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Online discourse in a second language teacher preparation course.


This paper explores patterns of online discourse produced by pre- and in-service teachers in a second language methodology course and describes the participants' evaluation of their content learning in this new social context. Student diversity in terms of the participants' teaching experience created a unique pedagogical situation in which novice teachers were able to interact online with expert practitioners and discuss various theoretical and practical issues of second language teaching. The results show that online interactions create more opportunities for all students to engage in the discovery of new ideas through peer scaffolding and facilitated creation of learning communities. At the same time, the students reported isolated cases of technology-related frustration. Discussion of the pedagogical implications of the results and recommendations for future research are included.


Vygotskian Sociocultural Framework

Long before the emergence of online technologies, Vygotsky (1978) posited that knowledge is a socially constructed variable. Within the Vygotskian sociocultural framework, learning is defined as a process of social negotiation and collaborative sense making, in which mentoring is used to assist learners in knowledge construction. Vygotsky underlined the importance of peer support and peer interaction for cognitive development through the notion of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) that reflects the difference between what one can accomplish alone and what one can achieve under adult supervision and/or in collaboration with more capable peers. In this viewpoint, intellectual development first takes place between people on the social level and only afterwards is it internalized on the individual level. Thus, learners require a social setting to promote their learning (Vygotsky, 1986).

From this theoretical standpoint, effective learning will most likely take place within an instructional environment that encourages interaction among experts and learners. Such environments can be created through various means, including online communication used as a medium to provide learners and experts with multiple opportunities for interaction in cyber space. Therefore, online asynchronous discussions can be viewed as the social context within which individual cognitive development occurs through collaborative meaning construction.

Teachers and Online Discourse

According to Harasim, Hilz, Teles, and Turoff (1995), online communication provides teachers with numerous opportunities to share professional expertise, reflect on teaching practices, and develop new pedagogical ideas. Merseth (1991) specifically points out that online communication facilitates collaboration, cooperative learning and scaffolding for teacher learning, Other researchers agree that it offers the socioemotional support so necessary for pre- and in-service teachers (Schlagal, Trathen, & Blanton, 1996; Thomas, Cliff, & Sugimoto, 1996). Simich-Dudgeon (1999) shows that through the use of personal involvement strategies, participants can develop an online learning community supportive of joint negotiation of academic meaning. Sanders and Morrison-Shetlar (2001) conclude that one of the pedagogical values of online asynchronous communication is that it increases student-to-student interaction. Researchers agree that online asynchronous discourse is qualitatively different from traditional face-to-face discourse as it is not temporary and spatially constrained (McQuail, 1995), lacks non-verbal and auditory cues, promotes selective reading (New & Greene, 2001) and provides its participants with a new recall strategy through its written records (Eastmond, 1992).

Online writers adapt conventions of oral and written discourse to meet their new communicative needs, while at the same time building virtual learning communities (Davis & Brewer, 1998). Davis and Brewer (1998) note repetition, both on the lexical level and above, as one of the key features of online discourse, allowing participants to signal a variety of speech acts. Reference through an extensive use of quotations from previous messages was also noted as a distinctive feature of online discourse (Pincas, 1999).

Kamhi-Stein (2000) proposes four purposes of online communication, including relation of personal experiences to those of peers', making connections between students' concerns and those of peers', reflection on what students learned in relevant courses, and summarizing experiences with teaching techniques. In her analysis of online interactions, Zhu (1996) distinguishes between reflective notes, comments, discussions, answers, information sharing notes, scaffolding notes, and questions. Alternatively, Bodzin and Park (2000) categorize online discourse into two major types: information types (e.g. experience, field specific pedagogy, general pedagogy, support, concern, resource sharing and recognition) and reflective types (e.g. perceptions, asking focused questions, peer scaffolding).

Although several studies have been conducted on the effects of online communication on student learning, little, if any, research has been done which specifically focuses on the online discourse produced by a mixed group of pre- and in-service teachers within the environment of a second language (SL) methodology course. This paper describes a research project designed to investigate patterns of online discourse produced by pre- and in-service teachers in a SL methodology course in terms of its content types and sociocultural functions. For the purpose of this study, the following two research questions were formulated:

1. What types of discourse emerged when pre- and in-service SL teachers participated in online asynchronous discussions within the environment of a methodology teacher preparation course?

2. How did the participants feel about online discussions in terms of their content learning?

Research Environment and Pedagogical Issues

In the spring semester 2001, a 400-level SL methodology course in a liberal arts college in New England was re-designed to include an online component. The pedagogical purpose of this curriculum innovation was to extend classroom discussion time into virtual space and to engage students in the exploration of SL issues through collaborative learning. The course merged traditional face-to-face instruction with a Web-based component delivered through an online software package, Blackboard CourseInfo 5. During the semester, students attended 12 traditional classes and participated in 10 asynchronous online discussions.

The researcher was also the instructor of the course. The instructor/researcher made a conscious decision to abstain from participation in online discussions. The students were informed that the instructor would monitor their interactions and that they would receive an accumulative grade based on their participation as well as the relevancy of their contributions. At least two messages per discussion were required. The students were asked not only to provide their own opinions, but also to post comments on their fellow students' contributions. All of the discussion topics were logically connected with the readings offered through the course. The following are two examples of the discussion cues utilized in the discussions:

1. Reflect on how you approached your own second language learning. What theoretical approaches that we discussed best characterize your learning experience?

2. In your experience, do males and females exhibit different approaches towards second language learning? Based on the readings, offer a scientific explanation of your answer. As a teacher, what strategies would you use to make sure that students of both genders benefit equally from your instruction?

Study Participants

Nine female students and one male student participated in this course. Four students were pre-service teachers in the final semester before graduation and six students were in-service teachers working on their re-certification. One of the in-service teachers had 25 years of teaching experience. Two in-service teachers had been teaching for seven years, one was in her second year of teaching and two were in their first year of teaching. With regard to online technology experience, five participants ranked themselves as experienced, three participants stated that they had a lot of experience and two reported that they had limited experience.

Data Collection

Participant observation, discourse analysis and a survey were chosen as appropriate research methodology for data collection in this study. Using stretches of coherent discourse as units of analysis, written records of five randomly chosen online discussions were coded into several categories according to its content type and sociocultural function. Sociocultural functions of discourse are defined here as intended social messages transmitted through culturally appropriate discourse content. Participant observation data were collected in the form of instructor notes accumulated throughout the semester. At the end of the semester, the students were also asked to fill out an anonymous survey, which contained open-ended questions, soliciting student evaluation of online discussions pertaining to their content learning.

Content Types, Socioculturai Functions

The analyzed discussions contained a total of 100 postings averaging 20 postings per forum. An average length of each message was 150 words. Zhu's (1996) note categories and Bodzin and Park's (2000) reflective types were utilized to perform initial coding. To reflect the specifics of the discourse produced in this study, the constant comparative method was employed (Bogdan & Bilken, 1992). This recursive qualitative data analysis yielded a revised set of content categories (App. I). See issue's website <>

In addition, through the constant comparative method, two major sociocultural functions were identified: internalized self-expression and collaborative meaning construction through peer scaffolding. Internalized self-expression represents what Vygotsky (1978) called "independent developmental achievement", whereas collaborative meaning construction through peer scaffolding corresponds to the cognitive development that occurs within ZPD (p. 90). Peer scaffolding is defined here as discourse that builds upon previous postings and encourages idea development within the group. Internalized self-expression indicates the knowledge and experience that individuals have not only acquired but have also internalized and by now claim as their own. Collaborative meaning construction through peer scaffolding resonates students' need to create a coherent learning community in order to achieve content learning. Further analysis revealed that certain content categories typically fulfilled one or the other sociocultural functions within the discourse produced by the study participants (App. I). It is, however, important to note that the sociocultural functions identified in this study are not mutually exclusive of each other and, on occasion, the same stretches of discourse might perform a double sociocultural function.

Discourse Features

Using discourse as their tool, the participants worked out solutions to the specific discussion limitations imposed on them by the online medium. For example, in order to maintain coherence within the discussion, the students resorted to the consistent use of lexical repetition, summaries, quotes and reference to the contributions of others. Such formulae as "as X wrote", "in response to what X said", "I agree with X that", "I read the replies of X and Y and think that"," I also think that", "I have noticed the same trend as X", "I believe it is X who wrote that" and "in reply to X's message" were widely used to connect one's postings to the ideas expressed by others.

Without the capabilities to utilize such conventions as intonation, voice pitch and pausing, the students used multiple punctuation marks and capitalization to convey emotional states and to make emphasis. In addition, when discussing pedagogical issues encountered in Spanish language classrooms, the students used such formulaic Spanish phrases as" quien sabe", "vamos aver", and "hola", as a way to underline and cement their membership in the community of Spanish speakers.

Participant Observations

The analysis of instructor notes revealed that the students often made reference to their online exchanges during in-class interactions, thus actively bringing online discussions into their face-to-face classes. Throughout the semester the students repeatedly made comments in class about having found a new support system through their online interactions. In addition, the students mentioned that they utilized written records of their discussions as an effective way to revise course material before tests and exams. Several students asked the instructor if they could continue their online interactions after the semester was over in order to keep in touch and continue their professional exchanges.

Within the first several weeks, two of the most experienced in-service teachers assumed `expert' roles in the student discussions, both face-to-face and online. These students provided many examples from their teaching careers to illustrate either their own points or to support ideas generated by others. They frequently logged in on the course Web site to check if new postings were added to the discussion and produced detailed messages answering questions posted by other students.

The pre-service teachers participating in the study consistently utilized their personal experience of SL learning as viable evidence supporting their opinions. When stating their opinions with regard to the issues of SL pedagogy and general classroom management, these students often downplayed the value of their contributions by underlying their inexperience in practical teaching. The pre-service teachers posted numerous questions with regard to challenging hypothetical classroom situations, whereas the three students who had one to two years of teaching experience required feedback with regard to specific teaching situations that they had already encountered in their classrooms. Interestingly, this latter group of learners usually received feedback both from the expert teachers and those in training.

Student Surveys

The analysis of student surveys disclosed overwhelmingly positive student feedback with regard to the inclusion of online technologies in the course curriculum and its impact on student content learning. One of the students explained that she enjoyed online discussions because
 You can participate when it is convenient for you and when
 you are prepared, you can respond in a general way or
 specifically to someone. People felt free to answer and
 wanted to help each other. All of this led to a stronger
 understanding of concepts.

The students appreciated that both experts and novices had a chance to voice their opinions, received feedback, guidance and support from their peers while participating in online exchanges. This allowed all participants to learn from the experience of others and to explore their own teaching philosophy. The students wrote that online exchanges encouraged them to be more creative and at the same time more critical of their teaching methodology. In their surveys, the students also discussed the specifics of online communication as compared to face-to-face interactions. For example, one student noted that, "online discussions were beneficial because everyone got equal opportunities to speak." Another participant shared:
 I found myself treating it [online interaction] like a
 conversation where I would respond anytime I felt necessary
 instead of having to put together all my thoughts in one

In addition, the participants disclosed the strategies that they developed in order to be successful online. These strategies emphasized the importance of reading previously submitted postings before adding one's own, backing one's examples with the theories discussed in class, utilizing critical thinking skills when formulating an argument and being open-minded to the opinions of others.

Despite highly positive evaluations of online discussions, the students also wrote about the challenges that they encountered online. Such issues as being disconnected while posting messages, a large amount of time required to participate in online discussions and time gaps between postings were among the most commonly mentioned. For example, one of the students confessed that even though she enjoyed online discussions, she found it time-consuming as she had to read through all the messages posted on a given topic. Several students complained about the gaps that existed between the time when a message was posted and the time when someone replied to it.

Although online interactions required a lot from the students in terms of their personal involvement and dedicated time, all of the participants, including those who reported limited online experience noticed an increase in their familiarity with online technology and stated their intention to continue using technology in their professional life.

Discussion and Conclusions

The present study described how online discussions were incorporated into a traditional second language methodology course. The analysis of the discourse produced by the participants revealed patterns of expert/novice discourse and highlighted the effects of online technologies on content learning. Consistent with Zhu (1996) and SimichDudgen (1999), the results of this study confirmed the notion that online asynchronous communication could be viewed as a social context within which individual cognitive development occurs through collaborative meaning construction. The results showed that online interactions created more opportunities for all students to engage in the discovery of new ideas through peer scaffolding and facilitated the creation of learning communities among the participants.

In accord with Sanders and Morrison-Shetlar (2001), the results of this study show that online discussions promote self-expression among the learners and create more opportunities for the students to participate in class. In agreement with Schlagal et al. (1996) and Thomas et al. (1996), the findings indicate that online interactions provide a forum for empathetic experience exchange among experts, novices and those who are at the beginning of their teaching career. The results of this study indicate that through the medium of online discussions, the pre- and in-service teachers shared their common concerns, worked out possible solutions and guided each other towards a more sophisticated understanding of SL acquisition and language teaching methodology.

Consistent with Davis and Brewer (1998), this research shows that the students employed a variety of discourse devices, including lexical repetition, referencing, code mixing, and multiple punctuation and capitalization in order to communicate their intended meaning through the online medium and to create and support a learning community. At the same time, the students reported frustration related to the technical issues associated with the online medium as well as with some logistics of the course, including the amount of time needed to successfully participate in online discussions and time lapses between student postings.

Pedagogical Implications

Pedagogical implications of this study suggest that online asynchronous discussions could be effectively incorporated into traditional teacher preparation courses. While designing an online component, instructors need to provide students with tasks that are relevant, interesting and challenging. Online activities should have clearly articulated instructional goals and be logically connected with other components of the course. Thus, instructors need to re-evaluate the structure and content of their courses before making a decision to include an online component.

In addition, instructors need to be realistic with regard to the time required to accomplish both online and traditional course assignments. To reduce the time needed to read through the postings and to ensure the quality of interactions, it might be advisable to assign students to several online discussion groups (Bodzin & Park, 2000). When formulating cues for online discussions, instructors should take into consideration students' individual differences, including professional experience, learning style preference and language background. Instructors need to emphasize the value of all well-thought contributions and motivate students to bring into the discussion not only their theoretical knowledge but also their own experience of SL learning and any teaching experience they might have. Finally, instructors should encourage online peer mentoring by positioning students in educational contexts where collaborative learning is essential to their learning outcomes.

Study Limitations and Recommendations for Future Research

This study examined patterns of online discourse produced by the participants in a specific setting. Its findings may not reflect the experience of students in different educational settings. Furthermore, the participants in this study were only exposed to one particular type of Web-based instructional software. In addition, study limitations included a small pool of subjects and its action research design. Due to these limitations, it is advisable to treat the results with caution. This, however, should not cast doubt on the value of this qualitative research as it provides an in-depth account of a specific community of learners that consisted of both pre- and in-service second language teachers in a specific educational setting.

Additional research of this type must be carried out in other classrooms and educational settings. It is suggested that future studies investigate possible learner differences with regard to online content learning and compare student attitudes towards different Web-based instructional software packages. Further research is needed to verify suggested online discourse content categories and sociocultural functions. It is hoped that new studies will follow this research in order to extend the understanding of online communication discussions as the social context supportive of collaborative learning.


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Julia Stakhnevich, Bridgewater State College

Julia is currently teaching college-level ESL and teacher training courses. Her main research interests include educational technology and discourse analysis.
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Title Annotation:social aspects of online education
Author:Stakhnevich, Julia
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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