Online languages and reflective learning

Authors: Mike Thacker, Cathy Pyle and Anne Irving


This paper describes a programme of university language courses, delivered as a combination of both online and face-to-face teaching. The authors believe that the approach taken can promote learner reflection. Evaluation studies reported a good level of student satisfaction and focus groups indicated an increased quality of student work. Further work to foster greater reflection is discussed.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference (, 30 June - 1 July 2004.

1. Culture change

At Surrey University we have been experimenting with online learning in languages for two to three years. Our work is bringing about a 'culture change', for both the tutor, who has had to master a new role as e-moderator, and the student, who has taken on an innovative mode of learning, supported by technology.

Our starting point was that collaborative linguistic tasks, with students working in groups and the tutor facilitating the learning process, were the most appropriate ones to stimulate learner independence. This approach led us to adapt oral tasks designed for interactive work in the classroom to the written mode of the online discussion board in the VLE (Virtual Learning Environment). Our decision to start at beginners' level and gradually work up to more advanced levels created a special initial challenge: how to design tasks which would enable beginners to learn collaboratively from the start, and to begin to reflect on their learning.

2. Online Languages

The Language Centre online courses are delivered in blended mode, i.e. two hours face-to-face and one hour online each week (using WebCT Vista ). The online component consists of both individual exercises (grammar, reading, listening and vocabulary) and an interactive discussion task. Tasks are set up either as whole-class activities or in small groups, and bring together the material covered both in class and in the online exercises. Together, these tasks form 25% of the assessment of the course; assessment takes into account both level of participation and quality of language.

The interactive tasks are communicative activities in which the emphasis is on exchanging meanings (Willis, 1996), as in the classroom but adapted for the online medium. For example, in a task used in week 3 of a beginners' course, learners adopt a new persona, using information given on a role card, and send a message to the class introducing themselves. They are then asked to identify the other members of their family and to write a brief message of greeting to each. As a follow up, students introduce their family members to the rest of the class, either online or face-to-face.

3. Tasks and reflective learning

We believe that online tasks such as these can promote learner reflection in two main ways. The first lies in the opportunities offered by the online medium, which integrates the reflective nature of writing and the interactivity of speech (Warshauer, 1997). Writing messages gives time for planning, allows for re-writing and editing, and creates an archive of contributions to which learners can refer back at different stages of the course. The interactive nature of the tasks, which gives learners opportunities to negotiate meaning, is considered central to the process of language acquisition (cf. Pica, 1994)

The second way in which the online system can foster learner reflection lies in the course design. Re-drafting and resubmission of messages is encouraged, and is rewarded in assessment; peer feedback is also encouraged. Tutor feedback, too, supports learner reflection: rather than correct individual contributions, tutors use weaving and summarising techniques (Salmon 2002) to draw together common threads from everyone's contributions, reinforce key points and identify areas for further practice or improvement. Finally, there is a "learning on your own" discussion forum, in which learners are encouraged to share their ideas on online learning and strategies for language learning in general.

4. Evaluation

In 2003/4, the Language Centre ran online modules for the first time in WebCT Vista and evaluation focussed mainly on measuring student satisfaction with the blended model and VLE. Results were encouraging with 78% recommending the blended system for learning a language.

Although reflectivity was not addressed directly in the evaluation, responses indicate that the online medium offered opportunities for reflection not available in face-to-face delivery. 63% felt the online component helped them learn the language more effectively and several appreciated the opportunities it provided to learn independently, to control the learning pace and to access previous weeks' material for revision purposes (60%).

Since the promotion of reflection through negotiation of meaning was central to our aims, it was important to ascertain how well students were engaging with the interactive tasks. The evaluation showed that 75% found the online discussion group component stimulating, students also enjoyed reading other students' on-line contributions (71%) which they could compare with their own and learn from, and 62% liked the fact that other students read and reacted to theirs. As an indication of whether collaborative learning took place, 52% agreed that the interaction with fellow students contributed to their learning (33% were neutral). How these online tasks contributed was explored through focus groups:

"The quality of the work is raised, it gets pulled up by the fact that you're going to put this into a public arena and countless people can look at it."

This would imply that students interacting online are demanding a higher standard of output from themselves and others, which requires greater reflection and monitoring of language.

Efforts were made to steer students towards greater independence, (but this was something that did not take place in all groups):

"We were encouraged to comment and give feedback on each other's, so quite often you'd find that everyone was teaching each other which was really good."

Predictably, 88% of students found on-line feedback from the tutor valuable but comments revealed a belief that feedback should entail the tutor correcting every individual error, rather than encouraging reflection on language learning and review of their own or each others' contributions. This pointed clearly to a need for more integrated learner training.

5. A way forward

So what can we do to foster greater learner reflection?

  • Make learning strategies integral to each task
  • Introduce post-task analysis of strategies
  • Get students to request particular feedback in each task
  • Change assessment in order to build in peer and self-assessment; raise profile of re-posting; incorporate learning strategies strand and make participation in "Learning on my own" forum a requirement
  • Evaluate reflection by asking questions based on 'good language learning behaviours' (O'Malley & Chamot, 1990).


O'Malley, J.M. & Chamot, A.J. (1990) Learning Strategies in Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge University Press

Pica, T. (1994) "Research on negotiation: What does it reveal about second-language learning conditions, processes, and outcomes?" Language Learning 44: 493-527.

Salmon, G. (2002)E-tivities: The key to active online learning . Kogan Page.

Warschauer, M. (1997) Computer-mediated collaborative learning: Theory and Practice Modern Language Journal, 81(3): 470-481.

Willis, J. (1996)A Framework for Task-Based Learning . Longman.