Online learning The evolution of the internet has led


The evolution of the internet has led to an increase in online learning opportunities for EFL students. Information can be stored and transferred between users facilitating a virtual classroom for online users.

The myriads of teaching sites vary enormously. Receptive sites offer textbook layout with automated exercises and auto correction. Sometimes it's possible to download sound files to recreate an online language laboratory. There's no contact whatsoever with a teacher. However, many of these sites are free, making them extremely popular.

Interactive sites involve a virtual rapport with an online teacher. Lafford (1997) divided these into synchronous ' real time communication through a keyboard, microphone and more recently using web cams, and asynchronous ' communication via emails. So, what do these courses offer' Easy accessibility certainly comes high on the agenda along with a large degree of flexibility in study time. The Japanese based Nova school offer online lessons with a maximum of four students being taught. Students can 'drop in' at any time for a lesson, pay up with a credit card and be 'in class' minutes later. For busy people, this presents an ideal learning opportunity. Less obvious advantages exist. Thompson (2003) researched student teacher questions online and onsite with Chinese learners. He demonstrated an increase in student questions due to the anonymity offered through the online environment - without the threat of losing face in front of others.

However, online learning also has its problems. Haliday highlighted the difficulties of teaching speech over the internet. He expressed concern that the distinction between speech and writing is becoming blurred as a consequence of modern technology. He wrote this article in 1999. Since then technological advances have helped enormously. The Nova language school pushes the boat out for its extremely modern multi media centre. A virtual online tour shows off 700 teachers, equipped with the latest in teaching software, audio and video technology online.

The cost of online learning also poses problems .The price of a good computer, could pay for the construction of a village school in Laos. Several authors have expressed concern that advances in technology are an exercise in marketing - we are held hostage to the computer gurus, there will always be the new software and hardware round the corner with a hefty price tag. They also remarked that IT training - a short-term skill due to the aforementioned technological advances, uses up valuable teachers time.

Former online teachers have complained on EFL forums about low moral and high staff turnover. A reason frequently cited is the lack of continuity with students. One five-year Nova veteran had only taught the same students on two occasions. Other criticisms include a lack of spontaneity and the difficulty in transmitting and receiving non-verbal signals ' so important in a learning environment. In addition to this many EFL teachers have chosen their job to facilitate contact with another culture but the social contact with students online is virtually ' no pun intended - nonexistent. Forum contributors have also remarked upon student's dissatisfaction and motivation due to the absence of a solid teacher student relationship. So, are we becoming too isolated in an age of technological convenience' Will the virtual classroom replace the real thing'

The author believes that the demand for online courses will grow with the increasing accessibility to the Internet and, it will remain a valuable teaching resource. However, it will never be able to replace the presence of a teacher - the human touch that is impossible to communicate with a computer, no matter how sophisticated.