Online Chinese courses vs face-to-face Chinese courses

Does online Chinese class truly beat a face-to-face Chinese course or is it the other way round? Which type of course best suits your situation and learning goals? Here’s my personal look at the pros and cons of on- and offline Chinese courses.

Online Chinese courses vs face-to-face Chinese courses

My recent experience with online Chinese courses was positive, yet for someone with both experience as a (offline) teacher and a student, it got me wondering exactly what distinguishes online class from the non-virtual classroom where teacher and student literally breathe the same air? This question also seems more relevant in the current situation where it’s still difficult to travel to and within China. Consequently, online Chinese classes are becoming a more and more common option.

Online Chinese courses

What speaks for taking online Chinese courses? I see two obvious benefits:

The first is the fact that you can join a online Chinese lesson anytime, anywhere and on almost any device as long as you’re connected with the internet. The impact of this can hardly be exaggerated. You can participate in online lessons from your hotel room, on travel, in your office etc. Moreover, you can book almost any time slot that suits your personal schedule, more or less 24/7, given that you find the right teacher in the right time zone. This advantage speaks for itself to the extent that it almost overrules any counter-arguments.

The second argument is the enormous pool of teachers and tutors to choose from. Just take a look at the Chinese teachers at a platform like italki and now compare their number and variety to your local Chinese teaching facilities. Unless you live in a metropolis like Tokyo, Paris or New York, you probably lack options like university teachers, language schools and a local Confucius institute. So in case you don’t live in any major city and you’re not even sure if there are any Chinese people around, online Chinese courses are the only option. In other words, online Chinese courses significantly improve the availability of qualified and affordable Chinese teachers.

There’s a third argument as well: online classes simplify the integration of online tools and resources, meaning you’re not only taking online classes, but also using the same online environment to do homework, practice and review. A bit like the online environment the Defense Language Institute (DLI) uses for example.

This argument is not completely convincing, because it could apply to face-to-face classes just as well. Moreover, freelance tutors typically don’t provide their own online tools for you to use. In fact, many Chinese language institutes don’t either. However, there’s potential for Chinese language schools to stand out from the crowd and I expect a growing number of (online) schools exploring these new functionalities.

Pro

  • Available anytime, anywhere, on any device as long as your internet connection is stable, allowing you to book courses that fit your time schedule.
  • Range of teachers and courses to choose from is much bigger compared to local schools and private tutors as they can be located globally.
  • Integration of online tools and learning platforms, enhancing the learner experience and allowing progress tracking.

Contra

  • Virtual connection between student and teacher is arguably more functional and less personal
  • Demands a more formalized structure and more restrained behavior of the learner(s) to enable turn-taking and mutual understanding
  • The richness of non-verbal communication — eye contact, gestures, facial expressions — is reduced
  • Depending on the situation you may endure some connection issues or audio problems that reduce the quality of the lesson

Face-to-face Chinese courses

Now what about the benefits of face-to-face Chinese courses?

There seems to be one main advantage from which follows all else. It’s connected to being physically present in the same room. This allows more natural and free interaction between teacher and student(s) and thus more meaningful communication.

Take direct eye-contact for example. I remember as a teacher I’d have to “read the room” to see how everybody’s doing. I’d process all kinds of relevant information like that someone had a question, didn’t fully understand or hadn’t breakfasted and was in a bad mood. And I would react to these clues accordingly. Direct eye-contact is also important for dynamic class room communication, making class more spontaneous and interesting.

During virtual meetings with more than 10 people it’s a different experience, almost like talking to an empty room, because our brain has difficulties processing the feedback from so many faces on a relatively small screen. In other words, in an online group class – I imagine – it’s much harder to “read the room”, have the same kind of spontaneous interactions and create a positive group feeling and learning atmosphere. In larger online meetings people also tend to be more passive and restrained, because they’re afraid to interrupt others.

In a physical classroom, it’s much easier to do complex group activities that involve movement and role playing. I know all these things technically can be done online as well, using escape rooms for group discussions for example. However, as far as I can see working in groups is still far more convenient (and fun) offline.

To sum it up: face-to-face Chinese class ideally has a higher quality of human interaction, class communication is more free, dynamic and spontaneous. These are intrinsic qualities inherent to being in the same room together.

Pro

  • More room for free and natural interaction as you share the same room and can make direct eye-contact, there’s no delay in the transmission, making turn-taking more spontaneous and communication more dynamic
  • Easier to develop a more personal and meaningful connection between teacher and students
  • Lessons can include movement, games and more complex group activities like role-playing

Contra

  • Availability depends on your local situation (schools, language institutes, transportation)
  • Smaller number of schools, teachers and tutors to choose from compared to online courses
  • Traveling time / costs to get to class
  • You may have to provide your own text and coursebooks

Online Chinese courses vs face-to-face Chinese courses

So what’s to prefer: online or offline Chinese course?

It’s hard to draw a definite conclusion in favor of one or the other. The quality of human interaction matters, but so does convenience. In the end, it’ll probably depend on factors such as:

  • Your learning goals
  • Chinese course options available in your area
  • Your personal preferences concerning on- and offline classes
  • Your budget
  • Your schedule

And while we’ve been talking about on- and offline courses, maybe we should also distinguish between one-on-one and group classes. I personally as a learner would gravitate towards a face-to-face course in case of a group situation (quality of interaction) and for one-on-ones probably prefer online (convenience).

How about you? Are you planning to take an online or offline Chinese course? Do you have a preference for one or the other? Thanks for visiting my blog and feel free to leave a comment down below!

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