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Affordances of CMC for Language Learning

Page history last edited by Alison 6 years, 2 months ago

Teaching and Learning Online collaborative assignment - by Alison Wood (ID 9263256) and Gurpreet Atwal


CMC tools for online language learning

In an online learning environment, CMC can take various different forms depending on the types of tools that are chosen, which may be either asynchronous or synchronous in nature. The four forms of interaction, described as learner-content, learner-instructor, learner-learner, and learner-interface (Hillman, Willis, & Gunawardena, 1994; Moore, 1989 in Sutton 2001) that can be found in an online environment will manifest themselves in different ways depending on this choice of tools. Since communicative language teaching/learning (CLT) emphasizes communication, or interaction, as both the means and the aim of study, CMC ought to offer the language learner a diverse environment in which to develop his/her communicative competence. This discussion explores the affordances of asynchronous and synchronous tools for online language learning. It is important to look at these two types of CMC separately as “their individual affordances create distinct learning environments with different levels and quality of interaction (Anderson & Elloumi, 2004 cited in Heins et al 2007: 283)."


Asynchronous tools

Perhaps the most obvious affordance of asynchronous CMC is the opportunity for learner-learner and learner-instructor interaction offered to those who cannot meet in the same location or time. This lack of time pressure affords an additional benefit to learners who find interaction in a face-to-face environment stressful. Communication apprehension, defined by Horwitz et al (in Arnold 2007:470) as a "type of shyness characterized by a fear of...communicating" can seriously hinder the process of language learning. Arnold explains that it interferes with "cognitive performance at the input, processing and output stages" meaning that information can be prevented from reaching the processing system, then processed slowly or not at all. In addition, "anxious students often create little output, which might in turn negatively affect their progress" (ibid:471). It is widely reported that the thinking/composing time afforded by asynchronous CMC reduces communication apprehension and therefore breaks the vicious circle created (ibid:472).


Cultural factors can also inhibit interaction in a synchronous environment. Tu (2001:53) reports that the importance of saving face by not making a mistake can prevent Chinese learners from interacting. However, the asynchronous online environment "afforded the [Chinese] students the time necessary to create the image they wished to project".


Another reason identified for the reduction of anxiety in asynchronous CMC is that of anonymity. Physical features and social clues (age, gender, race, accent), which may increase self-consciousness, are invisible. "Therefore learners might feel less conspicuous, which can ease anxiety" (Daly in Arnold 2007:472).  Chester and Gwynne (in Sutton 2001:234) also report that anonymity, or in their case aliases, increased students' confidence to participate when compared to face-to-face courses. "This was particularly true among Asian students" who "were able to form relationships across social and cultural boundaries."


However, asynchronicity can pose some difficulties. Arnold's study (2007:479) of learners of German elicited the following from participants: "The lag, sometimes days, makes the chats seem boring, fake and un-involved"; "I think discussions of any sort should be more personal and involved." This "emotional distance" could hamper the development of communicative competence. However, tasks which are more authentically suited to the tool being used may avoid this effect. Arnold (2007:483) admits that "asynchronous CMC might not be a suitable environment for interactive, conversation-like exchanges".


Anonymity is also not trouble-free. Sutton (2001:234) notes that "the benefits of neutrality achieved through online anonymity were offset in some cases by feelings of aggression toward or distrust of other unidentifiable students".


Lapadat’s (2006) article on the non-context specific benefits of asynchronous written communication refers to the affordance of this tool for looking back at past content.  For language learners, viewing the  contributions of the tutor and other learners could be seen as beneficial as Prensky (2000: 56 cited in Anderson 2004) states that imitation is one way language is learnt. 


“Although F2F participants also recall topics and issues from past seminars, spoken language is fleeting and ephemeral; thus general ideas may be recalled but the details and specific wordings are lost.” (Lapadat 2006)


If we consider Lapadat’s statement in relation to online language learners, being able to recall words in this way demonstrates a key affordance of asynchronous CMC in language development. Furthermore, from both the learner’s and teacher’s perspective, the record keeping that asynchronous communication allows is advantageous for analysing areas of language development. This is discussed in Sotillo’s study into the use of written CMC in an ESL class, where “student postings to the asynchronous ESL discussion forum were saved for the duration of the academic year, learners were able to gauge the development of their second language writing skills” (2000:107). Meskill and Anthony (2005:102) used such records for formative assessment purposes, which "can be ongoing and [should be] made an integral part of instructional planning and strategies." In fact, they note several benefits of written records of output during asynchronous discussions. The instructor can: tailor guidance and feedback to individual learner's needs; scaffold new forms/vocabulary/functions; model appropriate vocabulary/structures; and saturate the conversation with the target vocabulary/form (ibid: 95). Meskill and Anthony acknowledge the difficulty of providing such focus on form in face-to-face lessons, without considerable disruption to the lesson flow and possibly learners' fluency and confidence. However, in asynchronous CMC the teacher has more time to identify and consider a response to teachable moments; learners have more time to notice, digest and apply instructions. 


Asynchronous CMC does afford students the opportunity to choose whether to read or respond to posts. Although the result of not responding to posts is that students are not taking the opportunity to communicate in the target language via this asynchronous medium, this does not mean that there is a lack of interaction with this type of CMC, as interaction may be of the 'vicarious' nature described by Sutton (2001). She claims that vicarious interactors, who observe rather than participate, "can experience most of the achievement and satisfaction enjoyed by their more extroverted peers" (ibid:235). Sutton was not referring to language learners who, according to the CLT approach, should actively communicate in order to learn. However, it is possible that vicarious language learners could discover meta-knowledge about language.Literature in the area of online learning does however also show that interactional practices can differ from the face-to-face setting and actually promote communication. This is illustrated in Warschauer’s (2001) article, who refers to the fact that  studies  have shown greater and more equal participation can occur among online language learners than the face-to-face classroom. Sutton also comments on how CMC can level the playing field:


“Research has shown that asynchronous interactions in CMC tend to equalize participation. In CMC, there is no limit on when a communication takes place or how long a student takes to read or compose a communication.” (Sutton 2001: 235)


Online courses may include tasks in which learners produce a different type of asynchronous communication, such as a webpage or blog. This task may involve online research, which encourages learners to "participate in the culture of the target language" (Yang and Chen 2007:867). When collecting information for their webpage, learners "demonstrated their problem-solving skills" by "analysing and synthesizing information" (ibid). Manipulation of other technological features, such as cutting-and-pasting, word processing, screen shots, etc not only inspire learners, but also develop their digital literacy skills, which are transferable in many aspects of life. However, Yang and Chen add a caveat: "most students appeared to place more emphasis on the technology than on language learning" (ibid:877).


The wiki is another online tool for asynchronous CMC. Chao and Lo (2011:405) conducted a study to elicit language students' perceptions of a collaborative wiki task and concluded that it was facilitative: "I like collaborative writing, especially peer-editing, three of my team members would edit my article and found some slip of typing and grammatical error what I did not know totally. Besides, editing others articles made me feel accomplished." The following affordances of the wiki were mentioned by students: the convenience of anytime/anywhere, ease of editing, ability to check through history to see what mistakes were. The only negative feedback was minimal, about technological issues.


The above two tasks are examples of task-based language teaching (TBLT), which falls under the umbrella CLT approach. According to Samuda and Bygate (in Lai and Li 2011:498) "centering language education around tasks is expected to give learners an experiential educative process in which they use the target language for meaning making". TBLT has been conducted in face-to-face classrooms for years, but Lai and Li note some difficulties: passive students relying too much on the teacher; crowded classrooms which are uncomfortable for active group work; mixed-ability classes becoming polarized; students avoiding the use of the target language; task authenticity compromised because of the classroom atmosphere. They posit that such constraints "could potentially be minimized with the assistance of technology" (ibid:499). Although Lai and Li admit that both learner and teacher training requires further exploration in order to confirm their argument, it seems that CMC does increase the amount of language production during tasks and enhances its quality (ibid:503).


Synchronous tools

The non-instantaneous nature of asynchronous CMC does not come without its difficulties.The freedom that comes with using these tools in online learning can mean that there is delay in communication among language learners. Unlike asynchronous tools, CMC via synchronous tools enables learners to be in different places but communicate at the same time.The use of synchronous text-based CMC enables instantaneous interaction and Hampel and Stickler (2005: 314) refer to the work of Kern (1995: 146), who found the benefits of written synchronous communication in areas such as turn taking and the quantity of language produced, feelings of anxiety and also motivation. However, as turn taking is not structured and as clear as it is in a face-to-face setting, the need for teachers to support students in understanding and managing this is mentioned in Hampel and Stickler (2005) And demonstrates the type of new skills that they say teachers need in the new online language classroom. 


Synchronous text based communication may also create a different learning experience to the face-to-face setting:


“It appears that synchronous electronic discourse is more efficient in terms of time of task than ordinary classroom discourse, and that a decrease in teacher domination of discussions creates more opportunities for the production of more complex language (Chun 1994; Kern 1995)". (Sotillo 2000: 83)


Another way in which online learning can bring in a different type of interaction to the face-to-face classroom can be seen with the access that it provides to the authentic language of native speakers:


“Tudini (2003) extends the integration of CMC tools into distance language courses to include public native speaker chat rooms as a pedagogical tool for intermediate distance learners of Italian....An important conclusion from the study is that virtual chatting with native speakers provides ‘an authentic and purposeful cross-cultural experience which is otherwise limited to the language teacher, members of the local community or other learners' (Tudini 2003: 157)”. (White 2006: 257)


Synchronous CMC tools are not however limited to written communication and an online language learning environment is also able to draw on synchronous tools with audio, video and text capabilities. For example, synchronous tools such as Adobe Connect, Skype or Google Hangout bring the additional elements of verbal and visual learner-learner or learner-instructor interaction.


“Hampel (2003) and Hampel and Hauck (2004) show that the affordances of audio-graphic conferencing meet the requirements of the pedagogic framework for SLA in terms of providing opportunities for input, output and negotiation of meaning”. (Heins et al. 2007: 283) 


Apart from audio and video, an important feature of synchronous CMC such as conferencing software is that it manages to bring in features that you would see in a traditional face-to-face classroom. For example, Hampel and Hauck’s (2004) study of the audio-graphic conferencing tool Lyceum illustrates how both teachers and students can make use of an integrated whiteboard, as well as concept mapping, integrated text chat and document sharing facilities. Furthermore, the ability to use break out rooms means “...students are empowered to study in collaboration with others and to take on responsibility for their own learning experience” (2004: 70). This can be useful as it allows them to engage in discussion and group work activities. Opening up the classroom in this way to students also supports the approach outlined below:


“....advances in theories of second language acquisition (SLA) have informed many of our current language learning and teaching practices. In terms of language learning, we can see a shift from teacher-centred classrooms to student-centred learning environments with certain uses of technology (Warschauer 1997).” (Sotillo 2000: 83)


There is however also a need for students to become accustomed to the built in features of conferencing software. For example, Hampel (2006) in a study into a synchronous audio-graphic tool used in a level 2 and 3 German course found that text chat, handing raising and other buttons (such as yes/no) were not used effectively by everyone and thus affected turn taking. Hampel states that lack of confidence or skill in using these tools impacted their use. The multifaceted role of designer, facilitator and instructor which Garrison and Anderson (2003) state that teachers can have in an online environment would need to be considered, to help deal with this type of situation. In their role as designer, the need for teachers to incorporate a process of induction to foster technical skills and social presence in online learning is discussed in Motteram and Forrester (2005). However, in their case study with a group of online language learners, Hampel and Hauck found that creating an induction process does not guarantee success as regardless of “...the large number of sessions that were offered, non-attendance was an issue” (2004: 75). In their paper they also discuss the importance of a dedicated helpdesk and support system to deal with problems which occur during the course. Such design processes are clearly vital in online language learning, For example, if a student is unable to deal with technical problems during a synchronous CMC session, this demonstrates how learner-interface interaction can then have the potential to affect their interaction with the tutor or other learners.


Affordances of CMC for beginner language learners

Whilst intermediate level or above language learners should be able to take advantage of the affordances mentioned here, those at the beginning stage may face difficulties. In a traditional CLT approach, the teacher uses L2. However, in CMC the non-verbal communication strategies s/he uses to clarify meaning are not possible (if asynchronous) or become distorted due to technical issues. Such glitches will be compounded if the learners are also beginners technically. Shrum and Hong (2002:10) report that online students experience "a significant and additional challenge if they have to learn both technology and content at the same time"; this challenge snowballs if they are also using a language they barely know. Even if the technology does not erect barriers to learning, how will learner-learner interaction happen if they only know a few words? A search of the literature enlightens us somewhat.


Most useful is Roselle-Aguilar's (2005) description of a Spanish course for beginners, mediated through an audiographic conferencing tool using Lyceum. The course consisted of synchronous tutorials following a similar pattern to CLT face-to-face lessons, with whiteboards, elicitation, communicative pair work in break-out rooms with concept maps/documents/textchat, and a rounding-off plenary. A list of students' names (maximum 15) on the screen dictated whose turn it was to speak. However, unlike a traditional CLT lesson, the aim was to "revise and practise what has already been learnt [through books and CDs] rather than introduce major new elements" (ibid:22). The instructor was bilingual and the learners all spoke English, enabling support to be given in L1: a pre-course tutorial about Lyceum and a helpdesk; a printed document issued before each tutorial outlining the aims/activities and providing language support; a Q and A session at the end.


Considerations for beginner levels were incorporated: tutorials were fortnightly rather than monthly "to...support learners by giving regular, frequent contact" (ibid:13). Also, "a larger number of stimuli and more structured activities to extract the little language they can produce" (ibid:8) were included. Although the multimodality allowed Roselle-Aguilar to "select modes to suit the task in hand as well as cater for different learning styles" he was aware of the demands such multimodality places on the user, so introduced different features gradually (ibid:18).

Despite audiographic conferencing tools being deemed "unsuitable for that [beginner] level" Roselle-Aguilar reports that "with the provision of the right materials...audiographic CMC can be as suitable for beginners as it has been for higher levels" (2005:20). It should be added that having the resources (both technical and financial) of the Open University to design tailor-made tools was hugely beneficial.


Meskill's and Anthony's (2005) study of instructional scaffolding in asynchronous CMC was conducted on "beginning level Russian" learners in their second year of study, who participated in asynchronous online forums. On average, each student posted 6.5 messages per week, with an average length of 2.5 sentences. Although the learners' posts were short, the full participation of the instructor enabled meaningful conversations to materialize. Similar to Roselle-Aguilar's course, the objective was to reinforce face-to-face instruction; new language was introduced during the face-to-face component. The instructors were bilingual and the learners spoke English, so any technical difficulties could be solved face-to-face in English. However, the CMC was conducted in L2 only, after a preparation period during which the learners practised typing Cyrillic. Meskill and Anthony concluded that "the instructional opportunities afforded by electronic communications make CMC an excellent tool to complement live foreign language classes" (2005:102).


A third study by Vetter and Chanier (2006) investigated whether textchat supports false beginners of various levels in synchronous audio CMC. Eight one-hour sessions were held with the aim of "exposing learners to the target language with native tutors" in order to practise oral communication in English (2006:3); again, no new language was presented. Whether L1 or L2 was used to induct learners into the technology is not mentioned, but learners and instructors could communicate in French, so L1 support was probably available. The researchers report "an equalizing effect of participation in an environment which combines the two modalities [of audio and chat] as far as one ...compensates for the other" (ibid:9/10).


From these limited resources we surmise that CMC supports beginner language learners when designed with their interactional needs in mind and the full participation of the instructor. However, it is used for practice of language rather than presentation of new language. Technical training is required in L1 before embarking on the online interaction. Instructors communicate with learners in L1 (or English) to provide technical and other support.




This discussion has demonstrated the importance of looking at CMC tools separately in order to understand their individual affordances and the different conditions that they create for online language learning.


Both asynchronous and synchronous tools offer several affordances for language learners of various levels, but designers and instructors should be aware of the caveats mentioned above in order to maximise their effects and promote successful language learning.


As well as looking at the role of CMC tools in online language learning, future discussions should also explore in greater detail the role of the teacher in this environment, which Hampel and Stickler (2005) state not only differs from face-to-face teaching but also other online environments. An exploration of the literature on how students respond to online language learning is also important, as the three dimensional framework of distance language learning outlined by White (1999 cited in Wang 2009:5) demonstrates that they have an integral part in the process.





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