How to Learn Online – Steps Through the Eyes of a Tech Newbie

“Learning how to learn is one of the most important skills in life”

Nourma F Fauziyah

I thought I knew how to learn before this class.

I worked hard in school. I paid attention, did my homework, studied like crazy, and, in the end, got good grades.

All in a very traditional sense. Although I occasionally used the Internet for references, I knew the only appropriate articles to cite in my work were peer-reviewed ones from online journals. So I would look through those for information, but would more often than not go to the school library and pound out my work there, using good old-fashioned books and notes. My computer was my best friend – as I was typing things out, saving them to the hard drive, e-mailing them to myself, and saving them on a USB, just to be safe – but that was the extent of my ability to “learn online”.

Even the few online courses I had taken required a textbook, which I read, and then followed presentations online. Nothing out-of-the-box crazy.

Then there was this class, and in particular, this project. A specific task laid out, challenging all students to learn something new online and share their progress via a blog. Throughout the past few months, I have changed my entire view on learning in this modern world, and have begun to significantly use online resources to achieve my goals (check out my Final Summary of Learning for the content of this class to see how far I have come!). I may have been able to learn in the past, but if I am to move forward, I will have to develop skills to learn online to become a completely multi-faceted learner.

I learned some of these skills throughout this term. But it wasn’t always easy.

How to learn online – what went well

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Photo credit: Leo Reynolds via Compfight

There are many things that online does well, particularly in relation to communication. The ease of communicating online with others from anywhere in the world makes learning a foreign language much easier than simply reading it in a textbook. Being able to ask others what something means in their language, or how to properly say something, creates a more dynamic learning experience. It also gives the opportunity to create communities of learning with native speakers of this language.

These communities of learning can be seen through a wide variety of social media outlets and venues, such as Twitter. Through the use of these social media tools, I got daily reminders to use Italian, and suggestions for specific words to try and use in a sentence. It is important to put in daily practice to learn a language, and these outlets can remind you to do just that.

Furthermore, this communication encourages intrinsic motivation, as you set goals for yourself, declare them online, and have people watch as you either go through with them, or back down from them. That is one of the main things that kept me going through the more difficult weeks of this learning project: knowing that other people know what I have set out to do, and if I don’t achieve it, they will be able to hold me accountable.

I made my goals apparent, as well as my progress, through this weekly blog. This is one of the most amazing aspects of online learning: being able to communicate your progress consistently, and constantly being able to review it, online through a blog. Even with few people reading your posts, you get a sudden urge to do well, to reflect properly, and to share to the best of your knowledge and ability so they can learn from you just as you have from them. Not only for the audience, but simply putting your reflections out there – and being able to go back and revisit them – shows you how much you have grown. I look back at my first blog post, and I see not only how little I knew in Italian, but how little I know of blogging and online learning. When I felt as though I was making no progress and just wanted to quit learning Italian altogether, I returned to my first posts and saw what I knew then. It helped put into perspective what I have learned, and how far I have come.

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Photo credit: Sara Moseley via Compfight 

Another aspect of online learning that helped bring perspective were other people’s tweets, blogs, articles, and even Pinterest boards. Seeing what others were doing in their learning projects inspired me to do more with mine. I got several ideas from my peers, and further inspiration to post more actively about my progress and knowledge. Expanding from the online community that is EC&I 831, looking at other people’s blogs and articles have helped me get ideas on how I can better learn a language (i.e. my favourite post-it idea). It also helped me understand how difficult it is to learn a language, and that my “lack of progress” was not necessarily because I wasn’t doing anything; rather, it was because learning a language takes time and effortReading these things online help bring reality back to learning online, which can sometimes get away from you without the traditional classroom approach. Pinterest boards rushing constantly with new ideas, suggestions, and approaches ensure that you never run out of ideas or resources for your online project, if you are willing to put in the time to find these resources.

These online learning resources and outlets are great to help you along with the development of your language, but what is amazing – and what I found to be one of the greatest finds on the Internet – is the free classes you can take/apps you can find that lay out the learning of the language for you. Websites like Duolingo and Mango have organized basic learning of different languages – including Italian – for free! Through these tools, I was able to develop a stronger vocabulary in Italian than I ever could using audio discs and books I bought previously. Even though they have their weaknesses, these websites are definitely useful in the development of vocabulary and I appreciate all they have helped me achieve over these past few months. Duolingo is definitely one of the highlights of online learning for me in this project.

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Photo credit: Cliff Auerswald via Compfight

Overall, my online learning project went well. It was easier at the start, as I was new to all of this technology and everything was fresh and exciting. Even when it became more difficult, however, resources exist online that helped me overcome any difficulties I did face.

My struggles with online learning – and what I learned from them

Even though my overall experience has been positive, there have been difficulties along the way, mainly with the learning online aspect of this journey. Firstly, because of the nature of this learning project, it is based largely on self-motivation and what you can make time for yourself to accomplish. Although I am a very motivated person as a whole, when life gets busy, the additional things tend to drop out quicker than I would like. Weeks when my life seemed hectic – during report card season or over the Easter weekend – one of the first things to go was my dedication to learning Italian. It’s easier to drop something that doesn’t have set meeting times and days, even with the daily reminders that Duolingo will send. Therefore, online learning requires self-motivation at all times, and for you to set a specific time yourself to complete the task. This is what helped me through these difficulties – planning “class times” for myself to go on Duolingo or other sources to learn Italian.

Photo credit: Freepik

This aspect also made it difficult to get over the plateaus one always hits when learning something new. I found that at times I didn’t know what to do to improve myself further, because I didn’t have an expert in the field teaching me every week and telling me exactly what to do for homework. That being said, it did allow a lot of freedom with how I was going to advance in my work, but left me, at times, confused with how to accomplish this. When this happened, I learned to continue exploring different social media resources (i.e. HiNative, which I incorporated later on in my learning this term), refresh my arsenal of resources (perhaps using things like Pinterest or Twitter), and start anew with different tools.

Another difficulty I faced with learning online – which turned out, in my opinion, to be my biggest hurdle – was the amount of resources available. The Internet is endless, and the different apps available for language learning are plentiful – even just the free ones – for android phones. This made it overwhelming to choose which one – what happens if I stop searching too early and miss possibly the best app/internet resource for my learning goals? This fear of missing out made me continue to look all semester long for additional resources, all the while using the ones I already loved for learning Italian. This can be a good thing – it’s how I began using HiNative – but it also used up a lot of my time throughout the semester. It also made it difficult to start my learning process because of the multitude of resources. Sifting through every possibility was challenging, and reading a myriad of articles about online learning and how to learn a language was an information-overload. This availability of information is the Internet’s biggest strength, but also biggest hurdle.

Evaluation of online resources and social media platforms – the good, the bad, and the ‘just not for me’

To be fair, I didn’t encounter any “bad” social media platforms or online resources through this learning project. However, there were those that worked for me, and those that didn’t. To evaluate these, I will be using 7 essential criteria for evaluating mobile educational applications (according to Mayra Aixa Villar): content; personalization; meaningful feedback; higher-order thinking skills; usability and technical performance (learnability, efficiency, memorability, errors, satisfaction, according to Jacob Nielsen); interactivity and engagement; and integration of social interactions. I will evaluate the following 12 apps and educational websites that I used throughout the term using those seven criteria. I have put them already in order of usage throughout the term; number 1 being the most used, and 12 the least. The first 7 are all quite close in terms of usage over the term.

1. Duolingo

Duolingo has great content for beginning to learn a language. It introduces a wide variety of vocabulary (some words that you probably won’t use) and it is formatted in a simple way to learn. It is divided into manageable steps, and it is quite accurate (with few exceptions). It can’t be very personalized, however. You can create your own account, note your progress, have your goals sent to you, and see your (hopefully) ever-growing fluency rating that can connect to your LinkedIn account. That being said, everyone learns the same things, and the objectives are not personalized for each account. The feedback is generic as well; very little, except for the correct answer. The higher-order thinking skills are ones you have to get personally through the proper use of this app; the explanations of different situations in which you can use these skills are found within Duolingo, but not evidently.You need to search for it, and even when you do, the explanations aren’t always in depth. I loved the usability and technical performance of Duolingo. It is easy to follow, I can pick up where I left off without much difficulty, and I can correct my errors quite simply. The app can be interactive and engaging, although at time the relevance of the information being taught was questionable. Finally, Duolingo does offer discussion groups to enhance the integration of social interactions. 

Overall, I truly enjoyed Duolingo.

2. Twitter

Twitter is a wonderful tool; but you get what you put out there. The content and higher-order thinking skills are based entirely on what you can find and follow. Often people will give you feedback if you ask for it, and although the usability and technical performance take time to understand, once you get it, you can learn a lot. Using other websites like Tweetdeck help organize things when participating in things like Twitter chats. You can personalize your account significantly, by not only attaching a picture, a biography, and other types of social media accounts, but also by deciding who you follow and what you want to learn. It is incredibly engaging, and the highlights are definitely the interaction and integration of social interactions. It pairs well with other apps that do not incorporate these elements as profusely.

Again, I really enjoyed using Twitter.

3. WordReference 

WordReference is a tool specifically used for translating words from one language to another. The content is very accurate, and the usability and technical performance and feedback is incredibly easy and efficient. You can’t personalize it, and I rarely used the possibility of social interactions, as it was not required. Although it is an online dictionary, you need to use higher-order thinking skills in order to choose the correct translation. The interactivity and engagement is low, as most tasks are quick and simple.

Overall, WordReference is a great translation tool, to be used when there is already a basic understanding of Italian.

4. Italian-Verbs

I loved using Italian-verbs. It isn’t interactive or social, nor does it personalize your learning or give your meaningful feedback. However, it is incredibly content based and specific: when you need to conjugate a verb in Italian, this website will help you find that verb in whatever tense you may want. You need higher-order thinking skills to use this website, as you need to understand how verbs in Italian are conjugated prior to usage. When you have this understanding, the usability and technical performance are quite simple, and you can easily find whatever you are looking for within this website.

Although it can only be used for one specific purpose, this website was incredibly useful for my purposes throughout this term.

5. Forvo 

Just like Italian-Verbs, Forvo has one specific purpose: it is a pronunciation dictionary. So similarly, it isn’t interactive, social, personalized, nor does it give meaningful feedback. The content is impressive, and the usability and technical performance are quite easy to handle. It is does not require higher-order thinking skills, but does encourage a lot of practice to be able to imitate the correct pronunciation.

Again, very specific in purpose, but incredibly useful to have in one’s arsenal with the use of other resources on this list.

6. Mango Languages 

Mango languages is a similar tool to Duolingo, as it is an entire language learning app and website. The content is impressive; it includes not only a wide variety of vocabulary, but also a myriad of cultural explanations about the language being learned. It has more feedback than Duolingo, and seems to work at a slower pace. You can create an account, yet similarly to Duolingo, the content is all the same, so the personalization can only go so far. However, you can skip lessons and take a placement test at any time, which personalizes it a little more than Duolingo. Because of the better feedback, you do have the opportunity to use more higher-order thinking skills, although you do learn things slower than you do with Duolingo. Being that it is slower, the usability and technical performance is easier, but at times, almost too easy. It has high interactivity and engagement, but little integration of social interactions that I used.

Mango is a great combination to have with Duolingo, although if I had to choose, I would pick Duolingo, for my personal learning style.

7. Pinterest

I love Pinterest. I have said it before. It can be very personalized, it is easy to use, and allows for great social interactions. However, it can’t be used independently for learning a language. It offers a lot of resources and content, but no feedback and very little interaction. You can develop high-order thinking skills by determining the best resources that you can use. Pinterest offers a wide variety of resources, but they are unlimited and unfiltered. As a learner, you need to determine which ones you want and are best suited for your needs.

Pinterest is great for finding resources, but the more specific you are in your search, the better suited you will be for finding what you need.

8. HiNative

HiNative is an app that connects you with Native speakers of different languages around the world that can answer questions you may have about this language. I only started using it near the end of this term, but it turned out to be an incredibly useful app. My personal experience has demonstrated that this app offers content that others don’t, and it’s very personalized in the sense that you ask the questions to which you want an answer. It doesn’t require higher-order thinking skills, but it is user-friendly, interactive, and it is based entirely on social interactions. 

HiNative is a great filler for other apps like Duolingo and Mango.

9. BBC Lessons 

This particular BBC website offers a myriad of resources for learning Italian. I focused my attention on the Italian TV shows and radio. They were difficult to understand, but I was happy when I could pick out a few words here and there from the speech. It simply helps to listen to Native speakers in a ‘native’ environment, rather than those on Duolingo, who you can ask specifically so speak slower so you understand them. This website also offered lessons and courses for learning Italian, all for free. This meant the content was overflowing with useful material. However, it was not personalized, nor did it offer meaningful feedback. It was a bit more difficult to navigate and to use, and required some getting used to before really understand how to get to where you want to go. I did also run into problems of videos not working one day, but being fine the next. I found the series of resources to be engaging, but had very little interaction and integration of social interactions. You did have to use higher-order thinking skills in some of the lessons, and definitely when listening to the videos solely in Italian.

Overall, this is a great additional resource to those already learning the basics elsewhere

10. TuneIn Radio

TuneIn Radio is a website that connects you with radio stations from around the world in a variety of different languages. I tried this website to help me listen to Italian. However, because I was already using the previously analyzed BBC website, I don’t think I gave TuneIn Radio a fair assessment. I tried listening to a few stations on this website, but I couldn’t understand the Italian very well, and it just wasn’t working for my learning style. I could understand the BBC version easier. That being said, if you are an auditory learner and love listening to radio, TuneIn Radio can offer diverse content and it is easy to use. Because of the diverse content, you can personalize it a little with the radio stations you choose. It does not offer feedback, interactivity, or integration of social connections. You do need to use higher-order thinking skills, though, when listening to radio in another language.

This website was not for me, but could be for you if you enjoy listening to radio in different languages.

11. News in Slow Italian

News in Slow Italian was a suggested website from fellow Italian-learner Ashley Murray. This is a great website for learning content, especially for beginners. It places everything in context, and gives very meaningful explanations, which can be used for your own personal feedback. It is not very personalized, and to go past the first lessons, you would need to pay for additional sources. Depending on how you use it, you can develop high-order thinking skills, but I didn’t push myself too much because I had already learned many of the aspects taught in these lessons. I was quite easy to use and interactive, yet did not provide social interactions. 

This is a great way to start learning Italian. For me, it acted more as a review than anything.

12. Memrise

Now, there are a variety of apps out there available for learning a new language. I first tried Duolingo and attached myself to it quite significantly. That is why I don’t necessarily I think I gave Memrise a fair chance; when I looked into it, I had already been using Duolingo. That is why I felt as though Memrise was repetitive; I was learning the same things through this app that I was through Duolingo. They are both very similar, offering good content, some personalization and feedback, easy usability, good interactivity, and the opportunity for development of both higher-order thinking skills and social interactions. 

This is a case of what I expect to be a good app, just one that wasn’t necessary at my stage of learning.

Overall summary – what to do if you are learning Italian (or any another language for that matter) 

For anyone striving to learn Italian by using online resources, I have summarized my three main suggestions in the infographic below (using Piktochart), explaining what worked for me over the past few months. These three main suggestions are:

  1. Blog, Tweet, and Follow
  2. Find Your App
  3. Engage with Others

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I hope this reflection of what I have been able to learn thus far in regards to learning online can help anyone with their learning goals and expectations. That being said, learning looks differently for everyone, and take what you can from this and make it your own for whatever you need it to be.

Thank you for joining me on this incredible journey over the past few months! If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, or ideas for future learning (because I am not done yet), please do not hesitate to let me know!

If you are further interested to see how well this worked for me, please check out my next blog post where I demonstrate what online learning can achieve in three months!

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2 Responses to How to Learn Online – Steps Through the Eyes of a Tech Newbie

  1. ashleypmurray says:

    Awesome job Elizabeth! Love the Piktochart, such a great way to display your learning. I should have integrated something like that into my project. Well done!

    Like

  2. Erin Benjamin says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post Elizabeth. I like your point about online learning projects requiring self-motivation. Even as we have chosen our own projects, ones of interest, our motivation can still be lacking at times. It just helps us understand why some students are so unmotivated with learning when they are given no or very little choice in what they are learning or how they can share it.

    Like

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