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Structured language-learning communities

Web 2.0 language learning communities are placed at the intersection of the Internet as a source of language input (authentic as well as targeted at the language learner) and the Internet as a tool for communication (e-mail, chat, social media). Zourou (2012) defines them as a subgroup of social network sites and characterised by having been designed especially for language learning. The author distinguishes between three types of such communities:

  • - Structured language learning communities: learning materials accompanied by structured learning pathways and the opportunity to interact with other learners and native speakers (e.g., Busuu, Babbel, Duolingo);
  • - Marketplaces: meeting places for online language learners and their tutors where services are offered in exchange for a fee (e.g., Palabea - based on video chat);
  • - Language exchange sites: free tandem-learning websites connecting learners interested in acquiring each other’s language, such as Scrabbing (e-mail, voice chat), or the Skype-based Mixxer (Zourou 2012).

Structured learning communities appear to provide an attractive form of learning for professionals: independent of class time tables, accessible from everywhere, yet still promising the convenience and dependability of didactically prepared materials with an innate element of guidance. For some, they may indeed represent the best of both worlds. Self-paced lessons incorporating Web 1.0 learning materials (input in the form of written text, audio/video and flashcards, vocabulary training, “expert- designed” interactive exercises and quizzes, translations, reviews, on-demand grammar explanations) in a single place are enriched by the motivation of a Web 2.0 social learning environment (access via chat to other learners or native speakers and the opportunity to practise with real people, albeit in a virtual environment).

But for others the negatives, encompassing pedagogical as well as technical usability issues, abound. Insufficiently structured pathways; apparent randomness in organisation of lesson content; “cartoony” user interface; confusing layout and navigation; inadequate voice recognition; outdated (or no) teaching methodology; lack of authentic materials, lack of context; isolated examples of language use (flashcard-based); over-reliance on translation; lesson reviews testing memory rather than comprehension; same input/content for all languages offered: these were only some of the concerns mentioned by product reviewers (e.g., economist.com/blogs/ Johnson, langology.org, streetsmartlanguagelearning.com). It is striking that these problems are so very reminiscent of those that haunted the early stand-alone CD- ROMS and multimedia packages (see Trinder 2000; Trinder 2002).

Plus ga change...? Perhaps not quite. The strengths and weaknesses of such language-learning websites vary, as does their cost, since some are free, many have certain features or trial lessons for free, and others are based entirely on subscription fees. Yet of course, it is evident that interface design and technical features have overcome many of the early glitches. Moreover, users have a variety of different learning preferences and goals. Whilst for some a logical structure, tutorial-like explanations and opportunities for language analysis are essential, others do ot mind a bit of randomness. And if the content lacks sophistication, it might still be a convenient resource for someone interested in quickly picking up some basic vocabulary of one of the lesser taught languages.

In the eyes of many reviewers and researchers, structured learning communities are elevated above the older generation of CD-Rom or web-based courses by their social network features facilitating contact to other learners via video, audio or text-based chat. These communities are active and very large: Busuu, the largest one, boasted 35 million users in 2013, thus offering intriguing possibilities for language learning. For one, such sites encompass opportunities to work on productive skills and accuracy. Many of the communities, for instance, offer awards (taking learners up to a higher level or allowing free access to premium features) for giving feedback on other learners’ work. Even if there may again be some issues concerning quality, reliability and immediacy of feedback and corrections, this approach offers users speaking and writing practice, something many learners feel in need of and the new technologies are not usually good at. What is more, the “online exchange environments” facilitating conversation practice with native speakers (oral or in writing) add a social and collaborative dimension to what is in effect a form of distance learning, helping users to remain motivated and feel less isolated in their efforts.

In view of all this, some of the results Stevenson and Liu (2010) present in an empirical study of user perceptions and use of the popular sites LiveMocha, Palabea and Babbel certainly present food for thought. Based on a survey of 164 users as well as a usability test, they conclude that, despite some misgivings concerning the quality and organisation of contents, the majority found the “traditional” Web 1.0 learning materials more appropriate for reaching their learning goals than the communication/chat sites. It is worth noting that adult learners, particularly those who have not grown up with social media, may look askance at the respectability and quality of a website that reminds them of Facebook & Co. Some respondents actually expressed concern about the “social” aspect of the site, which for them was too indirectly linked to language learning. Sample comments pointing in that direction included reactions like: “Some people seem to think this is more of a dating website”; “I am disappointed because this area [chat] is mostly used by people who want to meet other people” (Stevenson and Liu 2010: 241).

The authors further report that, even though overall there was some interest in the social/collaborative aspect of these sites, the large majority of survey respondents rated the traditional “vocab training” section of Babbel as the most useful for reaching their aims, and the “discussion board” and “people chat page” as the least helpful. The authors conclude that “there is a need within these sites to ease adult learners’ concerns over whether they are engaged in high-quality learning in a website or not” (Stevenson and Liu 2010: 251). The study suggests that the desire to engage with strangers over the Internet, even if they can be considered a learning resource, should not be considered a universal given. As already inferred, there seem to be personality issues and proficiency-based constraints and reservations: some feel too shy, some not proficient enough to exchange small talk; others appear to doubt the quality and relevance of user-created content and feedback. Despite the new fascination with social computing on the part of both students and instructors, many (adults) want a clearer line drawn between the “goal-oriented business of language learning” and the more social aspects of Web 2.0. In other words, the very features that for some researchers/reviewers are the redeeming elements of such sites in view of the often frankly mediocre (static) language learning content might in fact alienate a sizable group of users.

 
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