Language Learning & Technology
Vol. 2, No. 2, January 1999, pp. 43-61
"REFLECTIVE CONVERSATION" IN THE
VIRTUAL LANGUAGE CLASSROOM1
Centre for Modern Languages
Open University, United Kingdom
Institute of Educational Technology
Open University, United Kingdom
In the Open University of the United Kingdom, the principle that distance language learners should be encouraged to reflect on their own learning has traditionally been central to the design of conventional (i.e., print, audio, and video) course materials. However, since computer-mediated communication (CMC) technologies have created the possibility for learners to interact with each other and with teachers and native speakers--thus providing opportunities for practice and intrinsic feedback on communicative competence--an issue has risen around the continuing role of conscious reflection. Is conscious reflection, in fact, still necessary in a more interactive learning environment? We argue here that it is, and that a challenge is facing the developers of the virtual language classroom to combine the processes of conscious reflection with those of spontaneous interaction. In our view, the medium of asynchronous conferencing is particularly well suited to such a combination as it is flexible with regard to place and pace, and able to support both monologue- and conversation-like forms of written language exchange. Here we examine the kinds of reflectiveness and interactivity that are mediated through such exchanges, and discuss their value for learning. We examine some examples of CMC exchanges generated during an online course in French, and propose a pedagogy which focuses on the generation of what we are calling "reflective conversation," that is, computer-mediated asynchronous discussion around language topics and language-learning issues.
INTRODUCTION: REFLECTION, INTERACTION, AND CMC
Language learning pedagogy has long recognized the importance of learners determining their own objectives, choosing ways of achieving them, and evaluating their own progress (Ellis, 1994, p. 516). More recently, the view that conscious reflection on learning can be associated with learning outcomes through the development of learner autonomy has been widely argued, for example, by Little (1996) and van Lier (1996). Little claims that successful language use over time depends on continued language learning, and that to develop proficiency in a second language we need to be ready "to turn almost any occasion of language use into an occasion of conscious language learning" (pp. 26-27). Van Lier further argues that conscious organizing, controlling, and evaluating of experience is the sine qua non for second language learning. Although there is little in the way of empirical research which demonstrates this connection, it is a principle which has nevertheless been adopted on general pedagogical grounds in the design of course materials for distance language learning by the Open University of the United Kingdom (Stevens, 1995). For learners with limited opportunity to interact with other target language users, the promotion of learner autonomy via critical reflection (i.e., evaluation of one's own learning strategies) has come to be regarded as of equal importance as, say, the provision of comprehensible input and the opportunity for productive practice. In Open University courses at the second (post-intermediate) level, for example, approximately 25% of total study time is devoted to reflection, revision, and consolidation with the aim of helping the learner to develop independently-motivated study habits which will help to sustain a continuing desire to persevere with the language learning process (Stevens, 1995, p. 16).
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However, whilst this reflective view of the learning process can be argued as appropriate for conventional (print, audio, and video-based) distance language learning, the advent of technologies which promote forms of direct language interaction amongst remote learners, such as computer-mediated communication (CMC) or computer conferencing, raises the question of whether there is still a significant role in the design of courses for the promotion of these reflective practices. Before we can justify their retention in our curriculum, we need to examine the nature of reflection as a condition of language learning in virtual environments where more intuitive, socially-based communication has been made possible by the use of CMC. In this paper we (a) examine two notions of what interaction is and how it facilitates language learning, and (b) apply these concepts to the description and classification of CMC exchanges that occurred amongst learners of French during a recent Open University online course. We argue that certain kinds of exchanges appear to manifest more of the conditions for both "input-modification" and "social-interactionist" types of interaction, and that these interaction-rich exchanges are likely to occur when topics focus around language and language-learning; in other words, when the interaction also functions as reflective practice. On the basis of this assumption, we propose a pedagogy for online language learning which takes as its aim the promotion of this kind of exchange, which we are calling "reflective conversation."
TWO MODELS OF INTERACTION
The Input and Language Modification Model
Researchers working within what Warschauer (1998) calls an "input-processing" tradition of investigation into second language acquisition (i.e., adopting post-Krashen conceptions of "input," "modification," and "output") have proposed a model in which:
the L2 is acquired through learners' interaction in the target language because it provides opportunities for learners to (a) comprehend message meaning, which is believed to be necessary for learners to acquire the L2 forms that encode the message; (b) produce modified output, which requires their development of specific morphology and syntax; and (c) attend to L2 form, which helps to develop their linguistic systems. (Chapelle, 1997, p. 22)
The emphasis which this perspective typically brings to the analysis of learner-learner (or learner-teacher) exchanges is the idea that negotiated modification of the content of an exchange (confirmation and comprehension checking, requests for clarification, repetitions and paraphrases, etc.) serves to make the input comprehensible and the output modifiable, thereby fostering acquisition (Pellettieri, in press). In the context of CMC-based interaction it also appears to foreground the role of the written language in enabling an explicit focus on linguistic form. Warschauer (1998) has examined some of the characteristics of interaction mediated by synchronous text-based CMC (i.e., chat systems in which typed messages are received and responded to more or less in real time). According to him, interaction of this kind gives students more time to process written language, and consequently "may be even more beneficial for enhancing language acquisition" than if they took place in a non-electronic environment.
The "Social Interaction" Model
Leo van Lier (1996), taking up a social-interactionist,s view of learning, summarizes the discussion of interactivity in the language classroom by outlining a "range of ways of speaking that may take place between teacher and learner" (p. 184). His description is motivated by a conventional analysis of power relations in the classroom along a decreasingly controlling continuum from "authoritarian" to "authoritative" to "exploratory" (pp. 180-181). This is reflected in the "transmission mode" which involves the "monologic" (or lecture talk) at one end, going on to the "dialogic" ("where speakership alternates, though it remains under the control of the knower") in the middle, to fully conversational talk at the other end (p. 181). Interaction which exhibits the greatest equality among participants, communicative symmetry in terms of the distribution of turns and roles, and a combination of familiarity of subject matter with unpredictability, is what he calls "contingent interaction" (pp. 175-178), within which there is the likelihood of the best quality learning since "the agenda is shared by all participants and educational reality may be transformed" (p. 180).
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To our knowledge, this perspective has not yet been applied to the analysis of learner-learner online exchanges. But the "monologic-dialogic-conversational" framework clearly offers an additional perspective to the input-output view described above, and because it is also concerned with "control" in the interaction, it is relevant to our intention to consider the role in online learning of reflection and learner autonomy. We therefore add the notion of "contingency" to the features of negotiation of meaning, form-focus, and "paced" written production as conditions of online interaction which are expected to facilitate learning.
Synchronous and Asynchronous Interaction
Conversational interaction, being generally spoken and face to face, differs significantly from computer-mediated conversations which tend to be written and at a distance. (Audio and video exchanges are, of course, technically possible and used extensively in some learning environments--see, e.g., the LEVERAGE project Web site--but we are not including these media in our discussion of CMC here because they are still relatively inaccessible to our own students and indeed to the majority of distance learners world-wide). Although we cannot assume that conversational interaction carried out via CMC is functional for language learning in precisely the same way as the face-to-face equivalent (which is what most of the interaction research mentioned above is concerned with), we nevertheless believe that there are enough similarities between written CMC and speech interaction (Yates, 1993) to justify the use of models from the face-to-face environment.
We note that researchers like Warschauer and Pellettieri have concentrated on a synchronous medium (in which messages and replies appear on the screen in more or less real time, as in a telephone conversation), whereas our discussion here will be concerned with asynchronous conferencing (where there may be a delay of hours or days between a message and its replies, as in postal communication). Whilst the superiority of synchronous interaction for producing speech-like language is evident, we do not feel that this necessarily means that it is automatically better for language learning. Many of the elements referred to in the discussion of synchronous interaction for second language acquisition, for example, "noticing," focus on form, strategies of language use, knowledge about language, and so forth (Warschauer, 1998) are also involved in the description of reflective practices. When considering the aim of encouraging reflection on metalinguistic issues, asynchronous conferencing may prove even more appropriate because of the flexibility that learners have to ponder messages and their own productions, the explicit structuring of the users' input into "messages" and "replies," and the ease with which a record of exchanges can be accessed later.
For the Open University,s adult distance learners, the form of CMC which has so far proved the most accessible and appropriate to their varied circumstances of home-based learning is the asynchronous bulletin board system, or text-based computer conference. Communication via this kind of system proceeds by the participants typing messages and sending them to a central server, where they are displayed all together on an electronic notice board. The most up-to-date systems of this type can display messages either in chronological lists or as threads linked by topic. They are accessed via a Web browser. Typical of the kinds of interaction generated round these systems is a kind of "slow motion" conversation in which messages and their responses may be separated by several days.
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The two questions we address in our research are:
- Which of the "facilitating" features of interaction, as discussed above, can we expect to find in asynchronous conferencing?
- How can we relate these features to the principles of reflective practice?
Our approach here is to examine some of the data from Lexica On-line, a pilot project involving ten adult English-speaking learners studying in an upper intermediate French course at the Open University,s Centre for Modern Languages. The students were selected at random from the Centre's population of French language students who responded to a questionnaire on Internet access. This work is reported on in more detail in Goodfellow and Lamy (1998). Here we focus on discussing three types of exchange: monologues, social conversations, and reflective conversations. First, we consider how features of interactivity and reflectiveness characterize these exchange types. Second, we consider the issue of "control" in terms of the re-use of language items, the management of turn-taking, and the topics that are exhibited in the conference transcripts. Finally, we propose the notion of reflective conversation as the basis for a pedagogy which optimizes the role of this medium in support of language learning.
Lexica On-line was developed by the authors and others from research on computer-based strategies for vocabulary learning (Goodfellow, 1995, 1998; Ebbrell & Goodfellow, 1997), and on the design of distance language learning (The Open University, 1994, 1997). The vocabulary-related aspect of the research involved designing a CALL program, called Lexica. The Lexica programme was given to the participants of the Lexica On-Line project to use at home for vocabulary development. The students, who were located in different parts of the United Kingdom and had never met, had PCs running Windows and Internet connections with Web browsers, which also provided pathways to francophone Web sites. In addition to the Lexica program on disk, they were supplied with texts in electronic form (some of which were from the French course they were currently following), a copy of the Collins-Robert French-English dictionary on CD-ROM, as well as access to a computer conferencing system on the Open University's Web site entitled Project Forum. The conference was moderated by two native French speakers who also acted as tutors throughout the project. Figure 1 shows the overall configuration of the learning environment. Students were required to start by working on set texts, extracting and processing vocabulary items, discuss their progress with the tutors and other students on the online forum, and then use francophone Web sites as a source for further texts with which to repeat the cycle.
Figure 1. The learning environment for Lexica On-line
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The students committed themselves to a minimum of ten hours of work with Lexica On-line over a period of six weeks, in addition to the workload already required of them by their ongoing course (approximately 12 hours). The conference produced 205 messages in all, of which 107 were student generated. Our particular focus in the current paper is the textual output created by students in the main working areas, that is, the 45 messages from Travaux Pratiques (tutorial room) and the 13 messages found in the Café. (The other two areas, Introductions and Technical Help, account for the remainder of the student output.)
DISCUSSION OF LEXICA ON-LINE DATA
The course forum contains several different types of message content, for example, responses to tasks, answers to questions, requests for help, and volunteering of information or opinion. Messages are arranged graphically in "threads" in which those which are apparently on the same topic are grouped together.
Figure 2. Lexica On-line Project Forum
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It is possible for a participant to send a reply to a thread other than the one within which the originating message appears. In practice, however, once people are familiar with the system, they tend to position their replies so that they appear in the same thread as the originating message. Exchanges created over time thus have a persistent presence in the graphical record of the conference. By glancing down the page you can effectively see who is talking to whom. For example, looking at the record of the Lexica On-line conference (as in Figure 2) we can see messages that are part of a thread (i.e., that are themselves replies or have at least one reply, e.g., message #67 where "Marienoelle" explicitly replies to "Johnet"), and messages that stand alone (i.e., that are not themselves replies and have no replies, e.g., message #68 where "Davidw" gives an unsolicited opinion).
Monologues, Dialogues, and Conversations
We propose the terms "monologue," "dialogue," and "conversation" as a tentative framework which arises from our analysis of the data and which we want to use as a means of characterizing asynchronous CMC discourse. Whilst it is clear that some stand-alone messages may well be inspired by thoughts expressed elsewhere on the forum, if they do not refer to these messages and do not require nor invite a reply, they are not regarded as part of an interaction. Nor are explicit responses to teacher instruction, for instance, messages reporting outcomes of tasks. In the following section we shall use the word "monologue" for a text containing no invitation to interaction, "reflective dialogue" for interaction where the content is "talk about language," and "conversation" for exchanges of a social nature. Afterward, we will discuss messages which can be described as both conversational and reflective, and which together form a thread: they are an important focus of our work. We have called these messages &q