Clearing Virtual Hurdles

Sylvaine Montaudouin tackles the challenges of developing content and teaching online

There is plenty of talk about the challenges students face when taking an online course, but what a teacher faces when developing appropriate content and choosing an effective online teaching methodology can be even more challenging. Both synchronous courses (delivered in real time with an instructor and classmates) and asynchronous courses (delivered so that students have the flexibility to access them when and where they choose) are used in language instruction and can be further combined to create a virtual-blended-learning environment.

While academic director of Soluciones Educativas Chile (SESA Chile), I spearheaded the development and implementation of our corporate English curriculum, which integrated material and self-study from asynchronous courses developed by DynEd International with our own face-to-face course materials in an educational platform. This blended learning approach was developed at the request of companies with remote offices in the north of Chile, where quality face-to-face courses were scarce. Customer surveys showed high satisfaction rates on the part of both the students themselves and of the HR departments who commissioned the courses.

Some of the challenges we faced when developing and implementing these blended online courses will be explored here, along with suggestions for overcoming them.

Ensuring regular attendance
Flexibility is touted as one of the great advantages of online instruction. When taking an asynchronous course, the student chooses when and where to study. While it sounds great, the reality is that many students struggle with too much freedom. There seems to be a direct correlation between too much flexibility and poor results. With a synchronous course, students choose where, as long as there is good internet access, but still need to deal with the when. Either way, regular attendance, which is so important to effective learning (particularly with language acquisition), requires a great deal of discipline. Helping students make discipline part of their study skills can make all the difference.

Motivating students to attend, participate, and practice
To help students develop the discipline needed to benefit from online instruction, a well-designed motivational training session which introduces students to how learning takes place is invaluable. Learning a language is already a mystery to most people; learning it online presents additional challenges that can be overwhelming, including technical issues, distractions, retaining focus and attention, not participating in activities, and even taking the course seriously.

The synchronous environment offers an excellent opportunity to begin the program with a motivational training session led by the instructor. Most students are truly interested in understanding how learning takes place because, for many, it is new information. For example, learning about making connections in the brain makes students realize how important regular practice is to the language-acquisition process. An effective motivational session, led by the instructor, not only provides students with valuable information but also fosters a closer relationship between students and the remote teacher from the very beginning.

Providing motivational information in the asynchronous environment is even more important, because students are on their own, drawing motivation from a desire to learn, but accountable to no one in the immediate present. It is important, therefore, to present interesting and interactive information on motivation from the very first lesson, with reminders on how to stay motivated throughout the course.

Guaranteeing technical comfort
Nothing kills the desire to learn in the online environment more quickly than having technical difficulties installing the software or problems using the audio for listening and voice-recording activities.
This is particularly true for synchronous courses, where those difficulties affect not only the student with the problem but his classmates and instructor as well. Similarly, a student struggling alone in the asynchronous environment can be tempted to abandon the course if technical issues are too frequent and can develop a negative attitude toward all online learning.

To minimize emotional fallout from technical problems, the organization offering the program should provide remote technical support both at the time of installation and during the course. An instructor of a synchronous course should be trained to solve simple technical issues and encouraged to start each course with a short training session for the students on how to increase their comfort level with the platform. This inevitably leads to faster and more effective acquisition of the material. With an asynchronous course, clear channels of communication designed to help students with technical issues should be offered. For optimum participation in both online environments, students need to feel supported. It’s much easier for students to disappear in a virtual environment than in a physical classroom.

Creating clear expectations
What can be expected in an asynchronous environment is different than in a synchronous environment. Few self-study courses provide clear guidance on how to proceed in a systematic manner through the material. Students often become confused and ultimately bored. Setting clear expectations is not easy in the asynchronous environment and can sometimes appear counterintuitive. Gamification-type rewards can help guide students if they are designed with that idea in mind.

In the synchronous environment, the instructor’s verbal presentation of the expectations, in terms of both participation in class and how the material will be covered, creates a comfortable learning environment. If the student does not understand, she can ask and get an immediate response. While “temporal tension”1 is essential in exercises designed to develop oral fluency, first establishing a sense of belonging and comfort in the learning environment allows students to relax and assimilate better. As students ease into the learning process, the tension that comes from performing well in oral-production exercises becomes a valuable tool rather than a hindrance.

To keep online sessions flowing, and therefore ensure better attention and participation, time expectations should be set for each activity. Whether it be entering the virtual classroom, dealing with technical issues, or setting up activities, experience shows that everything takes longer in a synchronous online environment. Only about half of the content covered in regular face-to-face lessons can be covered in the online environment.2 It can be extremely frustrating for both the instructor and the students to feel the need to rush through content because “time has gotten away.” Setting time expectations for each activity helps keep everyone on task.

Retaining interest through visuals
Lesson presentations in a virtual environment should be visually pleasing and easy to relate to. While the emphasis is on content and organization for best learning outcomes, as it should be, the importance of visuals in an online course is valued greatly by many content designers. There is growing evidence that visuals play an important role in learning. Several studies have demonstrated that using visuals improves student participation and understanding of the material.3
In an asynchronous course, visuals are important in delivering information and providing support that cannot be filled in by the instructor. The trick is to use visuals as a support to learning, not as a distraction. DynEd ( courseware, for example, emphasizes that visuals should be “iconic,” especially at the basic levels. Their role is to represent concepts and provide scaffolding to help students comprehend the target language without the use of translation. Extraneous visual information only increases cognitive load and works against effective learning. An appropriate use of colors and styles retains attention and impacts student perception of the material, how we learn, and ultimately the value of the course and materials.4

In a synchronous course, the presentation of each lesson should follow a regular order. This can increase students’ comfort levels. However, colors, textures, and activities should vary to promote a sense of anticipation and freshness. Key points to be covered in a lesson should be summarized and followed up on pages or slides for the students that clearly point out what they have been working on and why it is important. It should also be clear to students what they should focus on to prepare for the next class, including tips and reminders as to how best to increase the quality of their study time.

Designing focused activities introduced by simple instructions
A successful lesson is one in which students are left with a sense of having achieved a learning goal. Focused practice of specific concepts and skills is key to effective, orderly progress. Because language acquisition is sequential, just like math, more difficult structures depend on mastery of previous building blocks. If students are not working at the right level, they are left frustrated and are more likely to quit.

This issue is especially critical in the synchronous classroom, where the pace of lessons needs to be lively to retain interest and promote participation. It is too easy for a student who is lost to hide in anonymity and let other students do the work. Dividing a lesson into well-designed, focused activities in which students practice one thing at a time ensures the participation of a larger number of students.

Unfortunately, how to participate in interesting, interactive activities may be lost on students if the instructions are overly complicated. In an online environment, where body language is absent and modeling is more difficult than in a face-to-face classroom, simple instructions are especially important. They minimize the time spent preparing for an activity and give students a sense of confidence. When students clearly understand the goal, they are more likely to participate and be engaged.

The challenges faced by content developers and instructors of online language-acquisition courses are numerous, but not insurmountable. Instructors are not necessarily the designers of the courses being taught, but in all cases the instructor is responsible for choosing the methodology that best fits her, the class, and the material.

Because acquiring a language takes practice and practice requires frequent exposure, students need to develop discipline, not only to progress in the language but also to commit to attending class — in the case of a synchronous class — or to self-study — in the case of an asynchronous class. Motivational training previous to embarking on the study path is invaluable. It helps students better understand how a language is acquired and what they can do to facilitate the process.
Courses where content designers and instructors have taken all these challenges into consideration can be a very powerful and effective language-acquisition tool.

1 Knowles, Lance. (2008). “Recursive Hierarchical Recognition: A Brain-based Theory of Language Learning,” FEELTA/NATE Conference Proceedings (pp. 28-34), Far Eastern National University, Vladivostok, Russia.
2 Data collected by SESA Chile.
3 Glore, Peyton. (2010). Identifying Motivational Strategies to Engage Undergraduate Learning in Web-Based Instruction. Doctoral dissertation, Capella University.
4 David, Alicia, and Peyton Glore. (Winter 2010). “The Impact of Design and Aesthetics on Usability, Credibility, and Learning in an Online Environment.” Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration (OJDLA) v.XIII, no. IV.

Sylvaine Montaudouin has been involved in education for over 30 years, either as an instructor, a content developer, or an administrator of educational programs. She has taught French, Spanish, and English in traditional classrooms, in virtual classrooms, and in one-on-one situations; she has developed content for face-to-face programs and online courses; and she has held a variety of administrative positions in university departments, institutes, and private companies. In 1999, Montaudouin helped found and was the company’s COO as well as content coordinator. In January 2003, she became senior account manager for, a major online Spanish-language-training provider, developing content and training instructors to teach in an online environment.