AAOU'98 Presentation

Independent Language Learning on the Internet: Possible? Practical?

by Andrew J. Morrall

 

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Abstract:

For many students of Asian distance learning institutions the challenges of studying are exacerbated by problems of accessing educational texts that are not in their native languages. One way in which these institutions can help their students manage this problem is to provide them with language support on the Internet. This paper puts forward some suggestions for the design of such an Internet site based on the literature of independent language learning, and describes how these design features have been incorporated into the Internet site of the Centre for Independent Language Learning of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Review of the literature of independent language learning that can be applied to learning on the Internet gives rise to the hope that it is both possible and practical.

 


Contents:


Introduction:

For many students of Asian distance learning institutions the challenges of studying are exacerbated by problems of accessing educational texts that are not in their native languages. One way in which these institutions can help their students manage this problem is to provide them with language support on the Internet. This paper puts forward some suggestions for the design of such an Internet site based on the literature of independent language learning, and describes how these design features have been incorporated into the Internet site of the Centre for Independent Language Learning of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (HKPU).

Independent Learning (IL) and Distance Learning have a number of similarities, which can be seen in the following extract from a definition of IL:

IL is "Learning in which an individual or group of learners study on their own, possibly for a part of parts of a course, without direct intervention from a tutor. This can involve learners in taking greater responsibility for what they learn, how they learn, and when they learn." (Jeffries: 1990)

The aim of the CILL site is to support HKPU students in their language studies by providing a supportive language learning environment. This includes helping students plan and study their target language and encouraging students to become more independent learners.

This paper looks at criteria and conditions for a computer-supported language learning environment, internet tools for studying, and helping students to become more independent.

The latter is divided into ranges and stages of independence; teachers and independent language learning; and deconditioning learners.

Criteria and Conditions for a Computer-supported Language Learning Environment

Esch (1996) and Egbert (1996) both put forward frameworks, but with different focuses.

Esch (1996:35) raises the issue of whether technology promotes autonomy, or whether it replaces teacher control with " the slavery or control exercised over learners by technological means." She then sets out five criteria.

Esch’s first criterion is "Choice, or the provision of genuine alternatives." (1996: 39)

Examples of choices she gives are, firstly that learners can choose to work alone, with help or in classes. CILL site users can work alone, with the help of other users or a tutor by e-mail or conferencing or in ‘virtual classes’ with both other users and a tutor conferencing together. Secondly, that learners decide when and how often to come, which is true of the CILL site. Thirdly that learners can come on their own or with a friend, which is true in two ways with the CILL site, as they can work with a friend beside them, or with a friend using another computer in another place. Fourthly, that they can choose which language to study, which is true of the CILL site because it has links for the four languages taught by HKPU’s English Department. Fifthly, Esch says that learners should be able to choose which medium to use. The CILL site is on one medium, computers, but tells its learners how to use other mediums such as film, books and newspapers. Choice Six is the choice whether to use authentic or exercise-written-for-language-learning-type materials. Links to both types, and explanations of why and how to use them are on the site. The seventh choice is what activities to carry out. CILL site users do not have to follow any path through the materials suggested on the site. Finally, Esch suggests that learners should be given a choice of formal or informal; summative or formative evaluation. CILL site users can opt for formal assessment, for example by e-mailing a piece of written work to a tutor for assessment. They can ask for informal assessment, for example by recording their pronunciation and e-mailing it as an attached file to a tutor for assessment. For formative assessment users can, for example, identify their prior learning in the introductory sections of materials, identify areas of weakness through diagnostic activities such as grammar tests; failures in communication with other Internet users on e-mail; or get constructive feedback from CILL tutors on their e-mail writing. For summative assessment that measures and records learner’s attainment users can, for example, submit a piece of written work to a tutor for assessment after they have studied a genre or skill.

Esch’s second criterion is flexibility, which she defines as the possibility of self-repair and changing of options. Users of the CILL site can, at any time, choose to stop doing an activity and change to another, or to quit.

Her third criterion is adaptability/modifiability. By adaptability she means the ability of the system; e.g. in its categorisation of materials, to be accessible to learners with varying needs. The hyperlinking system of the Internet facilitates this by allowing links from multiple places to point to the same resource. By modifiability Esch means the possibility of learners modifying existing materials. CILL site users can indirectly modify materials and the site itself by e-mailing webmasters about changes or additions they would like.

The fourth criterion she suggests is reflectivity/negotiability. She gives three examples of this. They are a learning advisory service, learner-training courses and a help desk. The CILL site has all three.

Esch’s final criterion is shareability, which she defines as the ability to share activities and problems with others. She gives the example of The Chinese University’s ‘electronic pen friends’ as a way of doing this. The CILL site also has this.

Egbert (1996: 3-4) has three conditions for an ideal computer-supported language learning environment.

Firstly, she says that condition one should be, "Opportunities for learners to interact and negotiate meaning with an authentic audience." The CILL site provides these through opportunities to interact with e-mail pen-pals and discussion lists.

The second condition is that learners should be, "involved in authentic tasks which promote exposure to and production of varied and creative language." The CILL site provides learners with opportunities for communication as detailed above, and with tools for carrying out other authentic tasks such as academic writing for their university courses. For example there are links to dictionaries, grammar and pronunciation resources.

The final condition is "An atmosphere with ideal stress/anxiety level in a learner centred classroom." It could be argued that a ‘virtual classroom’ has a lower stress/anxiety level than a real classroom because, as Levy (1997:205) points out, the learner chooses when and how to interact, which may give the learner more control over the conditions that give rise to communicative stress.

Internet Tools for Studying

Milton (1997: 246) describes the development of writing tools available for learners at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (UST). His premise is "that it is technically and pedagogically more effective to provide learners with writing tools than to present them with a computer program that models a human tutor." His tools are e-mail for ‘higher order’ writing skills; Internet search engines to use to see how expressions and structures are used in authentic situations; and on-line language resources such as dictionaries and thesauri. All these, and instructions on how to use them, are available from the CILL site.

UST has the following features integrated into the students’ word-processing program, which are also available, although in a simpler form, from the CILL site.

Firstly there are style templates for various formats. The CILL site has a style template for research proposals.

Secondly there are idea generation tools. The CILL site has both a mind-map template and details of the ‘journalistic questioning’ technique.

Thirdly, there are tools to help users organise text. These are integrated into the CILL site’s mind-map template.

Finally there are referencing tools. The CILL site provides details of why and examples of how to reference sources.

Helping Students to Become More Independent

Ranges and Stages of Independence

There is general agreement in the literature that learners may be at different stages of becoming independent learners (Farmer & Sweeney: 1994; Sheerin: 1997; Nunan: 1997). The CILL site helps the learners to analyse their level of independence and work towards greater independence.

This range is analysed by Sheerin (1997: 57), (see Figure 1).

    DISPOSITION TO  
  1 Analyse one’s own strengths / weaknesses, language needs I
D 2 Set achievable targets and overall objectives N
E 3 Plan a programme of work to achieve the objectives set D
P 4 Exercise choice, select materials and activities E
E 5 Work without supervision P
N 6 Evaluate one’s progress E
D   ABILITY TO N
E 1 Analyse one’s own strengths / weaknesses, language needs D
N 2 Set achievable targets and overall objectives E
C 3 Plan a programme of work to achieve the objectives set N
E 4 Exercise choice, select materials and activities C
  5 Work without supervision E
  6 Evaluate one’s progress  

Figure 1: Sheerin’s (1997: 57) model of activities involved in independent learning.

The CILL Internet site allows learners to analyse their own strengths / weaknesses and language needs by providing an explanation and a framework for analysis, and by providing links to various test sites and authentic communication situations such as e-mail pen pals for students’ self-evaluation.

The CILL Internet site helps the learners to set achievable targets and overall objectives by giving an explanation of the planning process, and providing learning pathways (lists of recommended materials that guide students in studying a topic).

It helps the learners to plan a programme of work through access to lists of commonly requested CILL materials, and by providing a copy of a page from the CILL learner diary which takes learners through a planning to evaluation process.

Learners are encouraged to exercise choice, and select materials and activities from the pathways and materials lists by the multitude of choices of materials they can choose.

Work without supervision is encouraged, but the site provides e-mail connections to advice from tutors because learners have varying degrees of autonomy.

Self-evaluation of learners’ progress is explained and aided by the page from the CILL learner diary.

David Nunan (1997: 195) sets out a scheme for encouraging learner autonomy in relationship to use of learning materials (see Figure 2).

Level Learner Action Content Process
1 Awareness Learners are made aware of the pedagogical goals and content of the materials they are using. Learners identify strategy implications of pedagogical tasks and identify their own preferred learning styles / strategies.
2 Involvement Learners are involved in selecting their own goals from a range of alternatives on offer. Learners make choices among a range of options.
3 Intervention Learners are involved in modifying and adapting the goals and content of the learning program. Learners modify / adapt tasks.
4 Creation Learners create their own goals and objectives. Learners create their own tasks.
5 Transcendence Learners go beyond the classroom and make links between the content of classroom learning and the world beyond. Learners become teachers and researchers.

Figure 2. Nunan’s (1997: 195) model ‘Autonomy: levels of implementation.’

For Nunan’s Level One: ‘Awareness’, the CILL site has details with each link that explain the pedagogical goals that can be fulfilled by accessing that link, and what type of materials they will encounter.

Identifying strategy implications of pedagogical tasks and preferred learning styles / strategies is facilitated by the sections on planning and learning styles and strategies.

For Level Two: ‘Involvement’, the site offers example goals in its section explaining a page from the learner diary.

In Level Three: ‘Intervention’, learners are involved in modifying and adapting the goals and content of the learning program. This is explained in the planning section of the site.

For Level Four: ‘Creation’, learners graduate from use or reliance on the learner pathways to being able to create their own goals and objectives. This is explained in the sections on planning.

For the last level, ‘Transcendence’, learners can use the site to communicate authentically with people in the world beyond; e.g. by using on-line conferencing.

Teachers and Independent Language Learning

Independent Language Learning does not necessarily mean teacher-less learning. Farmer and Sweeney (1994: 138) say that 84% of surveyed second-year students at HKPU perceive the need for some teacher guidance in a self-access context. Thus the availability of a teaching professional is important for users of the CILL Internet site, and is available by e-mail.

Holec (1981: 25 - 26) says that the most prevalent teaching situation "will be that of learners who are not yet autonomous but are involved in the process of acquiring the ability to assume responsibility for their learning." He details three types of information that IL teachers should provide for students. Firstly, information on various language competences used in authentic English communication to help the students set their objectives and evaluate their progress. The CILL site suggests resources for learners to improve their abilities in these competencies. Secondly, there is information on language learning strategies, and thirdly, information on resources such as CILL’s learning pathways.

Deconditioning Learners

The need for deconditioning is highlighted by Holec (1981: 22), who says that a deconditioning process that moves students away from prejudices about their roles in learning languages is necessary. This process includes, firstly, that a student needs "to free himself from the notion that there is one ideal method", and secondly "that teachers possess that method" which the CILL site encourages by explaining learner styles and strategies. Thirdly the learner should be deconditioned from the idea "that his mother tongue is of no use to him for learning a second language", which the CILL site does by, for example, information on reading skills suggesting prediction from first language accounts of the same story. Fourthly the learner should get rid of the idea "that his experience as a learner of other subjects, other know-how, cannot be transferred, even partially", which is encouraged by suggesting that learners keep records in their diaries of study strategies. Fifthly he recommends that the learner break away from the idea that he is "incapable of making any valid assessment of his performance", so the CILL site explains self-assessment.

So is independent language learning on the Internet practical and possible? This has yet to be shown by further research. However, as this paper attempts to show, there is a theoretical foundation that suggests that it might be.

(For an expanded version of this paper, with links to examples of activities and further information, see <http://www.engl.polyu.edu.hk/CILL/theory.htm>.)

Bibliography:

Egbert, Joy L. (1996) ‘Analytic and Systemic Analyses of Computer-supported Language Learning Environments’ in TESL-EJ, Vol. 2, No. 2 September 1996

Esch, Edith (1996) ‘Promoting learner autonomy: criteria for the selection of appropriate methods’ in Pemberton, Richard; et al.(1996) Taking Control: Autonomy in Language Learning, Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press, 35 - 48

Farmer, Richard & Sweeney, Elaine (1994) ‘Self-access in Hong Kong: A square peg in a round hole?’ Occasional Papers in Language Teaching 4, (ELT Unit: Chinese University of Hong Kong), pp. 24-30.

Holec, Henri (1981) Autonomy in Foreign Language Learning, Oxford: Pergamon

Jeffries, Clive et al. (1990) A-Z of Open Learning National Extension College Trust

Levy, Michael (1997) Computer-Assisted Language Learning - Context and Conceptualisation, Oxford: Clarendon Press

Milton, John (1997) ‘Providing computerized self-access opportunities for the development of writing skills’ in Benson, Phil & Voller, Peter, eds. (1997) Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning, London: Longman, 237 - 248

Nunan, David (1997) ‘Designing and adapting materials to encourage learner autonomy’ in Benson, Phil & Voller, Peter, eds. (1997) Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning, London: Longman, 192 - 203

Sheerin, Susan (1997) ‘An exploration of the relationship between self-access and independent learning’ in Benson, Phil & Voller, Peter, eds. (1997) Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning, London: Longman, 54 - 65