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Online Language Teaching
Language learning goes digital: Online learning before, during and after the coronavirus

Online learning during Coronavirus
Online learning during Coronavirus | Photo: Guido Hofmann, © unsplash

How do you teach a foreign language effectively online? What are the challenges involved in “all-digital” learning? Here are the latest research findings on the subject of e-learning.

By Dr Marion Grein

Before Corona: Trends and tipps

Researchers have long since come to recognize the need for digital tools in traditional language instruction (see Grein & Strasser 2019; Grein et al. 2019).

Working with digital tools enhances both visual and "selective attention”, i.e. “the ability to attend to the most relevant information and ignore the irrelevant" (Stevens and Bavelier 2012, cf. Bernsmann 2019). On the whole, selective use of digital tools (for approx. 10% of overall instruction) enhances learner motivation. Brain activity measurements using functional magnetic resonance imaging, for example, show that one hour of computer activities has a positive effect on visual motor skills – even among schoolchildren (see Pujo et al. 2016).

“Blended learning”, i.e. a mix of didactically well-prepared virtual learning activities and in-person instruction, had already proven a sensible and effective form of hybrid learning (see Lu et al. 2018). The aim is to fuse the two parts in such a way as to "make for an efficient, successful and motivating learning experience" (Kraft 2003: 44).

Fully online language courses were available too, but made up only a small segment of the education market. In 2019, online language courses accounted for a mere eight per cent of all language courses in the German market (cf. Statista 2020).

Online language instruction and the coronavirus

Due to the worldwide coronavirus crisis, however, language teaching, too, has gone completely virtual, which poses formidable challenges for a great many institutions and teachers all over the world.

What are the main challenges involved and important considerations to bear in mind?

Challenge 1: Virtuality

Motivation is key to the success of online language learning. Studies show that retention and, above all, motivation are actually much lower in fully online learning, i.e. completing a virtual course, than in traditional in-person language learning. Bawa (2016), for example, shows that the drop-out rate in fully online courses ranges from 40–80%, as against 10–20% in traditional courses. Neurobiological studies also show shorter attention spans in virtual classrooms (cf. Chen et al. 2017).

So let’s take a brief look at the motivation factor. Learning motivation can be broken down into four different types according to the learner’s goals (cf. Wild et al. 2001): “interest”, “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” motivation, and “achievement-driven” motivation.

An “interested” learner experiences positive emotional states during lessons and attaches high subjective importance to learning the language. “Interest” usually does not involve any obligation or requirement (cf. Zander & Heidig 2020: 397).

“Intrinsic” motivation means, to put it simply, for the fun of it, i.e. for the pleasure of learning a language.

The focus in “extrinsic” motivation, on the other hand, is on the anticipated results, i.e. good marks on an exam or, in the case of children, meeting their parents' expectations.

“Achievement-driven” motivation, simply put, involves the learner’s desire to subject their own results to a quality assessment.

What this means for the (real or virtual) learning environment is that we should make learning look "appealing" in and of itself (e.g. by using language-learning games) and relevant (to the learner’s real life and world). Positive feedback is also a must. Hence the importance of various forms of feedback and opportunities for learners to assess their "achievements".

Social connectedness – through the learning environment – is a key prerequisite for motivation and learning enjoyment. Social interaction is an important ingredient in distance learning (see Chen & Jang 2010). Learning platforms enable learners and teachers to work together and interact on forums. In emotional terms, what matters is not only the frequency of social interaction, but also the feeling of personal contact with the instructor.

So why is that courses that exclusively use video chat/webinar tools don’t work? Alexiou-Ray & Bentley (2016) have shown that the distance created by technology needs to be offset by a strong sense of community among course participants and greater access to teachers.

Hence the need for a suitable interactive platform in order to alleviate learners’ feelings of isolation and give them a sense of community or cohesion, as well as to provide solid structure and to coordinate interaction. A great many online learning platforms are open source, i.e. available free of charge. Moodle, for instance, is free: it’s a learning platform with an intuitive user interface, ample technical support and mobile access for learners. Or you can create a shared blog or Facebook page.

Learning success in traditional language instruction also requires interaction between teachers and learners as well as amongst learners themselves. This interaction is severely limited in a virtual classroom­. Using a learning platform can make up for this limitation, too.
Motivation during online lessons Motivation during online lessons | © adobe.stock

Challenge 2: Teaching materials

This is less of a challenge if you can fall back on digital versions of textbooks. The important thing from a neurobiological perspective is that the exercise or task you’re currently working on needs to be visible so that learners can follow where they are on the screen at any given time. Seeing only the teacher and fellow learners on the screen whilst being told to "open to page xy, Exercise z" can be too mentally taxing for beginners in particular.

Challenge 3: Lesson planning

As pointed out above, a feeling of connectedness, of being embedded in a "social space" (learning platform), is vital to learner motivation and, hence, to success in learning a foreign language. In traditional in-person instruction, teachers usually change activities after about 20 minutes at most; otherwise the class’s concentration tends to nosedive. As a rule of thumb, a group size of about a dozen students is recommended for an online course, too, so each learner will get a chance to actively participate in the full class sessions. After about 40 minutes, even if the teacher uses listening texts, films or surveys and even if learners have been actively participating, it’s usually a good idea to divide up the class for exercises in pairs or small groups. The learning platform comes in handy here again because they can post their results on the platform or share them online later on. As a review exercise, the participants can put together their own worksheets, which affords them an opportunity to be creative (see Practical Tips on Digital Tools for Language Classes). It’s particularly important here to explain the task clearly and precisely and to make sure you’re not overworking your students, e.g. by assigning too much homework.

Challenge 4: Know-how and time management

Teachers themselves need training to alleviate any anxieties they might have about teaching online. They need training in how to use and make the most of learning platforms so as not to demotivate their learners, as well as hands-on practical training in the use of the various free tools they need to be able to explain to their learners so that the latter can use them actively and constructively in class. Preparing online teaching, even if you’re a "pro", is much more time-consuming than in-person language teaching.

Outlook for the future

Thanks to increasingly positive experiences with e-learning, online instruction is bound to see steady growth in future, even after the coronavirus crisis. Then again, bear in mind that even the best e-learning platforms and online interaction can’t wholly compensate for the lack of face-to-face social contact.


Alexiou-Ray, J. & Bentley, C. C. (2016). Faculty Professional Development for Quality Online Teaching. Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 18 (4), 1-16.

Bawa, P. (2016). Retention in online courses: Exploring issues and solutions – A literature review. SAGE Open, 6(1), 1-11. doi: 10.1177/2158244015621777

Bernsmann, Manuela (2019). Schule digital – Fokus Gehirn. Neurowissenschaftliche Erkenntnisse zur Wirkung neuer Medien. In: Gorr, Claudia & Bauer, Michael C. (Hrsg.) Gehirne unter Spannung. Kognition, Emotion und Identität im digitalen Zeitalter. Berlin & Heidelberg: Springer.

Chen, C.-M., Wang, J.-Y. and Yu, C.-M. (2017) Assessing the Attention Levels of Students by Using a Novel Attention Aware System Based on Brainwave Signals. British Journal of Educational Technology, 48, 348-369.

Grein, Marion & Strasser, Thomas (2019). Lernen mit digitalen Medien aus neurobiologischer und fremdsprachendidaktischer Sicht. Empfehlungen Goethe-Institut. Zagreb. 7-15.

Kraft, Susanne (2003). Blended Learning – ein Weg zur Integration von E-Learning und Präsenzlernen. In: REPORT 2/2003 Literatur und Forschungsreport Weiterbildung. 26. Jahrgang Erfahrungen mit Neuen Medien. DIE.

Lu, O., Huang, A., Huang, J., Lin, A., Ogata, H., & Yang, S. (2018). Applying Learning Analytics for the Early Prediction of Students' Academic Performance in Blended Learning. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 21(2), 220-232. www.jstor.org/stable/26388400 [10.06.2020]

Pujo, J., Fenoll, R., Forns, J, & et al. (2016). Video Gaming in School Children: How much is enough? Annals of Neurology 22(8). https://doi.org/10.1002/ana.24745. [24.06.2020]

Wild, E., Hofer, M. & Pekrun, R. (2001). Psychologie des Lernens. In: Krapp, A. & Weidenmann, B. (Hrsg.) Pädagogische Psychologie. Weinheim: Beltz.

Zander, Steffi & Heidig, Steffi (2020). Motivationsdesign bei der Konzeption multimedialer Lernumgebungen. In: Niegemann, Helmut & Weinberger, Armin (Hrsg.) 2020. Handbuch Bildungstechnologie. Konzeption und Einsatz digitaler Lernumgebungen. Berlin: Springer Verlag. 393-415.