Video conferencing software has made enormous strides in the last few years, and most people probably have encountered multiple applications that can easily facilitate virtual, face-to-face conversations with friends, family, and colleagues from phones or computers. In the “olden days”–that is, even just three or four years ago–tools like Skype or Google Hangouts would crash, freeze, or offer distorted audio if internet conditions weren’t perfect. Now, though, it is possible to have quality video calls with even a 3G connection, opening a world of possibilities for live, virtual interactions. What, then, does this development mean for online teaching?
It goes without saying that while a picture is worth a thousand words, a live encounter is generally preferable, all things considered, to a video call. I mean, I love being able to FaceTime with my sons and partner when I am on the opposite side of the world, but nothing replaces a real-life hug. However, when it comes to instruction, close enough might just be good enough. Or, possibly, even better.
Here’s why: When working adults take live, face-to-face language classes, they often get cancelled. Some companies report cancellation rates of over seventy-five percent for in-person instruction, and in general, the number hovers around fifty percent. That is a lot of lost time. But virtual classes, which can be taken from the comfort of an employee’s phone or desk, are cancelled far less often. At Voxy, we see a cancellation rate of about 20%, making our virtual, face-to-face instruction a much better idea. A video class that you attend is way better than an in-person class that you don’t.
In addition, learning a language is a complex cognitive skill, and one of the basic requirements to make progress is that you practice. During an in-person meeting with a teacher, a student might make several systematic errors, and the teacher might takes notes on these, and share them with the student afterwards. We know that it doesn’t make sense to interrupt a language learner when she is speaking and try to tell her that she’s conjugating verbs incorrectly; it’s much better to let her finish what she’s saying and offer the feedback after the fact. But virtual face-to-face classes can be easily recorded for posterity, so learners and teachers can review the recordings and talk about mispronunciations, grammatical errors, or non-standard vocabulary. In a face-to-face class, once the moment has passed, it’s gone.
Finally, virtual live instruction allows both teacher and student to make use of both all of the tools available online as well as the beneficial aspects of an in-person meeting. Dictionaries, recordings of authentic language, collaborative documents, video clips, samples of writing, and countless other examples of real-world language use can be shared via the video conferencing platform, allowing both student and teacher to enrich the instruction.
Video conferencing will never replace in-person interaction, and no number of emojis will be superior to a real-life handshake or a high five. But when it comes to language instruction, virtual, face-to-face instruction solves the problems of space and time that often plague in-person classes AND it brings benefits that are hard to replicate in a physical classroom. Maybe it’s time we started viewing virtual classes as a benefit rather than an inferior replacement.
Katharine Nielson, Ph.D. leads a team of curriculum specialists, data analysts, and research associates to develop test items, curate language learning content, develop curricula, and run empirical studies. She’s spent twenty years teaching languages, researching how to teach languages, and teaching people how to teach languages in various settings around the world.