Speaking across frontiers - promoting the independent use of synchronous voice conferencing by scattered groups of Open University language learners

Author: Margaret Southgate


During the past two years The Open University has opened its synchronous audio-visual conferencing system to language students for use in independent study partnerships. This paper explores the ways in which language students scattered throughout the UK and other European countries have received and are making use of this opportunity to speak to one another and share images independently over the Internet. It also considers the University initiatives required to promote and provide pedagogical support for these independent partnerships.

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Table of contents

Conference 2006

This paper was originally presented at our conference: Crossing frontiers: languages and the international dimension, 6-7 July 2006. Download print version: this paper is also available as a pdf (314Kb)


Lyceum audio-visual conferencing

The Open University's languages programme is now in its 12th year of presentation. Since 2002 it has offered students the option of a series of fortnightly Internet-based audio-visual tutorials (Lyceum) as an alternative to face-to-face tutorials at approximately monthly intervals. About 20% of OU language students opt for Lyceum tuition using different conferences for each language and level. Since November 2004 a separate Lyceum conference has been available for all students to use independently, including those who opt for face-to-face tutor-led sessions. This conference is accessible at any time of the day or night without the necessity to pre-book.

Technology and innovation in language learning

One of the main drawbacks of open and distance learning is that opportunities to establish a tutor-student and/or student-student dialogue is limited (Kirkup & Jones, 1995, p 278). Interactive communication is of course particularly important for language learners, and recent developments in computer technology are providing a widening range of possibilities for communication at a distance. Although considerable research has been conducted into computer-mediated tuition via e-mail and message boards (for example Barnes, 2000; Tolley, 2000) and into tandem learning (Lewis, Woodin & St John, 1996), there is little material on the use of synchronous voice communication for language learning (Hampel, 2003), particularly as far as independent student-student communication is concerned.

The success of a technical innovation depends not only upon its technical quality and appropriateness, but also on the attitude of the providers and users. The fact that the technology is available does not mean that it will be used. Lars Svensson has recognised this problem: "there is a need for research that recognises the social aspects of the introduction of collective computer-based learning environments into educational organisations." (Svensson, 2003) The present study aims to explore not only the quantitative data but also some of these underlying social aspects of collaborative learning.

Independent collaborative learning

Open University students have always been encouraged to employ peer learning methods for mutual support and to practise speaking in the target language, and language students receive written guidelines on establishing and running study partnerships. Geographical considerations have often made it difficult for many students to arrange independent meetings. However, the relatively new option of virtual Internet study rooms have opened possibilities for widely scattered students. Hampel & Hauck (2004) have noted that "the technology requires a certain degree of technical expertise and users must be prepared for the experience beforehand and supported throughout it." Since November 2005 all Open University language students have been provided with Lyceum software and an 'animated tutorial' on CD-ROM. In addition, course websites advertised a series of 'taster' sessions to give students a half-hour hands-on introduction to the medium, in most cases followed by an opportunity to meet with others studying the same course in order to establish study partnerships (see Lyceum screenshot, Fig. 1). Course tutors were also made aware of the independent student conference and were asked to encourage their students to participate.

Fig. 1: Lyceum screenshot
Fig. 1: Lyceum screenshot

The present study


The aim of the present study is to examine quantitative and qualitative data relating to students' use of this facility, and to assess the effectiveness of the University's support for the student Lyceum conference. It is intended to follow up the present study by examining in detail the performance and retention data for Lyceum participant and non-participant students following the completion of current courses of study in October 2006.


Log-on data records were analysed to obtain an overview of student conference usage patterns. 175 students who visited the student conference for 10 or more minutes on any of the January/February 2006 taster days received an e-mail questionnaire, and 76 (43%) responded; the 67 respondents who agreed to further contact were invited to complete a second online questionnaire in May/June 2006, and 33 (49%) of these responded. Both questionnaires included a mixture of multiple-choice and open-ended questions. Six members of independent study groups were also interviewed in Lyceum for a more detailed and personal view.


Taster sessions

Seven Lyceum taster sessions were offered to students between October 2005 and March 2006. A total of 430 students (about 6% of all language students) indicated that they wished to participate. There were 262 students online for over 1 hour on those seven dates, suggesting that they not only attended the half-hour taster but also took the opportunity to meet in breakout rooms afterwards with others studying their course. The average time online for all 707 individuals who visited the conference on those seven days was 46 minutes.

Although the 76 questionnaire respondents had all been provided with an 'animated tutorial' on CD-ROM which demonstrated how to use the Lyceum system, the overwhelming majority were very appreciative of the 'live' help provided. Typical responses to the question "What did you find helpful?" were:

"Features explained clearly & concisely"
"Confidence in using system ."
"To see if everything was working properly!"
"It has given me confidence to go in on my own"

Students welcomed the opportunity to learn under the guidance of an experienced user, and it had become evident during the sessions that most were first-time users who needed more than a CD-ROM to overcome their lack of confidence with the new medium. A small number of students asked for longer introductory sessions, or a second follow-up session, and seemed to lack confidence to continue with the medium independently after this brief introduction. Requests included

"..going over how we could book rooms"
"..a little more time to practice with the tutor"
"Perhaps a more detailed (second?) presentation of the functions"

There were very few negative comments, and most of these were from well-prepared students who, having followed the taster team's written instructions in advance, had to wait for others to be talked through basic procedures online, such as adjusting the audio settings and the on-screen language. A few students, particularly on low-population courses, were disappointed not to find others from their course online on the taster evenings.

Monthly usage data

It should be noted that the following data refer to the independent student conference only; regular tutorials, and possibly some independent student meetings, are held in separate course-specific conferences which are not included in the present study. Unsurprisingly the highest numbers of individuals using the student conference occurred around course start dates (1 November and 1 February) when taster sessions were being held.

Fig. 2: Student Conference Monthly Usage
Fig. 2: Student Conference Monthly Usage

Fig. 2 indicates that the number of Lyceum-active students on 2005/6 courses, starting in Nov 2005 and Feb 2006, were considerably higher than for 2004/5, when 80% of language students needed to download the software from the OU website and when only two small-scale pilot taster sessions were offered. In Fig. 3 it can be seen that in four of the five months January-May 2006, about twice as many students were online for over an hour compared to the corresponding month in 2005.

Fig. 3: Student Conference: Unique users over 1 hour
Fig. 3: Student Conference: Unique users over 1 hour

Fig. 4: Users of student conference (all language students)
Fig. 4: Users of student conference (all language students)

However (see Fig. 4), only 14% of all Open University language students used the conference between October 2005 and May 2006, and only 5% were online for more than one hour in that period, suggesting that the other 9% took the trouble to install the software, paid brief 'fact-finding' visits, but did not engage with the system on a regular basis.

Fig. 5: Users of student conference (Lyceum-taught students)
Fig. 5: Users of student conference (Lyceum-taught students)

Percentages for students on LZX coded courses whose chosen tuition mode was Lyceum (Fig. 5) were considerably higher: 40% visited the student conference, but here again fewer than one-third of them (12%) spent more than one hour on the student conference. The ability of audiographic conferencing to bridge geographical boundaries is reflected in the fact that the connection rate for students based outside the UK is 20.8%, with 7.3% using the conference for more than an hour, considerably higher than the overall rates.

It is possible that some Lyceum-taught students chose to meet indepen-dently in their own course conference, but this falls outside the scope of the present study.

Fig. 6: Average monthly time online
Fig. 6: Average monthly time online

The total time spent by individuals on the student conference October-May ranged from a few seconds to a staggering 96 hours over the 8 months. The monthly average increased to well over an hour as a small community of regular users became established (Fig. 6).

Continuing independent use

Forty-four of the 55 respondents to the taster survey in February 2006 (80%) planned to meet other students online in the future. The follow-up survey undertaken in May 2006 revealed that, 17 of the 33 respondents had not met students independently after the taster session, 16 (48%) had met: 9 occasionally, and just 7 of the 33 respondents (21%) were meeting regularly. Two of the students had always intended to study alone; eight reported a failure to find suitable study partners, and three of the nine who had met occasionally had belonged to partnerships which subsequently disbanded.

A small number of technical difficulties, mainly associated with students' own equipment or their Internet Service Provider (ISP), had been referred to the university's telephone helpline. Although Lyceum works well on a dial-up internet connection, all but one of the 33 respondents to the May 2006 survey reported that they used a broadband connection. Students who have to pay according to the time spent on a dial-up connection may be less willing than broadband users to make extensive use of audio conferencing.

Students reported undertaking a wide range of language-learning activities in study groups, including:

  • Reviewing activities from course materials
  • Reading dialogues for pronunciation practice
  • Prepared presentations
  • Vocabulary building
  • Discussion of course-related topics in target language
  • General conversation

Developing competence and confidence in speaking and understanding the spoken language were regarded as significant benefits of voice conferencing. However, students gave equal prominence to the benefits of social factors such as getting to know other students and sharing their language-learning experience by discussing learning strategies and helping one another with difficulties. Students recognised the value of building a network of relationships and establishing a learning community for mutual support and encouragement to overcome the isolation of distance learning. Their views reflected the recommendations of Eardley & Garrido (2005): "Other students can act as an additional source of help and advice outside scheduled sessions, creating a sense of solidarity."

On the downside, lack of confidence and an inability to find partners were recurring themes:

"I wish I could find suitable study partners but I think that nobody has time to do it."
"It is really difficult to find partners to work on Lyceum with and I am terrified that everyone else will be much better than me"

Those who did succeed reported that they had first met their study partners at taster sessions, in their own tutor group or through the student e-mail conference for their course. No one had known their study partner before the start of their present course.

Although some online groups consisted of students who had met through their face-to-face tutor groups, the majority were geographically scattered over a wide area. Successful online partnerships formed bridges between two towns in East Anglia, between Hampshire and the Channel Islands, between Northern Ireland and Greece, for example. Students whose work required frequent travel valued the opportunity to log in using their laptop computers from anywhere in the world.

The positive responses from students participating in successful partnerships were counterbalanced by hesitancy on the part of others. Some students interviewed in Lyceum expressed concern about making mistakes in the foreign language:

"One problem that I did find, being very conscious that we're all learners, in particular with regard to learning a language - how do you know what you are saying is correct?"

Although students are encouraged to focus on successful communication when working independently (Eardley & Garrido, 2005, p 218), the fear of 'getting it wrong' is still a barrier for some. There is still much work to be done in helping students to strike the right balance between accuracy and fluency.

The most successful groups seemed to be those which had a strong organisational focus - not necessarily from a more competent linguist but from someone who took on the responsibility of drawing up an outline programme for each meeting and of reminding participants of agreed topics, dates and times. A student who had attended a group without such focus made the following comment:

"The lack of structure can be a problem. People do find it quite daunting to just go on-line and talk in a foreign language. Even though the uni gives good advice about topics it needs someone to be organized and have a 'lesson plan'"

Here, once again, the question of confidence is raised. Less confident speakers who did not know in advance the proposed topic of conversation were discouraged from logging in unprepared. One dedicated group co-ordinator who was interviewed felt that the additional preparatory work involved was rewarding:

"Some days I just want to sit down with a nice glass of wine and relax, but then when I'm in there and I'm doing it I really enjoy it and I feel like I've achieved something at the end."

Performance and retention

Although students have reported that study group participation has helped to develop their study skills and language competence, and has motivated them to continue with their studies, it is still too early to draw any firm conclusions, since the current courses do not end until October 2006. Data as at 1 June 2006 suggested that retention rates for November and February courses were at exactly the same levels as the previous year. When course results are published in December 2006, it is proposed to explore the possibility of a correlation between study group participation and successful completion of the course.


The findings of this study suggest that a more pro-active approach towards promoting Lyceum, including supplying software on CD-ROM rather than requiring a download, and offering hands-on tasters, has led to twice as many individuals making use of the conference compared to the previous year. It seems clear that providing students with guidance in print or on CD-ROM is no substitute for a 'live' introductory session in which students can gain confidence as they try out the new medium and have an opportunity to ask questions. There is clear evidence that the taster sessions are valued by participants and should be continued in future years. The taster format seems to suit the intended task, i.e. to allow spontaneous synchronous communication online. However, the vast majority (86%) of Open University language students are still not engaging with the Lyceum student conference at all.

It has been suggested (Beyth-Marom et al, 2003) that rather than asking "which learning environment is best?" one should ask "which learning environment is suitable for whom?" Although synchronous online voice communication may not be welcomed by all distance language learners, some of whom consciously choose to study alone, the survey results indicate that more students would participate if they could be helped to overcome their technological and linguistic lack of confidence, and to find suitable partners.

Orlikowski and Gash (1994) put forward the concept of technological frames of reference. They concluded that people need to make sense of technology in order to interact with it, and as they do so they develop particular assumptions and expectations of the technology. They note that different interpretations by providers and users may result in misaligned expectations. Although The Open University may have expected students to work through the 'animated tutorial' independently and to take the initiative in finding online study partners, the reality is that there is a widespread hesitancy (or in some cases a technical inability) to make use of the Lyceum conferencing system for independent study, or to use their e-mail course conference as a means of making initial contact with others. In spite of announcements on course websites, some students apparently remained unaware of the potential of these student conferences as a means of establishing relationships with fellow-students to practise the target language and discuss language-learning strategies. The student conference requires a critical mass of participants in order to ensure that all who wish to engage can find partners who are available at a mutually convenient time. If we want to take appropriate steps to help students overcome any perceived barriers to participation, then we need to conduct further research into student reasons for non-engagement with audiographic conferencing.

For those who have adopted this medium with enthusiasm there are evident benefits, both social and academic. The 'key actors' (Orlikowski & Gash, 1994) who use the student conference with confidence are a valuable asset; they could perhaps be used in the future as ambassadors to introduce to others the benefits of audiographic conferencing as a tool for independent language learning and to share good practice in setting up and co-ordinating an independent study group. An internal survey conducted by the Open University in 2005 found that 85% of language students had an internet connection at home, and that 35% felt they did not have enough contact with other OU students. This would suggest that there is scope for considerable expansion in the use of audiographic conferencing by students learning languages at a distance.


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