My own disciplinary background is in second language development, and specifically, German language learning. Over the last decade or so, as online and blended learning has proliferated, languages have sought ought means by which to teach a foreign language online using educational technology. This may seem like a difficult task – how do you teach a language when the very act of speaking the language and practicing pronunciation is challenging, if not outright impossible. And indeed, this is a challenge. As learning management systems develop and improve, this challenge has been circumvented to some extent by at least allowing asynchronous communication between learners to occur, but nevertheless, the reality is that online language learning is often seen to be at a disadvantage compared to on-campus, traditional classroom-based language learning.
With this in mind, Mat Schulze, Professor in Germanic and Slavic Studies, Sara Marsh, MA student in Germanic and Slavic Studies, and myself undertook a research study as part of a LITE grant to investigate how transitioning between online and on-campus language learning environments may impact student learning. Online learning is no longer just for students who are physically not on-campus; students may be on a co-op term and want to continue their studies, or they may find their schedules already packed and want to alleviate things a bit. Now more than ever, students have a real choice as to how they want to learn, and especially with introductory and intermediate German language courses (specifically GER 101, GER 102, GER 201, and GER 202) they can take these either on-campus or online and the content is largely the same, although activities and assessments vary to some degree.
By looking at enrollment and grade data from the past decade of German language learners at the University of Waterloo (n=6920), as well as surveying (n=157) and interviewing (n=24) current students enrolled in German language courses, we were able to capture learning trajectories of students and determine what happens to learners who transition between learning environments as they progress through the German language program, as well as general attitudes that language learners have of on-campus and online language learning.
Here are some of our data-driven findings:
- Of the 5906 students who took GER 101, 102, and 201, 44% took it online
- Many students are benefitting from taking German language courses online
- Only one third of students who take GER 101 continue on to take GER 102
- Learners who elect to only take one language course to fulfill breadth requirements are attracted to online course offerings over their on-campus equivalents
- Students tend to believe that the online course would be easier than the on-campus version
- Most students enrolled in the German language program take their language courses in the same environment (74.5%)
- Therefore 25.5% of language learners learn through a combination of online and on-campus language learning environments
- Online students are more likely to continue learning in the same environment
- This is again likely due to the perceived notion that online courses are easier than the on-campus equivalent
Reading more into our data, we found the following as well:
- Both online and on-campus language courses prepared students sufficiently for the subsequent German language course
- Most students however held negative or ambivalent views of online learning, feeling it is inferior to the on-campus classroom environment
- Yet these views primarily come from students who have never taken an online language course
- Students who tend to take both online and on-campus language courses are more motivated language learners
- They seek out any opportunity to continue studying German, even if it means it is done in the online learning environment as to avoid having a one or two-term gap between courses
- Perhaps more importantly, students with higher motivation to continue tend to be more successful, and students with higher performance and better grades are more likely to continue studying languages
Three additional themes emerged:
- Students desire personal contact, and tend to believe that online interaction was NOT personal contact
- Communicative interaction is being conceptualized as only spoken or face-to-face, and although there is not an overwhelming amount of one-on-one instructor to student interaction in the on-campus learning environment, it is idolized
- Feedback in the online environment was found lacking or insufficient due to delays, or believed to not exist at all
- Delays in feedback received in-class were not brought up, seemingly considered acceptable as opposed to similar delays online
- Self-regulation of learning and motivation impeded learners’ beliefs about their ability to succeed in the online environment
- Completing tasks and assignments at the last minute may have caused learners to believe they were not learning as successfully as in the on-campus classroom
Of great interest as well were what the students themselves thought about transitioning between online and on-campus learning environments. Students who went from an online to on-campus course focused on shifts in workload and the social interaction that accompanied an in-class learning context. Interestingly, none of the learners who were interviewed discussed anxiety about switching to on-campus instruction or felt that it affected their learning (either negatively or positively).
What does this all mean? Too few students learn in both environments, and there may in fact be some benefits to do so. Chief among these is the natural focus that each environment places on the type of learning that occurs. In the on-campus environment, the spoken language receives ample attention, but the online environment focuses so much on written communication that it can be incredibly beneficial to dedicate an entire course to the online environment. We also need to invest in creating sustainable, synchronous communication channels available and fully integrated into the online course curriculum in order to address the perceived deficiencies with online language learning. Finally, although these results are specific to the German language learning context, we believe these results are transferable to other language programs when deciding how best to offer online language courses in conjunction with traditional on-campus offerings.