Many people try to learn a foreign language through an online language course. For example,

Some of these courses are very short (especially the three-week courses on FutureLearn), while others require much more time and effort. However, even for courses that are 6 weeks or longer, is there any evidence that these courses actually help you speak the language, i.e. use it in conversation?

Note that this question is about online language courses with a specific start and end date, and a specific group of learners (such as the MOOCs listed above, where you need to register before a specified date).

The question is not about archived versions of MOOCs, which are Massive Open Online Courses, (e.g. on edX), online one-to-one tutoring or online conversation with a language partner. I don't expect studies that compare the effectiveness of two or more MOOC platforms, although I will welcome them if it turns out that such studies exist. What may exist are studies on the effectiveness of such courses when compared to classroom teaching. (Studies on the effectiveness of even a single course would be OK.)

  • I'm not entirely sure if this question would be considered a duplicate of this other question, but it is certainly related and may help answer your question in part.
    – fi12
    Sep 26, 2017 at 21:17
  • @fi12 That other question only shares the "online" part; MOOCs are a very different thing.
    – Tsundoku
    Sep 27, 2017 at 7:05

1 Answer 1


This is more of a partial answer to your question than a complete answer, but I'll post it nonetheless. The book Language MOOCs: Providing Learning, Transcending Boundaries provides a good bit of information about the effectiveness of language MOOCs, but it never directly states any past literature to cite its claims (I'm sure it does later in the book, but only the free preview is available on Google Books).

The consensus the authors of this paper suggest is that there is no clear answer (due to the lack of research in this area), but the authors definitely lean towards the side that MOOCs cannot teach languages effectively.

I've quoted certain excerpts from the preview that I feel to be related to your question (emphasis mine):

However, it must be acknowledged that, leaving aside the different quality levels in the instructional design of individual MOOCs, there are different degrees of success with which a given subject can be expected to be effectively taught in a MOOC per se, as certain reports have pointed out (Viswanathan, 2012; Bruff et al., 2013).

Before considering the theoretical suitability of MOOCs for learning second languages, the following aspects need to be taken into account: firstly, language learning is not only knowledge-based, in the sense that it requires the rather passive assimilation of vocabulary items and combinatory rules, but is mainly skill-based, in that it involves putting into practice an intricate array of receptive, productive and interactive verbal (and non-verbal) functional capabilities, whose role in the overall success of the communicative act is generally considered to be more prominent than that of the formal or organizational elements (Halliday, 1993; Whong, 2011).

Secondly, and linked to the previous point, assuming that the goal of language learning is language use, it is only common sense to infer that the former should entail considerable practice of the latter, just like a student must play the piano to become a pianist or take photographs to become a photographer.

Thirdly, all variables being equal, the mind that learns (a language) best is the proactive and engaged mind with its high order skills (relating, contrasting, criticising, inquiring, justifying, deducing, etc.) activated, rather than just memorization and mechanical reproduction.

Finally, after infancy, one is generally assumed to gradually lose some of the innate language acquisition abilities and acquire a more rule-based cognitive profile (e.g., Meltzoff & Prinz, 2002). Hence, the language learner is likely to benefit from the well-known explicit type of learning model, something partly based on face-to-face/textual/visual explanations with illustrative examples followed by some interesting and creative form of practice. Part of this process will be more effective if undertaken individually, particularly for the improvement of certain areas of language, such as pronunciation or punctuation, as it provides the necessary flexibility and adaptation to personal learning styles, rhythms and circumstances, and enhances metacognitive processes.

Here, the authors draw attention to the lack of research in this field:

As has been noted previously, LMOOCs are in the very early stage of development. It is, thus, understandable that they have undergone little research up until now, neither of an empirical nor of a theoretical nature.


This procedure returned an extremely low number of hits and showed that there are no monographic volumes on LMOOCs published to date, no finished dissertations and only five scholarly articles in refereed journals (one in 2012 and four in 2013).


The dates of publication, the lack of books and published dissertations and the scarcity of papers are, at present, the consequence of the incipient stage of this field of research.


None of the five scholarly publications on LMOOCs were based on empirical research.

  • 1
    The book is available under a Creative Commons licence (CC BY-NC-ND), so it should be possible to get the entire book and check other sections of it.
    – Tsundoku
    Sep 28, 2017 at 18:47

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