In the course of running my language business, Premiere English, I’ve been asked by more than one client whether or not I could ever offer web-based English language instruction so that their foreign expatriate workforce could take classes according to when each employee has time rather than having to try to organize a time when they could take the classes in groups with a live teacher sent out on-site. They are always surprised when I respond that I don’t want to offer such a service. I wonder if it makes me look a little “behind the times”. I’ve long thought about writing an article about my whole perspective on attempts to exclusively utilize technology to provide language instruction versus the “old school” method of using a live teacher to teach students in person. Well, the time has come.
Now let me first preface my comments on this debate by stating that I am not technologically ignorant nor am I a technophobe. Quite the contrary. I actually consider myself a huge technophile, relatively speaking of course, as I am not a tech professional by any means. That being said, I’ve been enamored with technology since the days of the Windows 3.1 operating system back in the early 90’s. I have developed my own websites (including both this blog site and the main Premiere English site), can work with Flash, have built my own computers, installed and reinstalled operating systems, work with the Adobe suite of development applications, etc. I love technology’s ability to make mundane tasks that we do more intuitively efficient. I do, however, feel that the application of technology to improving and making more efficient the day to day tasks in our personal and professional lives can have serious limitations in terms of how effective it actually is. The case of e-learning and e-training (with particular emphasis here on e-learning-based language instruction) is one such area where I feel that our blind and dogged pursuit of finding a way that technology can “make our lives better” has blinded us to using our better judgment as to how honestly effective such a mode of learning actually is.
So why does a self-professed technophile refuse to jump on the technology bandwagon and start developing an e-learning based business model for delivering language instruction? There are actually several reasons but the primary underlying reason is that I believe artificial, simulated, static experience is a really poor substitute for genuine, authentic, organic experience. To me it’s like the difference between watching a Travel Channel show about Thailand versus having the authentic experience of actually going to Thailand. I’ve done both and I can honestly say that watching the show doesn’t even come close to the real experience. That’s not to say that I think that the show has no value at all because you can indeed learn something about Thailand conceptually but I feel that you really don’t meaningfully know anything about Thailand until you have been there and have had a real experience with it. I believe learning language is the same. You can learn something about language using an e-learning model but language is something I strongly feel a learner is better served by literally rubbing noses with it. You can’t really rub noses with language through a computer because a computer isn’t alive and cannot really replace what actually happens when two people bump into each other on the street and start a random conversation. In part two of this series, I’ll delve deeper into this topic and my arguments for why I feel e-learning language instruction models are not as effective as traditional teacher-based models.