Learning Environments and Forms of Learning: eLearning Learning in Cyberspace?

Learning in Cyberspace?
Learning in Cyberspace? | Illustration: Melih Bilgil

Classroom-based learning is increasingly frequently being supplemented or replaced by online courses. Which forms of virtual learning have been developed? What impact does this have on the place of learning and the learning environment? And what is the relationship between “analogue” and “digital” learning?

Abstract

Modern forms of eLearning give rise to diverse settings that have practically no limitations in terms of space or time. Attractive, motivating and efficient types of exercises and learning approaches can be combined with authentic materials in quasi-authentic learning environments. The contradiction between traditional classroom teaching and eLearning is dissolving. The use of computers and mobile terminals is making possible new forms of language learning and hybrid forms of language teaching. This article will illustrate how media-based learning is creating new learning environments, how these can be used to achieve successful learning, and how the inclusion of media components can increase the attractiveness of traditional classroom teaching.

“eLearning”, “blended learning”, “virtual learning environment”, “media-based learning”, “online learning”: the concepts and learning environments associated with computer-based learning are as diverse as the terms used to describe them. The development of ways in which to use new media that make sense in methodological and didactical terms does not always keep pace with the technological development of the media themselves, and technical innovations and forms of usage do not always prove useful. Computer-based learning has already been around for a good 20 years, yet it still provokes contrary responses: euphoria or scepticism. Neither properly reflects the reality. We need to take a more objective view.

ANALOGUE AND VIRTUAL LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS

Computer-based learning got off to a poor start in the 1990s due to the absence of any adequate technological framework and was thus justifiably subject to scepticism and rejection. In methodological and didactical terms, it began by taking a step backwards: simplistic, behavioural-based exercises that tended to be burnt onto a CD and installed by the user at home were tackled by learners who found themselves working very much on their own. The contrast between this form of learning and the communicative, learner-centred kind of German teaching that had long since become commonplace in the classroom and in projects could not have been any greater.

Learning as we know it traditionally takes place in structured classrooms. The success of the learning process is either increased or reduced depending on whether these classrooms are geared to the teacher or for group communication, how the relationship between teacher and student is therefore designed, which learning materials are used and how well authentic materials are included and realistic communication and language usage situations are created.

The fact that foreign languages tend to be acquired more easily and more effectively in the target language environment than in a monolingual, native-language environment has been extensively documented and proven. This is precisely where the opportunities and qualities of media-based learning and of the use of electronic media to expand traditional classroom learning lie. In short, one could almost say that media-based learning allows a quasi-authentic learning environment and the target language culture to be brought right into the classroom. After all, one of the major advantages of eLearning is the exciting way in which it combines controlled and uncontrolled language acquisition, all kinds of different learning settings (cf. article by Udo Ohm), traditional language exercises and explorations in simulated situations of the foreign-language environment. Whether and how well this succeeds, however, will depend to a great extent on the didactical and methodological approach, the learning theory principles of the media-based learning programmes and, of course, on the media skills of the teachers and students.

We need to distinguish in this context between at least four media- and computer-based learning concepts: open- and closed-source learning platforms (eLearning), learning on mobile terminals such as tablets and smartphones (mLearning), and online materials designed to supplement textbooks and classroom teaching.

OPEN- AND CLOSED-SOURCE LEARNING PLATFORMS

Open-source learning platforms are frequently used at universities and language learning institutes. “Moodle” and “Ilias” are popular platforms used (for example at universities) to organize learning processes. In this context, “open-source” refers to the technology (code) and to the fact that teachers and students alike can incorporate teaching and learning materials into the platforms in any way they like. Virtual classrooms can feature teaching guidelines and offer learning materials that can be accessed by students, as well as allowing the results of learning to be shared. In terms of their original design, such programmes are learning management systems (LMS): they make it possible to provide and share teaching materials even across considerable distances, allow students to communicate with one another (normally in writing) and enable them to perform simple types of task. The fact that they were not designed specifically for language teaching had a negative impact at first. Nowadays, institutions which offer language courses – like the Goethe-Institut, for instance – are developing extensions which allow the integration of tasks and exercises of high didactic quality which are appropriate to their specific learning groups.

By contrast, closed-source learning platforms developed especially for language teaching have the advantage that a wider variety of complex learning tasks for independent and extremely practical and realistic learning at a high level can be developed. As with the LMS, the entire Internet is potentially available as a quasi-authentic learning space – to this extent both can also be described as open-source learning platforms. This means for example that online research relating to flat-finding, shopping, cultural events, official forms, job and university applications or scientific topics can be incorporated into the learning process and tackled directly. In addition, closed-source learning platforms allow computer spell-check and review systems to be used or dictionaries to be integrated to help with and provide feedback on the success of learning.

In both platform types, different ways of supervising students and advising them during the learning process by tutors or with the aid of virtual classrooms have become established, and there are signs that the two forms are beginning to approximate one another. So-called Web 2.0 applications are supplementing lessons in the form of projects.

MOBILE AND SUPPLEMENTARY eLEARNING OPTIONS

In the still relatively new segment of mobile media-based learning, there are (as yet) no mLearning courses in their own right. Instead, mLearning appears to be best suited to supplementing classroom learning or learning platforms, for instance using vocabulary exercises and games which are very popular, though their quality differs considerably. Apps with vocabulary or grammar exercises in particular tend to be of dubious value. Nonetheless, initial trials of learning games like the Goethe-Institut’s “The Mystery of the Nebra Sky Disc” reveal that they can make German learning more attractive. What is more, mobile terminals are also suitable for supplementing classroom learning and eLearning with communication in the form of chats or the like.

Whereas publishers failed in their early attempts to market eLearning materials, all kinds of material to supplement text books are made available on the Internet nowadays, such as short placement and progress tests, teacher hand-outs, workbooks and audio-visual files. Nonetheless, this helpful material can hardly be described as new in terms of methodology or didactics, nor as “eLearning” in the sense of constituting lessons in their own right. These days, however, publishers are also devising interactive forms of supplementing teaching and learning material which are new in terms of their methodology. These are hybrid lesson materials comprising a textbook, exercises, tests, an interactive online learning platform and electronic adaptations of textbooks designed for interactive whiteboards. The Goethe-Institut is following a similar approach, combining tablets and whiteboards with classroom learning to provide a range of hybrid forms of learning and testing.

REMOVING THE BOUNDARIES FROM LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS

Overall, the situation appears positive after a good 20 years of media-based learning, digital learning offering considerable added value. New spaces and environments for learning are being created, while learners are being motivated thanks to the use of technologies which are already part of our everyday lives, and thanks to playful elements. “Online learning” opens up a quasi-authentic learning space that is infinitely big (albeit unstructured) and that offers authentic learning materials. The spectrum of tasks and exercises designed to make learning more efficient is also being significantly expanded. Difficult subjects, be they in the area of grammar or national culture, can be taught and learnt more easily by using authentic sources, animation, illustration and playful elements. Learners can choose for themselves where, when and at what pace they wish to learn a language.

Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that “digital” learning faces exactly the same challenges as “analogue” learning. Success in both cases will depend on motivation, the availability of lesson materials and lesson forms tailored to the learner’s requirements, appropriate methodological and didactic concepts, diverse and interesting learning settings, individual support and individual help and guidance with learning.
 

Literature

Arnold, Patricia; Kilian, Lars; Thillosen, Anne; Zimmer, Gerhard: Handbuch E-Learning. Lehren und Lernen mit digitalen Medien. Bielefeld, Bertelsmann 2011.

Roche, Jörg: Handbuch Mediendidaktik. Ismaning, Hueber 2008.

Rösler, Dietmar: „Die Funktion von Medien im Deutsch als Fremd- und Deutsch als Zweitsprache-Unterricht“. In: Krumm, Hans-Jürgen; Fandrych, Christian; Hufeisen, Britta; Riemer, Claudia: Deutsch als Fremd- und Zweitsprache. Ein internationales Handbuch, 2. Halbband, (Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft, Bd. 35.2), Berlin/New York: de Gruyter 2010, 1199-1214.