The vast opportunities associated with online learning in the English classroom were highlighted by speakers at Cambridge ESOL’s virtual conference this summer – but experts agree it’s still important to strike a good balance with face-to-face teaching.

Cambridge ESOL’s annual virtual conference for the English language teaching and assessment community attracted over 1500 people from 52 countries. According to Cambridge ESOL’s Simon Wright, who organised the conference: “The event provided a platform to showcase and debate the really important issues around the use of technology in the English language classroom.”

Conference Chair Nicky Hockly, the Director of Pedagogy at Consultants-E introduced the guest speakers.

First up was Nigel Pike – Head of Assessment at Cambridge ESOL who said: “Over the last few years we’ve been developing a whole range of online assessment and learning products” a process he described as a “steep learning curve.”

He went on to highlight: “While online learning can be a really fantastic addition to learning in the classroom and can help to make language learning and teaching far more accessible, it can never completely take the place or be exactly the same as face to face learning.” Nigel referred to the success of the blended CELTA online course they have recently developed with International House: “So far we have been delighted with the way participants in our first course bonded and supported each other in the new online environment – even before they’d had the opportunity to meet.”

Games in the classroom?

Next up was Anna Stanton who is the Learning Innovation Manager at Kaplan International Colleges. Anna, is responsible for the development of E-Learning products at Kaplan and spoke about how online games can be introduced in the classroom for younger English learners. She showcased some of the games Kaplan has developed and outlined how teachers can use and modify existing games for the classroom. According to Anna, one of the benefits of using games in the classroom is they are popular with all ages and younger people often do not see the difference between playing and learning. Anna said: “One of the biggest benefits of games is motivation. They can be used as rewards for learning or the game itself can have a reward built into it.”

The importance of blending in…

Next up was Debra Marsh who is the Editorial Project Manager for ELT Online Learning at Cambridge University Press. Debra’s presentation covered blended learning with a specific focus on speaking. Her talk looked at how a blended approach can help develop student confidence and improve participation in classroom speaking activities. She explained how teachers often show concern about using technology in the classroom and suggested an approach where teachers use technology before and after class to encourage more human interaction in the classroom. Debra said: “Language learning is particular, it’s about communication. In order to communicate, we need confidence.”

The final speaker was Nik Peachey, a Learning Technology Consultant and Associate Trainer at the Bell Education Trust. Nik is responsible for developing courses for teachers and teacher training and his interesting talk looked at the use of online resources in blended learning. He explained how the Internet has opened up huge opportunities and challenges for language teachers and how Bell has incorporated the web into their teacher training methods.

A lively discussion

There then followed a lively discussion with questions from audience members all over the world. Topics discussed included best approaches to blended learning, the changing role of teachers and the skills needed to teach online. One listener asked if the role of the human teacher is diminishing in light of new classroom technologies. The experts acknowledged the increased demands on teachers’ skills but agreed that teachers are still central to successful and effective learning. They explained how the advent of new technologies means it’s an exciting time for teachers – as Nik Peachy nicely put it, the current situation as an “incredible and marvellous time to be involved in education.”

read more