Teaching a language online is certainly a different experience than teaching in a physical classroom, and most people like to point to its limitations and drawbacks. But do we ever consider the undeniably unique experience of being in an online language class?
Perhaps the biggest advantage is students getting to connect with each other. This may sound less significant to jet-setting denizens of cosmopolitan cities, but I’ve worked with students who had never even been on an airplane before, and now here they were, interacting in a global language with people from all over the world. Attending school abroad or moving overseas can be costly decisions, and while the experience is certainly valuable, what about the students who want to meet others and learn English but don’t have the means to do so? Online learning helps to fill this gap.
Learning a language online also harnesses the full power of the internet in a way that traditional in-person classes often cannot. According to independent monitoring by W3Techs, just over 55% of the most visited websites had an English-language homepage in 2015. The content on the internet—of which the dominant language is English—can be the best and most reliable way to learn the language. In traditional classrooms, this requires a smartboard or projector. But in an online classroom, students can immediately connect to authentic content published for native English speakers. This gives students access to galaxies of input: thousands upon thousands of videos, conversations, articles and more, all with a teacher by their side.
It’s hard to predict what learning a language online will look like in 20 years—or 50. Social media platforms and other companies are investing heavily in virtual reality (VR), for example; and while many still regard it as a novelty, it is exciting to think what an online class would look like in virtual reality. With or without VR, it does seem like online learning will continue to close the gap with physical classrooms and that a virtual presence will become as valuable as a physical one. There will always be a human element to it as well, seeing as language is the primary way we express our humanity. For now, we should be happy these doors are opening.