Online Discussion in a CALL Course for
Distance Language Teachers
The University of Southern Queensland
Computer-mediated communication (CMC) is increasingly used not only in second/foreign language teaching but also in language teacher education. This study investigated distance students' participation in an online discussion group established for an applied linguistic course entitled Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL). Patterns of student- student interaction and students' attitudes toward the online discussion were identified through quantitative and qualitative analyses of the number of students' postings to the discussion group, transcripts of online discussions, and students' responses to a web-based questionnaire. The results of the study indicate that students contributed primarily in the forms of fully and partially task-focused messages while the messages mainly consisted of task-based answers and interactive contributions. Almost half of the student-student interactions involved giving on- and off-task opinions and/or ideas on particular matters. Students showed positive attitudes toward online discussions as a way of learning CALL as well as toward CMC as a means of facilitating collaborative learning. The findings suggest that online discussions are useful for CALL teacher training as they provide language teachers with practical experience of CMC and communication channels for sharing ideas, comments, questions, and resources with their fellow teachers.
Online Discussion, Computer-Mediated Communication, Computer-Assisted Language
Learning, Distance Education, Language Teacher Education
With the rapid growth of the Internet, computer-mediated communication (CMC) is changing the way of interpersonal communication and is linking individuals and educational institutions with their counterparts in other locations. It establishes "an electronic environment that is accessible to participants who might otherwise be separated by time zones and physical distance" (Wells, 1992, p. 1). In CMC, interaction can occur synchronously or asynchronously.
CMC can be utilized in a wide range of educational settings. For example, it
can be easily integrated into a distance education course. Considering that many
teachers are unable to attend a conventional face-to-face course for various reasons,
distance education can provide those teachers with opportunities for further
professional development without leaving school or home. The advantages
While computer-assisted language learning (CALL) researchers and practitioners
have attempted to look into specific features within CMC which may
contribute to improved language learning and teaching, very little research has
been published on the evaluation of the effectiveness of CMC in the context of
a CALL course and, in particular, on the analysis of patterns of interaction in
online CALL discussion groups. This paper addresses this issue and reports the
results of a study that evaluated student use and perceptions of asynchronous
online discussions on CALL-related topics and investigated student-student interaction
via electronic communication.
CMC, CALL AND LANGUAGE TEACHER EDUCATION
A number of researchers in education have examined various aspects of CMC such as academic writing in computer conferencing (Durham, 1990), flaming behaviour (Lea, O'Shea, Fung & Spears, 1992), intercultural communication (Ma, 1996), interactions in conventional university courses (Light, Colbourn, & Light, 1997; Light & Light, 1999; Light, Nesbitt, Light, & Burns, 2000; Warren & Rada, 1998), online chat and group work (Pilkington, Bennett & Vaughan, 2000), tutor group in distance education (Weller, 2000), distance students' online behavior (Wilson & Whitelock, 1997, 1998), and teacher education (Ahern & El-Hindi, 2000; Schlagal, Trathen, & Blanton, 1996; Trentin, 1997).
Similarly, CMC, as an expansion of CALL activities, has been widely used in second/foreign language classrooms in the forms of email (e.g., Barson, 1991; Gonzalez-Bueno, 1998; Gray & Stockwell, 1998; Kern, 1996; Lunde, 1990; Sanaoui & Lapkin, 1992; Soh & Soon, 1991; Son & O'Neill, 1999), computer conferencing (e.g., Davis & Thiede, 2000; Zahner, Fauverge & Wong, 2000), electronic discussion groups (e.g., Warschauer, 1996), and electronic bulletin boards (e.g., Lamy & Goodfellow, 1999; Meagher & Castanos, 1996). In line with this widespread use, teacher educators are very keen to include CMC activities in their teacher education programs and try to give teachers practical experience of CMC through their programs (Kamhi-Stein, 2000; Motteram & Teague, 2000; Murray, 2000; Nunan, 1999). In the context of a CALL course particularly, online discussion activities are being integrated into the course as a means of encouraging teachers to develop knowledge through experience (Johnson & Brine, 2000; Son, 2000b).
Recent studies on the use of CMC tools in language teacher education have
The subjects in this study were 22 distance students (12 male and 10 female;
mean age 39, ranging from 27 to 51 years) enrolled in a CALL course as part of
their Masters programs offered through a university in Australia. They consisted
of 17 native speakers of English, two native speakers of Korean, one
native speaker of French, one native speaker of Hungarian and one native speaker
of Slovakian. There were 19 ESL (English as a Second Language) and three
LOTE (Language Other Than English - French, Chinese and Japanese in this
study) in-service teachers residing in seven different countries, participating in
the course. Of the 22 students, 19 were active in the online discussions and
made contributions to the student-student interactions and responded to a web-based
questionnaire while all of the students completed the unit questions and
tasks assigned as part of their course requirements.
Offered by distance education over a 15-week period, the CALL course was designed to introduce language teachers to the field of CALL by providing them with insights into key aspects of CALL and a basic knowledge of the practical uses of computer technology in language instruction. The course consisted of three major modules: (a) a discussion on basic concepts of CALL and identification of terms associated with CALL, (b) a review of previous research on CALL and discussion of general trends and issues in CALL research, and (c) attempts to answer the question of what language teachers can do with CALL to enhance second language teaching. The final module explored language teachers' roles and tasks in CALL environments in terms of observation, design, implementation, evaluation, and management. The assessment for the course consisted of three assignments: two essays and a CALL design/evaluation project. In addition, the course had the requirement of participating in an online discussion group.
At the beginning of the course, the students received a study package containing an introductory book, a study book, and selected readings. The study book was their guide to studying the course. It provided a framework of the concepts presented in the course, directed them to appropriate readings, and contained frequent exercises and questions that they were advised to complete. It also contained various prompts to post messages to the online discussion group.
In the preparation stage, the electronic discussion group was created to hold discussions using text messages as a medium for communication. The online structure of the discussion group allowed participants to post messages, primarily focused on issues arising from the course content, for everyone to read and to respond to at the convenience of the participants. As part of the course assessment (weighting of 10%), students' contributions to the discussion group, including their completion of unit questions, tasks, and participation in online interactions, were marked by the instructor in terms of the quality and quantity of their contributions.
At the end of the course, a web-based questionnaire was used to document
the students' use and perceptions of the online discussions. The questionnaire
was composed of two parts, the first containing 10 statements requiring numerical
responses and a second section asking for written responses to five
questions. A numerical code from one to five was used in the first section, ranging
from strong disagreement to strong agreement.
Postings to the Online Discussion Group
Participation in the online discussion group was classified into three categories: fully task-focused, partially task-focused and off-task. Fully task-focused postings were those that included a direct answer to the unit questions, a compulsory aspect of the online course work. Partially task-focused messages were those that responded to another student's answers or which discussed topics relating to CALL (e.g., language learning/teaching and computer issues). Postings that were not related to CALL were classified as off-task (see Table 1).
Categories and Frequencies of Postings to the Online Discussion Group
Note: A total of 480 messages were posted in the discussions, excluding discontinued students' messages posted in the early stage of the study.
Student contributions in the online discussions were primarily in the forms of fully and partially task-focused messages. Almost half of the posted messages were in direct response to the unit questions/tasks (47%), while 43% of all messages were partially task focused. Only 10% of postings were non-task related.
Messages were grouped into six types: self-introductions, task-based answers, interactions, the instructor's informative messages, erroneous messages, and administrative matters. These types emerged from the content of the studentsí contributions. The task-based answers were a required part of the course evaluation while student interactions were optional.
The task-based answers accounted for almost half (47%) of all messages
posted. Of the remaining messages, most were interactive contributions (40%
Interactive messages between the students were posted to the discussion group; a minimal number of student messages were directed to the instructor (see Table 2).
Categories and Relative Frequencies of Interactions
* A total of 191 messages were categorized as interactions.
** The students were encouraged to use email as the main channel of communication with the instructor. The instructor received 175 direct email messages from the students during the semester.
The student-student interactions (177 messages in total, 93% of all interactive
messages) were further categorized into six subcategories: greetings, asking
questions, giving opinions/ideas, providing information, expressing support, and
offering thanks. When multiple categories appeared in one message, only one
category was assigned on the basis of the main theme or purpose of the message
Almost one half of the student-student interactions involved giving on- and off-task
opinions and/or ideas on particular matters. Some students used the online
discussion to provide information to other students, and these contributions accounted
for almost one third of all student-student interactions. The students
also used the online discussion to seek out information by asking questions
(10% of the interactions). Greetings, expressions of support, and thanking others
each accounted for less than 10% of the interactions (see Figure 1).
Content of the Interactive Postings
The students were asked to post their answers to a total of 16 open-ended questions and tasks given in the study book to the online discussion group. This activity allowed the students to feel free to comment on other students' answers and to share their ideas with them since there were no correct answers to the selected questions and tasks. Questions included
In most cases, the students' answers to these questions were accompanied by follow-up interactions. For example, the discussion of the future of CALL appeared to be initiated on two separate occasions. The first interaction included a student's opinion posted in response to a task-based answer and a request for other students' comments.
Topics that generated active discussions between group participants, apart from the questions given as course requirements, included the printing press, the quality of ESL teachers, IT skills and language learners, keyboard skills, and writing on the computer. For instance, the printing press gained some discussion from the students. This series of interactions were initiated by a student's statement and subsequent question.
Another interactive discussion arose from Student J's task-based answer in which he discussed "the demand for quality English education" and "the unqualified so-called ESL teachers and poor quality courses" offered by many English schools. While other students similarly expressed their concern about the lack of quality ESL teachers, Student D suggested a possible solution.
The interactive discussion on IT skills and language learners progressed onto English for specific purposes, with Student C and Student D giving their opinions. "This is an excellent example of how we must remember that English language teaching is situation specific," stated Student D. She went on to give examples of English for specific purposes, to which Student C replied, "But we try to teach fundamental English before we move onto English for specific purposes." Student D then justified her previous comment and added that "there is room for computer assisted learning" in English classes for specific purposes. Unlike the previous discussions, interactions about keyboard skills were initiated by Student H simply writing,
Two students agreed with Student H's opinion that it is not impossible. One student further added, "Perhaps the dual language keyboards may exacerbate the difficulty," while the other student suggested, "I think it's best to set up online chat situations after students have become familiar with the keyboard."
The most interactive topic discussed by the students concerned writing assignments on the computer, with a total of 19 postings (approximately 20% of all partially task-focused opinions/ideas). This discussion began with a statement by Student R concerning her interest and opinion on an article about computers in the second language writing classroom, especially the human-machine interface. She stated
Responses to Statements
The results of the students' responses to Section 1 of the questionnaire are given in Table 3. The first statement commented on whether the online discussion activities were enjoyable; the mean rating of 3.9 indicated that most students agreed with this statement. They also found the discussions constructive, with five respondents strongly agreeing (item 2). To the statement (item 3), "I feared peer evaluations on my answers and comments posted to the discussion group," a mean score of 2.6 indicated that the group was uncertain. Ten students, however, did not fear peer evaluations while five students did.
Average Ratings on the Questionnaire Items (N = 19)
Note: 5 Strongly Agree, 4 Agree, 3 Uncertain, 2 Disagree, 1 Strongly Disagree.
While two respondents did not agree that the online activities were valuable, a mean of 3.8 indicated that most agreed with the statement in item 6. The question of the effectiveness of communication and exchange of ideas through the online discussions (item 7) generated 13 positive responses (mean of 3.6). Approximately 84% of the respondents agreed to each of statements 8, 9, and 10. The students considered online discussions to be essential for teacher training in CALL, to be a good way to learn CALL, and to facilitate collaborative learning.
Answers to the Open-ended Questions
The questionnaire contained five open-ended questions. Students' responses to these questions are summarized below.
1. How did you deal with reading and responding to others' postings to the online discussion group?
The students' responses to this question show that most students responded
differently to others' postings to the online discussion group. Only four respondents
indicated that they read all the postings, with one of these students responding
to many postings and one responding only "if a pertinent idea occurred
to me." This student, along with another, also wrote notes from others'
messages or printed others' postings for further study. Two students also downloaded
new messages and read them off line. Three students said they only read
what was interesting or relevant at that time and responded only to postings of
particular interest to them. Two students indicated that they read postings to see
how others answered the task-based questions while one did not read others'
postings before submitting her own answers for "fear of it being more difficult
to give my own opinion." Two students said they would post something that
they thought might have been of use to their peers in the discussion group. In
contrast, two students indicated that they used the online discussions as an information
source by either asking questions or posting messages to seek out
other's viewpoints, especially to those who had more knowledge in a particular
field. Similarly, one student said other students' answers or postings were useful
when he had study problems. A student expressed that she was "more concerned
about just writing my own postings as a requirement of the course. I was
not so much concerned about interacting." Another student simply stated that
he tried to be open minded and learn as much as possible about CALL.
Of the 19 respondents, 12 mentioned two or more factors that either positively or negatively affected their degree of participation. The most common factors, in order of decreasing frequency, were lack of time (9 comments), a decision that either no response was needed or selecting to respond to specific postings (8 comments), and technical problems, including lack of computer knowledge (4 comments). Other infrequent factors that had a negative effect on participation were intimidation by others' experience with computers and no other or instructor input. Positive influences included the enjoyment gained in reading others' responses and high interest levels.
3. What do you think are the strengths of the online discussions of CALL-related topics or issues?
Fifteen of the 19 respondents listed more than one strength of online discussions of CALL-related topics or issues. The notion that these activities supported collaborative learning and group interaction was commented on by 12 respondents. Speed, including the availability of immediate help and the convenience of the online discussions, were strengths mentioned by seven students. Five students pointed out the immediate relevance of the online discussions to the subject of CALL. As one student simply stated, "I think most importantly it demonstrates how CALL can be used effectively as a learning tool." Other strengths listed were peer support, educational value, and the building of a resource base, each one being mentioned three times. Other students also thought the activities were fun and stimulating. One student believed a strength of the online discussions was that they eliminated feelings of isolation that many distance education students face. Other reported strengths were that the activities were up to date, that there was an opportunity to talk professionally and technically with someone, and that those living in non-English speaking countries were able to use English.
4. What suggestions do you have for improving the online discussion group of the CALL course?
The most common suggestions made by the students were to have more instructor
participation (recommended by six students), to have smaller group
discussions (e.g., setting up interest groups and collaborative projects; from
three respondents), and to categorize messages enabling easier perusal and choice
of which postings needed a response (three students). Three respondents also
recommended the online activities should allow for more informal discussion.
One student recommended that a summary of the most useful postings (e.g.,
those containing web sites relating to CALL) be available for future students.
Other suggestions for improvement were requirements that different people post
answers to different questions in order to promote discussion and reduce bore-
5. Are there any other comments you would like to make about any aspect of group-based CMC discussion?
Seven students had no other comments to make, and, of the remaining 12 respondents, six made general comments such as discussing computer problems and their hopes and visions for the implementation of CALL in language classrooms. Some students expressed concerns about problems encountered while participating in the online discussion were expressed. For example, one student stated, "The group was so large that the responses tended to move down the screen quickly and be buried." Four respondents expressed the positive outcomes of participating in the online discussion group activities. One student commented
This study evaluated the use of group-based CMC discussion of CALL-related topics by analyzing patterns of student-student interaction in an online discussion group and investigating students' perceptions of the online discussion. Data collected from the study were examined through analyses of transcripts of postings to the online discussion group and students' responses to a web-based questionnaire.
Individual postings consisted of fully task-focused, partially task-focused,
and off-task contributions. In terms of the frequencies of the postings, the students
produced fully task-focused postings most often (47%), followed by partially
task-focused postings (43%) and noticeably fewer off-task postings (10%).
Due to the course requirement, the students had to post their responses to the
pre-selected questions and tasks and regularly produce fully task-focused contributions.
Considering that many students gave their answers to several questions
in one message, the number of fully task-focused postings could be easily
increased if they were requested to post their answers to each question in one
message. The partially task-focused postings reflected the students' subsequent
discussions of the topics directly or indirectly relevant to the pre-selected questions
and tasks. This particular group of students participated in the fully and
partially task-focused discussions at similar levels.
The interactive messages contained a large number of student-student interactions (93%) and a very few number of student-instructor interactions (7%). In the student-student interactions, the students posted messages mainly to exchange their opinions and/or ideas with their fellow students and to provide information on CALL resources or CALL-related topics. These interactions indicate a high degree of peer support and collaboration in the CMC environment. This finding is similar to the finding reported in Kamhi-Stein (2000) on the use of web-based BB discussions.
The students' first responses to the course questions initiated their subsequent discussions on the responses and discussions on other issues of CALL. Based on the course content, most students produced interactive discussions on various aspects of CALL from their own perspectives. The online discussion provided the students with virtual space for exchanging ideas and opportunities for collaborative learning with their fellow students in the course. The students themselves took great control of the learning process throughout the course. The students' overall reactions to the online discussion group were positive. The students considered the activities to be constructive, enjoyable, and valuable. The results of the questionnaire also indicate that some students feared peer evaluations on their answers and comments, but most either experienced no fear or were essentially uncertain. Many students were satisfied with the contributions submitted by others, but some suggested that they would have appreciated greater instructor engagement. Most students strongly agreed that online discussions are a good way to learn CALL, to facilitate collaborative learning, and to provide teacher training.
The students showed considerable diversity in their reading of and responses
to others' postings. Time and personal interests were the most significant factors
in their degree of participation. The strengths of the online discussions
included collaborative learning, group interaction, speed, convenience, and the
relevance of the online discussions to CALL. Smaller group discussions or
projects were suggested for improving the online discussion group. These sug-
This study offers some insights into the issues of how effectively, and by what means, communication and exchange of ideas are achieved through online discussion, what patterns of interaction online discussion generates, and how teachers judge the value of their experience in electronic discussion. It also shows teacher educators the potential of CMC, particularly for online discussions, in a distance education CALL course for language teachers. Further, the use of CMC in language teacher education is important because it provides teachers with practical experience of CMC for its eventual implementation in their teaching situations as well as a collaborative communication channel with their fellow teachers. It would certainly be valuable to investigate the use of online discussions with many different groups of teachers in various contexts.
This study was supported by a research grant from the Office of Preparatory and Academic Support, the University of Southern Queensland. I would like to thank the students who participated in the study, Juanita Wolrige for her help with the data analysis, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on a previous version of this article.
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Jeong-Bae Son (Ph.D., Griffith University) teaches undergraduate and postgraduate courses in applied linguistics and supervises M.Apl. and Ph.D. candidates in CALL in the Centre for Language Learning and Teaching (CLLT) at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), Australia. His research interests include computer-assisted reading instruction, hypertext, multimedia design, courseware evaluation, Web-based language learning, computer-mediated communication, and language teacher education.
Centre for Language Learning and Teaching
The University of Southern Queensland
Toowoomba, Queensland 4350