listen to at their own pace. More recently, the Functional English Programme is being converted into an e-learning programme which is totally ICT enabled. The same programme is also going to be disseminated through mobile technology. Along with these technologies, the University strengthens the students’ support system through tele-conferencing, video-conferencing and radio counselling where the students interact with the teachers in real time.

One of the most easily accessible technologies is the telephone/mobile phone. As George (1994) says ‘the telephone is often the only medium by which any tutor – student contact can take place”. Besides individual tutor advice which helps build rapport with a distance learner, motivates him/her and resolves immediate problems, it can also be used for larger groups. In the Open University of Scotland for instance, over 200 hours a year was in audio-conferencing. In this mode students could listen to a lecture, discuss with each other and their teacher, ask questions and clarify doubts. In the last decade, Open Universities abroad and mobile companies had tied up with each other to bring English language skills to ESL learners. In India, mobile companies are now providing value added services in the form of communication skills to their customers.  What is interesting to note in the role of technology is, what counts as almost standard practice in one country can be prohibitively expensive in another country (Roe and Richards, 1994). This suggests that each country has to make its own decision in the use of appropriate technology. In fact each university and each department must take their own call in offering multimedia support to their students depending on the course needs, student affordability and teacher initiative.

Even in the face-to-face mode, there is an increasing effort to integrate multimedia technology in classroom instruction and this is where the two modes (face-to-face and Distance) are beginning to converge. Distance education has always been like a hunter in quest for new delivery modes. But face-to-face instruction which has almost entirely depended on the teacher to deliver learning is now beginning to see the value of alternative strategies as a support for better learning and increased student motivation. In fact, we are now seeing a convergence of these modes because of the introduction of technology in language learning.

It is well documented that multimedia technology can help solve some difficulties associated with the EFL/ESL situation, such as large class sizes and mixed-ability classrooms. And where multimedia technology has been used for EFL/ESL instruction, better results have been achieved with training students to be autonomous learners. This explains the growing number of schools/colleges/universities with facilities for students to access computers and audio-video equipment. Research has shown the several advantages that multimedia offers both in the classroom and in the ODL system (see Mayora, 2006):

  • Multimedia technology allows students to work individually at their own pace and according to their own needs. This is especially helpful with mixed ability classrooms where help can be given to the weaker students without slowing the pace of the class.
  • It increases students’ motivation due to novelty of the medium as well as the interactive nature of the activities. It has been reported that new technologies can develop students’ interests in learning activities and lead them to devote more time and attention to these activities than in regular classes.
  • Multimedia increases the students’ confidence in their abilities as it trains them to self monitor and self assess their progress, which promote autonomous learning.
  • It caters to the multiple intelligence of students in introducing a variety of print, audio and visual material that match different students’ learning style and preferences.
  • It helps the teacher make the presentation of content more dynamic and attractive for students. The teacher can also prepare support material to supplement and guide the students. This acts as a scaffold to make the learner self-independent.
  • The computer with its multimedia technology offers opportunities for successful collaborative learning and teamwork in small groups.
  • It can provide virtual learning settings such as classroom and laboratories which allow real time interaction between the students and teachers at different places. For example: A student in Delhi University in a particular college can listen to a lecture in another college through this mode in real time.

The teachers with a little bit of creativity and imagination can use ICT not only for listening and speaking but also for reading and writing and that too without much technological support. Some of the ideas suggested below could be used by any English teacher:

  • When teaching writing to learners, the teacher could involve another institution (school or college). Learners could send each other emails, first draft of essays or stories which are reviewed by other learners with suggestions on how to improve their writing. This would provide the learners an opportunity to look at and critique writing by other learners.
  • Email writing could be another activity to teach both formal and informal letters. Here again teachers can be set up contact with different groups of learners in other institutions, thus making the whole process more authentic and enjoyable.
  • Making posters and brochures which are common activities in schools/colleges could be an entirely web based, collaborative activity.
  • Learners should also use the website of national newspapers to read a variety of reports. They could compare the opening sentences of articles on the same topic. They could compare the reports of the various newspapers on the same subject and categorize what is the fact and what is an opinion. They could then perhaps write their own articles / reports.

However, teachers should not and do not think of technology as a panacea to solve all the problems associated with language teaching both through the distance and open mode and the classroom mode. The use of technology should be based upon well thought pedagogical considerations. For example, it cannot be denied that there is a teacher resistance to technology because of lack of interest or knowledge or because of uncertainty regarding its effectiveness (Mayora, 2006). The use of technology may sometimes lead to passive learning, after the novelty has worn out. Since the pedagogically sound teacher is often not a capable technologist, the activities created are often unimaginative and uninspiring for the learner. Moreover, the cost of maintaining and upgrading the multimedia equipment with its rapid pace of development can be prohibitive. Not all schools or colleges have the resources or space to maintain a good multimedia centre.

To conclude, it certainly is a challenge for a language teacher to discover alternative ways to improve the language skills of the students, especially in the Indian context. But there are plenty of ways for teachers to begin to install at least the beginnings of a multimedia lab in their institutions. Technology is prevalent all around us and it is the teacher’s role to think about how to acquire it and integrate it within the teaching-learning situation. However, the use of the technology in the classroom or through the distance mode should be based on sound theoretical and pedagogical principles where the students, teachers and technology are part of an interrelated system where optimal learning takes place in meaningful situations.

Works Cited

  1. Mayora, Carlos A., English Teaching Forum, Volume 44, no. 3, p 14-20, 2006
  2. Roe, P and Richards, K, Distance Learning in ELT, Modern English Publications, 1994
  3. George, J, Effective Teaching and Learning by Telephone in Roe and Richards ed., Distance Learning in ELT, Modern English Publications, 1994

Anju Sahgal Gupta is a Professor at School of Humanities, Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi.

* Article first published in FORTELL Sep 2010.

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