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Interaction affordances for L2 learning in asynchronous online environments

Page history last edited by Antony Rivers 7 years, 8 months ago


Group Literature Review: Interaction affordances for L2 learning in asynchronous online environments






What do typical online tools such as wikis, blogs, discussion boards, e-mail and conferencing sites have to offer second language learners? ESL classrooms have often struggled to provide abundant opportunities for communication in real world contexts (Saba, undated) that are important for language acquisition, particularly as a long term endeavor. Furthermore, sociocultural theory holds that all knowledge is mediated through cultural artefacts, such as social interaction (Hull & Saxon, 2009). Interaction has long been seen as an essential part of teaching and learning (Dunlop, 2001; Anderson, 2003; Zimmerman 2012; Beldarrain 2006).  This is particularly true of online environments for distance learning (Chou, 2002; Hull, 2008). Perhaps the most significant educational affordances of such environments are what Anderson and Elloumi (2004, p.42) have identified as the “profound and multifaceted increase in communication and interaction capability” they provide. The aim of this paper is to review the literature on these interaction affordances for second language (L2) education in the asynchronous online settings that are predominate in distance and blended learning.





Affordances refer to “the perceived and actual properties of how an artefact can be used” (Gibson, 1977). They depend not only on the characteristics of the tool, but are also dependant “on the physical capabilities of the actors, . . . their goals, plans, values, beliefs and past experiences” (Chuang, 2008). Affordances are often defined as action possibilities that are dependant on the awareness of the actor. Thus, the asynchronous online tools that are discussed in this paper will afford different opportunities for teaching or learning, depending on the instructor or learner’s awareness of the tool and the kind of interaction taking place.





According to Garrison and Shale, education can essentially be defined in terms of interaction: “in its most fundamental form, education is an interaction among instructor, student and subject content” (1990, p. 1). This echoes Moore’s (1989) influential focus on the actors involved to identify three primary modes of interaction: learner-learner (L-L), learner-instructor (L-I) and learner-content (L-C) interaction. These interactions are displayed schematically in Figure 1.





Learner-learner interactions


L-L interaction has been defined as ”the ability of learners to communicate with each other about content to create an active learning community” (Swan, 2002, p. 24 citing Moore, 1989). Computer mediated communication (CMC) affords the establishment of ‘communities of learners’ (Sotillo, 2000, p. 102). To build any successful community, members need to feel a sense of belonging or connectedness within the group. Beldarrain (2006, p. 149) refers to this sense of belonging when he discusses the important concept of ‘social presence’ (Cui, Lockee, & Meng, 2012) in online environments. He defines social presence as “the degree to which individuals perceive intimacy, immediacy, and their particular role in a relationship.” Social presence is different from interaction, but one nurtures the other. Compared with learners using only face-to-face instruction, learners using a blended approach including asynchronous CMC have reported a heightened sense of connectedness within their learning community (Thurston, 2005). Therefore, asynchronous CMC (ACMC) may increase social presence, which in turn “can mold the quality and quantity of interaction” (Beldarrain, 2006, p. 149). This is particularly significant for language learners, since interaction is integral to successful language learning.


It is widely accepted in education that there is a “need to foster social interaction for the purpose of knowledge construction” (Beldarrain, 2006, p. 142). CMC affords increased interaction between learners. The use of technology for L-L interaction “may help tap into a student’s expertise, and promote collaboration through peer-to-peer mentoring” (Beldarrain, 2006, p. 144). For example, peer assessment using the social networking tool Facebook has been shown to be effective in college-level ESL blended learning writing classes (Shih, 2011).


In terms of language use, ACMC is “different from synchronous CMC with respect to discourse functions, speech styles, complexity, formality, and accuracy” (Kitade, 2006, p. 320). Sotillo (2000, p. 105) highlights “the fact that writing in delayed-time conditions is affected by audience expectation (teacher and other students as audience)”. Learners may feel that there is an expectation, especially in one-to-many interactions (e.g., in discussion boards and wikis), to pay more attention to the language used (i.e. lexical choice and grammatical structure) in their contributions. Clearly there are affordances for language learning through L-L interactions in ACMC environments that differ from those in face-to-face and synchronous CMC environments.


A number of studies (Abuseileek & Qatawneh, 2013; Sotillo, 2000) have suggested that ACMC promotes the use of different discourse functions (such as requests, responses, apologies, greetings, complaints, and reprimands), from those used in synchronous CMC. For example, Sotillo (2000) claims that synchronous discourse functions are more varied and functional, resembling those in face-to-face conversation, whereas asynchronous discourse functions are more constrained and often follow the initiation-response-feedback sequence common in traditional face-to-face classroom interactions. She also points out that these differences could be exploited for pedagogical purposes.


AbuSeileek and Qatawneh highlight the fact that the “asynchronous CMC mode supports delayed interactions which give more time for thinking and planning and uses external resources” (2013, p. 182). This encourages learners to think more critically about the meanings of their communications. Moreover, increased opportunities for thinking and planning lead to a greater focus on form (Kitade, 2006, p. 320 citing Ortega, 1999), which has been claimed to promote second language acquisition (ibid. citing Long and Robinson, 1998). However, typing at a keyboard generally takes more time than talking. Since the majority of interactions in asynchronous online environments are text-based (although audio-based (AbuSeileek & Qatawneh, 2013) and video-based ACMC (e.g., podcasts) can be used for language learning), and, thinking and planning time will usually be longer, it is likely that asynchronous interactions will be more time-consuming than synchronous or face-to-face interactions.


The technologies used for CMC provide affordances to ‘observe’ interactions, affordances which may not be available or convenient in face-to-face environments. These affordances are especially apparent in ACMC environments, where communications are, by definition, recorded (although with certain tools users have the option to delete their own contributions). For example, wikis can record and log edits by users, and have the capability of archiving each revised version of collaborative products; discussion boards, such as the one in Blackboard, can be set up to record the times of day at which individual learners access the tool (Thurston, 2005). Such technologies present opportunities for: researchers investigating L-I (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001) or L-L interaction in online environments; teachers monitoring learners’ participation and progress; learners reviewing contributions while being encouraged to notice language either in their own or others' postings; and learners reflecting on their learning.


The importance of reflection is well recognised in language education (Hall, 2011, p. 86). Farrell (2007, p. 2) claims that “we do not learn much from experience alone as much as we learn from reflecting on that experience.” ACMC affords learners more time for reflection (Lomicka & Lord, 2012, p. 49). It provides language learners with opportunities to reflect on their communications and interactions in terms of the development of their second language skills. It allows learners to notice their own errors and self-correct, to appraise their own strengths and weaknesses, and to recognise areas in need of further development. Learner reflection assists in shifting responsibility from the teacher to the learner, and is central to the notion of learner autonomy (Benson, 2007).


Beldarrain (2006, p. 145) raises the important issue of learner safety in online environments, especially when learners are under adult age:


“Very much like traditional schools . . . virtual schools around the globe may be held accountable for the interaction of their under-age clients, prompting administrators to maintain records and keep all interactions within the course delivery platform.”


CMC is susceptible to instances of cyberbullying, trolling and other potential problems associated with online environments. Even when precautions are taken to keep interactions within a closed platform, problems may arise from unwelcome interactions between two or more learners within the learning community. Negative experiences can have detrimental effects on learners’ confidence and motivation, which hinder effective learning. However, there are more likely to be records of L-L interactions in asynchronous online environments, which might act as a deterrent against inappropriate behaviour.



Learner-instructor interactions


It is claimed that online learning environments are learner-focused, rather than teacher-focused (Kollof, 1999). It follows that the role of online instructors differs from that of face-to-face classroom teachers. King poetically describes the online instructor as not ‘a sage on the stage,’ but instead a ‘guide on the side’ (1993, p. 30). The skills required to be an online instructor follow the social constructionist model (Vygotsky, 1978 cited in the Teaching guide for Graduate Teacher Instructors, 2011). In CMC environments, the teacher is more of a facilitator with skills in:


“facilitating communicative competence, selecting materials available online, developing a personal teaching style, and maximizing the potential of media and materials to facilitate learning . . . formulating corrective feedback to students” (Quah & Samburskiy, undated, p. 3).


Online instructors work on many levels, and these skills prepare them for the facilitation of learning.


In asynchronous online learning environments, L-I interactions take place via various tools, such as email, discussion boards, and blogs. Interacting with learners through these tools, the instructor helps to develop a sense of belonging within the group “to avoid learner isolation and dissatisfaction” (Mclaren, 2010, p. 19) with the learning process. The instructor offers a support system which provides learners with encouragement, enhances their motivation, and stimulates use of the target language, while lowering negative feelings of anxiety or embarrassment. Lower levels of learner anxiety and embarrassment is recognised as a benefit of ACMC environments, where learners have the freedom to work at their own pace. Learners can read and respond to communications from the instructor at their leisure, without the anxieties of time pressure associated with synchronous CMC environments.


Learning in ACMC environments follows the socio-constructive approach, which stresses the importance of collaboration between peers (L-L interactions), and encourages learner autonomy (Benson, 2007). There is potential for instructors to provide more support and individual attention for learners in ACMC environments. Moreover, the asynchronicity provides room for instructors, as well as learners, to spend more time thinking about their responses. This allows instructors to provide guidance according to the learner’s specific requirements. Instructors should not assume that learners can learn independently, but help to “develop learning skills in learners which will help them become increasingly autonomous” (Luzón, undated, p. 115).


Zourou claims that in L2 learning, human interaction is either symmetrical or asymmetrical: symmetrical when one group of learners learns from the other or vice versa (L-L), and asymmetrical (L-I) whenthe principle of exchange is not reciprocal” (2008, p. 652). He refers to this as the ‘degree of symmetry of status in telecollaboration’, as is shown in Figure 2. Zourou also suggests that symmetrical telecollaborative projects bring together learner exchange, whereas “asymmetrical telecollaborative settings exchange aims to develop communicative skills of language learners through exchange with language tutors” (Zourou, 2008, p. 652 citing Lee, 2006 & 2008; Mangenot & Zourou, 2007; Okuyama, 2005; Ros i Solé & Truman, 2005.)





This exchange offers the affordance of the provision of corrective feedback. Researchers (Meskill & Anthony, 2005; Zourou, 2008) suggest that asynchronous L-I interaction in L2 learning can supply opportunities for better and more appropriate feedback on both meaning- and form-focused activities.


It is claimed that the intrusive nature of face-to-face L2 learning can “harm authentic communication, [and] intensify students’ fear of making mistakes” (Meskill & Anthony, 2005, p. 100).  The same could also be said for synchronous L2 online learning, which shares many of the features of face-to-face L2 learning. On the other hand, in asynchronous online environments, there are more opportunities for instructors to involve learners in activities in the target language without the fear of making mistakes, since communications can be checked and edited before being sent. Participation can be achieved by asking questions, requiring answers and clarifications. Moreover, corrective feedback can be provided as part of the conversation without breaking the conversational flow (Meskill & Anthony, 2005).


L-I interactions in ACMC environments also encourage reflection: “reflection on form and content is often associated with interaction through asynchronous environments” (Zourou, 2008, p. 653). This reflection helps learners to notice form, meaning and formal features of the target language (Zourou, 2008 citing Lamy & Goodfellow, 1998). The “nature of exchange, equality of speech, persistence of text, lack of time pressure and possibility to come back and enrich former discussion” (Zourou, 2008. p. 653) encourage learners to engage in reflective practice.


Moore’s (1991) theory of ‘Transactional Distance’ refers to the effects of the cognitive space between the teacher and the learner. He states:


“the transaction that we call distance education occurs between teachers and learners in an environment having the special characteristic of separation . . . [which] leads to special patterns of learner and teacher behaviour” (ibid., p. 22).


Moore proposes that this distance profoundly affects teaching and learning processes. In an online learning environment, like any other distance learning environment, the distance can create misunderstandings and communication gaps. This causes the learner to lose motivation and feel ‘isolated’. Moore (ibid.) suggests two variable components: dialogue and structure, which can shorten this distance and improve the learning experience. The ‘dialogue’ is between the instructor and the learner, i.e. L-I interaction. This ‘dialogue’ involves the instructor interacting with learners by, for example, giving feedback, which cultivates a sense of ‘connectedness’ (Thurston, 2005). Doherty (1998, cited by Stephenson & Coomey, 2001, p.39) discusses “asynchronous dialogue as an opportunity for active participation and for in-depth reflection and thoughtful responses.” In terms of language learning, this dialogue provides opportunities for increased use of the target language, more accurate use of the language, and it affords engagement in reflective practice.


Regarding structure, Stephenson & Coomey (2001, p. 39) point out that “for any type of dialogue to be successful, its use must be carefully structured into the course.” Others (Bonk, Angeli & Hara, 1998; Funaro, 1999; Mason, 1998 cited by Stephenson, undated) support the idea that instructors cannot assume that just because learners are required to do so, they will participate in discussions, answer questions and debate with other online learners. It has been suggested (Stephenson & Coomey, 2001 citing Beaudin, 1999; Bonk, 1999) that the instructor needs to define clear guidelines for learners.


Research suggests that the quality of L-I interaction has a large impact on learning outcomes and learner satisfaction (Mclaren, 2010 citing Anderson & Kuskis, 2007; Jin, 2005). ACMC environments afford high quality L-I interactions, which can significantly enhance the overall learning experience.


However, written forms of communication can be challenging for novice language learners. Instructors need to be aware of learners’ language ability while communicating through ACMC. Shih (2011, p. 839) argues that for some L2 learners, clear communication is difficult: “it was not easy [for learners] to write clear viewpoints or make clear comments . . . because of . . . limited English ability.” In ACMC environments, there are fewer opportunities for negotiation of meaning than in synchronous environments. At times, students face problems in articulating what they actually want to say, which can result in demotivation. From the instructors’ perspective, monitoring learners’ language use and deciphering the meanings of communications can become overly time consuming: “evaluating, correcting, examining, and responding to the students’ comments, feedback, and assessments . . . required a great workload and time commitment from the instructor” (Shih, 2011, p. 841). This may cause instructors to overlook learners’ language errors, which can be detrimental to the learning process.




Learner-content interactions


Asynchronous online environments provide language learners with content interaction affordances in two dimensions. First, these media facilitate engagement with content for collaborative learning. Increasingly in education, the notion of knowledge as something that is transferred from one individual or group to another is changing to one in which knowledge is constructed between them(Saba, undated). Asynchronous online settings are particularly well-suited for activities associated with the social construction of knowledge, such as group work towards a common objective or exploratory dialogue (Hull & Saxon, 2009). The second dimension of L-C interaction affordances concerns the nature and role of online content. ACMC environments can enhance both the quantity and quality of language learning content. Not only is the often user-generated content of wikis, discussion boards and blogs etc., richer, more authentic and more motivating than objects of study in other settings (Meskill & Mossop, 2000; Brook, 2011; Saba, undated; Dohn, 2010), but in the new literacy forms of ACMC, the content of learning is more deeply connected to L-L and L-I interactions, in that, communication itself readily becomes content, and vice versa.


Online social media is particularly well suited to collaborative language learning (Meskill, Guan & Ryu, 2012). It provides a convenient and powerful way for learners to create and share information and perspectives which can ultimately lead to “a higher level of critical thinking” (Chou, 2002) or “deep learning” (Dohn, 2012). Wiki-based collaborative writing, for example, has been shown to support higher-order writing skills such as text construction and revision (Li, 2012). These collaborative efforts, particularly if they produce stimulating multimedia presentations of information, can result in increased learner satisfaction and feelings of achievement (Meskill & Mossop, 2000), both of which have been linked to success in L2 learning. Woo et al. (2011) report that students in a primary school English class in Hong Kong found the use of a wiki beneficial to their language learning. They pointed towards the ease of sharing information within working groups and the access to other groups’ written work for comparison throughout the task processes.


Similarly, email exchanges between L2 learners and proficient language users provide the former with authentic writing models in context (Saba, undated, citing Cifuentes & Shih, 2001). Emailing tasks often push students to produce more output than they would in related synchronous exchanges, such as chat rooms (Perez, 2003). This is not merely a matter of having more time to write more, but also a function of the lowered affective filter that comes with the temporal distance of asynchronicity (ibid.).


The essential distinction of an asynchronous environment is, however, a freedom from temporal constraints. By their very design, ACMC tools afford participants crucial time to both plan and reflect on what language they and others produce (Swan 2001; Garrison & Anderson 2003). While this is often thought of as scaffolding direct human interaction, it has similar implications for L-C interaction, as ACMC, in the form of email, text and other online posts, is part of the content of language study. With communication as content then, the so-called increased “mindfulness” (Swan, 2001, citing Hitlz, 1994 & Poole, 2000) provided by ACMC should extend to L-C interaction as well. In addition to more mindful interaction with the current content of study, the history features of the asynchronous tools of some social media sites allow learners to monitor their language development over time (Meskill, Guan & Ryu, 2012). This staying power is an important aspect of ACMC socially constructed knowledge. It is archived for reflection and study by current learners and can be made available to future users as well. Some instructors publish their course wikis online to make the knowledge base available to the wider public after the completion of the course that initially generated it (Dohn, 2010).


Online learning in general brings participants into continuous contact with the content of study (Swan, 2001). But significantly, in asynchronous learning, this contact is considerably more under the learners’ control. One teacher-author (Bates, 2013) relates how students on an Open University course overwhelmingly preferred recorded to live radio broadcasts because the audio content could be accessed at personally convenient times, for durations and at intervals matching the individuals’ own learning schedule. Furthermore, the content could be accessed repeatedly for intensive study. Thus, asynchronous interaction with content is more student-centred.


Moreover, the content is significantly richer. The hypermedia employed by wikis, discussion boards and learning management systems can support vocabulary learning by connecting students to dictionaries, usage guides, translators and corpus software (Levy, 2009). Items of text of many websites can be annotated by multimedia support tools, like audio pronunciations, related video and images to provide the multimodal inputs necessary to serve a range of learning preferences in vocabulary intake (Chun, 2001).


Combined media– text, sound and video– has also been shown to support aural processing, which can lead to the development of L2 listening skills (Meskill, 1996). When learners interact with such media in asynchronous web environments, the potential benefits are even greater. A particularly effective Web 2.0 site is YouTube. Here, learners can classify and describe their own posted videos, comment on others’ postings and respond to viewer comments. In other words, while receiving multimodal language input, they can create written taxonomies, give written feedback, and both create and modify content (the videos and textual commentary). These are authentic writing tasks, for a clear communicative purpose, of the type that often motivate learners (Mayora, 2009; Brook, 2011).


Ferguson, Whitelock and Littleton (2010) and others even argue that certain ACMC acts represent an entirely new literacy type altogether, with its own novel affordances. On conference sites, discussion boards and blogs etc., participants often attach text documents, presentations and other documents to their dialogic postings that can become a form of asynchronous dialog in their own right. This “attachment dialogue” can potentially bring great cultural and linguistic resources to bear in “generating, communicating and negotiating meaning through this discourse” (Ferguson et al, 2010, p. 112). Ultimately through ACMC, the line between learner communications and course content becomes blurred. Learner interactions  themselves become the content of study.





This paper has attempted to review the current state of understanding of interaction affordances for language learning in asynchronous online environments. The review focuses on three forms of interaction: learner-learner, learner-instructor and learner-content interaction. CMC affords enhanced interactions (Anderson & Elloumi, 2004), which are favourable for language learning. Asynchronous online tools are effective at connecting users, creating a perceived social presence (Cui, Lockee, & Meng, 2012) within a community of learners (Swan, 2002), that can motivate and scaffold the efforts of its individual members. Learner-learner and learner-instructor interaction in ACMC environments is generally more time consuming than in synchronous settings (Shih, 2011), yet it affords discourse that can be more mindful (Swan, 2001, citing Hitlz, 1994 & Poole, 2000) and reflective (Lomicka & Lord, 2012). Tools such as wikis, blogs, discussion boards, email and social media sites provide opportunities for interaction between learners and instructors that takes the form of more collaborative activity between relative equals. ACMC supports delayed interaction, which allows more time for learners to plan their output (AbuSeileek and Qatawneh, 2013). Learners might feel less anxious about making mistakes and more willing to take risks with their use of more complex language. Learners have increased opportunities to contemplate communications from the instructor and other learners, and are thus more able to benefit from constructive feedback (Shih, 2011). Finally, the content of study takes on special characteristics within ACMC environments. In these environments, learners can interact with a greater quantity and quality of content (Levy, 2009) by taking part in motivating social collaboration (Meskill, Guan & Ryu, 2012). Both the process and product of these interactions are more learner-centered, and are thought to encourage higher-order cognition (Chou, 2002).





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By Antony Rivers, Aisha Khan and Brad Daniels


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