Technology-mediated learning

Author: Lesley Shield


Introduction to the use of educational technology in higher education in the UK and beyond. This article provides an overview of the available tools and their effective use. It also mediates three major beliefs about the reasons for employing technology-mediated learning - appropriacy for flexible, distance and open learning, widening participation and cost-effectiveness.

Table of contents

1. Technology-mediated learning

'Technology-mediated learning' (TML) is an 'umbrella' term, incorporating different approaches to using computers in learning and teaching: computer-aided/assisted learning (CAL), computer-mediated communication (CMC), generic computer-based production and presentation tools and computer-supported research tools. Increasingly, these tools are incorporated (in different combinations) into 'Managed Learning Environments' (MLEs) in which educators can define an environment where learners can access resources, drills, other learners and tutors, research and assessment tools. While it is not the intention here to discuss the efficacy or otherwise of MLEs [see under Language Centres], it is important to note that they, rather than a single, standalone application, often make up the unifying core of courses employing TML.

Computer aided learning As an approach to learning, CAL is now well-established, with roots in the mid-20th century. Based on a view of a learner who interacts with pre-programmed content, CAL typically comprises multimedia material used for training purposes in different contexts where a degree of repetition is considered desirable. For example: the use of specific computer packages, in situations where participating 'for real' could place the trainee in jeopardy (eg operating a nuclear power plant), or simply to drill the use of a particular linguistic feature in the target language. Feedback is instantaneous and takes different forms, depending on what has been provided by the designer. For discussion of the application of CAL to language learning, see article by Davies on CALL.

Computer-mediated communication CMC refers to all communicative activity mediated via computer, including asynchronous tools for deferred access (email, bulletin boards, computer conferences etc.) and synchronous tools for real-time access (text chat, MOOs (Multi-user domains, Object-Oriented), graphical virtual worlds (eg. ActiveWorlds and Traveler) audio-/video-conferencing applications (eg CUSeeMe, NetMeeting). The majority of use and research into the use of CMC has dealt with asynchronous text-conferencing and email (Lamy & Goodfellow 1999, Mak & Yeung 1999); these are particularly flexible tools, allowing learners to access discussions at times to fit their own schedules. Evidence from HE suggests that text-based CMC, in particular - which is relatively anonymous in comparison to, say, video-conferencing - encourages contributions from the shyer learner (Freiermuth 2001). Asynchronous CMC supports reflexive learning most effectively, while real-time conferencing tends to encourage more spontaneous use of language and is best employed with small groups of learners working together on a specific problem or topic. (It should be noted that anecdotal evidence from teachers using real-time text-, audio- or video-conferencing suggests that it takes longer in an online environment to achieve the same objectives or learning outcomes as in the face-to-face context) In general, use of CMC for learning emphasises the socio-cultural approach to learning found in constructivist theory (Felix 2002, Rschoff 2000) (see article by Myles on SLA).

Computer supported research, analysis, production and presentation Tools The web is an immensely valuable resource for researchers in languages, linguistics and area studies. Simply querying 'web-based research tools' in a search engine will offer a multitude of resources; search engines themselves provide a means by which to find information, authentic documents and academic publications and collections, while newsletters and mailing/discussion lists based on email offer access to a worldwide community of like-minded students and researchers. Researching topics via the web leads learners to meet their immediate course requirements. By interacting with tools such as statistical packages, electronic dictionaries, concordancers, word-processors, graphical packages and presentation tools when analysing their research findings and preparing them for presentation, they also, indirectly, address the acquisition of 'transferable skills' referred to in subjects' benchmark statements. (For further discussion of the use of the Web in teaching see articles under Linguistics and American Studies )

Managed learning environments HE institutions around the world use Managed Learning Environments (MLEs) like WebCT and Blackboard. These are publicly available and can be used by HEIs for a fee. There are some MLE-type applications that have been developed by individual HEIs. These include Merlin (University of Hull), ReLaTe (University of Exeter and University College London) and the Open University's Lyceum system (Hewer & Shield 2001). These tools incorporate many of the features of publicly-available MLEs and CMC tools (eg. shared whiteboard, audio/video conferencing) but have been developed for use, initially at least, for students of those HEIs. MLEs may incorporate CAL, CMC and computer supported research, analysis, production and presentation tools and are mostly accessed via standard web browsers. They can include course materials, links to external resources, CAL exercises, CMC tools, computer-based assessment and learner tracking tools. It should be noted that if use is to be made of computer-based resources like CAL software, external web pages or scanned learning materials, then copyright clearance will almost certainly be required. Copyright for electronic media is extremely complex, closely restricted, and potentially very costly; it is advisable to obtain legal advice before developing MLEs - or any other online resources such as web pages - which rely on the use of externally-sourced materials.

2. Why use TML?

As access to computers and the internet continues to increase, and student numbers on traditional courses continue to fall, so interest in and provision of TML becomes more widespread in HE throughout the UK and beyond. TML, it is believed, can (1) address the needs of learners engaged in flexible, distance and open learning, (2) provide a wider outreach to more geographically and educationally disparate learners than 'traditional' face-to-face or distance courses, and (3) be cost-effective.

Flexible, distance and open learning Although there are many different models of flexible, distance and open learning, the use of TML within such frameworks requires careful consideration. For example, providers must ensure that specific groups are not excluded, either because they do not have access to the appropriate technology or because there is a requirement to attend synchronous meetings at times when they are unable to do so. To this end, lectures are recorded in some HE institutions and then streamed online so learners can either revisit them or, if unable to attend the face-to-face event, access the recorded lecture at their own convenience. Although the lecture format subscribes to the transmission model of learning, offering it within a flexible framework requires the learner to take more responsibility for her/his learning than might be expected within a behaviourist view of learning. Where a course is offered in both distance and face-to-face versions, TML now allows distance learners to view streamed lectures and, on occasion, to participate remotely in scheduled seminars or tutorials via applications such as instant messaging, video- or audio-conferencing.

For distance learners, who may never meet each other face-to-face, applications that show when others in a learning group come online can provide a sense of 'presence'. CMC in general offers the opportunity to communicate and socialise with other learners. Feedback from and observations of courses using CMC reveal high levels of online socialisation as well as discussion (in the target language where this is appropriate) of the course materials (Kötter et al 1999). It has also been found that where such socialisation is encouraged, strong learning communities evolve and conferences have remained active long after the end of a course.

Outreach In areas with low populations and large geographical land masses such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Finland, Norway and Sweden, TML has been effectively used to support learners in all educational sectors. The adult community education sector in Australia in particular has demonstrated the effectiveness of TML as a means of widening participation, and increasing numbers of Brazilian masters' level courses use streamed lectures embedded in MLEs and supported by CMC tutorials. As already described, however, what has emerged very strongly, regardless of educational sector or geographical location, is the importance of providing learners with the means to communicate with others and thus to form a 'community of learners' (eg ACEWEB).

Cost-effectiveness Since TML theoretically allows for the participation of large numbers of non-standard and geographically-remote learners it might seem reasonable to assume it to be 'cost-effective'. However, this assumption is often based on a view of TML as 'transferring the textbook to the screen' and a transmission model of learning which does not take into account the most effective methods of using electronic media. There is also a tendency to overlook practical issues such as the development and maintenance of appropriate materials, the cost of training HE teachers to teach online and the management of learner expectations with regard to tutors' online availability. Online tutors often report an increase in the time spent interacting with learners because the electronic medium encourages the belief of 24/7 availability. While some HEIs have met this challenge by providing 24/7 cover, this is an expensive alternative; a more cost-effective solution is to establish the extent of tutor availability at the beginning of the course.

Because of the need to provide equal access, different versions of courses may need to be developed, using both TML and 'traditional' media (this is, perhaps, particularly the case in distance learning, where it cannot be assumed that learners will have access to appropriate technology in the way that may be true of campus-based learning). Furthermore, although TML apparently offers a world-wide market, courses may still need to be localised for different target cultures, the language of instruction and learner expectations about the role of learner and teacher; for example, a pedagogical approach that requires the learner to become autonomous relatively quickly may not be appropriate in all cases.

The above factors can render TML more costly to deliver than traditional alternatives where the learner in fact bears the cost of attendance at a University teaching facility.

3. Concluding observations

The use of TML in languages, linguistics and area studies, and its investigation, is still being actively researched and, as a result, it is not yet possible to define best practice in this area. Much of the pedagogy currently underlying TML is based on a model of learning that sees the transmission of knowledge as the goal of learning and teaching; online lectures and lectures notes, electronic versions of textbooks and electronic 'drills' are offered. Increasingly, however, as the characteristics of different electronic media - and thus their applications to learning and teaching - become clearer, a socio-cultural, constructivist model of learning is emerging. This concentrates on the possibilities for communication between human beings offered to language learners by new technologies.

While much work in the field takes SLA research as its starting point (eg. Chapelle 1997, 1999, Salaberry 1999) some researchers have also turned their attention to other areas, including: studies of the types of TML research occurring (Levy 2000, 2002, Harrington & Levy 2001), conversation and discourse analysis (Warschauer 1998, Negretti 1999), students' experience of web-based learning (Felix 2001) and the development of online (language) learning communities (Hudson & Bruckman 2002). The experience of HE teachers around the world appears to be that whilst TML is not, at least initially, a more cost-effective solution than the provision of face-to-face courses using traditional media, when used appropriately it can enhance both the learning experience and learner motivation. While allowing rapid updating of content - perhaps particularly useful for subjects such as languages and area studies which may require access to up-to-date, authentic source materials - it also offers contact with authentic resources, texts and target language speakers in a way that was previously impossible without living in the target culture.


Felix, U. (2001). A Multivariate Analysis of Students' Experience of Web-based Learning. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 17, 1:21-36.

Felix, U. (2002). The Web as a Vehicle for Constructivist Approaches in Language Teaching. ReCALL, 14, 1:2-15.

Freiermuth, M. (2001). Native Speakers or Non-Native Speakers: Who has the Floor? Online and Face-to-face Interaction in culturally mixed small Groups. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 14, 2:169-99.

Harrington, M. & M. Levy (2001). CALL begins with a "C": Interaction in Computer-mediated Language Learning. System, 29:15-26.

Hewer, S. & L. Shield (2001). Online Communities: Interactive Oral Work at a Distance. In T.Atkinson (ed.) Reflections on computers and language learning, 53-62. London: CILT.

Hudson, J. M. & A. S. Bruckman (2002). IRC français: the Creation of an Internet-Based SLA Community. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 15, 2:109-34.

Levy, M. (2000). Scope, goals and methods in CALL research: Questions of coherence and autonomy. ReCALL, 12, 2:170-95.

Levy, M. (2002). CALL by design: discourse, products and processes. ReCALL, 14, 1:58-84.

Mak, L. & S. Yeung (1999). Investigating Features of an International E-Mail Community. In K.Cameron (ed.), CALL and the Learning Community, 315-33. Exeter: Elm Bank Publications.

On-line References

ACEWEB (no date)

Chapelle, C. (1997). CALL in the Year 2000 Still in search of Research Paradigms? Language Learning and Technology, 1, 1:19-43.

Chapelle, C. (1999). Research Questions for a CALL Research Agenda: A Reply to Rafael Salaberry. Language Learning and Technology, 3, 1:108-13.

Kötter, M., L. Shield & A. Stevens (1999). Real-time Audio and Email for Fluency: Promoting Distance Learners' Aural and Oral Skills via the Internet. ReCALL, 11, 2:55-60.

Lamy, M-N. & R. Goodfellow (1999)"Reflective Conversation" in the Virtual Language Classroom. Language Learning & Technology, 2, 2:43-61.

Negretti, R. (1999)Web-based Activities and SLAs: A Conversation Analysis Research Approach. Language Learning and Technology, 3, 1:75-87.

Rüschoff, B. (2000)Construction of Knowledge as the basis of Foreign Language Learning.

Salaberry, M. R. (1999)CALL in the Year 2000: Still developing the Research Agenda. A Commentary on Carol Chapelle's CALL in the year 2000: Still in search of Research Paradigms? Language Learning and Technology, 3, 1:104-07.

Warschauer, M. (1998)Interaction, Negotiation and Computer-mediated Learning [On-line]. In V. Darleguy, A. Ding, & M. Svensson (eds), Educational Technology in Language Learning: Theoretical Considerations and Practical Applications.

Related links

Public MLEs



Individual HEIs' MLES



Lyceum - see Hewer & Shield in Bibliography

Graphical Worlds



Audio(graphics) Conferencing Tools



Language Learning MOOs


Schmooze Universty MOO

Cup-o-Mud Web Interface

EnCore Web Interface

Telnet MOO client


Le MOOFrancais

Telnet MOO client

Le MOOlin Rouge, EnCore Web Interface


Dreistadt MOO

EnCore Web Interface


Mundo Hispano

Telnet MOO Client

Referencing this article

Below are the possible formats for citing Good Practice Guide articles. If you are writing for a journal, please check the author instructions for full details before submitting your article.

  • MLA style:
    Canning, John. "Disability and Residence Abroad". Southampton, 2004. Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Guide to Good Practice. 7 October 2008.
  • Author (Date) style:
    Canning, J. (2004). "Disability and residence abroad." Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Good Practice Guide. Retrieved 7 October 2008, from