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English Language Acquisition and the Internet: Access and choice in the digital age

By Alex Jude / December 2014

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Today, there are more than 1 billion people learning English as a second language worldwide. For many, fluent English represents a chance at a better job, further education, and a new life at home or overseas. This ESL drive represents a growing international wave sweeping across an increasing globalized world. Demand is rising, but how do we find a classroom big enough for a billion students? How do we provide more isolated learners with better access to native English tuition and self-study material? How do we overcome barriers like geographical distance, borders and time zones? The Internet may just hold the key to levelling the linguistic playfield.

From Face-to-Face to the e-Classroom

In 2002, I graduated with a linguistics degree from The University of Manchester. I didn't hang around long enough for the graduation ceremony. My next 10 years were spent in Russia, Saint Petersburg and Omsk to be exact, where I taught English at state universities, private schools, and in a freelance capacity. During this time I was surprised by the demand and enthusiasm for English outside of Britain. I taught many students who had never seen a native speaker before. You could have a Siberian city of 1 million with a native English tutor population of five. Something wasn't right there. In 2012, I made the decision to move back to the UK, but the recent recession meant no teaching jobs. I did a Google search and within a week had set myself up as a Skype English tutor working from home. Two years on and I have my own online English school, Online Teachers UK (OTUK), with 10 tutors and 100 students from across the world. It has been an interesting journey. I'd like to share what I've learned so far…

Who Studies English Online and Why?

In the vast majority of cases, English is group taught in a traditional classroom environment by a non-native tutor. Class sizes are often large (in excess of 25 learners) and so speaking opportunities are extremely limited. This leads to more rote learning, dictation exercises, textbook work, and a focus on grammar and writing skills. As a result, few students gain an adequate level of spoken fluency and lack the ability to communicate freely in English.

It is perhaps this desire to fill the knowledge gap in relation to spoken fluency that is driving global demand for native English tuition both on- and offline. It is certainly the case that the majority of learners approaching Skype schools are mainly interested in improving their speaking and listening skills with a British or American teacher. Due to limited local access to native English teaching in most of the world, learners are turning to the Internet in search of e-tutors.

Another factor driving demand is lifestyle. Many learners interested in pursuing online courses want what we might call "English on demand." Just as we can use a smart TV and catch-up websites to screen the programs we want to watch at the most convenient time and place for us, some are seeking a similar approach to language learning. Lessons need to be personalized to suit the individual needs and level of the learner, they must be conducted at a time and place of the learner's choosing and they have to be cost-effective enough to make tuition affordable at a time of widespread economic austerity.

In 2013-2014, OTUK recorded the following demographic statistics for e-learners studying English via Skype:

Gender split: female = 51.4 percent; male = 48.6 percent
Age range: under 18 years = 8 percent; 18-24 years = 27.5 percent; 25-34 years = 46.8 percent; 35-44 years = 9.6 percent; 45-plus years = 8.1 percent
Common professions: IT, business, banking/finance, marketing, medicine, engineering, English teaching
Popular courses: Conversational English (general), IELTS exam preparation (needed to study abroad), work-related English and English for children (youngest learner: 6 years)
Summary: The target audience for online English tuition is likely to be young (6-34 years) and IT-literate. Many learners work in the business sphere, have young families and lead busy lives, so they have little time to attend face-to-face classes at language schools.

Teaching English using Skype

A quick Google search will reveal that the majority of online language schools use Skype as their preferred teaching platform. There are several reasons for this:

  • Skype is now owned by Microsoft and comes preloaded onto every Windows computer. Therefore, most learners are already familiar with the programme and have an account.
  • Although Skype is not ideal for teaching groups, it works well for one-to-one tuition.
  • The program is free to use so school operating costs are kept to a minimum.
  • Skype offers clear video and audio streaming and an IM chat facility.
  • Additional functionality, such as screensharing, can be easily harnessed for e-learning.

Skype is a great tool for teaching conversational English without interrupting the learner too frequently. During a class, the tutor asks questions to encourage the learner to speak. When a mistake is made, the tutor can type corrections into the chatbox along with additional guidance on appropriate word selection, grammatical constructions, etc. At the end of each session Skype automatically saves the chat history for later reference and both the tutor and learner can copy/paste the errors and corrections into a text document for home printing. Over time, this log builds into a comprehensive collection showing the learner's weak points, which can then be addressed further through more in-depth study.

If you are interested in more detailed information on Skype functionality and how it can be used to teach online, you can read the OTUK's how-to guide for teaching English using Skype.

Every program has its limitations and other platforms are worth considering before you settle on an appropriate solution. Educators interested in teaching groups are likely to be uninspired by Skype Premium (a paid service) as it requires significant bandwidth and faster computers when working with more than five participants. Google Hangouts can be a good option for less formal meet-ups and allow for regular group interaction via a popular social network. This is a free service and connection quality can be an issue depending on the number of session participants. Commercial server-based platforms like WebEx are probably better for group teaching as they are less demanding in terms of Internet speed and hardware specs. Although the school or tutor will incur monthly or yearly subscription fees, learners will benefit from a wider range of interactive learning tools and group sizes can be increased with no loss of functionality or call quality. The final alternative worth considering is webinar technology, which is great for including very large groups of learners in a controlled tutor-led discussion or seminar.

Learning English Within a Social Network

Languages are our primary means of communication. The Internet comes a close second. Both are inherently social and inclusive. It makes sense that language acquisition and the Internet should go hand in hand. Whether used as the main medium for study, as part of a blended learning approach or as a resource for self-study, the Internet provides open access to a wealth of native English knowledge. ESL learners all over the world are now connecting with each other and with educators in a way that was simply not possible a decade ago.

Social networks, language exchange communities, and initiatives like Skype in the classroom are creating multinational e-Learning communities that transcend borders, cultures and time zones. The power of these social networks should not be underestimated, especially when trying to connect with younger learners. How many kids would choose to spend time at school when they could be on Facebook? As educators we need to be engaging with younger generations on their "turf" and that means going online and "getting social." The Internet has the power to unite and inspire us all to learn, but only if we choose to embrace it.

About the Author

Alex Jude is a British English linguist, ESL teacher and translator based in the UK. After graduating from The University of Manchester in 2002, he spent a decade in Russia working at universities and language schools in both Saint-Petersburg and Siberia. During this time he conducted extensive research into mistakes made by Russian speakers in English and gained in-depth knowledge of the international ESL market. Alex is the Founder and CEO of Online Teachers UK.

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