Reflections on the Pros and Cons of Internet Use for English Learning

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The internet has been around for quite a while now. For some of us older teachers, the internet was a new exciting land we discovered mid-way through our careers. It certainly presented many great opportunities, but also presented many challenges. For example, how could we incorporate using the internet into our lesson plans? or, would people stop studying English with teachers and just learn online?

I think it's safe to say at this point that English teachers are here to stay. The simple fact seems to be that motivation is key and, unless you are highly self-motivated- it's impossible to learn only online. Students need teachers to help discuss misunderstandings, learn more context, and generally hold their hands as they go through the difficult, but exciting process of learning a second (or third, or fourth) language. I'd say this is just human nature. 

 

I've had the good fortune to spend many years in the classroom, as well as provide materials online and work with many companies that provide English instruction online. I've learned quite a few lessons along the way, so I'd like to share some of my "Pros" and "Cons" concerning online English language learning.

Pros

Generally, the internet works great as a means to expand upon what you're already doing to teach or learn English. The main thing is contact with English and the internet provides that in spades.

However, teachers are key in helping students navigate their way through the learning process. No matter how cool the technology is, without a teacher it's all overwhelming. Teachers provide the filter, can point the way, and can help untangle the knots.

- When it comes to reference, nothing beats the internet.

Sites like Urban Dictionary and Thesaurus.com provide reference tools that students and teachers can use that are a lot more user friendly than reference books.

- If you need something general, but ready-made to fill in the gaps, you'll find plenty of materials.

There are plenty of sites with general English learning materials including print-out quizzes, grammar activities and more. The only problem is that there are so many sites, that finding something you like can be a bit overwhelming. 

- It's the best place to find authentic, niche-specific learning materials, and especially useful for English for specific purposes learners.

I think this is one of the very best things about using the internet. Using sites like the US government's occupational handbook students can find out detailed information and become used to vocabulary used in specific professions.

- You can find something to engage EVERY student no matter how unmotivated they are.

Admittedly, sometimes keeping students engaged seems to be more baby-sitting than teaching. However, for those hard to please students, you're bound to find a YouTube video or silly quiz that will keep them busy when they are fed up with standard learning materials.

- For prepping lessons, there are tools such as concordance websites that make delivering tailored made content really easy.

This is related to the reference issue, but I'd like to stress how much concordance websites can help with isolating key vocabulary when using the lexical approach.

- There are some great tools that are free online.If you are willing to pay, there are incredible tools and resources that can whip up worksheets on the fly.

Pay-up that's all there is to it. The free tools are great, but advertising gets in the way and there are many limitations on free software. 

- Translation tools abound, but it's a double edged sword.

It's great that students can translate on the fly. On the flip-side, students can easily become obsessed with understanding each word and don't make enough headway towards fluency.

Cons

- The internet is very passive.

Acquiring a language is both active and passive. The internet is great for providing the learning content, but not so good when it comes to actively using the language. Of course, there are classroom blogs, chat sessions and so on, but teacher engagement is key to getting  students to use these opportunities. For someone on their own, the internet still seems to be very much a place to consume content. Admittedly, people do use English to communicate on Facebook and other social forums, so there are plenty of opportunities for written practice. However, when it comes to speaking it's not easy to find the opportunities. 

- Advertising is out of control

It's often very difficult to distinguish between usable content and advertising copy. This confuses both teachers and learners.

- Software will always promise the moon

Software companies make huge promises. They often deliver amazing results, but the investment required is often too great for your average learner. Once again, teacher assistance is key to helping students become motivated and actually use websites /  apps / programs in a meaningful way.

- People suffer from short attention spans on the internet

This is probably one of the greatest challenges. No matter how cool and useful a website, application, or other internet based activity, the fact is that most people get bored and start looking for the next cool thing long before they've actually been able to learn much of anything.