The benefits of online learning

Marcin Lewandowski, Head of Learning at Action West London, explains how a group of learners have benefited from a project blending traditional classroom teaching with live online conversation classes.  

While the country was gripped by the coldest winter for 18 years with temperatures plummeting and scores of schools closed due to treacherous weather conditions, a group of learners in Hayes were enjoying their ESOL lessons from the warmth of their own homes. 

The group of learners are part of an innovative project funded by the Hillingdon Community Trust, delivered by Action West London - a west London charity which works with individuals experiencing hardship by helping them move into education or employment. 

The project blends traditional classroom teaching with live online conversation classes enabling learners to ‘top up’ their weekly classes with online sessions. This offers learners more opportunities to practise their English skills without the additional need to travel, which proved particularly useful during the cold spell; they don't even need a computer to do this, just internet access and a smartphone. 

 

Raising awareness of online resources 

Aside from avoiding bad weather, online learning provides many advantages. It can be harnessed to provide greater opportunities for both students and teachers living with disabilities. Encouraging learners to become more ‘tech savvy’ is another distinct benefit. Through learning how to access online classes, learners on this project are developing skills and autonomy to independently pursue other learning opportunities, essential for the digitally enhanced economy of today. 

There are a large number of learning resources available online for language learners that don’t cost a penny. The BBC and the British Council both have fantastic online English learning platforms that many learners don’t know about. 

Exposing learners to the world of online learning raises their awareness of these resources and the wealth of learning opportunities they provide. In the long term, when their language skills improve, they’ll be able to expand their knowledge of English by pursuing their other interests not necessarily within the realm of learning English. 

Learning platforms such as Coursera provide a range of free university sponsored short courses on a wide range of subjects, allowing students to learn from experts that they otherwise could not access without a hefty fee and years of preparatory study.    

 

Supplementing classroom sessions 

The new skills gained through digital initiatives, such as the one being used by Action West London, reach far beyond the classroom. As more services such as banking, the NHS and Universal Credit - to name a few - are being offered online, these learners are well placed to access them with less trepidation. 

Some have been concerned that online learning will deprive us of the social aspect of attending classes in person. Classrooms are, after all, where we mingle with others, learn about them, their cultures, and make friends – all of which is very important, especially in ESOL classes where this social interaction promotes community cohesion. 

Will this be compromised? Far from it. The classes offered by Action West London supplement, rather than replace, classroom sessions. They enhance them. Because learners already interact with one another in the classroom, online learning provides an extension of this interaction.  

Live online learning breaks a social isolation of learners who due to health problems or family commitments can’t always attend classes. It enables them to keep in touch with their peers and thus ensures a certain continuity of the class. It gives them an ongoing opportunity to practise English, as they often continue to stay in touch after the course. 

 

Support from friendly Online Learning Facilitators (OLFs) 

Action West London is currently in the process of training eight volunteer OLFs to support the project. This will enable the organisation to provide more sessions at different times in order to offer more flexibility for learners.  

Project background 

The aim of the ESOL for Integration, Employability and Social Cohesion Project is to help 50 Hillingdon residents from Trust wards with low level English and IT skills to improve their language/IT skills by creating learning opportunities in and out of the classroom. This will enable them to integrate into society and to participate in the wider community and access mainstream services and employment. 

Trust ward residents will improve English language and IT/e-learning skills through: 

  • Focused and clearly structured ESOL classes with emphasis on learner autonomy through peer support and collaboration 
  • The latest developments in IT/e-learning (live online conversation sessions) 
  • Volunteers trained to support the project and sustain its work through participation on our unique teaching and supporting learning course. This will ensure that the online learning groups will become self sustaining and will continue even when the project has ended 

 

Marcin Lewandowski is Head of Learning at Action West London. He has conducted and published research into online course delivery and was one of the winners of Cambridge University Press Teacher Research Programme. His latest paper that looks at opportunities provided by online communication tools in Community ESOL settings has been published in the latest edition of ‘Language Issues’. 

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