A decade in online English language learning

Posted by on October 05, 2011

September (and this first week of October) has been all about online English. We round off the lively discussion with a guest post by Fiona MacKenzie. Fiona is Publishing Director of Macmillan English Campus and Onestopenglish.com. Here she gives us a mini history of the last 10 years of developing English language learning materials for e-learning.

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What was the state of the Internet in 2001? Well, the dotcom bubble had just burst and many promising technology companies had gone bankrupt. In the States, Internet users were spending on average 9.8 hours a week online, while issues surrounding privacy, security and the accuracy of online information were of major concern.

Against this backdrop, we started work on the Macmillan English Campus. Our brief was to develop an online practice environment for learners of English as a Foreign Language. But we had no roadmap for this kind of development. Most e-learning specialists we found were more focused on the straightforward presentation of content, rather than on developing ways to enable learning by allowing learners to interact with content. Fortunately, there were a couple of e-learning developers willing to work with us to develop interactivities for language learning.

We also had to confront the issue of trust in online content, which meant we would have to prove the quality of what we were producing in order to have a credible product. We decided to use content that was already classroom tested – in print form – and re-purpose it for online use. This was the right decision for purposes of credibility but it brought issues with it as we grappled with the differences between print and screen.

So what did we have to work with technically? Well, we had to produce content to be accessed via a dial-up modem. We had only four screen fonts to play with. Audio clips could be no more than 30 seconds long and had to be highly compressed in order to download at all. There were only nine interactivity types available.

We couldn’t include video because it would take too long to download. We couldn’t rely on the connection enough to allow a student to listen to a recording then make their own and compare it with the original. There was no way of reliably allowing students to send recordings or written texts to their teacher for comment. These things were not impossible, but for an online practice environment to become a viable addition to an institution’s English courses, it had to be reliable. There was no point in promoting blended learning if the online part of the blend regularly failed the user.

The solution was to keep it simple. We concentrated on language practice and the receptive skills. Fortunately, while we were developing the platform, streaming became possible so the 30-second-audio restriction disappeared and we could deliver five-minute listening clips for some of the high-level exams.

Trial and error showed what kind of usability issues arise when you put language learning content onscreen – each screen demanded context and visual appeal to a greater extent than print; the student had to be able to access input and task simultaneously but without too much scrolling; ‘stickiness’ – the pleasurable sensation of the interaction with the computer – mattered; the only truly productive work you could provide required type-in gapfills but this workbook-like interaction was not so popular with students.

In 2011, as we celebrate ten years since the start of work on one of the first e-learning platforms for ELT, broadband is standard and video has become an essential part of the online experience. Students can reliably make recordings. Audio doesn’t have to be so compressed and there are dozens of fonts available. We can endlessly combine old and new interaction types to improve the learning experience. We long ago abandoned the route of re-purposing print material as the opportunities presented by navigation, linking and multimedia became clearer. The technology has moved on immeasurably but our experience and learning from the early days is still relevant.

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