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Self-Study = Distance Learning

by Stephen Orr

Back in the last century people were learning languages from books. Then as technology moved on, audio cassettes were added to practise listening. The next advance was to use video so that learners could appreciate the cultural environment of the language.

Computers started to be widely used for language learning only in the last 20 years. At first they were limited to text and the benefit of the computer was the interactivity that allowed immediate feedback to the learner. This enabled plenty of drilling on grammar and vocabulary but was not the most exciting of methods. The launch of the Windows 95 operating system opened the door to full multimedia programs that could offer all that the traditional materials could do plus the innate computer feedback.

Today technology has moved on further. The development of the internet has now turned the computer into a communication centre. The general use of email has created new opportunities for teachers to assist learning at a distance.

This development of learning materials is naturally having an impact on traditional learning structures. Self-study used to mean trying to learn from books that were often little more than phrase books. Since learning a language is a hard task for the great majority of us, it is not surprising that self-study on its own was not very successful. Teachers were needed to provide information, motivation and guidance.

As learning materials become more comprehensive and motivating, you can make more and more progress on your own. The role of the teacher is changing. Basic information and drill can be provided by computer; the teacher is then free to concentrate on the more important aspects: motivation and production of language in speech or writing. Timing and degree of interaction between you and your teacher can be flexible. Of course in most educational institutions the curriculum and timetable are still very structured. But if you are learning in your own time, and probably at your own expense, you now have much more flexible options.

The latest development is a direct email link from self-study CD-ROMs to an online teacher. Now you can get personal one-to-one tuition from any multimedia PC with an internet connection.

One leading publisher has just launched a range of courses, not just for English but for French, German, Italian and Spanish as well. These courses are on CD-ROM and each language has 3 levels - beginner, intermediate and advanced.

When you need more help you simply email the tutor. The tutor will know which course you are following and your results to date so he is able to provide good, relevant advice. All you do is buy the CD-ROM at normal price and then get additional tuition as you feel the need. So the self-study becomes distance learning with all its advantages of flexibility and low cost.

© 2000 Stephen Orr

Stephen Orr is Chief Executive Officer of Talkfast International, a UK-based web retailer that specialises in advising schools, teachers and learners on the best software for their needs. Stephen founded the company after several years' experience of international business and the problems of working effectively in a foreign language. He often gives papers at international conferences on using technology to improve language learning.