Teaching Linguistics during the Pandemic
Sultan Qaboos University
This paper discusses the critical nature of linguistics courses, and
shows how they are usually sacrificed, especially in times of crisis, which results in
passive learning. The paper highlights the fact that great potential is wasted when
language, which is acquired largely through exposure, experience, and problem-solving
strategies employed by language learners, is studied through instructor-directed
lectures. It also presents some of the teaching approaches known for being effective in
promoting active learning in general. It then provides a step-by-step application of two
of the advocated teaching approaches as applied to linguistics courses. Next, the paper
discusses the recommended procedure for the application of these effective teaching
methods during the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. The discussion also provides
conceptual justification for advocating these active learning approaches.
linguistics courses, Covid-19 crisis, distance education, active
learning, intellectual skills.
Linguistics is the scientific study of language. Language is the complex and creative system
that human beings learn and use for communication. It is something that we all use, all the
time, even in our dreams. The critical nature of linguistics courses then stems from the unique
nature of language. In fact, the ability to learn language-related concepts, i.e. “names of all
things” , including names of objects, actions, feelings, etc…, was the evidence that our
race is different from that of the angels . We are created as researchers to find out about
Allah; and the evidence for our research-potential is manifested through our ability to acquire
language, the only domain that all (normal) human beings naturally explore . Language
(acquisition) sets us apart as thinking, learning creatures. Unlike angels, who are programed
to only worship Allah, we are given the ability to choose whether to do good or evil. Unlike
animals, we are created with an intellect that helps us make choices and decisions, which is
why we have to go through the accountability stage before we head to Paradise or Hellfire.
This makes language a unique domain of our intellectual activity and a unique aspect of our
lives. Learning it says a great deal about our ability to learn and discover anything else,
including finding the way to God. “Grammar is actually a much more complex phenomenon
than anything that could ever be taught in school” .
If ‘learning’ language is evidence for our intellectual superiority, then ‘studying’ language
should provide an unparalleled opportunity for strengthening our learning and discovery
powers. In other words, investigating language and examining its elements and structures, at
all levels (sound, word, sentence, meaning, etc…), should in itself be a mental exercise that
serves at least two goals. The first is that it introduces us to the wonders of the languages of
the world, what they share and how they differ, as well as the cultural and social aspects of
the contexts in which they are used. The second one is that studying language and learning
about its features and properties, i.e. linguistics, using the right learning approaches can
reinforce our general learning strategies and develop the techniques that we employ to
acquire knowledge, in general, firsthand, by doing, through experiencing knowledge.
Linguistics courses fall within the large group of content courses, ones which present facts,
theories, principles, and concepts, as well as research findings. Content courses introduce
students to the subject matter of their specializations, the body of knowledge that they should
be armed with as they proceed to the job market, as well as towards their postgraduate studies.
Although, as their name suggests, content courses present students with the ‘content’ or the
‘subject matter’ of courses in various disciplines, these courses can be taught in a manner
that consolidates ‘skill development’, rather than the mere ‘mastery of content’.
With such active-learning instructional approaches as those that will be discussed in section
II, the benefit of linguistics courses is maximized, since not only will the students gain the
knowledge, but they will acquire it through their God-given learning capabilities, an exercise
that should also result in developing these capabilities and sharpening them. This is achieved
through problematizing the subject matter of linguistics courses, and exposing the students
to the phenomena and concepts related to the specific disciplines of linguistics courses, to
prompt them to engage in active class discussions, and also carry out thorough examination
of the relevant data-sets.
Nonetheless, in times of crisis, linguistics courses are usually sacrificed. They are either
taught using the direct approach, which is based on lectures and presentations of the subject
matter of the course, by the instructor, or through assigning the students the reading of certain
sections/chapters/papers, and then testing them on how well they have mastered (i.e.
memorized) the content of the reading material. Thus, at hard times, linguistics courses are
treated as just ‘courses of content’, when in fact they are much more than just content.
In times of crisis, and sometimes even in normal times, linguistics courses are taught using
the direct approach, which “emphasizes teacher control of most classroom events and the
presentation of structured lessons. Direct instruction programs call for active teaching: Clear
lesson organizations; step-by-step progression between subtopics; and the use of many
examples, demonstrations, and visual prompts” . Although the direct approach could be
practical for language skills courses (and technical skills courses), it is very likely to bring
about the opposite of the desired results when applied to linguistics courses, since it
consolidates ‘content’ rather than nurturing ‘skill’ development.
The main problem with the direct approach is that knowledge is delivered to the students
through lectures and presentations made by the instructor (i.e. it is a one-way street). This
leads to minimal student involvement in the learning process. In normal times, the students’
role is listening, taking notes and maybe asking some questions. In times of crisis, their role
becomes listening or reading (i.e. reception), and then getting prepared for a test that
measures how well they have received the material from the instructor or book. The problem
with this approach is that it gives the students the impression that linguistics courses are all
about content, which leads to a learning style that is mainly based on memorization of the
content for the sake of passing tests, a practice not related to education, let alone to linguistic
The reasons for using the direct approach (i.e. instructor-directed instruction) for linguistics
courses (and other content courses) include the fact that teaching is given more emphasis
than learning (i.e. teaching precedes learning), and therefore, teaching methods are given
more importance than learning styles. Besides, if instructors miss their classes, that is, if the
teaching is suspended, it is a big problem, but if students miss classes, that is, learning is
suspended, it is not, at least from an administrative point of view; the teachers are paid to
teach, but the students are not paid to learn/study. There is also this assumption that there
should be teaching for there to be learning, which is not entirely accurate, since learning at
an early age proceeds without instruction, and the most vivid example to support this claim
is the task of first language acquisition and multilingualism among pre-school children.
Another reason is that most university instructors are not aware of the different teaching
approaches and the courses that these approaches are suitable for. Hired as professors,
linguistics instructors think that their task is transmitting knowledge to students; they feel
tempted to summarize content from textbooks and lecture it. Also, many students resist
teaching methods that require them to have a more active role in the learning process .
Such attitudes lead to minimal use of the discussion approach; for example, Commeyras &
Degroff found that only 33% of the surveyed instructors reported applying the discussion
approach in their literature classes . Watters & Watters’ findings also reveal that “most
students tend to adopt beliefs that knowledge and learning involves the accumulation of
information and the capacity to reproduce on demand in examinations. Approaches to
learning reflect these beliefs and are dominated by rote learning and preference for
assessment by examination” .
The consequences of using the direct approach include promotion of ‘passive learning’,
which is not much different from the ‘absence of learning’! This results in linguistics
graduates lacking higher order intellectual skills (i.e. analysis, synthesis, critical thinking,
problem solving) and research skills, which leads to a gap between graduates’ levels and
employers’ needs and expectations. The fact that graduates of especially theoretical
linguistics programs are not readily suited for the job market means that emphasis should be
placed on skills rather than on content, since these graduates are not likely to use their
linguistics knowledge (i.e. the content/theories) to carry out the duties of their jobs. Rather,
they are definitely going to need their intellectual and research skills for any job.
Section II presents some of the teaching approaches that promote active learning. Section III
shows how the discussion and problem-based approaches can be applied to the teaching of
linguistics courses. Section IV discusses some procedures and precautions related to teaching
linguistics courses during times of crisis. Section V concludes the paper.
Given the shortcomings of the direct approach when applied to content courses in general,
we should explore alternative approaches to linguistics courses, ones that could give better
results, through acknowledging the fact that linguistics courses investigate the vitally
important domain of language, the arguably only intellectual domain that we explore without
formal instruction. The sought results are also in terms of ensuring more active student
involvement in the learning process, thus making the students keen on learning the material
and actually seeking to ‘know more’ about it. The solution to the aforementioned problems
lies in preparing the students to independently seek knowledge and understanding through
reading, examination of problems, having first-hand experience with various phenomena,
asking questions, and pursuing answers and negotiating them. This strategy is effective
because education is about learning, not about teaching; that is, learning, not teaching, must
be active; teaching must be effective!
Therefore, we call for the application of teaching approaches that promote active learning in
linguistics programs, given the unique nature of language and its properties. These include
the discussion approach to instruction, which emphasizes “open-ended, collaborative
exchange of ideas among a teacher and students or among students for the purpose of
furthering students’ thinking, learning, problem solving, understanding, or literary
appreciation. Participants present multiple points of view, respond to the ideas of others, and
reflect on their own ideas in an effort to build their knowledge, understanding, or
interpretation of the matter at hand” . Experimental results indicate a positive association
between the discussion approach various practices and reading comprehension of literature
texts measured by recall and depth of understanding . These approaches also include
the problem-based approach, which is another “student-centered approach in which students
learn about a subject by working in groups to solve an open-ended problem” . In the
problem-based approach, “complex, real-world problems are used to motivate students to
identify and research the concepts and principles they need to know to work through those
problems” and find solutions . Research findings suggest that the problem-based
approach nurtures competencies and skills required in fields like education, political science,
social work, architecture, and business .
Another active-learning approach is experiential learning, which “is best considered as the
change in an individual that results from reflection on a direct experience and results in new
abstractions and applications. Experiential learning rests within the student and does not
necessarily require a teacher” . Thus “the learners are physically active in the learning
situation and the learning is first hand” . Another student-centered teaching approach is
project-based learning, which “allows students to learn by doing and applying ideas. Students
engage in real world activities that are similar to the activities that adult professionals engage
in. Project-based learning is a form of situated learning … and it is based on the constructivist
finding that students gain a deeper understanding of material when they actively construct
their understanding by working with and using ideas. In project-based learning, students
engage in real, meaningful problems that are important to them and that are similar to what
scientists, mathematicians, writers, and historians do” .
These and other student-centered approaches may be applied using different forms of what
is called ‘cooperative learning’, which “refers to students working in teams on an assignment
or project under conditions in which certain criteria are satisfied, including that the team
members be held individually accountable for the complete content of the assignment or
project” . These approaches all suggest that learning can happen by the individual
student, or by a group of students, but essentially without the control and direct management
of the instructor. As pointed out earlier, this mimics learning language by little children,
which makes these approaches most suitable for teaching and studying linguistics.
The advantage of these approaches lies in the roles that they assign to the instructor and
students. The instructor is considered as a facilitator of learning and the students as active
knowledge and understanding seekers and negotiators. Thus, these approaches seek to
produce independent life-long creative learners, ones who have re-gained the curiosity of
little children and are equipped with the researchers’ passion to discover answers, ones who
will keep thinking of language no matter what they are doing, since they use it no matter what
they are doing. The next section illustrates how the discussion and problem-based approaches
are applied to the conducting of lessons and course design in two types of linguistics courses.
This section discusses how the two advocated approaches can be used for teaching two broad
varieties of linguistics courses, especially at the Bachelor’s degree level; this includes how
lessons are conducted through e-forums, and how courses are designed. Lasnik demonstrates
how in-class discussion is effective in teaching syntax classes and in getting the students to
be part of the discovery process . Likewise, Filimonova, who examines the application
of the problem-based approach to a Spanish linguistics course, argues that “this approach has
proven effective for stimulating such higher-order thinking skills as (i) applying knowledge
of the material to solving linguistic problems, (ii) developing skills in research and critical
analysis, and (iii) developing a professional work ethic” .
Some linguistics courses are characterized by long readings (e.g. book chapters or journal
articles) as a way to learning the concepts of the discipline, as well as to getting introduced
to research methods and findings, which makes the discussion approach a very suitable
option. Disciplines that belong in this variety include sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics.
Other linguistics courses, like phonology, morphology, and syntax, are mainly characterized
by data examination as a way to approach the course concepts, which makes the problem-
based approach the right option. While the discussion approach provides for the students’
close examination of the concepts obtained through reading, the problem-based approach
provides for the problematization of the concepts in the examined data.
A. Application of the discussion approach
To engage the students in active class discussion, e-sessions of linguistics courses may be
conducted in the following manner. First, the instructor assigns the students the reading of a
certain section (or chapter/article/paper) in the book (or from any other source).
are required to understand as much of the assigned reading as they can, even if that were
10%, but that they have to, (1) ‘try to read with interest’, (2) ‘finish the reading’, and (3)
‘write down questions’ about the parts or concepts that they could not understand.
Usually, non-native speaker students understand 40-50% of the material (i.e. content) when
they read it on their own, and, I think, this is great! The remaining 50-60%, which they could
not understand on their own, serves as the trigger that prompts them to form questions, to
‘pursue the answers to’, and is obtained during the e-session, through a question-answer
exchange that includes discussion of those answers. One main advantage of this approach is
that the students also know what they could not understand on their own, hence the questions.
At the beginning of the e-session, the instructor provides a very short (2-3 minutes-long)
presentation that (unlike conventional presentations of the class/lesson material, orally, using
slides, OHP, PowerPoint, etc…) includes linking the assigned reading to material
learnt/discussed in previous e-sessions, as well as definition of some of the new terminology.
Then, the instructor asks what the first point or topic is; and then he/she asks about it? The
questions could be about the topic of the chapter and the relevant details, or the purpose of
It should be noted that the concept of ‘reading’ is not just limited to reading (i.e. decoding print into sound
and meaning) from books and written material. A more liberal conception of reading is needed, where ‘reading’
also includes ‘watching videos’ and ‘listening to recordings’, especially if we are seeking to replicate the little
children’s learning experiences, which are based on ‘watching’ and ‘listening’.
the study and its details including the findings and how they are related to the course
The instructor elicits answers, and based on those answers, he/she can assess how much the
students were able to understand on their own, and how much clarification they still need.
When the students have no more answers, the instructor tells them to start asking questions,
and also be ready to provide answers after he/she throws in some clues. Then, the students
take the floor to ask questions about the topics or points that they still do not understand, the
instructor walking them through the sections that they have read. He/she takes the questions
and addresses them back to the class, seeking answers and providing prompts and hints as
needed, as well as checking for agreement on answers and linking the new material to the
previously learnt concepts. If no student could reach an answer, the instructor provides the
answer, and, where relevant, points out that there might be other possible answers.
During the discussion, novel ideas and new implications for the examined topics emerge.
Whenever relevant, this activity is followed by a practice exercise (usually a problem or a
question) that the students perform with the instructor’s guidance. This exercise includes
application of the learnt concepts and examined topics to other languages or contexts or
linguistic forms, through examples and discussion centered around them. So basically, the
reading provides the students with the linguistic phenomenon that allows them to make
observations, and the teaching method allows them to form questions and pursue answers,
steps necessary for the consolidation of higher order intellectual skills. The discussion
approach has been shown to promote problem solving and reasoning. For example, Gillies,
who identified the types of questions teachers use and “the types of discourse students use to
problem-solve and reason during their small group discussions”, concludes that “when
teachers explicitly guide and scaffold children’s thinking, children, in turn, use many of these
dialogic exchanges in their interactions with each other to problem-solve and reason
To make the most of the discussion approach in terms of student involvement, linguistics
courses can be designed as follows. After leading the discussion for a couple of weeks, the
instructor assigns the students the task of presenting the remaining lessons (i.e.
sections/chapters/articles) in the e-forum, through leading the discussion. Making the
students step in the instructor’s role makes them obliged to read the material, try to
understand as much of it as they can, and seek the instructor’s assistance with the points they
cannot comprehend for the purposes of the discussion-based presentations. E-sessions led by
students have proven to be more successful in getting the students to think critically and
participate in the discussion. For example, Oh et al., who explored the effect of peer-
facilitation, as opposed to instructor-facilitation, on critical thinking and collaborative
discourse during asynchronous online discussion, found that the “peer-facilitation approach
is more effective for fostering critical thinking and collaborative discourse” among adult
Also, it must be made clear to the students that the purpose of the presentation is not
delivering the content of the read chapter/article, but rather moderating the discussion,
intriguing the students, and leading a lively question-answer exchange e-session. Xie et al.
found that “when students were assigned to the moderator position their participation
quantity, diversity, and interaction attractiveness increased significantly and their non-
posting participation significantly influenced the group interaction. Students’ participation
quantity and diversity also significantly influenced their interaction attractiveness” .
Depending on the size of the class, e-sessions may be conducted by one or two students, with
the rest of the class required to do the reading and actively participate in the discussion. For
this purpose, presentations and participation must be graded so that the students take them
B. Application of the problem-based approach
To promote active learning, the problem-based approach may be applied to the conducting
of linguistics e-sessions in the following manner. At the beginning of the e-session, the
instructor takes possible questions about the last e-session, and then asks ‘reminder
questions’, the answers to which should refresh the students’ memory about the relevant
topics (i.e. content) of the previous couple of e-sessions. Then, the instructor introduces the
topic of the lesson (i.e. says what it is about and how it is related to previously learnt topics,
in 1-2 minutes). Next, the instructor presents the students with a problem-solving exercise
(i.e. a data-set that revolves around a linguistic concept or principle in the course). This
includes presenting the relevant data-set (e.g. words (in transcription) or phrases or sentences,
etc…) on an e-slide, and asking the students to make observations about the data and try to
find a pattern (or patterns).
After 10-15 minutes, the instructor starts eliciting answers, and those are the students’
observations about the data, or the sought out pattern(s). The observation-elicitation
component of the lesson might take 15-25 minutes (depending on the size of the class), and
it is worth it! Sometimes the instructor has to provide clues and hints to help the students find
the pattern(s). Even if the right pattern (i.e. the correct answer) is discovered early on in the
elicitation task, the instructor does not point that out, and keeps eliciting answers, for two
reasons. The first is to reward thinking in general; when people are asked to discover
something, they deserve the chance to say what they have found. The second is that the
students might sometimes provide insightful answers and point out patterns that are actually
beyond the level of the course/problem (i.e. insights provided by well-known scholars);
though these are not incorporated in the exercise, the students’ efforts are acknowledged and
praised. If the pattern is not found, more time and clues are given for the observation-
Once the pattern is found (i.e. after the observation-elicitation component is over), the
instructor points out the pattern and checks whether the other students can see it in the data
on the e-slide. When the instructor is certain that all the students see the special pattern in the
data, he/she asks the students to apply their knowledge (i.e. information and skills developed
in the course and previous courses) to provide an analysis of the pattern, which is usually a
new concept or principle, in the form of a rule or a figure. The students take time (15-20
minutes) to think of an analysis that suits the newly discovered principle or concept; the
analysis is written on a piece of paper.
Then, the analysis-elicitation component starts, where the instructor asks the students to
upload their answers (i.e. proposed analyses) onto e-slides to share them with the class, and
also for the answer-discussion component of the lesson. Again, even if the correct answer is
provided by a student early on in this component of the e-session, the instructor keeps
eliciting answers from students, on the e-slides. Once all the students have posted their
answers on the e-slides, the answers are reviewed. Here, the instructor does not point out the
issues or problems with those answers. Instead, he/she asks the students to critique their own
and their classmates’ answers, thus helping them to realize the violated topics and
components of the theory, which counts as a revision exercise. One virtue of continually
eliciting answers is that it gives the students the impression that the instructor is serious about
them engaging in a thinking and discovery exercise to reach an answer, and so they have to
come up with an answer. The answer they should provide does not have to be the correct one,
but just one that does not violate any of the theoretical elements or principles that they have
At the end of the answer-elicitation component (i.e. once the correct answer is reached by the
students), the instructor discusses it formally, and shows how the reached answer follows
from the pattern(s) observed in the data-set as well as from what has been learnt before. After
this discussion and revision, it is time for the practice component of the lesson. The instructor
provides other problems, ones that include the investigated concept/topic on an e-slide, and
asks the students to make observations and try to solve the problem by providing an analysis.
When the students are ready, volunteers are asked to post their answers/analyses on e-slides.
Then, the other students are asked to judge the answers. The presented problems become
increasingly more difficult, so that each one of them involves something new for the students
to discover. This process is repeated until all the problems are solved.
The solution to these problems leads the students to reach generalizations and later to draw
conclusions regarding the discovered concept or principle. So, basically, the lessons turn into
e-sessions of question-answer exchanges (i.e. two-way street) that result in gradual build-up
and negotiation of knowledge. The problem-based approach was shown to enhance cognitive
functions and abilities as well as critical thinking. Chua et al., who probed into the different
cognitive stages employed during problem-solving tasks, found that the examined “learners
perceived themselves as employing certain cognitive functions, with each function specific
to different PBL [problem-based learning] stages. The cognitive functions were (i) looking
from different perspectives, (ii) generating many ideas, (iii) making connections and (iv)
synthesis.” . Besides, Hussin et al. conclude that “PBL with the aid of online tools is the
best teaching strategy to enhance students’ critical thinking skills” .
The aforementioned procedure may be followed in all the lessons of a theoretical linguistics
course. Basically, the instructor problematizes the various concepts and principles in the
course, designing a problem the solution to which leads the students to figure out the concept
or principle and then make generalizations about its nature and also draw conclusions about
its value and relevance to the course or to the theory. In other words, content is presented in
the form of problem-solving exercises, and the students’ task is to learn it through working
the exercises with the instructions and guidance of the instructor. This approach to instruction
ultimately leads to creating students who are able to apply the learnt content and skills to
solve new problems. The curriculum of such courses is structured such that each e-session
builds, in terms of content and skills, on what is achieved in the previous e-sessions.
Therefore, instead of asking the students to read the book (since it includes the answers to
the exercises), the students are asked to read the notes of the previous two or three e-sessions.
This reading should remind them of the topics needed to solve the exercise of the following
e-session. In line with the practices of the discussion and problem-based approaches, Johnson
& Palmer conclude that “instructors in online linguistics courses must devise and implement
more interactive exercises that help students remain engaged with the highly technical
content of the discipline” .
Given the nature of these approaches and the roles they assign to the instructor and students,
they seem to be very suitable for distance learning (i.e. e-learning). This is because the
instructor can either assign readings or present problems, and then lead the discussion of the
assigned readings or the examination of the relevant problems in a live video conferencing
platform. This section argues that teaching approaches based on a learning style that involves
making observations (obtained through reading or examination of problems), asking
questions, and pursuing answers is suitable for running linguistics courses using e-learning
Most current practitioners of teaching (whether educationists or not) recognize many e-
learning programs and applications, like Moodle, Google classroom, Google meet, padlet,
streamyard, Zoom and others. They are also aware of the many and magnificent features that
these programs have. These programs are so rich in features as to simulate an actual
classroom (so-called virtual classroom), with the instructor, students, and relevant
educational resources, including e-slides and access to previously prepared material, all
available in the same virtual setting.
Thus, what is undeniable is the high degree of sophistication of these virtual classroom
programs or platforms, as well as the lavish features that they can provide for the teaching-
learning process. Nonetheless, what is deniable is the claim that all of these advanced and
very convenient features are suitable for the teaching of all course types. Differently put, we
need to realize that not all these features are compatible with all course types (e.g. language
skills, content courses, training, etc…). Plainly stated, the application of all the features
available in these e-learning programs in all course types might do more harm than good.
The bottom line is that some of these features are not suitable for linguistics courses.
I greatly value the desire on the part of instructors to do their best as instructors. They always
try to be available for the students, try all possible means to make the class material as easy
as possible, make the students feel secure, indulge in the practice of simplifying the course
material, explain every point or idea in as many ways as it takes to make the students
understand it, and more. And I would like to thank them for this dedication to the profession
and to their students. But I believe that we should view these e-learning program features as
‘educators’ (who consider what is applicable to produce the best results), not as ‘instructors’
(who want to make use of all the available features regardless of their suitability for the task).
Therefore, I think ‘more’ might sometimes mean ‘less’. In other words, using many e-
learning features trying to explain the material in linguistics courses may bring about the
opposite results. It is not about the instructors and students indulging themselves with the
many features of these e-learning technologies. Rather, it is about using the right applications
and features to achieve the course and program objectives, as well as the main goal of
education, which is creating thinking individuals who appreciate knowledge, seek it, and aim
to use it for the good of humanity. Outside of the charming field of education, I am sure at
least some people would blame modern technologies for our children’s preference to sit with
laptops, iPads, and cellphones, rather than with their parents and peers. The point here is that
we should not fall in love with e-learning technology, though fascinating, but rather love our
profession and fulfill our duty to the students and to the society. Evidence for this view comes
from the fact that the language acquisition task did not require any sophisticated settings or
apparatus or procedures, or even comfort provided by parents or caregivers.
Therefore, speaking for linguistics courses, I believe that an e-learning program (or feature)
that allows the instructor to assign readings or present problems and the students to ask and
answer questions about those readings or make observations about those problems is the most
optimal one for all the purposes of education. The students read the assigned chapter/article,
try to understand as much of it as they can, discover what they still need to understand, form
the right questions about it, and address those to the instructor who then redirects them to the
rest of the class to start a discussion. Or, the students examine the problems and share their
observations and later present their analyses to the class live e-forum. Thus, it starts with
reading or examining problems (i.e. exposure to phenomena) and ends with asking questions
and pursuing answers, a replication of the children’s learning style or an emulation of the
scholars’ discovery process .
Any attempt to explain before they do the reading or before they examine the problem would
be to supply them with answers to someone else’s questions. Any attempt to explain
everything after they have read or examined the problem will get them confused as to the
purpose of assigning the reading or the examination of the problem. It is sometimes necessary
to explain everything, but only after they have asked the questions that they formed based on
the reading or the problem. This explanation should take the form of a recapitulation that
recognizes what they were able to learn on their own and stresses what they could not and so
asked about. Accordingly, any attempt to simplify or summarize the material or explain it in
as many ways as one can, or to use as many features as possible from those e-learning
technologies would not create independent learners, but ones who depend on the instructor
and technology. This is because, in times of crisis, and away from the university atmosphere,
the students can easily turn into passive beings that wait for content to be delivered to them
while comfortably seated during e-sessions.
Differently stated, using all the possible technological means or features to make the
linguistics course material easily accessible to university students might lead them to the false
belief that what is important is the material (i.e. mastering the content) and using it to pass
the test. It is false because learning the material and passing the test are not the ultimate goal
(unless it is TOEFL, GRE, or IELTS, or some other entrance or placement test). The ultimate
goal of education is to create independent learners who can learn on their own and can tell
what they do not understand, and can seek to learn it through asking questions, and can later
use it to make a valuable contribution to the broad study of language and related fields.
Of course, we all want instructors to take their job seriously and do it with both energy and
dedication; the influence of this on the students is both academic (i.e. their achievement is
higher) and affective (i.e. they learn the values of dedication and competence). So, there is
no question about instructor’s active involvement in the teaching-learning process.
Nonetheless, I believe the main determinant of ‘successful learning’ or ‘good education’ is
‘how active the students are in seeking knowledge as well as acquiring skills’, in being
interested in asking about what they do not understand, not in the many ways in which we,
instructors, try to deliver the material to them.
If the instructors are more active in education (i.e. in delivering presentations and giving
lectures), students will end up learning content, and the inevitable result is that they are going
to be tested solely on content, which is undesirable, by all standards. If, on the other hand,
students are more active (i.e. their role is central), they learn the content on their own, and
also develop their learning skills, which allows the instructor to assign homework and exam
questions that require the application of critical thinking and problem solving. The natural
outcome of these teaching approaches is that students are trained to be learners, not just
Given these teaching approaches to linguistics courses, e-learning (i.e. virtual) classes can in
fact be bigger than conventional (i.e. face-to-face) classes in terms of the number of students.
If the teaching approaches are themselves based on learning styles that involve observations,
questions and answers, faculty members may be able to teach more students than they usually
do. Besides consolidating concepts like ‘active learning’ and ‘potential discovery’, such
approaches may require less faculty members to run courses. A possible problem is that
faculty members will have to handle a lot of test papers, but this problem can be solved if a
single faculty member is assigned the task of administering the tests and marking them using
e-learning application features.
To reveal how compatible the discussion approach with distance learning, several authors
utilized the on-line medium to develop discussion environments, strategies, and techniques
to promote effective interaction and develop metacognitive knowledge and skills, and also
make discussions more connected and sustained . The problem-based approach
was also shown to be suitable for e-learning. Phungsuk et al. found out that the “selected
student group in the problem-based learning model via VLE [virtual learning environment]
achieved higher test scores compared to a group of students in a normal classroom with a
statistical significance of .05 … and that they gained more knowledge of information
technology as well as access to up-to-date information” . Likewise, de Freitas & Roberts’
results indicate that “distance e-learners score as well and sometimes better than face-to-face
learners” . This indicates that these two approaches can produce good results if applied
in distance learning programs, in general.
Moreover, several studies have shown that e-learning is as good as face-to-face classroom
learning in terms of measures (or achievement) of learning outcomes. For example, although
Johnson et al.’s results “revealed that the students in the face-to-face course held slightly
more positive perceptions about the instructor and overall course quality … there was no
difference between the two course formats in several measures of learning outcomes.” 
Also, Jahng et al.’s results “indicated no significant difference in student achievement
between ODE [online distance education] and F2FE [face-to-face education] (d = +0.023, k
= 20)” . Similarly, Davis et al.’s results also showed that the “participants’ improvement
in knowledge in the computer based group was equivalent to the lecture based group (gain in
score: 2.1 [S.D = 2.0] versus 1.9 [S.D = 2.4]; ANCOVA p = 0.078)” . Ladyshewsky
found that “students, on average, did better in the EL [electronic learning] mode although at
the individual unit level there were minimal if any significant differences” .
Other studies even report relative preference or effectiveness for e-learning in terms of gained
knowledge or learning outcome achievement, or self-regulated learning. For example, Bhatti
et al. found that “there was a significant increase in the marks gained in group B (E-learning)
compared with group A (lecture-based learning)” and concluded that “using augmented Web-
based educational tools reduces demands on teaching time with no decrease in quality for
selected parts of the curriculum”
. Likewise, Liu’s findings “suggested e-learning in all
offers a higher level of learning effectiveness than traditional face-to-face learning.
Moreover, students who used e-learning method were more satisfied on learning materials
and learning environment compared to those who used traditional face-to-face learning
method” . Also, Paechter & Maier’s results indicate that “students appreciated online
learning for its potential in providing a clear and coherent structure of the learning material,
in supporting self-regulated learning, and in distributing information” . Revealing the
opposite pattern, Khalil, who investigated distance learning during the Covid-19 pandemic,
found that it was perceived as less effective than face-to-face classes, and also associated
with dissatisfaction and lack of comfort among students in two Lebanese universities .
This indicates that e-learning may be as effective as conventional learning, and that lack of
effectiveness may be ascribed to lack of teacher commitment or student interest or the
overindulgence of both parties in e-learning program features or even sociocultural factors
including beliefs about the role of technology in our life, development vs. entertainment.
Not relying on face-to-face communication, the teaching approaches recommended for
linguistics courses are compatible with e-learning programs because they are based on
question-answer exchanges in live e-forums. The e-learning program can be designed to
instruct the students to do the assigned readings and then the teacher leads the discussion
during the e-sessions. Also, the e-learning program can present the problems (or data-sets),
to which the students can later respond with observations, patterns, generalizations, analyses
and conclusions. Indeed, the advocated approaches are well suited for distance education,
especially for linguistics courses, in the sense that they allow for effective teaching through
promoting active learning.
By contrast, indulgence in the attractive features of e-learning programs can easily lead to
the application of the direct approach. It is undesirable in a highly competitive world where
knowledge changes and becomes obsolete very rapidly to place emphasis on content delivery;
for one thing, content delivery can happen without the intervention of the instructor.
Therefore, importance should be given to intellectual skills, since those are necessary for
discovery and invention of new knowledge, hence the application of the discussion and
problem-based approaches to teaching linguistics in e-learning contexts.
It is very easy for us, linguistics instructors, to require students to be creative and innovative
in their studies. Is it equally easy for us to be creative in delivering our classes and carrying
out the teaching? Can we, administrators, be innovative in our policies and teaching- and
learning-related regulations? We need to remember that if the students cannot think during
the e-sessions, chances are that they will not be able to think during the tests, and if they
cannot do independent learning as university/college students, they will not be able to be
independent learners as employees.
The fundamental difference between the direct approach, on the one hand, and the discussion
and problem-based approaches, on the other hand, as far as linguistics courses are concerned,
is in the amount and nature of instructor involvement, controller vs. facilitator. Thus, louder
calls have emerged for sustaining the facilitator role of instructors. Since linguistics is about
language, knowledge should not be imposed on the students; rather, they should be exposed
to linguistic phenomena through independent reading and examination of data-sets. In this
regard, the current paper calls for going back to the roots, especially that the advocated
approaches aim to replicate genuine learning experiences that the human race naturally
engages in, most notably language acquisition.
The difference between ‘instructor’ and ‘teacher’, and consequently between ‘student’ and
‘learner’ is revealed by the following terminology from the traditional Indian educational
system. While a ‘guru’ is an information-provider and skill-developer, which is the
instructor in our terminology, an ‘acharya’ is someone who shows you the path to
‘salvation’, which corresponds to the teacher or the guide. Consequently, a ‘vishayadhari’
is an information holder, like a container or a hard-disk, whereas a ‘gnani’ is the one who
knows the true meaning of knowledge, which is the true active learner.
A simple saying goes “necessity is the mother of invention”. Thus, once the students discover
that certain knowledge or training is necessary, they will figure out (or ‘invent’) a way to
learn it. The recommended approaches teach the students about their own general abilities,
not just the academic ones, and also help develop these abilities during the university
experience, since the purpose of university education is not obtaining a certificate, but rather
being a good employee, parent, and citizen. We need to remember that we were able to ‘learn
language’ firsthand, without instruction, which means that we are equipped with the means
to ‘study language’ firsthand, too, through instructional approaches that promote active
learning. This fact should not be neglected even with the hardships that accompany times of
crisis, and even with the conveniences offered by technology.
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Dr. Rashid Al-Balushi received his Ph.D. in Linguistics from the
University of Toronto, Canada in 2011. He is currently an associate
professor of linguistics at the Department of English Language and
Literature at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman. He has published in
linguistics and other language-related fields. His research interests include clause structure
and case theory. Dr. Al-Balushi has also published in the media on linguistics, education,
religion, administration, economics, and politics, in Arabic and English.