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Focus on learner differences

Throughout this chapter it has been emphasised that, whilst technology offerings in a variety of contexts might be appropriate for some types of learners, they will be experienced as less effective by others. In this final section, the focus is explicitly on the question “beneficial for what kind of learner?”, in particular in relation to the development of communicative skills.

Thanks to the interactive capabilities of email, online forums, blogs, chats and videoconferencing tools, computer-mediated communication (CMC) nowadays facilitates “new kinds of social encounters, new kinds of communities, and new prospects for learning” (Kern 2014: 340). The different characteristics of different media, particularly in terms of synchronicity (e.g., chat) vs. asynchronicity (e.g., email), make them more suitable for certain pedagogical purposes and certain learners than for others. Wertsch (2002) points out that, in contrast to real time encounters, asynchronous forms of written discourse such as email and online forums allow uninterrupted, explicit, and extended commentary. In other words, there is less (time) pressure for weaker or shyer students to formulate their thoughts. In fact, interaction via asynchronous forms of computer-mediated communication “has long been viewed as an equalizing tool that encourages universal participation as opposed to the more complex dynamics found in face-to-face dialogues, where certain individuals can often dominate the flow of discourse” (Blake 2009: 825).

Individual learner differences encompassing a wide array of characteristics, ranging from personality (e.g., extroversion vs. introversion) to affective factors such as motivation and anxiety, contribute to the fact that students display diverse likes and dislikes in the classroom, as well as regarding use of technologies. Thus, learning-style conflicts can occur when a learning activity, resource or approach runs counter to students’ inclinations; for example, when a visual learner receives mainly auditory input, or when an analytic learner is required to learn mainly through communication (Ehrman 1996). Consequently, to judge the effectiveness of a technology-mediated activity, we must take account of learner-inherent variables, that is, aptitudes and attitudes arising from individual differences. This latter aspect has received only intermittent attention in research. Yet, as indicated above, chat tools and other forms of computer-mediated communication can offer safe practice spaces for students who display communication reticence in face-to-face learning contexts (so-called “communication anxiety” or “foreign-language class-room anxiety”; e.g., Horwitz, Horwitz, and Cope 1986; Dewaele, Petrides, and Furnham 2008).

This claim is supported by Sun (2009), who reports on Chinese students’ assessment of voice blogging, an activity that involves recording a speech in private and subsequently publishing it on an intranet site. The interactive element is provided by the chance for other users to comment. This form of computer-mediated communication allows planning, practising and monitoring, and may consequently be experienced as a safer, less face-threatening environment by less confident learners. Asian students, as confirmed by a number of studies on cultural-based learner differences (e.g., Liu 2006; Liu and Jackson 2008), are notoriously reluctant to speak in foreign language classes. And indeed, when interviewed about their perceptions of voice blogs as a learning tool, participants in Sun’s study singled out anxiety- reduction as a reason for their positive perceptions of the technology:

  • - “Voice blogs are helpful because they promote speaking among people like me who don’t speak English on a regular basis. Unlike the classroom environment, blogs make me feel relaxed and thus help me speak more fluently”;
  • - “Speaking on a voice blog increases the opportunities for me to speak English and to provide oral feedback to peers. It really helps me reduce speaking anxiety” (Participants’ comments, cited in Sun 2009: 97).

In this case, the integration of a technology tool proved successful because it managed to meet the specific individual needs and goals of a group of learners. Its implementation demonstrated awareness of the characteristics of the technology as well as of those of the learners. The asynchronous nature of the application provided freedom from the time constraints operative in face-to-face interaction, facilitating attention to form and promoting accuracy and complexity of language. What is more, the sheltered practice environment offered scaffolding for those who feel shy and anxious when having to communicate spontaneously.

Thus some types of computer-mediated communication succeed in offering the nurturing qualities necessary for anxious, introvert or low proficiency learners, “allowing them to hold the floor as long as they wish” (Kern 2014: 342). But what can they contribute at the other end of the learner-type spectrum, that is, for advanced learners who relish challenge, and whose learner beliefs and extrovert orientations predispose them to direct human contact? Does the immediacy of synchronous video chat, for instance, replicate face-to-face interaction to such an extent as to be considered a viable and equally effective alternative?

Kern’s (2014) and Trinder’s (2016) empirical studies suggest that there seem to be issues related, not to technology itself but to its mediation that have an impact on how the environment is perceived by learners. In a study involving intermediate students of French, Kern focused on the role of the medium in communication via Skype and observed several technology-induced problems that inhibited the natural flow of conversation. For example, the video camera exaggerated gestures and facial expressions, the position of the camera on top of the screen prohibited eye-contact, the added time-delay of transmission was experienced as awkward, speech was garbled at times without the speaker noticing and, last but not least, watching themselves on the computer interface increased self-consciousness amongst participants (Kern 2014). These are of course minor problems in view of the learning benefits the technology offers, and Kern’s respondents were by and large very positive as to its impact on their communicative skills. Yet the study also clearly shows that technology not only enables, but at the same time slightly distorts and disturbs remote communication.

The subjects in Trinder’s (2016) study were advanced students of business English who strongly preferred face-to-face interaction to the technology-mediated variety. Reasons given included both technical issues (sound quality, delays in transmission) that hindered comprehension and motivational ones arising from perceived lack of authenticity and real-life conditions (conversations divorced from shared physical surroundings were experienced as artificial and impoverished). Respondents further found that communication contexts that allowed them to consult tools they would not have in face-to-face encounters (e.g., electronic dictionaries) did not adequately reflect the challenges of communicating in real life, and that other applications (e.g., messages coming in) presented a distraction. In general, and arguably due to their advanced proficiency as well as mostly extrovert personalities, students assessed direct personal encounters, which put their language skills to a realistic test, as far more beneficial.

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