Wednesday, August 24, 2011

63_ESl Students' Perceptions of Online Use

Perceptions of Technology and Manifestations of Language Learner Autonomy
Karen Bordonaro, CALL-EJ Online
Vol. 5 No. 1, June 2003

Although this study is relatively older than the ones I have read and commented upon so far, it does bring up relevant considerations that, once again, impact online learning and delivery of ESL courses using online tools. Considering that Web 2.0 really made its streamline appearance after 2004 is also important to consider, as some of the perceptions and ideas talked in the article can probably be looked at differently now, and will certainly change in a few months.

As the title indicates the research dealt with perceptions and learner autonomy evidence of a specific (small) group of advanced ESL learners and their uses of online tools to improve their language skills. Overall, both positive and negative perceptions were discovered through the study. The positive perceptions included convenience, accessibility, comfort and safety, while the negative listed a sense of inauthenticity, concerns with interactivity (this is one area that is definitely different - at least at the potential of technology use today more than it ever was in 2003), sense of isolation and use of computers as supplement and not substitution to learning English.

An interesting statement in the article states:
[...] advanced language learners do not extensively use computer tools designed explicitly for pedagogical purposes, and that language learner autonomy is not often manifested in the successful self-directed learning of advanced English language learners. (page 1).
The lack of extensive use of pedagogical tools for language learning may require further investigation. Would costs be a reason for not accessing? Knowledge? Design of tools that nowadays can be substituted by free online services instead? This would warrant additional reflection.

The article works hard in defining perceptions and the difference between learner autonomy and self-directed learning.

"Perceptions as used here will refer to how people view the computer as a medium for language learning through their awareness of its value in such role."

"Autonomy as used here is based on the definition offered by Holec as the ability to take charge of one's own learning."

Once again. the research comes to tell us, in different words but similar meaning, that uses of technology are not as essential as the pedagogy behind them. And this specifically speaks to the topics and interests of researchers. The article brings the conversation closer to the fact that often, when technology is added to the picture, assumptions and causal connections are easily made between what was happening to the course or learning in traditional settings and what happens in online learning envrnments. We tend to forget about the other variable that affect the transition and the differences in the learning environments. And the pedagogical approaches are one essential element of that equation.

The potential that CALL brings to the equation (and to a great extent today, web 2.0 tools as well)  is not often translated into an actual reality and effective use of the tools at hand. This may be a factor that affects learners' perceptions, as it is reflected upon in the article, considering that students' perceptions can be affected by built or natural relationships they have with using technology.

Interesting finding form the research is the dual natural use of technology from ESL learners in the study: using the Internet and its tools either access content or to practice the use of the language.

Below is a list of additional highlights form the article:

  • convenience - especially for reading authentic and updated materials
  • sense of lack of interaction - probably a finding that is no longer applicable with new tools and mobile access
  • sense of isolation - this emerged in other readings in this blog - overall this is a concern that can be addressed by planning/design and intentional use of available tools
  • the advanced computer users and ESL learners in this study, did not make intentional use of computer to improve their language skills - if the technology is perceived as positive and useful, this will impact the students' perceptions.
The article quotes an important thought by Healey that I want to commit to memory in this blog and that I believe truly highlights the importance of a thorough and intentional planning around online learning choices:

"Although technology is often touted as the great salvation of education - an easy way to customize learning to individual needs - it rarely lives up to this broad expectation" (Healey, 1999, p.398) 

This is a reality that still seems to permeate the experience of many ESL learners who are advised or must select online options to fit their working schedules or their ability to connect with formal learning institutions.

I continue to be amazed at how connected and important perceptions are to the way technology is used in language learning, from both the learners and the instructors' ends. Definitely more reading is required. On to the next entry! :)

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