I’d like to start a conversation about online learning and teacher training.

My name is Neil Ballantyne and I work for the British Council based in Hong Kong. Most of my job revolves around teacher training these days, I write and deliver teacher training for the Council, both online and face-to-face.

I’m also studying an MA at the University of Manchester as a distance learner. This is done online using a variety of different methods. I have access to a couple of learning environments where the tutors put materials for us to read, host videos and audio files for us to watch or listen to, and create forums where we can discuss topics related to our studies with the tutors or with the other participants.

The main difference in my experience between face-to-face study and online study is that face-to-face is synchronous, i.e. you are in the same time as the tutor, and online is mostly asynchronous, i.e. the student and teacher are interacting at different times as in email (where the receiver does not need to be online to get an email from the sender).

Of course, it is possible to meet online with tutors and other students at the same time using technology such as in chatrooms and VOIP (voice-over internet protocol) which works like a phone but over the internet (e.g. Skype).

However, most online learning takes place at a different time to the ‘teaching’. The teacher prepares the materials, which could be in text form or video or audio, and places it online. The teacher may also start a forum asking the students questions related to this material. The student then reads/watches/listens to this material and posts thoughts in the forum. The forum replaces the conversations that students and teachers may have at the end of a lecture.

I’d like to know more about your thoughts about online learning. Have you ever taken part in any? If yes, what did you study and what were your experiences? If no, would you like to? What do you think would be the benefits and challenges of studying online?

It would be great to hear from you so please do leave your comments below.


Hi Neil,

I've taken part in several online courses and I have found surprisingly little difference between online and face to face courses. In both cases I have found that most of my learning has occurred outside of what might be thought of as the 'learning' environment (the classroom or online learning platform) and as such my real world or virtual encounters with teachers and tutors have been largely the same (minimal). In both cases my tutors acted as guides who could point my interests in certain directions which I would then go away and study independently.

As such I find your points about synchronous and asynchronous learning quite interesting; do teaching and learning ever actually occur at the same time and should we really expect them to? In my experience, of both online and face to face studying my learning always comes sometime after whatever 'teaching' has taken place.

I imagine that for some the most significant difference is that distance learning is more, er 'distant' and less personal, it can lack the positive relationships that occur during more normal face to face classroom interaction. This however is something that online environments are now starting to overcome as people have a more permanent online presence and we can take advantage of virtual worlds like second life. The social nature of web 2.0 technologies means that this 'distance' is becoming less and perhaps as a result more and more online learning opportunities are becoming available.

This is only from my limited experience as quite an intrapersonal learner and I too would be very interested to hear about other peoples' experiences with learning online.


Hi Nick,

I have had some experience as an online learner, e-tutor, Distance MA dissertation supervisor and now programme coordinator (under the LAC Regional English Project, YES!). I must admit I'm a big fan of e-learning for myself, as it gives me the flexibility to adapt to my busy schedule and I have always preferred a collaborative learning environment, whether F2F or online. I have found that the degree of interaction and exchange of knowledge (not to mention netiquette) is far greater with a well-organised and well-tutored e-course than in the tradition classroom.

Here at the British Council in Brazil, we have offered our language development course in MOODLE, e-English for Teachers, to public sector teachers working in highly challenging circumstances. Most of them have a very low level of English and have had no formal teacher training. An added difficulty is that they work morning, noon and night, in many cases, and one or two even have to take a bus to a neighbouring town in order to access the Internet!!!!

It is sometimes disappointing and frustrating to witness high drop-out levels, sometimes exceeding 50%, yet when a strict placement test is used and participants have intrinsic motivation, instead of simply being 'told' to do the course by their local education authority, results are far more encouraging.

Another difference between online and F2F learning is the possibility of almost unlimited connectivity... that is, if an interesting concept or key word is hyperlinked by the e-tutor or a fellow e-learner, one can immediately follow that link and learn more.

In many F2F classrooms, teachers simply plough on through their scripted discourse and ask "Any questions?" at the end... very often hearing only silence in response.

As you can see, I'm certainly in favour of democratisation of access to e-learning, but there may also be something to be said for an initial F2f 'launch' of such programmes, so teachers concerns with use of equipment, basic Internet skills etc can be resolved before they lag behind.

Looking forward to reading others' responses here.

Graeme Hodgson - Director English Language

British Council Brazil




I've always been a keen distance learner, did my diploma and M.Ed that way. Enjoyed both and really learned a lot from them, but I was already quite experienced when I started them, so I wonder how effective online teacher training can be for less experienced teachers who need to develop classroom practice.
Online is great for helping us to talk the talk, but when it comes to walking the walk, there's little that can compare with actually getting into class with a trained observer to really help your teaching develop. I guess perhaps this could be done by video, but you miss so much that way.
Wonder how others feel about this???
Nik Peachey | Learning Technology Consultant, Writer, Trainer
Teacher Development: http://nikpeachey.blogspot.com/
News and Tips: http://quickshout.blogspot.com/
Student Activities: http://daily-english-activities.blogspot.com/
On Twitter: http://twitter.com/NikPeachey

My experience in e-learning comes from my studies with the Open University UK, and my current work in developing e-learning courses for an international rice research institute based in the Philippines. I’m very enthusiastic about it (no surprise!) and see it as a way forward in less developed regions of the world.

Accessibility to good or any education is sometimes difficult for women in restrictive societies. E-learning with good online access also to asynchronous and synchronous peer and tutor interaction can give them the education without violating cultural norms like interaction with unrelated men.  
There is also relevance for e-learning in the third world, which cannot attract the best teachers. Instead of sponsoring their brightest students to study abroad, governments would spend their money better by building good infrastructure to support e-learning and bring the learning to the students. This has two clear advantages: 1) the number of participating students can be affordably scaled up; whether 100 students participate in the course or a thousand, the cost does not increase proportionally as it does in sending them abroad; 2) there is a smaller risk of brain drain; the students do not leave their countries and are more likely to work for the betterment of their nations upon graduation. 

I can go on and on ....

Dear Neil Ballantyne,

It's a very nice topic you have raised. I have not participated in any online learning because of their high tuitions. I understand that the cost of preparing materials, teachers's salaries and other expenses are also high but many students are not in a position to afford paying the high tuition.

Do you know any online courses leading to MA or PHD degrees to offer some lower tuition fees for English or other courses?

One of the main benefits of online courses is that students can do their normal daily routines and activities while they can study their courses on free times.

Best wishes 

A Mazinanian,

Shahrood , Iran

Hi Neil & Everyone

I'm one of the online tutors in the e-English language course Graeme mentions in his post above. I've been working with a group of about 20 teachers from one of the central states in Brazil. As Graeme also said, difficulties are enormous and come in the form of low language proficiency level and accessibility problems. However, I have been with them for about 4 months now and I can already see some improvement in their command of the language and in their confidence using the Moodle platform.

This ia a unique experience and we still have a lot to learn and adapt in terms of the online courses we provide, but the simple fact that many teachers in such remote area of the country are having the opportunity to do some sort of continuing professional development thanks to online educational tools is already extremely positive.


Chris Lima

Hi Neil

I'm Violet from Egypt, a high school teacher of English and a trainer too.

I really appreciate the idea of studying online, though I've never done it before in an organised way. I consider reading talks and posts on teachingenglish site is online study for me. I think studying online is an interesting idea as it gives variety of ideas and thoughts that can't be available in face to face training. When I log onto go4english and teachingenglish sites I find so many materials that enrich my mind and thoughts as a teacher and a trainer.

The idea itself challenges me to prove my abilities of how to get information online and use it to polish broaden my experience to be a better teacher without getting bored of listening to someone face to face talking for 2 or 3 hours in one subject.

A thought about transforming ways of learning

I have been an autonomous self-directed learner using internet and websites, studying and learning regularly at my own pace for the last 5 years. I have learned a lot through the learning social networks I have joined.

However, I have become so independent that when I take an online course where there are fixed objectives, learning activities based on"reading long academic articles" and summarizing, comparing, etc. I feel frustrated and bored.

I believe the benefits of online learning are unquestionable but we still have to think about what in- depth changes have to be implemented in material design and learning activities to really engage learners . 

Do you think the traditional approach has changed?

Are the online courses really offering new ways of learning?

Thanks for sharing.



Interesting points yake_sau. 

For anyone not familiar with the Open University, as well as the many paid for courses on offer, there are loads of free learning resources.

These courses have been designed as self access which has its restrictions, but as a free resource it is amazing:


I’ve had a little experience of distance (DELTA) and online learning – the latter was chiefly the LETTOL (Learning to Teach Online) which I found extremely useful and eye-opening. In LETTOL we explored & discussed (largely asynchronously on forums) issues such as accessibility & usability of resources & website evaluation, as well as experienced & reflected on what it is to learn online – working collaboratively in learning sets, online facilitating and assessing learning online. I thought through using webcams & wikis to help teach business communication skills, and created a powerpoint elearning resource on George Best! It was arguably a slower learning experience, but then all learners were working full-time as well so that’s inevitable – didn’t make it any less effective other than that. As a learner it was different getting to know fellow learners through online profiles and words on a discussion, but overall I think it was successful in raising awareness of how to teach online. Can this approach be adapted to learn how to teach in a classroom? In theory probably – the missing dimension would be to bring in a video feed into the classroom – but in practice that might not be very accessible.  


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