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Online learning communities
Some teenage students come to us with an unsatisfactory attitude or low self-confidence with regard to L2 learning due to past experiences, do not see the relevance of language learning in their short or long-term plans or have unrealistic beliefs about language learning. As a language teacher, it is always a challenge coming up with fresh ideas to motivate our students to see language learning as acquiring lifelong, real-life communication skills rather than as a jaded academic subject. In this article I am going to explore the benefits of using a blended learning approach (Sharma and Barret, 2007) with secondary students as a platform for interaction, learning and motivation.
According to Dornyei’s motivational cycle (Dornyei, 2001), in order to maintain and protect motivation, some factors need to be met in the classroom:
• learning needs to be stimulating and enjoyable
• learners’ self-esteem and self-confidence needs to be protected
• strategies for autonomous learning need to be promoted
• students need to be provided with experiences of success through realistic classroom activities
• assessment should be relevant to students’ needs and interests.
I have noticed students can become tied down by the monotony of learning in a classroom, with a paper or coursebook-bound approach. I have used ICT activities in the past such as web-based language games and software, online audio and video and treasure hunts where, without denying their intrinsic value as language learning tools, learners are the “task receivers”, that is, they are the users of material previously selected by the teacher which is “handed down” to them for the sake of language practice. The demands to produce meaningful language are limited during these activities. A novelty element is necessary to do away with this monotony where learners can become not only active task users, but also makers and owners of the task.
Social constructivism in second language acquisition Gardner (1985) describes social context as the bedrock of motivation. This seems especially pertinent with teenagers who are not only learning language at this stage in their lives but also making sense of the world surrounding them, be it relationships, values or learning as a whole. A way of coming to terms with this knowledge in this age of technology is through the internet. Nowadays, teenagers seem to be more and more involved in the discourse of “social networks” such as Facebook or Twitter, where they interact with their peers on the internet. The potential of blended learning comes at a moment where computer-supported collaborative learning using tools such as Moodle, blogs and wikis is at the centre of current educational research.
Students are active builders of these online spaces and they own them. According to social constructivists such as Williams and Burden (1997), language learners need to make sense of their own learning and the tasks they do. They provide a view of learning as task-based, arising from interaction with others, but also the learning environment and context in which learning happens is important. Ultimately, they provide a relevant online space with which students identify and feel comfortable.
The project Edmodo (www.edmodo.com) is a fun and safe online community for students to communicate with each other by writing posts in English and contributing to discussions of topics raised in class. Students can do all of the following on the site:
• post messages to the class and replies to posts with web, audio or video links
• upload assignments and see my corrections and marks online
• access online resources in the Library whose folders the teacher and students can add to
• create multimedia Web 2.0 material and embed onto Edmodo (e.g. making their own podcasts, videoing their presentations, etc) for others to comment on.
According to a questionnaire I gave my students, they enjoyed using Edmodo, because “it’s a good way to learn with technology”, “it’s a dynamic way of learning English” and “it’s a different way of working and communicating with classmates”. When asked what they liked most about Edmodo, they said they “talked to other people in the class”, “it’s easy to use and interesting”, “discovered a social network to learn in English” and “looked for information in websites”. They all agreed Edmodo motivated them more this year, it gave variety to homework assignments and weaned them away from the often dull workbook. Overall, students agreed their English had improved since using Edmodo for a variety of reasons:
• You have to look for information on the web
• You have to participate out of class
• It develops a more conversational English
• It helps learning away from the coursebook
From constructivism to connectivism Connectivism (Siemens, 2005) is the theory that posits:
• Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
• Learning is a process of connecting information sources.
• Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known. • Nurturing and maintaining network connections is needed for continual learning.
• By sharing viewpoints, learners will develop through knowledge of the topic.
The internet provides quick access to information and knowledge in this digital age. It is through the search, processing and sharing of this knowledge that students are exposed to the input and skills that stretch their critical thinking and the language needed to word it. Edmodo is an environment where learners can collaborate to build a community with shared learning goals and connectivism the learning principle behind it.
Social networks are a new platform for communication these days and everybody, especially teenagers, seems to be involved with one or two of these in some shape or form. They have given birth to new “online discourse” which is characterised by a web of short messages, video or audio links, comments and the use of other multimedia material from the internet. Connectivism is shaping the way young students are learning nowadays and it provides an excellent opportunity for language practice.
References Dornyei, Z. (2001) Motivational strategies in the language classroom. Cambridge University Press.
Gardner, R.C. (1985) Social Psychology and Second Language: the role of attitude and motivation. London: Edward Arnold Sharma, P. and Barret, B. (2007) Blended learning: using technology in and beyond the language classroom. Macmillan Education Ltd
Siemens, G. (2005) Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age, International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, Vol. 2 No. 1.
Williams, M. and Burden, R. (1997) Psychology for Language Teachers. Cambridge University Press
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