Teaching and learning languages online: developing an online teaching presence

Many language learners and language teachers have a strong belief that languages need to be learnt or taught in a classroom. Language learning requires a large amount of interaction and tutor input through modelling language, explaining patterns and error correction. The foreign language class though, is a strange environment and one which some learners may find artificial or limiting compared to other ways of learning a language in autonomy or through other forms of practice. Among those, the internet and the way in which it allows direct interactions, including through voice and video, with native speakers has given rise to a large number of learners successfully developing competencies “in the wild”.   

On Monday 16 March 2020 the Language Centre started the delivery of its first Online courses that will run for the next three weeks in French, German and Spanish. What started as a pilot project for one week at the end of Michaelmas term, may be about to become the new normal. 

For the Language Centre at the University of Oxford, this project brings together a small team of self-selected tutors. Working as early adopters and co-constructing new practices with a substantial investment of time and energy, they are working flexibly together, via Canvas from wherever they happen to be, with a strong sense of forging an unusual collaboration – learning and discovering together different ways of delivering teaching and engaging learners. 


Marion Sadoux, Cornelia Wiedenhofer, Philipp Willy and Cristina Rodriguez Oitaven at work designing courses through video conferencing in Canvas. 


However, this unique experience may not be reflective of what other language tutors forced onto online platforms by lockdowns and closures are experiencing. Having worked in China prior to joining the University of Oxford Language Centre, where I was both the Director of the Language Centre at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC) and held the role of Academic Director of Online Learning, I caught up with some of my former colleagues and students and asked them about their experiences. 

Arminda teaches Spanish at UNNC. Following the guidelines from the provincial authorities, the University first delayed its second semester, due to start after the Chinese New Year and then eventually made the decision to switch all teaching online. An extraordinarily efficient effort from staff in the IT services, the e-Learning team and key academics with teaching and Learning roles within schools, made this possible. They set up contingency plans and guidance for switching to online delivery – while most of the foreign staff were stuck with few resources on holidays either in their home countries or in safer destinations in South East Asia. The students meanwhile had returned to their hometowns and were suffering the ongoing isolation of the lockdowns. On Wednesday 4 March, the second semester started. Arminda is one of the few tutors who returned to Ningbo before the lockdown – I connected with her through Zoom, the platform the university is using to deliver live sessions, and asked her how she feels about the experience: 

“Like anything new it is really stressful and a lot of work but at the same time it is exciting to be doing something new and learning so much so fast. We are creating resources and giving the students instructions to work on all skills, using either their textbooks or resources we are providing – we have received a lot of guidance and we all have to follow a structure – the students need to do two weekly activities from two sets to count as “present”. Initially we had planned to offer a 20 minute live session every other week to groups of two or three students to practice speaking with role plays and discussions – but the students complained that this was not enough – now we have set up to do this weekly and to offer our office hours via Zoom as well. It is easier for colleagues who teach “content” modules because they can put their lectures online for the students to watch – but in languages we don’t lecture and the students want more interaction with the teachers”.   

Arminda is one of the lucky  ones – she is teaching from her office – elsewhere on social media one reads discordant experiences – Mary, an English tutor stuck in the Philippines says “remote teaching is like being in hell: electricity cuts off, Moodle stops working, spreadsheet won’t open, can’t access files, no textbooks, so need multiple windows open, slowing an already slow computer, plus endless email exchanges with (generally panicking) students  and I really could go on” – and then she adds “like it or not, distance learning is a necessity, but there are many ways it could be made easier”. 

At least the students at the UNNC are getting a little bit of interaction and are able to access a wide range of resources. I also talked to Xiaowen, a newly qualified Chinese teacher of French whom I had met a few years ago through social networking platforms for language learning (Hello Talk / WeChat group “le français facile”). Xiaowen participated in a research project I carried out on the use of the Chinese platform WeChat (similar to WhatsApp) and how semi-synchronous conversations improved fluency. Being what I considered an expert user of self-selected technology to improve her language skills, I was curious to hear of her experiences with online teaching. Xiaowen took up her position teaching for the University of Chengdu during the coronavirus crisis. She works from her home in Zhuhai, near Shengzhen, and her work for now mostly entails correcting students work and emailing files back via the Chinese platform QQ. She is unsure about the pedagogical value of what she is doing, finds the work physically exhausting and worries about her eyesight. The students are not happy – they are bored and isolated. 

When online teaching is thrust upon teachers, when they have no say over the tools being used and when they have little ownership over the way in which it is set up – the result is inevitably a disappointing one. Time may have been of the essence but it is surprising to see universities venturing hastily into setting up distance teaching, without any reference to the established research outcomes that they have produced over the years in this field.  Access to online learning is primarily a social construct (once all the tools are assembled, working and connected) – it is difficult to see how it can work successfully without the teachers having first-hand experience of learning online themselves, developing their presence and voice online – for this they need support and opportunities more than guidance or instructions. 

We are lucky at the University of Oxford Language Centre. Thanks to being early adopters of Canvas (the University's new Virtual Learning Environment), and to the expertise and support of our learning technologists, Jill Freesen and Xavier Laurent, Canvas offers all that is needed for good online teaching. We would also like to extend a thank you to all our learners who signed up for our Online courses or engaged with our learning objects, we are now in a better position than many other institutions to plan for this transition if need be. 

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