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Self-study with language learning software

As Section 5.3 suggests, self-study poses even heavier demands on the learner in terms of independent study skills and self-motivation than blended environments. For most, the outside structure of regular face-to-face classes, the contact with peers and resulting sense of community, and the guidance and feedback of teachers are indispensable elements in language learning, outweighing the learning flexibility of the online format. Research in related fields such as distance learning and learner autonomy has contributed to our understanding of the kind of challenges faced by learners engaged in self-study, and has made it abundantly clear that “learners do not develop the ability to self-direct their learning simply by being placed in situations where they have no other option” (Benson 2007: 22). The common thread that has emerged in a number of studies is that various parameters located within the learner as an individual (“learner contributions”), the affordances of the online course/media, and the social/interpersonal environment supporting the learner need to apply if learners are to persevere and succeed in self-study contexts (Bown 2006; Littlemore 2001; Hampel and Stickler 2005; Liu et al. 2007).

Still, there is a growing market for self-study packages, which has received fresh impetus from both the internationalisation of business and recent technological advances (see Section 3). Some learners find it impossible to fit class meetings around work and family commitments. Others simply value absolute independence from set schedules, yet still believe that “expert-designed” instructional materials guarantee a faster road to success. For both groups, “all-in-one” virtual courses such as TELL ME MORE or Rosetta Stone appear to be the answer. These packages are (relatively expensive) for-pay options delivered on software (and recently on dedicated websites or clouds), and are particularly appealing for beginners. The latest versions of these language courses usually offer live online tutoring to be booked as extras. Focussing on the profitable corporate market, we find online packages such as One by renowned textbook publisher Pearson. This business English course provides tailor-made components (“business-specific content customized to each learner’s role and ability level”); with the One Community, it furthermore boasts the opportunity to communicate and collaborate “with industry peers and other like-minded business people” (globalenglish.com).

Evidently, what many commercial providers are starting to realise is that it is not enough anymore to sell “one-size-fits-all” static language solutions on DVD or CD-ROM. The emphasis in marketing is on individualisation, and on providing interpersonal support and guidance, either by teachers or through access to a community of peers. This led the US behemoth Rosetta Stone, for instance, which for a remarkably long time continued to offer its courses only as disc sets, to acquire the online language learning community Livemocha in 2013. It now benefits not only from the latter’s cloud-based technology, but also from its lively online community of 16 million members in 195 countries (economist.com/blogs/johnson/2013/06). Lingoda, another well-known commercial language-service provider, has put its emphasis on the “human” side of the online resources spectrum right from the beginning: it offers group classes in virtual classrooms, starting every hour on the hour, via video conferencing technology. The company further markets private online tuition by native speakers, also via video chat, and personal advisors “to build and optimize the lesson plan” and to familiarise users with the online resources (lingoda.com).

In view of these recent trends, a standardised approach with static digital materials - particularly without sufficient interpersonal support - is nowadays unlikely to be considered an effective or even viable self-study solution. There are, however, organisations which wish sizable numbers of employees to get to grips with the basics of a foreign language, even if in-company or off-site personal instruction is impracticable. A case in point is presented by Nielson’s (2011) survey on “Self-study with language software in the workplace”, in which US government employees attempted to learn Arabic, Mandarin or Spanish with the help of Rosetta Stone. The study was conducted before Rosetta Stone’s take-over of Livemocha and its learning community, and impressively illustrates the shortcomings of stand-alone digital learning resources without teacher/peer support.

Nielson’s investigation confirms unequivocally that simply handing out learning software to employees is rarely an appropriate solution. Despite the fact that participants were highly motivated and had volunteered to take part in the project, most of them dropped out very early on, and even those who continued ended up using the software much less frequently than previously agreed. Reasons for the high attrition rate and general dissatisfaction with the product ranged from severe technical problems (system crashes, software did not work on work computers / with wireless connections, necessary plugins could not be downloaded ...) to frustration concerning content and structure of materials (lack of explicit instruction, lack of guidance, lack of job-specific or conversational vocabulary and so on). Nielson concludes that even the most sophisticated piece of learning software cannot replace human interaction and support, and advises that “managers and learners alike should consider [language learning packages] as supplements to instructor-mediated training rather than stand-alone solutions” (2011: 126). It would be interesting to see if outcomes are more positive with packages that are more job-specific and thus relevant to users’ needs (e.g., One by Pearson) and with solutions that provide access to communities of peers (see Section 5.6). However, at the time of writing no empirical research studies could be found that dealt with these specific issues.

 
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