Open and distance language learning: implications of individual
learning styles and strategies for course design and learner support
Stella Hurd Open University, UK
The context of open and distance learning is special in the sense that it
places greater demand on learners to develop their own approach to learning without the
frequent face-to-face guidance and intervention of a teacher. Learning a language as
opposed to other subjects by distance methods poses additional specific problems. Not only
must language learners be able to keep track of the progress they are making and take
action on their own to address difficulties and find solutions, but they are at the same
time denied the regular social interaction with a teacher and other learners which the
classroom affords, and which is of crucial importance to the development of good speaking
skills in the foreign language.
The distance learning environment also involves a degree of isolation for course writers who have to depend on prior teaching experience and knowledge of learner variables from previous encounters to inform the design and content of their courses. At the time of writing a course they do not know who these learners are or anything about their individual needs and aspirations. Yet, unlike in the classroom where teachers can adapt language courses on a lesson by lesson basis to suit the needs of their current learners, both in terms of course requirements and individual learning styles, those writing at a distance must not only guide the learner through the materials, but must also take on the many roles of teacher-in-the-classroom. In other words, they must attempt to take into account the wide range of different variables that might characterise any group of distance learners through appropriate integration of learner support into the materials.
What are these variables, how important are they in terms of their impact on distance language learning and teaching, and how at a distance can we find out about them? Based on the experience of the Department of Languages at the Open University (UK), this paper explores the issues raised by these questions, focusing in particular on individual learner styles and strategies in the context of distance language learning, and makes a preliminary investigation into the relationships between learner, context, materials and approaches. The paper goes on to discuss research instruments for yielding data on difference and how writers can take such findings into account in the production of materials, while at the same time consciously aiming to develop autonomy in each learner through appropriate pedagogical intervention.
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