On-line and face-to-face language learning compared: the student experience

Author: Miranda van Rossum


This paper discusses the student experience of Lagelands, an on-line Dutch course for beginners. It will compare the experiences of students who took this course in combination with face-to-face teaching as part of their degree at the University of Hull, with that of students who took the course completely on-line. Before embarking upon the comparison itself, the Lagelands course and the two learning contexts in which it is offered will be briefly outlined.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Setting the Agenda: Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education conference, 24-26 June 2002.


This paper discusses the student experience of Lagelands, an on-line Dutch course for beginners. It will compare the experiences of students who took this course in combination with face-to-face teaching as part of their degree at the University of Hull, with that of students who took the course completely on-line.

Before embarking upon the comparison itself, the Lagelands course and the two learning contexts in which it is offered will be briefly outlined.

What is Lagelands?

Lagelands is the first tutor-supported on-line Dutch course for beginners. It was developed by the Dutch Studies section at the University of Hull between 1999 and 2001. This development was with financial support from the Nederlandse Taalunie (the Dutch Language Union - a Dutch-Flemish treaty organisation for the promotion, protection and development of Dutch), the Erasmus University Rotterdam and the University of Hull. The course uses the Merlin on-line learning environment, also developed at Hull.

Lagelands is a complete course, consisting of ten chapters, each containing three listening texts (videos) and three reading texts. Each text is accompanied by grammar points, self-correcting exercises as well as more interactive exercises, often using authentic Dutch websites. The interactive exercises are sent to the tutor for feedback via the Portfolio. The environment not only contains all the learning materials (including links to the videos, which are on a CD-ROM), but also a personal mailbox, discussion groups (the Exchange) and a resource centre with weblinks and downloadable files.

Lagelands at Hull v. Lagelands on-line

Lagelands has now been used at the University of Hull for two years. During the pilot, which took place in the first semester of the academic year 2000/01, some twenty students took part - these were all students taking modules in Dutch Studies as part of their degree. This pilot combined face-to-face teaching with on-line work. In total, there were six hours of contact time a week, two of which were dedicated to working with the Merlin learning environment. Students were also expected to complete a number of computer-based exercises and tasks outside of class each week. Students were expected to spend about seven hours per week on self-study. This would include, but not solely consist of, the work done on Merlin. Students received detailed tutor feedback on the work completed on-line.

The Lagelands on-line course, offered to all interested parties worldwide outside the University, was first run during the second semester of the academic year 2001/02, between February and the beginning of June. Nine students in all registered, five of which successfully completed the course. Students completed all work on-line. Like the 'face to face' version, this is also a 20-credit module and students were expected to put in the same total amount of time. The difference here is of course that this did not include face-to-face contact time with the tutor. The tutor support consisted of giving feedback on submitted tasks, co-ordinating the work students were expected to do at a given point in the course and answering student queries, both of a technical and content nature.

The face-to-face and on-line student experience compared

The pilot was part of an externally funded project. Part of our remit was to extensively evaluate the course, particularly in terms of the student experience. In order to compare this experience of on-line learning with that of students learning a language purely on-line, the following data was gathered for both modules:

  • Information about the students' previous computer experience and their expectations of the course.
    This was done by means of a questionnaire in the pilot and via the students' registration form for the on-line course.
  • Initial views on the course as a whole.
    In both cases this data was collected via a questionnaire distributed about halfway through the module.
  • Final evaluation.
    In both cases this was done through a questionnaire at the end of the module and also partially through the final written assignment of the last chapter.

This paper will focus only on the interim evaluation, given that not all final evaluations for the on-line course have been received at the time of writing. Here I will therefore give a preliminary analysis of the results. I will focus in particular on those areas where some distinct differences between the two groups were found.

Analysis interim evaluation

For the pilot, a total of twelve students completed the questionnaire (a response rate of 60%). For the on-line course, all five students who completed the course also completed the questionnaire. Below, the students' responses to each section of the questionnaire will be discussed.

The texts (video and reading texts)
The Lagelands course is specifically aimed at students in Higher Education. The story, which is centred around an English student of Dutch on his Year Abroad, reflects this.

It was therefore quite pleasing that several students in the pilot group commented specifically on these matters. When asked what they thought of the story up to that point, the students' comments reflected that they found the story interesting and funny. Students further referred to the story as being realistic and easy to follow. The fact that the story used everyday situations and reflected student life was also appreciated. Quite an important point made by two of the students is that they identified with the English student in the video. The speed of speech in the videos was felt to be about right.

The on-line group found the texts to be of average usefulness, enjoyability and difficulty. Here it became apparent that the students taking this course were not part of our original target group, being between 25 and 45 years old. Although the story was still felt to be fun, easy to relate to and interesting, two students commented specifically on the fact that it was clearly aimed at a different target group. The characters were also clearly judged less positively by this group than by the pilot group, which again relates to the fact that it is aimed at a different type of student.

Particularly noticeable in the comments of this group was how the students' appreciation of the characters in some cases appeared to be directly related to how clear the students perceived their pronunciation and enunciation to be. Also, these students thought the speed of speech was slightly fast. This may have to do with the fact that in an on-line situation, this is potentially the only spoken Dutch the students are exposed to. The tutor did record spoken messages in response to students' spoken assignments, but the oral input from the tutor was considerably less than in the combined face-to-face/on-line context.

Lagelands has two-tiered on-line grammar explanations. On the first level there is a relatively basic explanation in Merlin itself, directly related to one of the videos or reading texts. From this basic explanation, students can link to a more extensive explanation on a separate Lagelands grammar website.

On the whole, both groups of students thought that both types of explanations were useful and clear. As for the two-level explanation system, opinions were divided. Some students in the pilot group thought the Lagelands grammar website was very clear and well-structured, whereas others thought the interlinking to other sections was a bit difficult to get to grips with. However, this may also have something to do with nature of the subject itself, rather than the structure of the site as such.

In the on-line group on the other hand, some students commented specifically on liking the division between a brief summary and lengthier detail. No comments were made about the interlinking between various sections - a possible explanation for this may be that these students were more familiar with the Web.

Exercises in Merlin

The exercises in Merlin itself were mostly of an interactive nature; the pilot group generally found them useful, enjoyable and of average difficulty. The Eindopdrachten (i.e. final assignments at the end of each chapter) were appreciated most, mainly because they gave the students a sense of achievement. Students also liked the grammar exercises, which were believed to be very useful. Students further indicated that they liked the exercises with websites for their authenticity and the free writing exercises, because of the lack of restrictions in terms of what they could write. Feedback on the exercises provided by the tutors was rated very positively: useful, clear and sufficient.

Students were rather divided as to which exercises they liked least. The fact that particular types of exercises did not stand out as being particularly disliked can be viewed as positive. We seem to have succeeded in catering for students' different preferences. However, one thing that did emerge in this part of the questionnaire was the frustration experienced by students if links to websites or attachments did not work.

The on-line group thought the exercises were of average difficulty, fairly useful and quite enjoyable. The tutor feedback was very highly rated, in the words of one student:

'Excellent: clear, motivating, immediate - wow, how do you have the patience?'

It was clearly appreciated more than in the other context, but that is perhaps to be expected, as this was the main form of communication with the tutor. This was also shown by the fact that these students asked for clarification of feedback and extra explanations of certain language points more often - the students in the other context did that less anyway and mostly did so in class.

This group's favourite tasks varied from listening tasks to speaking tasks to writing tasks. What stood out in the students' comments was the very clear link between the enjoyment of a certain task and a sense of achievement.

'You feel you are really getting to grips with the language when you can do this.'

'The travel report. It was a different idea and although difficult to do, the sense of achievement after was nice.'

This also shows that perceived difficulty does not necessarily hinder students' enjoyment of the task - these students clearly like a challenge!

This group's least favourite tasks were generally those that take a lot of time, simply because these students generally have less time to devote to their language learning (all were in full-time employment).

WELL (Web Enhanced Language Learning) exercises

The WELL system was developed at Liverpool John Moores University, specifically for self-correcting exercises such as gap fills and multiple choice. In Lagelands it is used for all spelling and grammar exercises and some comprehension and vocabulary exercises.

These exercises were again seen by both groups as useful and the feedback as reasonably clear, although perhaps somewhat limited. The main difference between the two groups lay in their appreciation of the structure of the site itself and how it tied in with the Merlin system. Some students in the pilot found having to go to yet another website (although linked to from Merlin) with another username and password confusing and some thought the structure of the site was unclear. The structure of the site was also commented on by the on-line students, but to a lesser extent. On the whole, these students seemed slightly more positive about WELL than the pilot group.

Merlin as a system

Both groups of students liked the 'look' of the Merlin environment and thought it was well-structured and easy to use. One of Merlin's main strong points cited by the pilot group was its user-friendliness - in the words of one of the students:

You don't need to be a computer freak to work with Merlin, very clear.

The large number of exercises provided, the fact that the work can be sent in quickly and easily and the tutor feedback were also appreciated. Another positive point mentioned was Merlin's 'personal touch':

Not just working environment. You can also send messages to other students on-line.

The less strong points mentioned by this group mainly related to the accessibility of certain parts of the system (e.g. downloading files, not being able to access certain websites). Some students also commented, however, that they didn't think the system had any weak points.

The main strong points mentioned by the on-line group were the Who's who page - their personal homepage in Merlin - and the mailbox, which encouraged the feeling of being part of a learning community:

I really liked having everybody's Web pages and e-mails available - made me feel I was part of a group.

This is of course particularly important in a course which is solely taught on-line. It is also positive that Merlin and Lagelands are not really seen as two separate things. One student explicitly said so, another's comments made it clear that she was talking about the strong points of the course as a whole, rather than of Merlin as a system.

Weak points mentioned mainly related to what they called 'the usual server problems' - they seemed to accept these type of problems more readily than the pilot group, although one student remarked that people with very basic computer skills might find it difficult to get to grips with the system initially.

Classes / on-line support

As mentioned above, in the pilot, the on-line element was combined with face-to-face teaching. Classes were rated very positively; the relaxed and pleasant atmosphere in class was commented on several times. Students also mentioned the approachability of the tutors and the fact that problems were solved immediately.

In the on-line group's questionnaire, the section on on-line support was fairly extensive. It focused on how the tutor was perceived and whether sufficient help was provided by her. It also addressed:

  • the pace of the course;
  • collaboration with other students;
  • student learning needs;
  • language learning skills.

A very important question in this section asked them what they thought the main differences between on-line and face-to-face learning were.

The tutor was rated very positively on support given and such matters as enthusiasm conveyed, communication with students, providing encouragement and approachability. It is indeed very positive that this comes across in a situation where the students have never even met the tutor. The speed with which any problems that occurred were solved was also appreciated.

The pace of the course was felt to be somewhat too fast. Fortunately, this issue could already be addressed when the course was underway. In fact, the course was extended by two weeks to 18 weeks. This should give them sufficient time, as students indicated that they generally needed between 1.5 and two weeks to complete a chapter.

Four students had been in touch with other students on the course, but all felt this could be stimulated more, for example by having students send each other messages as part of tasks.

The students' learning needs were generally dealt with, although one student mentioned wanting more 'physical' backup, e.g. an audiocassette. Speaking was mentioned most frequently as the skill that was perhaps somewhat insufficiently addressed, although most students seemed to accept that this was due to the technical limitations of the Internet.

When comparing on-line learning with face-to-face learning, the greater flexibility of on-line learning in terms of time and place of learning was seen as especially positive. Two students also mentioned that you don't have to worry how fast or slow you are in comparison to other students. One student particularly liked the 'one-to-one' attention from the tutor. The negative points of on-line learning mentioned were less contact with other learners and not being able to ask for repetition or immediate clarification.

The course as a whole

One of the main things to come out of this section in the pilot group was that not having your own computer is a clear disadvantage. Even though the computer provision at Hull is quite good -there are several rooms specifically set up for using computers for language learning - not being able to get to a computer was cited as one of the main problems. The course on the whole was liked very much. Although some students were still not so keen on using computers, others explicitly mentioned that whilst they had been a bit worried about computer use initially, they felt it was not as much of a problem as they had expected.

All students in the on-line group were at this stage enjoying the course a lot and felt they were learning a lot. Any negative comments in this section of the questionnaire tended to relate to time constraints.


In both cases, students liked the course very much and in some ways their experiences were similar. Nonetheless, I would like to end this paper by highlighting the main differences in the student experience:

  • The on-line course clearly attracts a different target group, which leads to a different appreciation of the videos in particular. This appears to be especially closely related to pronunciation issues.
  • The on-line group experienced fewer technical problems and appeared more willing to accept the technical limitations of the Web. For example, they felt that the limited possibilities for practising speaking were inevitable and did make more use of the options that were available in that respect.
  • Despite less contact with other students in the on-line scenario, which is also cited as something which could be encouraged more, the on-line students nonetheless felt part of a learning community.
  • Again despite the lack of face-to-face contact, the tutor is still rated very highly on a personal level.
  • Tutor feedback is absolutely essential in an on-line environment - this is seen as the most attractive feature of the course.

All in all, this just goes to show that in an on-line environment, it is the 'human touch' that counts!