Online tutoring for foreign languages learing - Part 4

Teaching foreign languages is not a new career in Vietnam; but teaching and learning foreign languages online under the instruction of a tutor is a novel experience which is currently being applied in some popular languages-specializing universities. Or private companies develop personal online accounts and sell them to individual learners. This article aims to include four main points: (1) basic concepts of e-learning and online tutoring; (2) components of a learning management system (LMS); (3) roles of tutors in e-learning of foreign languages; (4) suggestions and warnings of e-learning activities in Vietnam. Some studies on online tutoring in Vietnam generally as well as within the scope of National Foreign Languages Project 2020 particularly are mentioned in the last section.
In Vietnam, the application of e-learning has not yet been systematic since it is only the idea that is applied in some foreign languages specializing universities. At primary and secondary schools, the softwares of foreign languages teaching are more likely offline versions which are used for students to self-study or study with direct instruction of teachers in class (Eduplay in kindergartens, Phonics in primary schools, DynEd, Kids & Let’s Go).

4.1. E-learning in higher education
The number of empirical studies in e-learning and teaching of foreign languages in Vietnam are often conducted by lecturers-researchers at universities. It is understandable because e-learning is a new field, which has been applied more popularly at higher education level than at secondary schools. Below is the summary of some studies in the field.

In the thesis of the application of IT in teaching and learning foreign languages, Do (2008) constructed a teaching program which integrated Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing. The program was experienced with 20 French sophomores at Hanoi University. The learning contents were mainly supplementary exercises along with direct lectures in class. They were uploaded in Moodle whe-re teachers and students made use of all available tools to submit, check assignments and answer questions. At the end of the experiential study, students found all the activities organized by the teacher (i.e. the researcher) satisfactory enough. The teacher who took all the roles as required admitted that there were a number of challenges since this was the first time the students worked on an online learning system with many unfamiliar tools. Especially, the teacher had to give lots of encouragement and support to the students to maintain motivation because the course was voluntary and out of the official schedule.

Le et al. (2008) mentioned the interactive relationship among different participants during e-learning process. As e-learning involves little face-to-face communication, the authors proposed a model of e-learning based on learners’ demands and supporting three types of interaction: learners with materials (providing standard knowledge), learners with online tutors (providing expertise knowledge), and individual learners with group of learners. In this model, learning activities comprise of 3 forms: self study, theme-based study and group activities. The role of online tutors is important in theme-based learning because tutors will se-lect the suitable contents to learners and program requirements. In self-study and group activities, there are a number of factors influencing learning effectiveness such as motivation, living conditions, time management and learning methods etc.

Pham et al. (2013) conducted a survey in an e-learning software (i.e. English Discoveries Online- EDO) with 259 English freshmen in Hanoi University. This has been used to teach English to all English learners at Hanoi Unviversity since 2006. The research questions mainly focused on understanding the interaction between learners and learning contents. The research showed that the contents in Listening and Grammar were much appreciated because they did not have many chances to practice in traditional classrooms. To improve their interests, learners wished to have more humour, fun and diverse activities. Besides, the contents must be adjusted to suit learners’ demands and include the skills and knowledge in the final exams. The researchers concluded that the interactive activities between teachers and learners are not diverse enough, mainly focusing on tasks assignment and some exchanges in internal messaging in the system

Dinh & Dao (2013) carried out the research in a different aspect of e-learning and teaching which was the learners’ psychology. Two lecturers-researchers did a survey with 200 students and lecturers in three universities in Vietnam. The result of the study showed that students spent much time reading news, sending emails, accessing social networks and forums. Therefore, one of the warnings by the two authors was to connect foreign languages training websites to social networks or build a community among online learners in the course. However, this study did not mention specific interactive relationship between teachers and learners and instructional activities.

4.2. E-learning in National Foreign Languages Project 2020
Since 2011, when National Foreign Languages Project 2020[1]were officially implemented, English teacher training programs nationwide require 400 teaching hours to increase teachers’ level up to one band scale. Particularly, 100 out of 400 hours are reserved for self-study using foreign languages training software. However, this learning mode has been arranged in various ways depending on the conditions, competences and experience of the trainers in the training institutions. Some have considered it self-study activity so that teachers assign homework and check, which is similar to traditional classrooms. Other institutions install offline version of the software in the computers based at locals. Then learners get access to the programs using the computers provided in a fixed schedule; one teacher is available in the lab for each session. Several foreign languages specializing universities which are experienced in deploying e-learning programs have used e-learning softwares with the instruction of online tutors. The commonly used softwares include Dyned, Langmaster, Language School, EDO (English Discoveries Online). In case of using e-learning softwares, it is necessary to make of the advantages which might be interaction and support of online tutors via classroom management tools, communication and assessment. Therefore, both online tutors and learners need to be provided with appropriate training: teachers are trained in online teaching methodology, technology application; meanwhile, learners must master the skills to use different tools and learning methods.

Applying any e-learning and teaching softwares is never an easy task for a number of factors: infrastructure, policies, motivation and attitudes of learners and teachers, quality of the software.

For telecommunication infrastructure, Vietnam has experienced rapid development. The General Report in 2013 issued by Ministry of Information and Telecommunication indicated that there were 31 million Internet users, 5.17 millions of whom are using xDSL; mobile phone subscribers are 105 millions. In the near future, Viettel group (a Vietnam telecom operator) is committed to install optical fiber cable to connect the Internet for 100 percent of Vietnam’s schools. Hence, the application of Internet into the teaching programmes will then be exclusively the challenge in remote areas.

Regarding policies, National Foreign Languages Project 2020 has initiated lots of specific plans for implementation which not only aim to improve foreign languages competency of teachers but also provide teaching pedagogy training (since 2011) and especially the application of IT in teaching foreign languages (since 2014). This has proved the determination of Ministry of Education and Training in innovating teaching methodology at all levels: primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities. Foreign languages teachers are likely to be the pioneers in using IT in teaching before teachers of other disciplines start to apply IT. The budget of the project 2020 has also reserved certain amount for the expenses: purchases of teaching facilities and softwares, materials; training of IT application, teaching fee for online tutors (100 hours of self-study instruction in the total 400 hours of training). However, there have been some challenges when the plans were implemented in different provinces. For example, the 2013 report in the Exploitation of IT applications and facilities in foreign languages teaching and learning by Management Board of the project 2020 showed that the budget for purchases of softwares, open learning resources accounted for only 1 percent of the total investment budget for facilities and materials f-rom 2011 to 2013. The figure has proved that e-learning and teaching softwares have not been applied strongly and properly. F-rom our experience, the main reason for this failure is that the insufficient information has been provided for different locals; leaders and staff at the departments of financial planning and professional staff have been confused in choosing necessary softwares and materials; some softwares were implemented without the consultation f-rom foreign languages training professionals who are aware of the teachers’ and learners’ needs.

At the institutional level, the primary and secondary schools have not prepared for a comprehensive plan to apply IT in teaching and learning. All trainers in e-learning programs are aware of the huge time and effort invested into the course, especially at the initial stage: checking assignments, responding to emails, following and answering questions in forums, providing encouragement, giving instruction, finding supplementary materials etc. If all of the activities are not quantified and officially recognized with appropriate teaching fees, it is difficult to motivate teachers to participate in such programmes since teachers who apply or do not apply IT in teaching enjoy the same welfare.

Teachers’ and learners’ motivation and attitude are also the factors that require much time to change. In Bertrand (2003), the worldwide experience had proved that effective distance learning system used to originate f-rom initiatives, research project for teaching innovation by a few teachers who applied IT in teaching and learning process. In other words, active individual applying e-learning and teaching applications at different local institutions must be timely encouraged to be leaders and motivators for other teachers to follow. The motivation in this case is the pioneers’ creativity and the expectations of the followers to avoid being outdated and to learn new ideas.

Another factor affecting learners’ attitude is the objectives and values of self-study activities. When implementing the project 2020, Hanoi University delivered instruction of e-learning to nearly 2000 English teachers by using EDO software. This is quite comprehensive software providing sufficient technical support such as classroom management tools, communication and assessment tools. However, there are always 5 percent of learners who did not complete the assigned tasks even after a number of warnings, 40 percent only accomplished 80 percent of the assignments (to be conditionally accepted for final exams), 55 percent completed 100 percent or more of the assignments. Learners of low levels (A1, A2) seem to complete the tasks more frequently than the higher level learners (B1, B2); they may be aware of the demand and effort needed to upgrade their level f-rom A1, A2 to B2 of primary and secondary school teachers, which definitely takes much time and determination. The aforementioned statistics have shown that participants in the project 2020 have not been eager to e-learning programs; up to 45 percent of learners only completed 80 percent of the assignments or failed to do so. Despite the lack of official studies, through our observation, several reasons may lead to this problem such as tight schedule of learners who have to both attend the training courses and do their teaching at schools; failure to get access to computers at homes in remote areas and possibly the inappropriate learning objectives and motivation. Under the work and social pressure, the threat to lose trust of colleagues, parents and students, many teachers have not considered training programs a chance to enhance their capabilities, yet taken it as a compulsory task; then they have tried to reach the standard by practicing lots of test expecting that some questions may come up in the real exams. The objectives of the whole process are just to achieve B2 or C1! Normally, after only half way through the course, learners requested teachers to save time for test practices even though the syllabi required teachers to train learners about test taking strategies in the last week of the course (only for 15-20 hours). Probably due to the above pressures and wrong expectations of the course, learners have not found the real values of e-learning software to make use of its advantages in their professional development and lifelong learning.

Finally, the quality of e-learning softwares also affects the effectiveness of application. The professionals in software engineering have warned that it is compelling to do much research before se-lection of any software. In regards to technical factors, it is recommended to choose user-friendly softwares which provide sufficient basic tools and do not require high speed connection. They must also be flexible so that online tutors can make changes or add more contents or supplementary materials. In terms of academic contents and pedagogy, the teaching contents in the software and the activities must be suitable to the c-haracteristics of each subject and teaching-learning methods. For example, some softwares following American-British teaching pedagogy often use project-based learning (particularly suitable to training programs in business administration or engineering); meanwhile, the pedagogy applied in most European universities is theoretical concept-based. In foreign languages training softwares, there must be all skills including reading, listening, writing, speaking, vocabulary and grammar and technical tools for submitting and checking oral and written assignments. In the courses for low-level learners, bilingual dictionaries with Vietnamese meanings and Vietnamese explanations of grammar must also be available. In short, foreign languages training softwares are normally the most complicated among other e-learning softwares because they require the support in all communicative forms such as listening, speaking, reading and writing in all forms of written documents, visual and audio or audio-visual files and with all types of activities to cater for individual learners, small/ pair groups, whole group or at times to group of hundreds of learners.

Distance learning and e-learning in foreign languages training in particular is a new field in Vietnam. National Foreign Languages Project 2020 has appropriate policy allowing foreign language teachers to get access to technology and a fresh teaching method and to enrich learning experience of learners in remote areas. In all projects, human is always the most essential factor. The most important factor is that managers and learners are properly motivated by the benefits of learning foreign languages. Besides, teachers understand the teaching objectives and are trained in new teaching pedagogy of IT application. The other factors such as policies, infrastructures, technical conditions and softwares can certainly be solved in the current conditions of Vietnam.

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Quyết định 1400/QĐ-TTg của Thủ tướng Chính phủ ngày 30/9/2008 về việc Phê duyệt Đề án "Dạy và học ngoại ngữ trong hệ thống giáo dục quốc dân giai đoạn 2008-2020".
[1] The project of Teaching and Learning Foreign Languages in the National Education System, period 2008-2020, briefly known as the Project 2020 was approved in the decision 1400/QĐ-TTg dated 30 September 2008 by the Prime Minister.
Người đăng:Nguyen Thi Cuc Phuong, Ph.D. Hanoi University