Learning, People, studyFIT, Teaching

A collection of English Learning Support courses: the new kids on the block

By most people’s tastes, the layout is aesthetically easy on the eye, and the colours, which run the gamut from vibrant to placid, complement the content.  They include video lectures, interviews with distinguished professors, academics and even the odd celebrity; and, way more reading than the average distant learner might have bargained for.  The dynamic glossaries and stand-out quizzes are a wonder to behold, and it’s clear that the 150 hour-investment to work through the materials would be time well-spent.  This is a description, of course, of the new studyFIT English Learning Support courses which prospective and current students can take before studying or at any other time, really.  


The impetus to launch an English Learning Support service can be traced to several disparate surveys and focus group discussions conducted with FernUni students over five years ago.  There were some rumblings that having to contend with English-language texts had been a baptism of fire for students who had been completely oblivious of the fact that even courses taught in German incorporate English language literature from time to time.  It turns out that at the FernUniversität English Medium Instruction (EMI) courses are as rare as hen’s teeth; however, with the language of international scholarship being English, it is nigh on impossible to operate without having to engage with English language texts, not to mention the language used at many international conferences and within collaborative projects.  The FernUniversität’s Internationalisation Strategy 2020 outlined the existing initiatives, nascent undertakings and some ideas that might be implemented in the long-term. 

At around the same time, a decision was made to instate a new student support division – studyFIT – and this was a natural home for an English Learning Support project that would be at the service of students of all faculties.  Initially, the project focused on the deployment of Altissia, a language learning platform whose efficacy was explored in a longitudinal study spanning two years, involving almost 2700 participants who on average logged into the platform 39 times.  It was clear from the outset that the vocabulary and grammar exercises on the platform would not suffice to address our students’ diverse learning needs.  A survey rolled out to students on 3 March 2022 revealed that of the (eventually) 1376 respondents, almost half had realised that they had to read English language research articles and textbooks, yet only a handful i.e. 4% were confident when doing so.  Their wish list for the new English Learning Support service included ticks in the boxes for games, peer presentations, vocabulary building exercises and reading academic texts.  In addition, interviews were conducted with several lecturers – mostly professors – who either teach the odd EMI module or were willing to share their insights into the type of language skills they deem necessary for one to meet the demands of the various specialisations on offer.  This is no one-size-fits-all terrain. 

Wish lists 

FernUni’s budding historians often find themselves needing to brush up on their listening skills to make the most of the annual Leeds International Medieval Congress; however, they are let off the hook when it comes to writing, for that is still very much a niche where German reigns supreme.  In Business and Economics anyone who thinks they can avoid reading and speaking English needs a strong dose of reality, and whilst there is substantially less reading required in Mathematics and Informatics compared to the grand-daddy of them all – Humanities and Social Sciences – listening and speaking skills again come into play for those wishing to take part in the virtual labs and other cross-border collaborations with students from other European universities.  Whilst there are no English language modules in Psychology, the bulk of the literature is published exclusively in English as is the case with other subjects within the Humanities and Social Sciences, and if grasping the finer nuances in a literature review or discussion section is a distinct goal, palming off the job to DeepL won’t cut the mustard.  The Faculty of Law already had two courses, namely Legal English I and Legal English II on the Open Moodle platform, which were developed by EDELNet – the European Distance Education in Law Network programme, so there was no need to create a course for their students.  Unlike most degree programmes where English language proficiency is a nice-to-have, in Law a foreign language certificate is a prerequisite for graduation, so students need little in the way of encouragement to sign up and start learning. 

Armed with insights on the curricular requirements identified by the lecturers and the disparate needs elucidated in the student survey data, it was time to do battle with the many course designs vying to be developed.  Although the overall framework is what is termed ADDIE (Analyse, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate), there are countless ways that each course could have been brought to fruition.   

Points to ponder included: 

  • Should the courses be completely self-paced, or should synchronous components be incorporated to facilitate speaking practice? (Ultimate answer: self-paced all the way)
  • Are pilot phases needed for each course?  (In the end ELS: Humanities and Social Sciences was rolled out on 1 December 2023 after a six-month trial that, based on the feedback of students who actually engaged with the content, was a resounding success).
  • Will automated assessments suffice, or should live ones be factored in? (Periodical quizzes and a final online assessment – written and oral depending on the course – won the day).
  • How much grammar should be included? (Answer: Almost none; across the board students need to have attained a B2 level on the global scale of the Common European Framework (CEFR) in order for these bridging courses to be worthwhile).

Whilst some lecturers were cooperative in sharing their reading lists, instructional materials (Studienbriefe) and learning environments, where the material was not forthcoming it was necessary to make judicious decisions based on hours of examining the syllabuses of similar courses offered both in Germany and further afield. 

Structural elements 

The composition of the course elements is informed by principles derived from Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), although the communication and collaboration dimensions that so colour contemporary language teaching necessarily fell by the wayside on account of the distance learning set-up.  A typical instructional unit begins with an interview with a subject expert.  This serves as a call to adventure whilst also introducing some key themes and vocabulary that, in many cases, is revisited in the unit.  Activities that introduce vocabulary take many forms – from lectures and textual overviews to games, corpus exercises and revived classics in the form of dynamic flashcards, for example. To assist learners in navigating the various reading and listening materials, the respective sections include warm-up exercises to activate schemata and frontload vocabulary, and throughout each lesson care has been taken in the selection of scaffolding measures.  In light of the ease with which text can be generated through bots and the like these days, there was little point in compelling students to undertake writing tasks; however, students who genuinely wish to develop their writing skills are welcome to submit the written assignments in the ELS: Humanities and Social Sciences course provided they assent to the integrity pledge.  But since our survey showed that less than 20% of students had to produce any English-language assignments anyway, this largely remains a moot point. 

All the same, many academic skills apply across the board, regardless of what one has chosen as a disciplinary path.  Therefore, anyone can take the ELS: Humanities and Social Sciences course and walk away with rich rewards.  The material on MLA and APA style, rhetoric and composition and the academic endeavour in general is not repeated in the ELS: Psychology course.  In this course, the focus is on developing one’s metacognitive skills, specifically an awareness of the principles of second language acquisition.  By engaging with the content, a diligent student stands to gain much vocabulary that will be encountered during the course of a typical three-year degree.  Anyone who is academically minded is welcome to take this course and any of the other ELS courses.  Not quite ready for release is ELS: Business and Economics, which is scheduled to make an appearance around Easter.  There is input from dons from the Chair of International Economics and that of Business Application Systems, so students who sign up for this course will be in for a treat.  For more information on our current and upcoming courses as well as for the dates of our live English Café lecture series featuring international guest speakers, readers would do well to bookmark the ELS website.  Regardless of what you intend to study and even if you have yet to register at the FernUniversität, you can take one of these colourfully engaging and intellectually enriching courses to refresh your English language skills before delving into your degree.  Or even ‘just because’. 

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