Classmates help each other prepare for their next English language test...
More than 30 years ago, The Buggles had a hit with the classic Video Killed the Radio Star - a song with a nostalgic theme which expresses the time of change as television began to supercede radio as the main medium for creating musician stardom. Interestingly enough, Video Killed the Radio Star was also the very first music video to be broadcast on MTV when it first went to air in the United States in 1981.
I think it would be pretty fair to say video has become fairly ubiquitous through Internet applications, and in terms of online and computer-based language learning applications, there is veritable plethora of video-based programs and services that can be accessed and utilised with relative ease.
There is, to some degree, an assumption that online learning is all about connecting real people and - with video applications like Skype, Tokbox and Eyejot (not to mention the video messaging function now usually inbuilt into applications like Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger, etc.) - teachers and students would relish the chance to have technology resurrect the sort of visual face-to-face interaction they get in physical classroom environments.
I run a thriving online business helping students to prepare for English tests like TOEFL (and in particular the speaking and writing sections of such tests), and I recently did an informal survey with my online students to get a feel for their preferences when it came to audio-only or video based interaction (with me as the teacher and also with each other).
The results of that survey were rather surprising - but then again, perhaps not. 95% of my students preferred audio-only communication and test item practice with their teacher and with each other.
As in, no video, thank you very much. Headset and mic only, if you please...
Delving into their rationales, some of the reasons made a lot of sense. Using just microphones and speakers, there is no need to worry about one's appearance - or the appearance of one's physical location. For a lot of people, there is a feeling that there is still some semblance of privacy to the communication, a sort of holding back on full disclosure which feels appropriate considering interaction is taking place between people who have never actually met in the physical face-to-face world.
Personally, I can relate to those rationales. While I generally much prefer to see my online students face to face through any of the very accessible video chat platforms out there, I have to confess that one of the things I love about teaching online using audio only is that I can teach in my pyjamas (or what passes for pyjamas in the Raven household - and no, we won't go there).
But by far the most influential factor, according to my online students, is the fact that the tests they are preparing for involve listening that is completely audio-based. They need to improve their ability to handle spoken English that is delivered to them through a headset only, so it only makes sense to them to have their practice and instruction delivered to them in the same format.
Aside from the fact that this is a pretty good example of test washback at it most (and somewhat dismaying) extreme, it does raise the question:
When are English language tests (and those delivered through computer and Internet-based programs in particular) going to start featuring videos of speakers and conversations instead of the incredibly one-dimensional and situationally limited format of audio-only scripts?
In short, when will video kill the Buggles' radio star within the paradigm of English language testing?
I ask this question not simply because I believe the technology is now there and accessible enough for us to make this happen without too many complications. I ask the question because, essentially, the audio-only format of pretty much all English listening activities (and particularly those on high stakes international English tests) is one of the most serious breaches of validity I can imagine when it comes to giving learners exposure to language and also testing their real ability to comprehend it.
You see, the current common method of delivering spoken English to students assumes that they are going to have to either shut their eyes or turn away and imagine they are looking at the stark walls of a classroom (or else a computer monitor) while the spoken delivery takes place, and based on that, we are going to somehow get an accurate picture of their listening ability. Another alternative is to assume ELLs are going to be dedicating all of their spoken English skills to telephone conversations.
Yet another (albeit far-fetched) theory could be that English language tests may be trying to bequeathe advantages to visually impaired people within the language learning population. Then again, bearing in mind that English testing organisations are not exactly renowned for their charitable goals or processes, I daresay this is an unintended consequence.
All of this AUDIO-ONLY English delivery might go some way towards explaining the confused glazed (and often panic-stricken) look a lot of English students exhibit for the first couple of weeks they spend in English language speaking contexts. Not only do they have trouble focusing on what they are hearing on account of an unexpected barrage of visual distractions, they may be grappling with the no-doubt difficult task of superimposing a vision of a classroom or a computer screen over the current scene in front of them in order to help them focus on what they are hearing. If you see their hands twitching, it may be because they want to pick up a phone.
Non-verbal aspects of communication (including paralanguage) are completely thrown out the window in audio-only applications of spoken language. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in a foreign language context with pretty much any level of proficiency will tell you that the non-verbal aspects of spoken interaction are potential life-savers when it comes to understanding what is being said to or around you.
Hey, it helped my wife and I when we first met! Without the simple charms of non-verbal language and paralanguage, I might go so far as to say there would be no well-decorated Raven's Nest from which to send this post, and no gorgeous little fledglings trying to interrupt me while I type it...
Currently, the non-verbal and situational aspects of communication are seriously (VERY seriously) lacking in both coursework and formal English language tests. I do personally think it comprises a serious threat to the validity of a lot of our teaching, and most of our testing (when it comes to listening and speaking skills). While video is now becoming more common in many classroom contexts - not to mention much more accessible through Internet applications - it is still mysteriously absent in all the formal English language tests I've heard of.
In fact, rather than using an Internet-based running system to help improve this aspect of its listening tasks, ETS has gone even further into the relative blindness of an audio-only paradigm. The speaking section it introduced into its new iBT TOEFL format requires students to record their responses directly into their computers. Not only do the students speak to a text-filled computer monitor (rather than to any remote semblance of an actual human being), those aspects of non-verbal communication that might genuinely benefit their spoken communication (and which would definitely come into play in the real world) are utterly excluded.
In this respect, I still think that IELTS and its face-to-face interview format for speaking is communicatively miles ahead of its TOEFL counterpart - not just in terms of validity and accuracy, but also basic fairness.
So come on testing organisations... The time of the radio star in your tests should well and truly be over by now, and its high time video got its chance to kill him off. We may be 30 years behind MTV, but it's never too late to do the right thing.
Of course, video instead of audio in testing may well mean I have to change out of my Raven household pyjamas and put on something more decent (as well as move the plate with half-eaten baked beans on toast out of the camera shot) while teaching online. But hey, it's a sacrifice I can live with - especially if my students get a chance to express themselves more naturally and efficiently.
Image used with permission under creative commons license: