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Review of  Distance Education and Languages

Reviewer: Subhadra Ramachandran
Book Title: Distance Education and Languages
Book Author: Borje Holmberg Monica Shelley Cynthia White
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 16.1860

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Date: Mon, 13 Jun 2005 12:07:32 -0400
From: Subhadra Ramachandran
Subject: Distance Education and Langauges: Evolution and Change

EDITORS: Holmberg, Borje; Shelley, Monica; White, Cynthia
TITLE: Distance Education and Languages
SUBTITLE: Evolution and Change
SERIES: New Perspectives in Language and Education
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2005

Subhadra Ramachandran, Centre for Education & Training, Mississauga, Canada


This 342-page book is an edited collection of writings by both
practitioners who have been active for some years in the field of distance
education (DE) and by others from institutions where DE is at a relatively
early stage of development. As a result, the contexts, education systems
and educational requirements within which the authors of the chapters
operate are diverse, their perspectives varied. Despite this, there exist
several commonalities between the several DE contexts discussed in this
book, which provide the reader with a range of insights and a better
appreciation of the realm of virtual learning.

The book is divided into six different sections covering themes that
appear to be distinct from one another, but which in fact cover a great
deal of common ground between the them. The format of presentation allows
readers to concentrate on subject areas of most immediate interest to
them. The six sections are:
1. Learner autonomy
2. Learner perspectives and support
3. Development of intercultural competence
4. Methodology and course design
5. Learning environments
6. Language teacher development


1. Learner Autonomy
In this section there are three chapters devoted to the different aspects
of learner independence and autonomy.

In chapter 1, Stella Hurd reviews various interpretations of the concept
of autonomy and its place within the field of distance language teaching
and learning. Hurd also provides an insight into how language teaching at
a distance has developed at the Open University, UK (OUUK) and draws on
her experience to discuss how autonomy may be promoted via computer-
mediated communication while warning that technology mediated learning is
not completely problem-free.

In chapter 2, Linda Murphy too draws on her experience at the OUUK working
with French, German and Spanish students to raise the question of whether
a range of tutor-developed support materials is an effective way of
increasing learner autonomy. She concludes that except in the case of
writing skills development, there is strong evidence of learner control
and active engagement with the study materials, and that students
demonstrated critical analysis and reflectiveness.

In chapter 3, Alex Ding from the University of Nottingham in the United
Kingdom, explores the possibility for promoting collaborative learner
autonomy through the use of a virtual, self-access centre (VSAC) for
language learning. The context in which the VSAC was created was to
provide English for Academic Purposes support for in-sessional students
(international students studying at undergraduate and postgraduate level)
who cannot attend classes. Ding concludes that despite the gaps between
theory and practice in setting up his VSAC, it is important that theory be
used as a basis for informed decision-making in this area, adding that
researching the potential for collaboration in an online environment
deserves to be investigated more rigorously.

2. Learner perspectives and support
In the second section of this book contributions emphasize the importance
of keeping the student as the focus of the process of successful distance
language learning.

In chapter 4, Cynthia White, from Massey University in New Zealand, starts
off by reviewing four of the most influential theories of distance
language learning. White draws on her earlier research into the ways in
which learners establish their learning environment, negotiate meaning and
arrive at new understanding in the distance context. In effect, she
elaborates on the notion of the interface which develops between the
learner and the learning context in the course of learning experiences.

In chapter 5, Cristina Ros i Solé and Mike Truman from the OUUK focus on
the importance of feedback in distance language learning where error
correction and commentaries on assignments is often the sole channel of
communication. The role of feedback in the development of student autonomy
is spelt out and discussed. The lon-standing debate over formative and
summative assessment is illustrated here through the outcomes of research
conducted among students enrolled in a Spanish course. Ros i Solé and
Truman conclude by looking forward to the development of new assessment
strategies and formats to enhance the experience of distance language

Chapter 6 in this section is by Carisma Dreyer, Nwabisa Bangeni and Charl
Nel of South Africa. They look at one of the most universal issues that
confront any program that offers language courses via a mixed mode
delivery system - the problem of dropout and failure rates, and
institutional accountability. The authors describe a framework for
providing learner support that will aid institutions not just in improving
dropout and failure rates, but in providing a high quality academic
program with well-defined support structures.

3. Development of intercultural competence
In chapter 7 of the third section, Monica Shelley and Uwe Baumann of the
OUUK look at several student-related issues such as their motivations for
language learning, their experience of the language and the effects of the
course on them. However, the main focus of the chapter is on the
acquisition of intercultural competence by distance learners of German.
The authors conclude that while the students began their courses in German
possessing a fair degree of cultural competence, this increased during
their period of study. They also conclude that the assessment of
productive skills in the German course under review reflected the
acquisition of those skills, attitudes and knowledge thereby showing that
there was development of intercultural competence in the language being

Chapter 8 of the section on intercultural competence is by Richard Fay
(University of Manchester, UK) and Leah Davcheva (British Council,
Bulgaria). The chapter discusses the lessons learnt from the
implementation of two distance education programs for English language
teachers and translator/interpreters in Bulgaria in collaboration with the
University of Manchester in the UK. It discusses several aspects of the
developmental context for the programs before exploring the area of
intercultural communicative competence and then an evaluation of the
language teacher program. The authors present a tentative model of
professional intercultural communicative competence, which subsumes the
cognitive, affective and behavioral dimensions of intercultural learning
demonstrating how different definitions of intercultural communication fit
with areas of language education.

4. Methodology and course design
This section consists of two contributions that reflect the theme of
methodology from different perspectives.

Börge Holmberg in chapter 9 discusses some theoretical aspects of distance
language teaching and the methods and media applied in the teaching.
Holmberg begins the chapter with a brief history of distance education and
then summarizes the various theoretical considerations that need to be
examined. Holmberg illustrates the significance of behavioral thinking in
relation to language teaching with the use of examples based in different
methodological frameworks. He supports the value of a combination of the
learning of principles and imitative practice, concluding that the
judicious use of the mother tongue is best used in contrastive analysis,
and that explicit explanations have great value for distance language

In chapter 10 of this section, Cecilia Garrido of the OUUK in studying the
development of a suite of Spanish courses discusses the challenges of
helping students develop linguistic skills while keeping in mind factors
such as the implications of integrating intercultural competence into the
course design, and the role of Information and Communication Technology
(ICT) tools in developing these skills. Garrido lists the various
priorities which were adopted to serve as a basis for the syllabus of the
Spanish program. She defines the new challenges that arose while
developing the distance learning program as mainly evolving from the
implications of teaching language and culture in an integrated manner, and
from the opportunities and threats of the information age. In this
chapter, Garrido too briefly discusses the significance of teaching for
intercultural competence.

5. Learning environments
This section presents five different examples of learning environments
that reflect the diversity and the variety of approaches taken to promote
learner autonomy.

In chapter 11, Donald Weasenforth, Christine Meloni and Sigrun Biesenbach-
Lucas from the United States argue the position that the technologies
available to distance instructors can be effective in fostering learner
autonomy. In this chapter, they investigate how three features of a course
management software (CMS), namely Discussions (web board), Files and
Testing, can be used to develop learner autonomy as well as language
proficiency. They also show how CMS enabled their students to work without
supervision, to become teachers and researchers, exercise choice and to
benefit from feedback other than the 'right answer.'

In chapter 12, Vincenza Tudini, from the University of South Australia,
concentrates on the use of the chat tool by learners of Italian. Research
has shown that computer mediated communication (CMC) such as online chat
provides a bridge to face-to-face interaction and an optimal environment
for language acquisition. However, research on whether chatlines replace
classroom interaction or what skills learners can gain from the use of
this medium is summarized in this chapter. Tudini concludes that chatlines
have several proven benefits, including opportunities for the negotiation
of meaning. Her study demonstrates that it is worth including chat lines
as a learning tool when setting up language program language learners at a
distance since they provide an opportunity for students to establish
connections with each other in colloquial, non-threatening way.

In chapter 13, Andreas Schramm, from Hamline University in the USA offers
an explanation of the ethnographic strategies used to move several courses
of an on-campus ESL teacher education program to an interactive online
format. In order to make this move from interactive student-centered
classroom experience to a web-based format, Schramm focuses on the
importance of establishing a set of standards for Web-based courses under
groupings such as types of interaction and modes of interaction. He also
describes the online implementation of each course component.

In chapter 14, John Milton from the Hong Kong University of Science and
Technology focuses on the creative use of online tools to generate
authentic language as opposed to imitative language that is often the norm
in South East Asian classrooms. Milton has developed an indigenous course
delivery system aimed at various groups of learners to meet their diverse
language needs after having first researched different possibilities among
the commercial systems available. He concludes that despite the promise of
Internet technology, '... no ready-made content delivery system seemed to
offer the range of activity types and tools that meet the Web's potential
to create and deliver courses for dynamic language learning'. Milton's
course delivery system provided Web-based tools such as asynchronous
voice messaging, online data-driven language learning, feedback on student
writing and online role plays. According to Milton the tools, which have
been incorporated into an online course development system that supports
several online EFL courses, lend themselves to progressive approaches to
broader learning opportunities.
In the final chapter in this section, Mirjam Hauck and Regine Hampel from
the OUUK describe the progressive steps in the introduction of web-based
audio-graphic conferencing system of tutorials for all language courses.
This project first started with pilot projects and progressed to
the 'online only' tutorials in a German language course. The Lyceum
learning environment used has three main components: the audio-graphic
conferencing client, a website and e-mail. The purpose of such
collaborative virtual learning environments (CVLEs)in distance language
learning is to provide students with opportunities to provide
opportunities to develop interactive oral fluency in the target language.
One of the next steps in the project is to investigate whether this new
approach can lead to more efficient language learning and contribute to an
increase in learner autonomy.

6. Language teacher development
Chapter 16 of the final section of the book is by Heidi Hansson (Umeå
University) and Elisabeth Wennö (Karlstad University) from Sweden. In this
chapter, Hansson and Wennö discuss their experience with the development
of an online course for teachers of different practical subjects such as
music, art, physical education and woodworking, etc., who wanted, in
addition, a formal qualification to teach English. Based on a study
comparing a group of distance learners with a group of students taking the
courses face to face in the same period of time, Hansson and Wenno
conclude that the results from the distance learners were at least as good
as those who learned in the classroom. They compared the two groups on the
basis of increase in the level of language proficiency and degree of
interaction and took into account student views as well. Hansson and Wenno
argue that the problems for distance courses are the same as those facing
traditional courses. Therefore, factors such as individualized lessons,
teacher feedback and support, peer-to-peer interaction amongst students
and structured supervision and guidance are certainly factors that aid
effective learning in general. Distance is not really the issue, but
rather the available time and energy of the students (and teachers).

In chapter 17, Franca Poppi and Marina Bondi (University of Modena and
Reggio Emilia in Italy) and Lesley Low from the University of Stirling in
the UK describe a project that arose from a Europe-wide initiative to
extend the teaching of modern foreign languages to primary age pupils by
training more teachers to cater to this new demand. Several European
countries responded to this initiative in many number of ways, but this
chapter reports on a joint project involving universities in Italy and
Scotland that led to the development of the PLEASE website (Primary
Language teacher Education: Autonomy and Self-Evaluation). The general aim
of the four-year project was to address the training needs of both new and
continuing teachers engaged in the delivery of a foreign language to their
primary school pupils. The rationale for the PLEASE website was to foster
autonomous learning and reflective teaching skills among primary language
teachers. The intention was also to raise the awareness of teachers'
skills and to help their continuing professional development.

In chapter 18, Do Coyle from the University of Nottingham in the UK
provides an exploration of the development of a pilot network of Teaching
and Learning Observatory (TLO) sites which can be used to enhance the pre-
and in-service training of foreign language and bilingual teachers. The
initial idea of the TLO was based on a need for language teachers to
observe 'expert teachers' in their classrooms and for tutors to co-reflect
and to experiment with distance teaching in 'scaffolded zones'. The TLO
was set up to link a national and international hub of ten secondary
schools with a training institution using video conferencing and other
interactive technologies. In its early conception, the TLO was a non-
intrusive observation instrument and has now developed into an 'innovative
practice hub', powerful learning, teaching, training and research tool.
Coyle discusses how this evolution has come about emphasizing that
innovative practice can often be uncomfortable, but to balance realism
with vision.


Rapid technological change is influencing not only ways in which we
interact with the world, but also ways the world interacts with us. It
is, therefore, not surprising that the role of information technology in
education is garnering such widespread attention. Technology-mediated
education, as in but one conception of distance education, confronts us
everyday not only in the form of computers in schools and classrooms, but
also in the form of educational policies that are increasingly concerned
with information technology in the 'information age', global 'knowledge
economy' and the changing definition of literacy.

The edited collection of articles from institutions across the world (in
Distance Education and Languages: Evolution and Change) is not only
enlightening, but also serves as a crucial contribution to the field of
distance education. The broad range of issues covered in the book is
further enhanced by the fact that it delves into perspectives of both the
learner and of the language teacher, providing the reader with a multi-
dimensional view of the subject matter discussed. The research studies
touch upon important questions in the field of web-based language learning
that have not been dealt with so far and opens up the readers' eyes to
important issues that pertain to critical reflection, learner autonomy and
learning environments. Answers to these questions are of great
consequence, not only within the domain of distance learning, but also for
fields such as general education or language policy, to name a couple of

Even though the book covers a broad range of topics, it does not fully
address the important issue of an expanded definition of literacy (Leu
(2000); Meyer and Rose (2000)) in the digital/electronic environment, and
the impact such a definition has on the teaching and learning of second
languages. The concept of literacy as presented in the book still refers
to literacy as the teaching of basic skills-reading, writing, listening,
and speaking. It fails to underscore a fundamental reality that besides
having basic literacy skills, today's students also need technology skills
for thinking, understanding, evaluating and communicating critically about
messages inherent in new media. Literacy today also implies being able to
investigate, access and use information, and develop analytical thinking
to discern meaning from an array of multimedia, visual imagery, and
virtual environments, including written text. Hence, the definitions of
literacy that emerge from these diverse skills expected of today's student
are frequently categorized under information literacy, media literacy,
critical literacy, computer literacy, digital literacy, etc. A separate
section in the book could have been devoted to the discussion of whether
these new definitions of literacy have produced new curricula, widened the
general perception of literacy in language classrooms, or initiated
ancillary subjects taught under the umbrella of literacy instruction. This
section might have reported on studies in the area of technology-enhanced
language learning and its practice and on the professional development of
distance language teachers engaged in the development of multiliteracies.
Some of the questions yet to be addressed are as follows:
* Is there any empirical evidence to confirm that new technologies can be
effective in support of literacy instruction?
* Are any technologies, in fact, harmful to the development of successful
literacy instruction?
* In what ways has professional development of educators in literacy-based
contexts been influenced by the advent of educational technologies?
* What skills do language teachers need for integrating technology into
literacy instruction?

Answers to some of these questions may have made for some interesting
discussion and provided grist for further research. However, the reason
why empirical evidence to some of the above questions is unavailable may
well be that even as researchers begin to describe evidence supporting the
effects a particular technology on an educational practice, that
technology itself is changing and in some cases superseded by newer ones.
Valdez et al. (1999) aptly describes this as the "moving target" problem.

On the whole, however, the book is an excellent resource for anyone
interested in the new possibilities offered by the delivery of technology-
mediated education, as well as for the educator exploring new innovations
in educational technology and its applications. The studies presented in
the volume discuss a number of methodologies, thereby providing examples
of how to apply new technologies to support language development, and how
educators themselves may use this for their training needs. The sections
and chapters in the book are organized in a way that the reader has the
option of taking advantage of previous chapters when reading about similar
methodology or findings that can be compared and built upon, or focusing
on subject areas that are of immediate interest to her/him simultaneously
gaining a broader view of educational technologies in the context of
language teaching used in different parts of the world. As a result, this
book is also an indispensable addition to the educator's library as it
would be a great tool for courses dealing with distance education.


Hedberg, J., Brown, C., and Arrighi, M. (1997). Interactive multimedia and
Web-based learning: similarities and differences. In B. Khan (Ed). Web-
Based Instruction. Educational Technology Publications, Englewood Cliffs,
NJ, 47-58.

Huang, A.H. (1997). Challenges and opportunities of online education.
Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 25(3), 229-47.

International Society for Technology in Education. (2000). National
educational technology standards for teachers [Online].

Kamil, M. L., Intrator, S. M., & Kim, H.S. (2000). The effects of other
technologies on literacy and literacy learning. In M. L. Kamil, P. B.
Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research:
Vol. III (pp. 771-788). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kamil, M. L., & Lane, D. (1998). Researching the relationship between
technology and literacy: An agenda for the 21st century. In D. Reinking,
M. C. McKenna, L. D. Labbo, & R. D. Kieffer (Eds.), Handbook of literacy
and technology: Transformations in a post-typographic world (pp. 323-341).
Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Leu, D. J. (2000). Literacy and technology: Deictic consequences for
literacy education in an information age. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal,
P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research: Vol. III
(pp. 743-770). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Meyer, A., & Rose, D. H., (2000). Learning to read in the computer age
[Online]. Available:

Valdez, G., McNabb, M., Foertsch, M. Anderson, M., Hawkes, M., & Raack, L.
(1999). Computer-based technology and learning: Evolving uses and
expectations. Oak Brook, IL, North Central Regional Educational

Wood, J. M. (2000) Literacy: Charlotte's web meets the World Wide Web. In
D. T. Gordon (Ed.), The digital classroom: How technology is changing the
way we teach and learn (pp.117-126). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education


Subhadra Ramachandran has a Ph.D. in Linguistics, and currently manages
the distance education programs for the Centre for Education & Training,
Canada. One of the programs offers free ESL courses at a distance to
newcomers to Canada through the support of the federal government of
Canada. Subhadra's research interests include theories of and the actual
role of information and communication technology (ICT) in education,
focusing on whether and how ICTs can be exploited to enhance the quality
of learning.

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