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Distance Language Learning Today: Is There a Reason to be Optimistic?

Anna Stebletsova & Irina Torubarova, Voronezh State Medical University

August 2021 | e-learning | Linguistics | Non-native speakers | Research | Teaching & Learning | Technologies

The COVID 19 pandemic has been responsible for many changes in social, economic, cultural and academic contexts of modern society. International organizations are continuously monitoring pandemic-related changes to identify current trends in public life and in education. Preliminary results of this monitoring demonstrate both the emergent and enforced nature of these changes which have affected a wide circle of people involved in education, from teachers and students to parents and policymakers. The previously free choice of online education, hybrid or blended learning formats are being ultimately replaced by enforced online education. The leitmotif of the existing changes, in our opinion, could be expressed by the following quotation — “extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures” [1].

In various publications, these pandemic-induced changes are mainly presented in a critical manner: the authors discuss the negative consequences on the quality of education for students forced to use distance learning technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the stressful situation in which the participants of the educational process found themselves [2].

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures
Many researchers in Russia and abroad have highlighted the inequality in education [3-5] which has emerged as a result of distance learning. This concerns low-income families and their inability to meet the requirements of “digital education”. Families with a low socioeconomic status have turned out to be a very resource-limited environment for their children studying remotely [6]. In addition, children from low-income families have been deprived of other support from schools such as free meals.[7].

University research has also declined, mainly due to funding cuts and social exclusion requirements [8]. Mandatory isolation also hampers the work of research institutions, especially laboratories and field units, which has a significant impact on research projects. The recruitment of overseas personnel and the exchange of qualified researchers have virtually come to a standstill due to travel restrictions.

Studies have also shown the disruption to student mobility and the internationalization of the student body, and as a result a weakening of the position of national universities in international rankings [9].

Analysis of international organizations has shown the negative impact of online learning on the health of students and teachers as a result of prolonged work with a computer and the negative psychological aspects of distancing and highlighted as a priority the need for technical support of educational institutions.

In terms of academic discourse, researchers acknowledge that the modern version of emergency and enforced online education, both in schools and universities, does not meet the expectations of society and the standards of quality education [10-12].

Benefits of distance learning?
On the other hand, there are a large number of publications highlighting the positive aspects of the total transition to distance education.

It has been acknowledge that the digital transition due to the pandemic has helped universities, teachers, students and university administration to see new opportunities and gain positive experiences, which will certainly be of benefit to universities in the future [13]. Some teachers, especially the older generation, have been able to overcome a barrier to digital technologies that may not have been so easily overcome in the previous environment, though this statement does seem controversial: it seems obvious that wanting to learn and experience something new does not depend on age but on the willingness of the person to accomplish it.

Uploading lectures to the virtual educational platform can allow teachers more time for scientific research. This argument from distance learning proponents is also problematic. It has been estimated that a one-hour distance lecture involves 25 hours of preparatory work [14].

Better student involvement in remote classes which allows students to master the material downloaded from the platform with less effort has also been suggested as a benefit. This claim is also problematic. The data from monitoring investigations and our own experience suggest that the working load of conscientious learners has increased significantly during the pandemic and students have to make greater efforts to succeed.

The idea that the current situation has made it possible to test out many technical solutions which has led to the improvement of the software of various educational platforms has also been voiced. However, many digital educational environments have only been used to provide students with theoretical material in the form of lectures and to control the acquired knowledge in the form of webinars and tests via LMS Moodle [15].

Summarizing pros and cons, we would highlight a few conclusions. Firstly, distance technologies will inevitably become a part of modern educational programs, and the most important task in this regard is to find the right balance of traditional full-time and distance formats. Secondly, many educational institutions have adapted to the possibilities of distance education and are now ready to use all the advantages of digitalization. Thirdly, the forced, sudden massive transition to distance learning associated with self-isolation and significant social restrictions may have led to a negative attitude. There was little support at the beginning of the process and by now a certain fatigue has set in; this may threaten, to a certain extent, a rejection of a further development in digitalization by much of the university community.

Distance Education for Health Science Specialties
A significant number of studies analyze the contribution of distance learning and digitalization in the training of future medical personnel. The following topics are among those being discussed:

  • problems of applicants with the preparation of documents, with travel to the place of study in conditions of quarantine restrictions[16];
  • the specificity of using online learning in educational programs, due to the fact that many psychomotor skills of doctors are formed exclusively offline in practical exercises [17];
  • lack of regular communication between students and their personal mentors due to the transition to distance learning technologies, as well as the suspension of clinical practice, as a result of which students may find themselves at a disadvantage due to missed opportunities [18];
  • acquisition, maintenance and improvement of technical skills in conditions of social isolation and online learning, the use of telemedicine in the provision of outpatient medical care and in the process of teaching medicalstudents [19];
  • creation of video platforms with a change in the methodology for the analysis of clinical cases – “show and tell” in video format[20].

The limitations experienced in the training of future doctors by the distance learning format are matched by a list of resources that can minimise negative consequences, while the emphasis is on the use of new technologies (video platforms and telemedicine) and on the description of methodological techniques that make it possible to compensate for remoteness. Obviously, in such a situation, the significance and positive effect of “doctor-patient”, “doctor-doctor”, “doctor-nurse” etc. communication is lost.

Distance learning: the students’ view
The transition to forced distance learning bought with it a certain stress for all participants in the field of education. Researchers note that teachers, administrators, students, and their social environment faced serious problems [21-23].

According to a study conducted by representatives of the Higher School of Economics, which included 31,423 students from universities representing all federal regions of the Russian Federation [15], only a fifth of the respondents (22.3%) calmly accepted the need to change the usual form of education. For the rest, the transition resulted in an array of emotions, fears and concerns. Fear for their education and passing future certification was noted by 23.4% of the respondents. Confusion and uncertainty about their involvement in the educational process was experienced by 21.0%. However, one in three students – 29.2% – reported a positive response to the opportunity to try something new and unusual. By the time of the study [15], the students had completed almost a semester, passed or were in the process of passing the session or passing the final certification. Half of the respondents indicated that they had mixed feelings (49.9%) while one in five respondents (19.9%) reported having negative feelings about distance learning.

In general, assessing the effectiveness of their own work in the current semester, a third of the respondents (30.3%) noted that it had not changed as a result of the transition to distance learning. 23.1% of the respondents indicated that they worked more effectively though 40.3% of respondents indicated they worked less effectively. Almost one in five answered that their effectively had “dropped significantly”. Giving an overall assessment of various aspects of their educational activities in a distance format, the survey participants noted that their motivation either had not changed (27.6%) or had decreased (57.0%). With regards to creativity, 31.2% said they had seen no change in their creativity, 36.8% said they were more creative while 32.0% said they were less creative. With regards to efficiency, 23.1% said they experienced no changes, 51.0% felt they were less efficient while 25.9% said they were more efficient. [15].

The experience of Voronezh Medical University
Teachers of foreign languages are interested in the question of the effectiveness (and even the feasability) of teaching a foreign language in a distance format. These are the preliminary reflections based on our experience. To begin with, foreign languages as an academic course are taught at our university to the 1st year students of the pediatric, dental, preventive medicine faculties, and to the 1st – 2nd year students of the medical and pharmaceutical faculties. The main problems are groups of students with various levels of language competency, the level of language proficiency which is not very high in the majority of students, and an insufficient number of contact hours. All these problems have become even more acute with the transition to distance education. In addition, in connection with online learning, we faced all the problems listed above: insufficient technical capabilities and insufficient technical awareness of both students and teachers, a stressful situation and a huge workload for students and teachers.

LMS Moodle and Webinar systems our in place at our university; in addition, at the very beginning of the “total distance period”, and currently, we use a wide variety of communication tools: e-mail, WhatsApp, SMS messages, etc. Students had both printed and digital textbooks, as well as printed workbooks, which greatly simplified the introduction of a new topic. In addition, we immediately began to use LMS Moodle, which had already existed in the electronic information educational environment of the university since 2017: the material was structured by modules and topics, audio and video clues, and grammar reference material were posted. To control the material, tests were developed that included a range of different formats: “multiple choice”, “chose the correct word”, “true-false”, “short answer”, “matching”, “drag and drop into the text”, “essay”. The new situation revealed, among other things, an interesting, but not an encouraging fact: the majority of students, despite their seeming digital awareness, are not at all competent in the use of e-mail, LMS Moodle s and other online resources. To provide feedback, Chats and Forums were created in Moodle and a survey was conducted. During the survey, students answered questions regarding the organization and content of a specific module, as well as the entire distance learning in general.

In April 2021 we conducted a survey, which was distributed to students from general medicine (47 people), preventive medicine (30 people) and the dental (60 people) faculties, with questions relating to the distance learning and blended (distance and face-to-face) learning during the academic year. Students were asked to express their opinion/attitude on issues presented in three themes: “Organization of distance learning in foreign language learning”, “My results and expectations”, “My attitude to distance learning in foreign language learning”, in a total of 27 statements. E.g.,
I feel positive emotions about studying a foreign language in a distance format – yes / no;
I feel negative emotions about studying a foreign language in a distance format – yes / no;
I have difficulties in studying a foreign language in a distance format – yes / no;
It is easy for me to study a foreign language in a distance format – yes / no;
The need to take a session remotely gives me negative emotions – yes / no;
The need to take a session remotely gives me positive emotions – yes / no;
The teacher has sufficient competencies to effectively teach the discipline “foreign language” in a distance format – yes / no, etc.

Some results of the survey are given in the Table 1

The survey showed that despite there being a lot of reference materials in the virtual learning environment, most students do need real life communication with the teacher. Most students do not want their language classes to be in the distance format, since they do not consider this format useful and efficient for language learning.

The opinions of language teachers were also collected via interviews with open-ended questions:
How do you feel about distance learning?
What do you think about students’ knowledge resulted from the distance learning?
What are the pros and cons of the distance learning?

The most common answers were: “I feel very stressed and exhausted”, “My working load increased enormously”, “Students do not have the due level of self-discipline to study autonomously, they need a great deal of control”, “Tests in Moodle do not reflect real knowledge of students”, “Distance learning mostly has a negative impact on educational results regarding language education in the medical school in current situation”.

We are not sure that it is possible to answer categorically if distance language learning is a successful enterprise, and currently there seem to be many more “cons” than “pros” relating to this issue. Distance language learning does not engender many positive emotions and attitudes in either teachers or students (or their parents). However, one tendency is clear: distance learning is inevitable, and we should learn to work with it and to make it serve educational purposes as much as possible.

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