Prior research indicates that providing language learners with opportunities to interact with one another through online communication tools can promote positive outcomes such as increased motivation, diversified participation, and improved oral production (Lamy & Hampel, 2007). However, with the exception of Blake’s (2000) suggestion that jigsaw activities are especially effective for promoting negotiation of meaning in online chat, I was unable to find other guidelines in the research literature on how to best use online communication in language instruction. Given my interest in investigating this type of instruction, the objective of my BLC project was to carry out multiple iterations of design and evaluation of computer-supported learning activities in an attempt to identify some best practices.
Working closely with the instructor of a second-semester Spanish class, we created a series of activities for her students. Some of these activities involved real-time text chat and took place in an on-campus computer lab. When successful, these chat-based activities were enjoyable and productive for students, and met our learning objectives. We also used online forums for homework assignments that complemented in-class discussions of assigned readings. This use of forums expanded the range of participants during class discussions and helped students feel prepared to speak. In this brief write-up I describe the chat-based activities in greater detail because I suspect that this type of instruction will be less familiar to many readers.
Chat-based activities in the computer lab
Over the course of the semester, four class sessions took place in an on-campus computer lab and involved groups of students communicating with one another through real-time text-based chat. The four activities were as follows:
- Groups of 3 to 4 students read about ecological problems and solutions, and then through a jigsaw activity chatted about these texts to match each problem to its corresponding solution.
- Groups of 2 to 4 students chatted about photographs of accidents that had occurred to a fictitious character while travelling in Spain. They then collaboratively composed a letter to this character with advice for future travels.
- Groups of 4 to 5 students chatted about video clips related to a course reading. Chatting was followed directly by a whole group oral discussion about the videos and text.
- Groups of 3 students chatted about a blog post and corresponding photographs from a fictitious character about studying at Berkeley. They then collaboratively composed and posted a response to the blog.
The instructor and I evaluated the outcomes of these activities based on multiple data sources and criteria:
- For each activity, students completed Likert-scale and open-ended questions about their enjoyment of the activity and its usefulness for learning Spanish.
- Chat logs were analyzed for evidence of on and off-task behaviors, use of target structures, quantity of language produced, and distribution of student turns.
- When activities included a final product (e.g., blog post), these were evaluated for use of target structures and normative language.
- After every activity the instructor and I discussed our observations in detail.
Based on our evaluations, the second and fourth activities were by far the most successful. Given their similarities, this outcome has allowed us to reach some tentative generalizations about designing this type instruction. I first present a detailed description of one of these activities (the fourth), and then present our emerging best practices as exemplified by this activity.
Our fourth chat-based activity involved a fictitious character, a young Argentinean named Alejandro, who had been accepted to UC Berkeley and needed advice from our students. This scenario connected to the current textbook chapter’s themes (social issues, future plans), grammar (subjunctive), and communicative functions (expressing opinions, giving advice). The instructor first presented the scenario to the students a few days before the activity by asking them what issues Alejandro should investigate before coming to Berkeley. The students mentioned safety on and around campus, activism, and environmentalism. For each of these issues the instructor and I prepared a short message in which Alejandro expressed his concerns, and gathered some online photos to accompany each message. We posted the messages on a blog we had created for the class (Figure 1, above), and loaded the photos into the chatrooms we had been using throughout the semester (Figure 2, above). We also prepared a handout that included instructions for the activity and a short list of linguistic structures that each group was expected to use. Finally, we posted an announcement on bSpace that included links to the blog posts and chatrooms.
In the computer lab, the activity was divided into two parts of 20 to 25 minutes each. First, each group of 3 students met in a chatroom to share their opinions and recommendations about Alejandro’s blog post and accompanying photos. Second, each group gathered physically around a single computer to collaboratively compose and post a response to Alejandro. The next day’s lesson in the classroom consisted of follow-up activities based on print-outs of the comments the students had posted on the blog.
Based on the criteria presented above, this activity was our best of the semester. On their evaluations, 17 of 18 students “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that the activity was enjoyable and helped them learn. The chat logs showed that the students had made serious efforts to integrate all target structures while completing the task, and their distribution of turns was very well balanced. Additionally, the comments they posted on the blog went well beyond task requirements and reflected relatively normative language use.
The success of this activity and the similarly structured second activity of the semester support the following suggestions about designing chat-based instruction for on-campus computer labs:
- Build continuity between in-class activities and computer lab activities: In addition to connecting directly to other course content, this fourth activity was introduced and then followed-up in the classroom.
- Use the computer lab as a classroom: The activity included both online and face-to-face interactions between students.
- Use the computers to do things that can’t be done in the classroom: Group interactions around online photographs and blogs required the use of computers.
- Provide explicit expectations regarding the use of specific communicative functions and their corresponding linguistic forms: The activity was structured to guide students in composing a specific type of message with a specific set of linguistic features.
- Have students produce a tangible output with an audience that includes at least the entire class, not only the instructors: The comments that students posted on the blog were publicly available and explicitly shared with the whole class during follow-up activities.
- Within clearly established expectations, provide room for student expression and creativity: The students not only played a role in defining the topics of the activity, but also had opportunities to discuss their personal opinions.
- Provide feedback on linguistic output of online activities: The follow-up activities included correcting common errors from the chat logs and blog comments.
Online forums to complement class discussions
Over the course of the semester, 7 bSpace forums were used to complement discussions about assigned readings. Tasks that students completed in the forums included:
- Posting a question about the reading before the class discussion.
- Responding to another student’s question after the discussion.
- Posting a reflection on a theme or topic between class discussions.
- Commenting on a specific passage.
Especially when forum assignments took place the day before class discussions, their influence was clearly observable. Students frequently repeated aspects of their forum posts, they made references to the posts of their classmates, and a wider range of students generally participated in these discussions. However, the biggest impact of the forums was the way in which the instructor was able to use what her students had posted online to productively shape the next day’s discussion. When a student posted a potentially hot topic in the forum, the instructor would ask that student to bring it up the next day in class to spark responses from other students. With students that were less likely to participate on their own, she would sometimes call on them directly when it was appropriate for them to share what they had previously posted online. In this sense, the forums became a resource that enabled the instructor to provide personalized opportunities for her students to productively contribute to class discussions. At the same time, the forums prepared students to take advantage of these opportunities by enabling them to rehearse their contributions in writing before having to speak.
Both chat-based and forum-based activities provided enjoyable and productive learning experiences for the students who participated in this project. However, it is important to note that the work involved in setting up these activities varied greatly. Using the forums to complement class discussions strikes me as a slam dunk. Setting up these activities is quite simple, students are generally familiar with the use of forums in academic settings, student tasks took only a few minutes, and reading forum posts in order to integrate them into the class discussion only required about a half hour from the instructor. Setting up chat-based activities is more complex. It requires learning to conduct class in a new environment, managing multiple technological platforms, and productively harnessing the informality and playfulness that students are likely to associate with chatting (Thorne, 2003). The more times we did these activities the easier and more familiar they became for us and the students, but early in the semester we found ourselves working quite hard without a clear sense of the outcomes our efforts would produce. In the future, I hope to experiment with giving the students greater responsibility for setting up these activities. For example, it seems quite reasonable that students rather than instructors could take the lead in finding online photos and loading them into chatrooms. This sort of student involvement might increase the meaningfulness of the activity while also lessening the workload of the instructor.
In an effort to protect the identities of the students I worked with this semester, I have chosen not to identify their instructor. This is unfortunate because it does not give her the full recognition she deserves for her invaluable contribution to this project. Her dedication, pedagogical vision, creativity, and awareness of her students’ needs were critical to our successful outcomes.
Blake, R. (2000). Computer Mediated Communication: A window on L2 Spanish interlanguage. Language Learning and Technology, 4(1), 120-136.
Lamy, M.-N., & Hampel, R. (2007). Online Communication in Language Learning and Teaching. New York: Palgrave Macmillon.
Thorne, S. (2003). Artifacts and cultures-of-use in intercultural communication. Language Learning and Technology, 7(2), 38-67.