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EFL elearning course content design criteria

Elearning presents new challenges, both technological and pedagogical, to EFL course content developers when transferring their knowledge and skills to on-line learning. In all learning, there are critical considerations to take into account when developing effective, motivating and engaging courses. However, it’s easy for teachers and content developers who are unfamiliar with web technologies to feel overwhelmed and for these critical considerations to get marginalised or even left out of the design and development process altogether.

The following article is not intended to be a “How to…” guide or instructions but a list of some of the critical considerations that should be at the core of developing effective, motivating and engaging courses.

“Anything that a learner can do and should do and that we do for them, takes away an opportunity to learn responsibly.”

Gene Bedley

The list…

  1. Synchronous activity vs. asynchronous activity
  2. Individual activity vs. collaborative activity
  3. Single approach (production and/or test) vs. iterative approach (prototyping)
  4. Summative assessment vs. formative assessment
  5. Accuracy (form) vs. fluency (meaning)
  6. Exercise vs. task
  7. Deductive learning vs. inductive learning
  8. Implicit vs. explicit knowledge
  9. Variety vs. cognitive load

1. Synchronous activity vs. asynchronous activity

Synchronous activities are where a pair or group of learners log in and participate simultaneously and would normally be expected to interact with each other, in real time, in some way. These generally work best for collaborative and/or competitive tasks.  Examples would include:

Some activities can be synchronous but over a longer period of time, i.e. learners participate in the activity for a specified period of time but may not necessarily be on-line at the same time (semi-synchronous?). Social networking and collaboration platforms lend themselves to this well. Examples would include:

Key questions:

  • Do learners really need to log in at the same time in order to successfully complete the task or exercise you have set?
  • How are the activities scheduled? i.e. How do learners know when to participate or submit work?
  • How do learners determine when an activity has been completed/finished?

Asynchronous activities are where learners can log in at any time that is convenient to them. These generally work well for  individual tasks and support exercises. Examples would include:

  • Self-study exercises
  • Tests and exams
  • Submitting assignments and projects (text, audio and/or video)

Key questions:

  • When is the deadline for completion?
  • How and when will learners get feedback?
  • Can learners resubmit?

2. Individual activity vs. collaborative activity

All teachers in all areas of education are familiar with individual activities – writing assignments, grammar and vocabulary exercises, workbook materials, CD-ROM activities and tests. All of these are fairly straightforward to transfer to on-line resources and there are many advantages to doing so. For example:

  1. Learners can do these activities any time, anywhere and so, in the case of blended learning, valuable classroom time can be freed up for activities that make more productive use of face-to-face time.
  2. Learners and their teachers have a permanent record of their activities and can track their progress. This can be particularly useful for developing personalised learning strategies and creating personal learning plans.
  3. Individual activities that have only one or a narrow range of “correct” answers can be marked automatically and instantly, giving learners immediate feedback on their performance. An added benefit is that teachers spend less time on marking and can dedicate more time to liaising with, guiding and mentoring learners, thereby providing a higher quality educational service.

Just about any task can have a collaborative element incorporated into it. For example, learners could compare and discuss their ideas and plans for a writing assignment. Other activities may require learners to agree on delegating responsibilities and developing strategies and coordinating their efforts to complete a given task, for example, preparing for a class debate or proposing solutions to a given problem.

Collaborative learning tends to be far more effective when learners develop their interpersonal and language skills sufficiently to work together. Additionally, it’s also more reflective of real world jobs and tasks where people are expected to work in teams. In Tools for Teaching (Jossey-Bass 2009), Barbara Gross Davis says:

“Researchers report that, regardless of the subject matter, students working in small groups tend to learn more and demonstrate better retention than students taught in other instructional formats. Students who work in groups also appear more satisfied with their classes, and group work provides a sense of shared purpose that can increase morale and motivation. In addition, group work introduces students to the insights, values, and world views of their peers, and it prepares students for life after school, when many will be working in teams (Astin, 1993; Barkley et al., 2004; Johnson et al., 1991; Millis and Cottel, 1998; Pascarella and Terenzini, 2005; Prince, 2004; Slavin, 1996; Springer et al., 1999).”

Key questions:

  • Do learners have the required language skills to successfully participate in the group activity? If not, how can they develop them?
  • Do learners perform the task or exercise individually or in groups?
  • If they work individually, can they ask each other for help?
  • If they work in groups, how will individuals be assessed?

3. Single approach (production and/or test) vs. iterative approach (prototyping)

Again, the single approach is what most educators and learners are most familiar with: set an assignment, project or test, receive submissions, assess them, and give learners a grade. Single approaches are usually applied to measure knowledge acquisition, retention, understanding and application by assessing examples of learners’ production. The typical instructional format for this approach is lecturing or “tell and test”, also the test-teach-test and teach-test-teach models promoted by the Cambridge CELTA and DELTA, and Trinity College CertTESOL and DipTESOL teacher training programmes.

People involved in the creative arts are well versed with the iterative approach to learning, AKA prototyping. Experimentation and play are the key factors that lead to discoveries and “aha” moments. Typically creative musicians, painters, sculptors and writers spend hours engaged in playing and experimenting with their craft without feeling the need to produce a final product. Additionally, athletes and sports people spend many hours honing their abilities and acquiring new skills. The aim is to master particular techniques or ideas so that they can be easily incorporated into their repertoire of skills.

Key questions:

  • Do learners complete the task and get a grade (single) or do they have several opportunities to respond to feedback and edit their work? (iterative)
  • If an iterative approach is used, how will learners be encouraged to reflect and think analytically about their efforts?
  • Will learners be assessed on their final outcome/performance or on evidence of developing individual learning strategies or both?
  • Will learners be rewarded for not playing safe and stretching their abilities even though they make mistakes?

4. Summative assessment vs. formative assessment

Formative assessment is closely related to iterative approaches to learning. A combination of an iterative approach and formative assessment can be used to encourage mastery and is where learners can repeat an activity until they feel satisfied with their performance. They should feel comfortable and secure enough to experiment, play and make mistakes without fear of prejudice from teachers or peers, and therefore formative assessment should be factual observation without prejudicial language such as “good”, “adequate”, “bad”, “well”, “improve”, etc. and learners should be rewarded for effort, tenacity and using their imagination and creativity rather than the outcomes.

Summative assessment is what most learners are most familiar with, often equated to bands, grades and percentage marks. They can include giving learners reports on their performance at an activity over a succession of attempts. For example, in a skills based activity, as they attain mastery, learners will expect to see the quality of their performance increase while the time taken and cognitive effort made decrease.

Key questions:

  • Do assessments give learners a band, grade or percentage (summative)?
  • Do assessments give them meaningful observations to help learners to learn from previous attempts/submissions and modify subsequent attempts/submissions (formative)?

5. Accuracy (form) vs. fluency (meaning)

Accuracy is learners’ ability to reproduce language patterns a closely as possible to those of a native speaker and their language output can be regarded as “authentic”, although this definition is hotly debated, especially in English as an International Language (EIL) circles. Examples of accuracy focused activities are:

  • Grammar exercises
  • Vocabulary exercises

Fluency is learners’ ability to use language patterns to convey meaning and express themselves effectively, regardless of non-impeding errors. A key aspect of fluency based activities is that learners have to continuously negotiate meaning, i.e. check understanding and clarify and expand ideas. Examples of fluency focussed activities are:

  • Reading – reflecting on, reviewing and discussing text input
  • Writing – chat and forum discussion and role play, transactional letters and compositions, etc.
  • Listening – reflecting on, reviewing and discussing input from presentations, audio and video recordings, etc.
  • Speaking – authentic role play, presentation and dialogue tasks

Key questions:

  • Is the primary aim correct grammar, syntax, lexis, etc. (accuracy) or is it communication and meaning, i.e. the ability to use language to perform functions effectively regardless of errors/inaccuracies? (fluency)

Paradoxically, research indicates that some of the most effective development of accurate language production occurs when learners engage in extended reading activities such as book clubs or reading groups (Y.O. Lee, Krashen, and Gribbons, 1996; Stokes, Krashen and Kartchner, 1998; Constantino, S.Y. Lee, K.S. Cho and Krashen, 1997; S. Y. Lee, 2001).

6. Exercise vs. task

An exercise is where learners apply a formula, i.e. They follow instructions on how to do something. Exercises are typically designed so that there is a single or a narrow range of “correct answers”. Exercises lend themselves easily to self-study and form focussed approaches.

“Task-based language teaching (TBLT) is rapidly becoming the new orthodoxy in language teaching. Ministerial guidelines in countries as far apart as China and Spain set down TBLT as one of the key guiding principles for language curricula.”

David Nunan

A task is where learners are presented with challenge or situation in which they’re not given any instructions on how to do it. In some cases, learners may be provided with far more resources and evidence than are necessary and are expected to discriminate between those that are relevant/useful or not. Learners are expected to develop their own way of completing tasks and a variety of techniques and strategies are possible.

Key questions:

  • Does the activity prescribe a methodology or format to be used, i.e. How to do it? (exercise)
  • Is there a single or small number of “correct answers” (lower level thinking skills = exercise) or are there a variety of techniques, strategies and possible ways to successfully complete the activity (higher level thinking skills = task)?

7. Deductive learning vs. inductive learning

Deductive learning is where teachers present language patterns, such as grammatical tenses, and de-construct them. Learners are typically expected to observe and remember the form of the language patterns and be able to reproduce them in a variety of contexts. The typical thinking skills involved are lower-order (Remembering, Understanding and Applying).

Inductive learning is where learners are exposed to examples of  language, typically in context and with an emphasis on their function(s), i.e. It’s meaning based rather than form based. Learners are then expected to find (observe) language patterns that are common among given groups of examples and test their observations to form grammatical rules. The typical thinking skills involved are higher-order (Analysing, Evaluating and Creating).

8. Implicit vs. explicit knowledge

Implicit knowledge is where learners are expected to reproduce language effectively and accurately. Typically, they can speak and write and make themselves understood but may not necessarily be able to describe, explain or define the form(s) of the language they’re using. Implicit knowledge is closely associated with inductive learning.

Explicit knowledge is where learners have memorised descriptions and/or explanations of the forms of language patterns. They can perform well in single item tests, such as gap fill grammar and vocabulary activities but cannot necessarily express themselves or communicate effectively. Explicit knowledge is closely associated with deductive learning.

9. Variety vs. cognitive load

This consideration is about achieving an appropriate balance of providing a sufficient variety of types of activities against the cognitive load and acquisition time in learning how to participate in and/or complete them successfully. On the one hand, if you provide too little variety, the course will feel repetitive and unchallenging, and learners will become demotivated. On the other hand, each type of activity will take learners (and teachers) at least some time to learn the rubric and how to participate (monitor) effectively, so too much variety will reduce the effective learning time and may leave some learners confused.

Key questions:

  • How much time will learners spend on learning the rubric of each type of activity?
  • What are the learning outcomes in comparison to the time invested in learning the rubric?
  • Is the course relatively short, requiring fewer types of activity to provide sufficient variety, or is it long, requiring more?
  • Is elearning a component of a broader learning strategy, i.e. personal professional development, blended learning, etc., where it, in itself, provides an element of variety (the medium).
  • Are different rubrics necessary or could there just be different modes of learning resources, i.e. text, audio, video, photos, illustrations and infographics?

Further reading/viewing: