What’s wrong with your language eLearning solution?

elearning nightmare

elearning waste

With eLearning becoming an unavoidable element in any training project hoping to reduce its costs, many in the language training industry have turned to eLearning, particularly digital Learning Management Systems, as a quick-fix for looming financial problems.

After numerous attempts by both small and large players in the market to establish effective eLearning solutions for language training suppliers, many feel their platform isn’t getting the response they’d hoped for, neither from the trainers nor their trainees. So what are they doing wrong?

Here are some reasons from my own experience as to why this is:


1) LMS are designed for monolingual training.

The first and most obvious reason is that monolingual training is fundamentally different to language training, in that the medium of instruction is often the same as the target content to be acquired. The LMS is designed to present information to the trainees, test their knowledge, and guide their development with a particular skill or knowledge point.
It is very difficult to achieve the same development when the trainee will, by the nature of language learning theory, not understand all the words in the content presented to him/her. Such content is not meant for reading / listening with the intention of digesting its overall meaning. The text is meant to form the basis for filling knowledge gaps by identifying where in the content the trainee lacks understanding of the very words and language used. This can certainly be achieved with standard LMS functions such as gap-fill texts or matching activities based on meaning / accuracy, but it is the equivalent of using a butchers knife to cut your finger nails – it will get the job done, but it’s not exactly what it was designed to do.

2) Modern LMS features try to make fundamentally boring training fun

What are the key buzzwords in training today? Gamification, social learning, serious games, etc. These approaches to eLearning, which in some cases have been proven to increase training effectiveness, have one goal in mind – turning the monotony of paging through endless training videos and texts on subjects that may or may not interest the trainee into something resembling a fun activity.

Language training is something that is at its absolute most effective when experienced in a face-to-face setting with realistic, interesting materials, practical role-plays, etc. It is something that the trainers can design to be fun, personalised and interesting from the ground up. It therefore has no need of extra technological features to make it more interesting. If a trainer can construct their language eLearning using the same principles as their face-to-face lessons, the training will be far from monotonous.

3) Language training requires a specialised level framework

As I mentioned in point 1, language training involves instructing trainees using words they may or may not understand. It is very important, therefore, that any system used to deliver instruction takes into account the level of language competency the trainee currently possesses. This way, lessons and content can be categorised according to what language level they are appropriate for. Someone starting out in their beginner’s Arabic course would be more than a little lost faced with a comprehension activity based on a news report from Al Jazeera.

Unfortunately, most LMS don’t expressly have a feature that can help integrate this notion of language level. There is of course the possiblitity of categorising activities, but not the ability to say “I’ve changed Mr. Dupont to A2 Elementary level, so now the LMS will only show him content appropriate to that level.” The best we can hope for is an ad-hoc solution using features designed for other purposes, but in my experience this is very difficult to achieve to an acceptable degree.

4) LMS are focussed on knowledge expansion, not skill practice

If we think about the objective of the standard types of training, such as Health & Safety, Workplace Sensitivity, Customer Service Excellence, or even modern soft-skills training such as Leadership,  Communication, Teamworking, etc., they all have one thing in common – knowledge expansion. The trainees are delivered training materials explaining the principles, ideas and key points to retain in order to effectively develop the objective skill. This information will be recycled and tested to be sure the trainee has acquired the target knowledge, such that it can be said they are sufficiently competent to pass the course. Some new forms of training are exceptions to this norm, such as manual skills training delivered through virtual reality headsets, or interactional training delivered through serious games, which focus on the successful practical application of the target competencies.

Language training, once again, is the exception to all the above. While it could be argued that knowledge of vocabulary, expressions and grammar rules are key to development, nothing takes precedent over massive amounts of practical work using that knowledge in context. Any effective training course will contain a majority amount of spoken or written practice to be sure the trainee is at operational level for their required foreign-language tasks, be it in their job, personal or academic life. Simply having knowledge of the language is a very poor indication of the trainees practical capacity, as can be seen from comparing exam results such as TOEIC and BULATS with test-takers relative oral and written evaluations. Trainees’ time would therefore be better spent not on the LMS but on platforms such as Skype, email or instant messengers, where oral and written practice take precedent over filling knowledge gaps and discovering new vocabulary without the possibility of actually putting them into use.

5) Trainees don’t want to use an LMS to learn a language

This may seem like a bold claim, and I’m sure any trainer reading this can give me examples to the contrary, but I would challenge them to answer this question honestly: Would your trainee ever choose LMS time over the same time face-to-face with their trainer? The answer, if we are truly honest with ourselves, is no.

Language training represents development of a fundamentally social skill. The only reason we speak a language is to use it on other people, whether it be in a friendly conversation on a bar stool, or a professional pitch to corporate investors. It is therefore counterintuitive to learn a language in solitude. The only plausible, perhaps even practical, reason for completing static language activities on an LMS would be in preparation for or in consolidation of a practical face-to-face lesson (otherwise known as Blended Learning). Speaking and writing, language production, must be the core reason of any learning efforts. Unfortunately, most LMS are catered to large-scale training automation with a view of reducing overall costs, and can therefore not provide adequate integration for effective Blended Language Learning.

Article written by Richard Osborne of Osborne Solutions

 Richard is a CELTA and DELTA qualified language trainer and consultant. He started teaching professional English 9 years ago in Paris and became quickly involved in the pedagogic side of his training centre, in particular using digital training tools. He has since become an expert in digital solutions for the language training market, and started his own consulting company in 2017. He has also produced his own innovative solution to cutting the cost of language training called LearnBook. Richard has been working with Linguaid for the last year developing and delivering training courses on the difficult concept of Blended Langauge Learning.

5 replies
  1. Sue THOMAS
    Sue THOMAS says:

    Hello Richard,
    I’m co-founder and pedagogical director of EnglishWaves (the French radio that speaks English), developed for French individuals who want to improve their listening skills and as an IT tool to use in Blended courses. The concept is to give lots of listening practice and to train the brain to be more efficient in real situations – it’s a bridge between the English lesson and the reality which professionals face in the international workplace.
    I’d be interested to know what you think of this tool.
    Sue Thomas
    06 62 09 63 25

  2. Arkady Zilberman
    Arkady Zilberman says:

    I would like to elaborate on your statement:

    “Language training is something that is at its absolute most effective when experienced in a face-to-face setting with realistic, interesting materials, practical role-plays, etc.”
    In my opinion, it is a misconception. Face-to-face learning of a foreign language is not effective. Consider these facts:

    • Languages are learnt. They cannot be taught.
    • The more the learners rely on teachers, the less – and the more slowly – they will learn.
    • The learners are mistakenly persuaded that their teachers, in some magic way that is called skilled teaching, are going to do the work for them. They are convinced that the more lessons they go to, the faster and better will be the progress they make.
    • As the learners sit in the classroom they are effectively paralyzed. It is only when they escape from school that they can truly begin learning – if they know how to do it the right way.

    All the above facts are taken from the article published in 2002 and titled The Fraud of the Global English-Teaching Industry, http://www.lingua.org.uk/geifr.html.

    • Richard Osborne
      Richard Osborne says:

      Hi Arkady,

      Thanks for your comment. Your article is very interesting, as is your post on elearningindustry.com. You’re absolutely right in a certain sense that sitting in front of a language trainer may in some cases make no difference in terms of speed of progress compared to simply sitting in a bar in a foreign country and striking up a conversation with a stranger. I’m not a memory expert, and have no studies to hand to reference, but I’ve read and believe that the latter example creates even stronger and sustainable language development due to the new language emerging from a conversation with a stranger being laced with a higher level of excitement and anxiety due to the context. Sitting in front of a trainer is arguably language use in a safer space, with much less at stake in terms of making mistakes and being embarrassed, perhaps leading to weaker language acquisition.

      At the same time, I only agree with you regarding a certain mileu of language learner. Young learners and university students, even young professionals in their early 20s, have the possibility of engaging in such language exchanges as my bar example because they are relatively responsibility free and time rich. My own experience of language training has been with adult professionals, very often parents or grand parents who need to develop specific language skills to be able to complete their work tasks effectively, and who have little to no interest in using this language outside their professional context. For these learners, engaging in organised, paid training is almost certainly their only viable option. It would be a fantasy to think this type of learner is ever going to set aside free time to head out into the world in search of language interaction, whether it be in a bar, in an online chat group, or wherever, let alone to imagine that they’d get the permission from their spouses to do so. In France, your company has a state-mandated training budget that it can use to pay for your training, which can be completed during work hours, making language development possible without cutting into family time.

      Now, here’s where I agree with your article again. The language classroom is, in my opinion, a wholly unnatural place to practise or learn a language. It’s artificiality gives the language learner’s development an instant disadvantage upon entering the room. It therefore requires a skilled and trained professional to turn this environment into a credible conversational location. A quality language trainer is friendly and approachable, making every effort to make the learner feel genuinely pleased to be having a conversation with them. Once this rapport has been established in this unlikely social interaction, the trainer can get to work on their most important of skills – scaffolding. This is where I once again disagree with the idea that sitting with a trainer brings no advantage to the learners language development. Scaffolding is the ability to predict and assist with, through experience of ‘inter-language’, what the learner wants to say when they find themselves struggling or unable to say it. An average stranger in a bar, out of politeness, will likely not scaffold to the same extent. This is where face to face training with a professional language trainer can provide faster, more uniform growth.

      That was just one example of a very wide and diverse range of pros and cons for professional language training, and I’m not at all saying it’s the solution for everyone, though I do believe many of the clients I’ve helped over the years would never have made any progress without the possibility of company-funded training for the same reasons I stated above. I’d love to hear more from you on this if you’d like to continue the conversation, you can reach me at richard@osbornesolutions.co.


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