Date: Mon, 13 Jun 2005 12:07:32 -0400 From: Subhadra Ramachandran Subject: Distance Education and Langauges: Evolution and Change
EDITORS: Holmberg, Borje; Shelley, Monica; White, Cynthia TITLE: Distance Education and Languages SUBTITLE: Evolution and Change SERIES: New Perspectives in Language and Education PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters YEAR: 2005
Subhadra Ramachandran, Centre for Education & Training, Mississauga, Canada
This 342-page book is an edited collection of writings by both practitioners who have been active for some years in the field of distance education (DE) and by others from institutions where DE is at a relatively early stage of development. As a result, the contexts, education systems and educational requirements within which the authors of the chapters operate are diverse, their perspectives varied. Despite this, there exist several commonalities between the several DE contexts discussed in this book, which provide the reader with a range of insights and a better appreciation of the realm of virtual learning.
The book is divided into six different sections covering themes that appear to be distinct from one another, but which in fact cover a great deal of common ground between the them. The format of presentation allows readers to concentrate on subject areas of most immediate interest to them. The six sections are: 1. Learner autonomy 2. Learner perspectives and support 3. Development of intercultural competence 4. Methodology and course design 5. Learning environments 6. Language teacher development
1. Learner Autonomy In this section there are three chapters devoted to the different aspects of learner independence and autonomy.
In chapter 1, Stella Hurd reviews various interpretations of the concept of autonomy and its place within the field of distance language teaching and learning. Hurd also provides an insight into how language teaching at a distance has developed at the Open University, UK (OUUK) and draws on her experience to discuss how autonomy may be promoted via computer- mediated communication while warning that technology mediated learning is not completely problem-free.
In chapter 2, Linda Murphy too draws on her experience at the OUUK working with French, German and Spanish students to raise the question of whether a range of tutor-developed support materials is an effective way of increasing learner autonomy. She concludes that except in the case of writing skills development, there is strong evidence of learner control and active engagement with the study materials, and that students demonstrated critical analysis and reflectiveness.
In chapter 3, Alex Ding from the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, explores the possibility for promoting collaborative learner autonomy through the use of a virtual, self-access centre (VSAC) for language learning. The context in which the VSAC was created was to provide English for Academic Purposes support for in-sessional students (international students studying at undergraduate and postgraduate level) who cannot attend classes. Ding concludes that despite the gaps between theory and practice in setting up his VSAC, it is important that theory be used as a basis for informed decision-making in this area, adding that researching the potential for collaboration in an online environment deserves to be investigated more rigorously.
2. Learner perspectives and support In the second section of this book contributions emphasize the importance of keeping the student as the focus of the process of successful distance language learning.
In chapter 4, Cynthia White, from Massey University in New Zealand, starts off by reviewing four of the most influential theories of distance language learning. White draws on her earlier research into the ways in which learners establish their learning environment, negotiate meaning and arrive at new understanding in the distance context. In effect, she elaborates on the notion of the interface which develops between the learner and the learning context in the course of learning experiences.
In chapter 5, Cristina Ros i Solé and Mike Truman from the OUUK focus on the importance of feedback in distance language learning where error correction and commentaries on assignments is often the sole channel of communication. The role of feedback in the development of student autonomy is spelt out and discussed. The lon-standing debate over formative and summative assessment is illustrated here through the outcomes of research conducted among students enrolled in a Spanish course. Ros i Solé and Truman conclude by looking forward to the development of new assessment strategies and formats to enhance the experience of distance language learning.
Chapter 6 in this section is by Carisma Dreyer, Nwabisa Bangeni and Charl Nel of South Africa. They look at one of the most universal issues that confront any program that offers language courses via a mixed mode delivery system - the problem of dropout and failure rates, and institutional accountability. The authors describe a framework for providing learner support that will aid institutions not just in improving dropout and failure rates, but in providing a high quality academic program with well-defined support structures.
3. Development of intercultural competence In chapter 7 of the third section, Monica Shelley and Uwe Baumann of the OUUK look at several student-related issues such as their motivations for language learning, their experience of the language and the effects of the course on them. However, the main focus of the chapter is on the acquisition of intercultural competence by distance learners of German. The authors conclude that while the students began their courses in German possessing a fair degree of cultural competence, this increased during their period of study. They also conclude that the assessment of productive skills in the German course under review reflected the acquisition of those skills, attitudes and knowledge thereby showing that there was development of intercultural competence in the language being learnt.
Chapter 8 of the section on intercultural competence is by Richard Fay (University of Manchester, UK) and Leah Davcheva (British Council, Bulgaria). The chapter discusses the lessons learnt from the implementation of two distance education programs for English language teachers and translator/interpreters in Bulgaria in collaboration with the University of Manchester in the UK. It discusses several aspects of the developmental context for the programs before exploring the area of intercultural communicative competence and then an evaluation of the language teacher program. The authors present a tentative model of professional intercultural communicative competence, which subsumes the cognitive, affective and behavioral dimensions of intercultural learning demonstrating how different definitions of intercultural communication fit with areas of language education.
4. Methodology and course design This section consists of two contributions that reflect the theme of methodology from different perspectives.
Börge Holmberg in chapter 9 discusses some theoretical aspects of distance language teaching and the methods and media applied in the teaching. Holmberg begins the chapter with a brief history of distance education and then summarizes the various theoretical considerations that need to be examined. Holmberg illustrates the significance of behavioral thinking in relation to language teaching with the use of examples based in different methodological frameworks. He supports the value of a combination of the learning of principles and imitative practice, concluding that the judicious use of the mother tongue is best used in contrastive analysis, and that explicit explanations have great value for distance language learners.
In chapter 10 of this section, Cecilia Garrido of the OUUK in studying the development of a suite of Spanish courses discusses the challenges of helping students develop linguistic skills while keeping in mind factors such as the implications of integrating intercultural competence into the course design, and the role of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) tools in developing these skills. Garrido lists the various priorities which were adopted to serve as a basis for the syllabus of the Spanish program. She defines the new challenges that arose while developing the distance learning program as mainly evolving from the implications of teaching language and culture in an integrated manner, and from the opportunities and threats of the information age. In this chapter, Garrido too briefly discusses the significance of teaching for intercultural competence.
5. Learning environments This section presents five different examples of learning environments that reflect the diversity and the variety of approaches taken to promote learner autonomy.
In chapter 11, Donald Weasenforth, Christine Meloni and Sigrun Biesenbach- Lucas from the United States argue the position that the technologies available to distance instructors can be effective in fostering learner autonomy. In this chapter, they investigate how three features of a course management software (CMS), namely Discussions (web board), Files and Testing, can be used to develop learner autonomy as well as language proficiency. They also show how CMS enabled their students to work without supervision, to become teachers and researchers, exercise choice and to benefit from feedback other than the 'right answer.'
In chapter 12, Vincenza Tudini, from the University of South Australia, concentrates on the use of the chat tool by learners of Italian. Research has shown that computer mediated communication (CMC) such as online chat provides a bridge to face-to-face interaction and an optimal environment for language acquisition. However, research on whether chatlines replace classroom interaction or what skills learners can gain from the use of this medium is summarized in this chapter. Tudini concludes that chatlines have several proven benefits, including opportunities for the negotiation of meaning. Her study demonstrates that it is worth including chat lines as a learning tool when setting up language program language learners at a distance since they provide an opportunity for students to establish connections with each other in colloquial, non-threatening way.
In chapter 13, Andreas Schramm, from Hamline University in the USA offers an explanation of the ethnographic strategies used to move several courses of an on-campus ESL teacher education program to an interactive online format. In order to make this move from interactive student-centered classroom experience to a web-based format, Schramm focuses on the importance of establishing a set of standards for Web-based courses under groupings such as types of interaction and modes of interaction. He also describes the online implementation of each course component.
In chapter 14, John Milton from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology focuses on the creative use of online tools to generate authentic language as opposed to imitative language that is often the norm in South East Asian classrooms. Milton has developed an indigenous course delivery system aimed at various groups of learners to meet their diverse language needs after having first researched different possibilities among the commercial systems available. He concludes that despite the promise of Internet technology, '... no ready-made content delivery system seemed to offer the range of activity types and tools that meet the Web's potential to create and deliver courses for dynamic language learning'. Milton's course delivery system provided Web-based tools such as asynchronous voice messaging, online data-driven language learning, feedback on student writing and online role plays. According to Milton the tools, which have been incorporated into an online course development system that supports several online EFL courses, lend themselves to progressive approaches to broader learning opportunities. In the final chapter in this section, Mirjam Hauck and Regine Hampel from the OUUK describe the progressive steps in the introduction of web-based audio-graphic conferencing system of tutorials for all language courses. This project first started with pilot projects and progressed to the 'online only' tutorials in a German language course. The Lyceum learning environment used has three main components: the audio-graphic conferencing client, a website and e-mail. The purpose of such collaborative virtual learning environments (CVLEs)in distance language learning is to provide students with opportunities to provide opportunities to develop interactive oral fluency in the target language. One of the next steps in the project is to investigate whether this new approach can lead to more efficient language learning and contribute to an increase in learner autonomy.
6. Language teacher development Chapter 16 of the final section of the book is by Heidi Hansson (Umeå University) and Elisabeth Wennö (Karlstad University) from Sweden. In this chapter, Hansson and Wennö discuss their experience with the development of an online course for teachers of different practical subjects such as music, art, physical education and woodworking, etc., who wanted, in addition, a formal qualification to teach English. Based on a study comparing a group of distance learners with a group of students taking the courses face to face in the same period of time, Hansson and Wenno conclude that the results from the distance learners were at least as good as those who learned in the classroom. They compared the two groups on the basis of increase in the level of language proficiency and degree of interaction and took into account student views as well. Hansson and Wenno argue that the problems for distance courses are the same as those facing traditional courses. Therefore, factors such as individualized lessons, teacher feedback and support, peer-to-peer interaction amongst students and structured supervision and guidance are certainly factors that aid effective learning in general. Distance is not really the issue, but rather the available time and energy of the students (and teachers).
In chapter 17, Franca Poppi and Marina Bondi (University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy) and Lesley Low from the University of Stirling in the UK describe a project that arose from a Europe-wide initiative to extend the teaching of modern foreign languages to primary age pupils by training more teachers to cater to this new demand. Several European countries responded to this initiative in many number of ways, but this chapter reports on a joint project involving universities in Italy and Scotland that led to the development of the PLEASE website (Primary Language teacher Education: Autonomy and Self-Evaluation). The general aim of the four-year project was to address the training needs of both new and continuing teachers engaged in the delivery of a foreign language to their primary school pupils. The rationale for the PLEASE website was to foster autonomous learning and reflective teaching skills among primary language teachers. The intention was also to raise the awareness of teachers' skills and to help their continuing professional development.
In chapter 18, Do Coyle from the University of Nottingham in the UK provides an exploration of the development of a pilot network of Teaching and Learning Observatory (TLO) sites which can be used to enhance the pre- and in-service training of foreign language and bilingual teachers. The initial idea of the TLO was based on a need for language teachers to observe 'expert teachers' in their classrooms and for tutors to co-reflect and to experiment with distance teaching in 'scaffolded zones'. The TLO was set up to link a national and international hub of ten secondary schools with a training institution using video conferencing and other interactive technologies. In its early conception, the TLO was a non- intrusive observation instrument and has now developed into an 'innovative practice hub', powerful learning, teaching, training and research tool. Coyle discusses how this evolution has come about emphasizing that innovative practice can often be uncomfortable, but to balance realism with vision.
Rapid technological change is influencing not only ways in which we interact with the world, but also ways the world interacts with us. It is, therefore, not surprising that the role of information technology in education is garnering such widespread attention. Technology-mediated education, as in but one conception of distance education, confronts us everyday not only in the form of computers in schools and classrooms, but also in the form of educational policies that are increasingly concerned with information technology in the 'information age', global 'knowledge economy' and the changing definition of literacy.
The edited collection of articles from institutions across the world (in Distance Education and Languages: Evolution and Change) is not only enlightening, but also serves as a crucial contribution to the field of distance education. The broad range of issues covered in the book is further enhanced by the fact that it delves into perspectives of both the learner and of the language teacher, providing the reader with a multi- dimensional view of the subject matter discussed. The research studies touch upon important questions in the field of web-based language learning that have not been dealt with so far and opens up the readers' eyes to important issues that pertain to critical reflection, learner autonomy and learning environments. Answers to these questions are of great consequence, not only within the domain of distance learning, but also for fields such as general education or language policy, to name a couple of examples.
Even though the book covers a broad range of topics, it does not fully address the important issue of an expanded definition of literacy (Leu (2000); Meyer and Rose (2000)) in the digital/electronic environment, and the impact such a definition has on the teaching and learning of second languages. The concept of literacy as presented in the book still refers to literacy as the teaching of basic skills-reading, writing, listening, and speaking. It fails to underscore a fundamental reality that besides having basic literacy skills, today's students also need technology skills for thinking, understanding, evaluating and communicating critically about messages inherent in new media. Literacy today also implies being able to investigate, access and use information, and develop analytical thinking to discern meaning from an array of multimedia, visual imagery, and virtual environments, including written text. Hence, the definitions of literacy that emerge from these diverse skills expected of today's student are frequently categorized under information literacy, media literacy, critical literacy, computer literacy, digital literacy, etc. A separate section in the book could have been devoted to the discussion of whether these new definitions of literacy have produced new curricula, widened the general perception of literacy in language classrooms, or initiated ancillary subjects taught under the umbrella of literacy instruction. This section might have reported on studies in the area of technology-enhanced language learning and its practice and on the professional development of distance language teachers engaged in the development of multiliteracies. Some of the questions yet to be addressed are as follows: * Is there any empirical evidence to confirm that new technologies can be effective in support of literacy instruction? * Are any technologies, in fact, harmful to the development of successful literacy instruction? * In what ways has professional development of educators in literacy-based contexts been influenced by the advent of educational technologies? * What skills do language teachers need for integrating technology into literacy instruction?
Answers to some of these questions may have made for some interesting discussion and provided grist for further research. However, the reason why empirical evidence to some of the above questions is unavailable may well be that even as researchers begin to describe evidence supporting the effects a particular technology on an educational practice, that technology itself is changing and in some cases superseded by newer ones. Valdez et al. (1999) aptly describes this as the "moving target" problem.
On the whole, however, the book is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the new possibilities offered by the delivery of technology- mediated education, as well as for the educator exploring new innovations in educational technology and its applications. The studies presented in the volume discuss a number of methodologies, thereby providing examples of how to apply new technologies to support language development, and how educators themselves may use this for their training needs. The sections and chapters in the book are organized in a way that the reader has the option of taking advantage of previous chapters when reading about similar methodology or findings that can be compared and built upon, or focusing on subject areas that are of immediate interest to her/him simultaneously gaining a broader view of educational technologies in the context of language teaching used in different parts of the world. As a result, this book is also an indispensable addition to the educator's library as it would be a great tool for courses dealing with distance education.
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Leu, D. J. (2000). Literacy and technology: Deictic consequences for literacy education in an information age. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research: Vol. III (pp. 743-770). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Subhadra Ramachandran has a Ph.D. in Linguistics, and currently manages the distance education programs for the Centre for Education & Training, Canada. One of the programs offers free ESL courses at a distance to newcomers to Canada through the support of the federal government of Canada. Subhadra's research interests include theories of and the actual role of information and communication technology (ICT) in education, focusing on whether and how ICTs can be exploited to enhance the quality of learning.