Online English classes vs traditional English classes

Can online learning produce better outcomes than learning in a traditional English class?
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Yasmeen Coaxum
By Yasmeen Coaxum
Excedo blog in Learning reimagined Jul, 2019

The arrival of Web 2.0 has made interconnectivity, entrepreneurship, and autonomous education commonplace. Now, we can enhance our knowledge on almost any subject from any location. We've seen language learning grow in popularity along with an increase in online language platforms. But there are many questions for both language learners and educators like myself:

  • Will this new wave of self-learning and self-achievement eventually completely replace traditional modes of learning in English classes? 

  • How effective is the information provided by video-sharing sites, courses bought from English language instructors via the Internet, or language-learning software systems in educating busy working professionals who want to take responsibility for their language learning at times that suit their schedules? 

  • Are these resources substantial enough to replace the traditional classroom experience? More importantly, can this type of learning produce even better outcomes than in person, face to face (F2F) learning?

Business person presenting to a global team

A multitude of language learning options

Compared to traditional face-to-face learning in English classes, online learning is relatively new so there isn’t a lot of definitive research. Most existing studies focus on the formal online learning taking place in universities. But there are many varieties of online learning including:

  • Informal learning - reading online blogs, using social networking sites, watching videos and listening to songs 

  • Formal learning- learning via professional teachers following a specific curriculum

  • Non-formal learning - a  middle-ground between formal and informal learning, more organized than informal learning, but still focusing on specific learning goals

Excedo is an example of the last category. We take a unique approach that combines non-formal, autonomous learning through videos and gamified learning exercises with an element of formal learning through learner to learner and learner to language coach interaction online.

As an Excedo language coach who studied for a thesis in Applied Linguistics and Language Acquisition, I had the opportunity to conduct a study to better understand the impact of the current increase in online, non-formal, autonomous learning. To assess this impact, I looked at the differences in learning gains in the acquisition of phrasal verbs in the online versus F2F, one-on-one tutoring environment using four students (aged 22-26) from Italy, Spain, Russia and Germany.

First, each participant was given a pre-test to determine how many of the 25 phrasal verbs they already knew, and to help measure their progress at the end of the experiment. Then, one pair of participants watched five YouTube video lessons, containing five phrasal verbs each, provided on an instructor-developed website, and completed exercises to reinforce the material after watching each lesson.  The other set of participants were taught the exact same material via five one-on-one, F2F lessons. 

The online participants completed one lesson per day (total learning time one week), whereas this was not possible in the F2F mode as the busy schedules of the students and the instructor had to be taken into account when scheduling time to meet for each lesson. Therefore, the F2F participants averaged three weeks to one month to learn the material. In both the F2F and online environments, I was the instructor. Details of the exact procedure can be found in Table 1 below:

Table 1: Procedure

So what were the results?

Although all of the participants experienced gains, online learning participant 4 (P4) clearly outperformed all of the other learners by obtaining an 18 point increase. Besides P4, there doesn’t seem to be a significant difference between the gains on pre and post-tests between F2F and online participants. Scores are outlined in Table 2 below: 

Online Learning table 2
Table 2: Participant Vocabulary Test Scores

What does this say about the impact of online learning vs. F2F instruction? The lack of a significant difference between vocabulary gains in each setting (besides P4) could be looked at in a favorable light for the online learning environment, as similar gains were achieved in a shorter period of time for the online participants.

But how did P4, who also happened to be an online participant, do so well on his post-test? Good old-fashioned study habits! He was the only participant to strongly agree with the following statement on the questionnaire given after the post-test: “I reviewed the material at some point after each lesson.” During the interview, he explained that he’d reviewed the material a total of three times; “Once the day after watching the lesson, then a few days after, then all of them before the last big test.”

So, is there really a difference between learning online and learning F2F, or is it really a matter of motivation and study habits that can significantly increase language learning outcomes? As discovered in this study, the beauty of the online environment is that you can learn the same amount of material and experience similar gains to that of a F2F environment, but you can do it anywhere, anytime as tailored to your schedule. This allows you to progress at a much faster pace if you are a motivated but busy business professional.

If you’ve found this article interesting, join us next time as we discuss how the online environment can impact levels of engagement, confidence, and motivation.