Opinion: Online language homework holds back learning

Posted on Sep 14 2017 - 8:00am by Francisco Hernandez

Introductory language courses should have two main purposes: teaching the basics and developing the student’s interest in the language so he or she has an incentive to continue studying it.

Since these goals seem like such common sense, I am surprised to see that intro-level language courses almost always require students to purchase and use online platforms that fail at both effectively teaching and awakening any sort of interest in a language.

If you have taken one of these language courses, you are probably familiar with the so-called “language labs.” If you haven’t already, you can start fearing them now.

Starting with their name – it seems like the word “lab” lost its scientific meaning somewhere in the marketing process – almost everything about these platforms is absurd.

After costing around $100 for a one-semester subscription, the online platform posts sets of homework with a long list of activities due once every week, sometimes twice a week. These activities, while often consisting of no more than 10 questions each, become repetitive and tedious when in sets of 40 or more. In a set of homework, for example, you might get five consecutive activities on how to say “hello” and “goodbye.”

The way the platform corrects your answers is also very frustrating. A missing accent mark, a simple typo or a correct answer that the computer system is not programmed to recognize can make you redo a whole exercise.

Also, the due dates for each homework package do not seem to follow any specific pattern: one week, homework might be due Monday, while the week after, you might have one due Tuesday and another due Thursday.

The website doesn’t bother sending reminders, so you have to stay on top these random due dates if you want to avoid missing a homework or having to run to your computer at 11:30 p.m. and rush to finish by 11:59 p.m. You might end up enjoying those weekly adrenaline rushes, those little races against time with only a computer screen in between you and your very modest victory.

However, these online “labs” have negative effects on students’ learning and even worse consequences for their interest in the language. Though the repetitive nature of the homework could favor memorization of important terms and grammar structures, it actually mechanizes the thought of students and prevents them from applying that knowledge to real-life situations outside the artificial scenarios of the homework.

It’s not hard to understand why these online platforms discourage and disengage students. They are ultimately a part of why many students regard intro-level courses as necessary pains to fulfill the general requirements of their degrees, when they should see them as privileged opportunities to learn a language.

Of course, these subscriptions are a gold mine for publishers since there’s no way around the price of online access codes. You can buy or rent a used book, but you must buy a shiny, new access code that expires after several months. And since these platforms are usually responsible for 10 percent of the grade, not purchasing them can account for the difference between an A and a B.

I would be tempted to call online “language labs” a scam if it weren’t for the fact that scams at least carry some degree of deception for those being scammed. “Language labs,” however, are not deceiving anyone; we all know they are more painful than useful.

In an era when resources for language-learning are easily available and mostly free online, there should be no room for these archaic, overpriced and ineffective platforms. Intro-level language courses should stop being complicit.

Francisco Hernandez is a senior international studies major from Valencia, Spain.