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Review of  Integrating Computer-Mediated Communication into Foreign Language Education

Reviewer: Stefano Maranzana
Book Title: Integrating Computer-Mediated Communication into Foreign Language Education
Book Author: Long V. Nguyen
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 25.1297

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“Integrating Computer-Mediated Communication into Foreign Language Education” by Long V. Nguyen is a very well written book offering ways to employ modern technology in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) pedagogy. The book investigates how both synchronous and asynchronous computer-mediated communication may complement each other, leading to collaborative learning in the classroom setting. Particularly, the investigation revolves around three important attributes of collaborative learning (Ingram & Hathorn, 2004): participation, interaction and synthesis of information. The book is organized in twelve chapters.

Chapter One is an introduction, outlining the following research questions: “1) What is the nature and contribution of online synchronous discussion in comparison with traditional face-to-face discussion in collaborative learning in the EFL classroom? 2) What is the nature and contributions of online asynchronous peer-review in comparison with traditional pen-and-paper peer-review in collaborative learning in the EFL classroom? 3) To what extent, and in what ways, do online exchange processes lead to improved English language achievement? 4) What are the students’ reflections on and perceptions of CMC collaboration in the EFL classroom?” (p. 4).

Chapter Two, “Sociocultural Background,” provides the context for the research, where it took place as well as the cultural, sociological and cultural backgrounds of the participants. Nguyen discusses English language education and the discrepancies between Vietnamese government requirements and the actual level of English graduates. Even though at the conclusion of tertiary education Vietnamese students have a minimum of eleven years of English instruction, there is clear evidence that a large number of these students can hardly communicate in English. It appears that this problem can be attributed to traditional teacher-fronted and examination-oriented teaching methods. The application of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) methods in the classroom is also considered problematic by Vietnamese teachers of English who need to manage oversized classrooms (35-50 students), and thus prefer to rely on more traditional teacher-fronted methods. Research on the role of CMC in collaborative language learning might be a viable resource to surmount these challenges.

The research presented here was carried out at the University of Danang (UD) in Vietnam. The chapter provides demographics on the city of Danang, its university and the students. Although most of the lecturers of the English Department have a Master’s degree in TESOL from locally or overseas, for reasons mentioned above, the proficiency of graduates remains low. The use of computer technology, though regarded as important, is still limited, both at the managerial level and in the classroom. Face-to-face classroom interaction is therefore still the principal form of communication between teachers and students. Despite encouragement from instructors, Vietnamese students are uneasy speaking up in the classroom, as precision is considered more valuable than speaking a great deal and inaccurately (Lewis & McCook, 2002; Tomlinson & Dat, 2004). Nguyen’s book explores whether CMC can address some of the problems and improve the level of proficiency of Vietnamese EFL students.

Chapter Three, “Sociocultural Theory of Learning,” introduces the pedagogical framework, tracing back to the theories of Piaget’s (1932) constructivist theory and Vygotsky’s (1978) sociocultural theory (SCT). In past years, SCT has had significant influence in the fields of education, and more recently in the fields of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and computer-assisted language learning (CALL). Vygotskian theory assumes the interconnectedness of the three parts of development, i.e., cultural-historical, interpersonal and intrapersonal. SCT stresses the value of social interactions in generating a learning environment within a wider social and cultural context. The chapter discusses SCT, examining mediation, activity theory and the zone of proximal development (ZPD) within the scope of language acquisition, laying emphasis on the importance of collaborative learning.

In Chapter Four, “Current Approaches to Language Education,” the author stresses the relationship between collaborative and communicative language learning. The focus of language teaching should be on meaning rather than on form. CLT has long been regarded as a learner-centered and comprehensive approach, embracing different methods, motivations and learning styles, taking into account the needs of the classroom and students. CLT emphasizes communication in real life situations, using five key features: 1) An emphasis on learning to communicate through interaction in the target language; 2) The introduction of authentic texts into the learning environment; 3) Attention not only to the language but also the learning process itself; 4) Bringing the learner’s own personal experience to the classroom as a component of the learning process; 5) The attempt to connect classroom language learning with language outside the classroom (Nunan, 1991).

Nguyen situates CLT within the sociocultural framework as CLT breaks from theories based on universal generative grammars and innate language acquisition and focuses on artifact-mediated participative language learning. SCT-based CLT pedagogy assumes that 1) Language is best learned via social interaction and negotiation of meaning; 2) Learning is typically mediated by social and cultural tools; 3) Collaborative learning with peers activates the ZPD, improving linguistic performance; 4) Collaborative learning plays a fundamental role in CTL language classroom settings. In CLT, teacher-centered pedagogy is replaced by group-based and pair-based learning, where social interaction becomes a means of knowledge-formation and the student plays an active role while the teacher acts as a facilitator. Moving away from the traditional language learning methods, collaborative learning is gaining popularity, shifting the power in the classroom from the teacher to learners whilst encouraging learner autonomy.

Chapter Five gives an overview of “Computer-Mediated Communication” in language teaching. Researchers seek to understand how computer-mediated communication (CMC) can contribute to education from various disciplinary and methodological standpoints. CMC can be seen as communication between human beings through the means of networked computers. It can be synchronous or asynchronous, providing freedom from temporal and spatial limitations and giving access to a variety of media (hypertext, video, images, etc.). These features make this mode an ideal springboard for collaborative learning. Nguyen provides an extensive review of the research literature dealing with the characteristic of CMC and the benefits that this medium can bring in to language development. Specifically, he surveys studies of CMC on: 1) Metalinguistic aspects (negotiation of meaning, sociolinguistic environments, intercultural and intracultural competence); 2) Language areas or components (grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation); 3) language skills (writing, reading, speaking listening). The chapter covers research pertaining to computer-mediated collaborative second language learning, showing how this medium may enhance students’ participation and interaction.

Chapter Six illustrates the research methodology and describes the procedures of the study, with a discussion of the method of data collection and analysis in conformity with the research questions. Mixed methods research was applied, i.e., taking into account “multiple viewpoints, perspectives, positions, and standpoints” (Johnson et al., 2007, p. 113). Both qualitative and quantitative data were gathered and analyzed to study and assess the process and product of collaborative learning between two EFL classes of the TEFL program at the College of Foreign Language (CFL) the University of Danang. The control classes employed traditional face-to-face and pen-and-paper collaborative practices, while the CMC classes used synchronous and asynchronous modes. Demographic statistics follow in the chapter, as well as data on the students’ English language proficiency, collaborative learning experience, perceptions of networked computer, and computer proficiency. Yahoo! Messenger was selected as the medium for synchronous communication, while a wiki (PBWiki) was used for asynchronous interaction. Criteria for the selection of these media are described in detail. The data collected consist of a pre-project questionnaire, synchronous discussion transcripts, after-chat interview, asynchronous peer-reviews, final collaborative products, a post-project questionnaire, a post-project interview, and the observations of the researcher. Since this work dealt with collaborative learning and the interactive features of both SCMA and ACMC, the conceptual framework for analysis adopted in the research was Mangenot and Nissen’s (2006) three levels of collaboration: socioaffective (i.e., how students get along with their peers), organizational (i.e., planning, monitoring and evaluating of the task), and sociocognitive (i.e., how students resolved the tasks in collaboration).

Chapter Seven, “Synchronous Discussion,” discusses results of the chat discussion. The main aim is to answer the first research question regarding the nature and effectiveness of SCMC interaction in comparison to face-to-face discussion. 20 groups from both classes (computer-mediated and face-to-face) are analyzed, identifying participation and interaction. The CMC class spent twice the time as the control class discussing the required task, but produced almost half the number of words. The number of words per turn produced by the control group was approximately three times higher than the CMC group. These figures challenge previous studies that found SCMC can promote greater participation (Kern, 1995; Lee, 2002; Smith, 2003). A possible reason, Nguyen argues, could be that the students had no previous experience with SCMC in academic environments. Furthermore, with no facial expressions and gestures available in SCMC, the students needed more time to think about their output. Member participation, however, was substantially more equal in SCMC than in face-to-face interaction, confirming that SCMC affords more equal participation structures. Statistics on the interactions are provided. As per the nature of the interactions, the online groups had to employ a variety of communicative tools to negotiate a common ground and produced a significant number of socioaffective and organizational interactions that helped build, sustain and develop the online community of collaborative learning. Furthermore, analysis confirmed that the groups using SCMC performed significantly more negotiated discussions than the face-to-face group.

Chapter Eight, “Asynchronous Peer Review,” looks at the viability of wikis as a potential collaborative tool by analyzing the peer review process of the 20 groups in the study. The wiki did enhance the collaboration of the students, with a higher number of comments generated via the wiki compared to the paper-and-pencil groups. The CMC groups also generated a substantial number of comments associated with socioaffective and organizational matters, which was not the case in the paper feedback. The wiki mode of peer review created a multi-way interactive mode of learning that cannot be replicated on paper. The comments that appeared in the wiki (encouragement, consensus-seeking, agreement or rejecting other participants’ comments) created a social and cognitive environment that enabled mutual support leading to a higher level of autonomy, the effectiveness of collaborative peer review systems and a higher level of information synthesis.

Chapter Nine, “Final Collaborative Products,” analyses and discusses 20 final essays written by each group of the two participating classes. The chapter addresses the third research question, to determine improvement in English proficiency of the CMC group compared to the control group. The essays of the control group were written as a first draft by one group member who would revise his or her work before passing it to the leader of the group for editing. In the wiki mode, although one student was the originator of the first draft, all group members revised collaboratively the draft at the same time. Quantitative and statistical analysis does not show any significant difference between the essays of the two classes, with the exception of a higher number of words per essay generated by the CMC class. The qualitative analysis showed that the use of language was analogous between the two classes. CMC compositions were superior in terms of content, but inferior as regards to organization and structure compared to the non-CMC ones.

Chapter Ten is “Learners’ Perceptions and reflections” and examines the participants’ opinions and considerations vis-à-vis the CMC environments, dealing with the fourth research question. The data for analysis consists of the questionnaire and interviews with 14 volunteer students who participated in the CMC class. Overall, many participants found the experience engaging and motivating, as opposed to the traditional teacher-oriented classroom, which was regarded as more tedious. Interestingly, the participants were equally divided as to the preference for SCMC or ACMC and they generally saw both as generating confidence and enthusiasm for the collaborative learning process. The students claimed to have improved significantly their computer skills, though they could not perceive any improvement in their English language skills, due to the short time of CMC class (12 weeks). Furthermore, they stated that they felt more involved in the learning process through collaboration.

Chapter Eleven, “Lessons Learned,” discusses the book’s research aims, i.e., to explore the effectiveness and perceptions of CMC environments in EFL collaborative learning. Interactionists believe that language development is acquired through interaction among learners and between learners and the teacher. CMC environments help overcome the classroom boundaries by “(1) bringing the world into the classroom, (2) taking the classroom into the wider world, and (3) most importantly, expanding the world right within the classroom” (p. 190). Moreover, by keeping most of the learning activities online, learners could complete their learning and collaborative pursuits anytime and anywhere, and remain connected throughout the unfolding of the collaboration. CMC is to be seen not only as a tool of mediation, but also as a content-rich environment that enables learning and collaboration. Nguyen argues that the online collaborative learning in this research reached a higher degree of satisfaction as regarding the ZPD, through active negotiation of meaning via social and cultural tools.

The concluding Chapter Twelve contains the author’s reflection on his research and adds implications and recommendations for future research. Nguyen is satisfied with the outcomes of his study and believes that it benefitted the students as they were able to go beyond the traditional classroom setting and expand into the broader world beyond it. Through the scaffolding assistance of more experienced participants (i.e., other students or the teacher), the students were able to achieve a degree of competence that would have not been reached on their own. In sum, the application of CMC in language education is in line with the sociocognitive views articulated in the Vygotskian framework. Nguyen advocates the application of mixed methods research for foreign language education inquiry, where sociocognitive, socioaffective and organizational aspects of collaborative learning need to be assessed. Pedagogically speaking, the research confirms that integrating CMC into collaborative learning is practical and promising. Nevertheless, preparation needs to be done in order to maximize this pedagogical potential, with a look at which platforms are better to be used in line with the teaching objectives. Further research needs to be carried out to increase generalizability of its outcomes, i.e., by collecting data from a larger sample and over a longer period of time. Another suggested line of research pertains to peer feedback and the extent to which learners actually revised their writing to conform to the recommendations received. Finally, Nguyen proposes to investigate more the pedagogical affordances provided by wikis, being one of the most important Web 2.0 technologies.

Nguyen’s book aims at exploring how Computer-Mediated Communication, both synchronous and asynchronous, may impact Communicative Language Teaching within a Vietnamese EFL university setting. Overall the author has achieved his goals with the book, though of course, as he acknowledges, it has some limitations. Though the author found evidence that the CMC group did collaborate more and manifested more enthusiasm to learn through synchronous and asynchronous modes, the author asserts that due to the limited amount of time of CMC (12 weeks), it was not possible to determine any significant language improvement in the group.

The scope of the book is not limited to the Vietnamese situation or only to EFL. I recommend this book for all scholars interested in computer-mediated language acquisition research for it provides extensive theoretical background and clear detail on how the research was implemented. The book features many charts and diagrams offering visualizations of the data analyzed.

Nguyen’s book is also practical for second language acquisition students just embarking in the study of technology and language learning and seeking a general overview of the state-of-the-art. The bibliography is well-chosen and up-to-date, ranging from SLA principles to Sociocultural Theory, CLT and CMC in language education. Furthermore, owing to the dual focus of the research, the literature reviewed includes investigations on asynchronous CMC (wikis and blogs) and synchronous CMC (chat).

Finally, the text is written with such clarity that it is accessible to foreign language educators who are interested in incorporating online technologies to enhance their classrooms and programs. Contemporary language teaching methods need to take advantage of CMC technologies to create stimulating learning environments and turn to students’ current needs and learning styles.

Ingram, A.L., & Hathorn, L.G. (2004). Methods for analyzing collaboration in online. “Online Colloborative Learning: Theory and Practice”, 207.

Johnson, R.B., Onwuegbuzie, A.J., & Turner, L.A. (2007). Toward a definition of mixed methods research. “Journal of mixed methods research”, 1(2), 112-133.

Lee, L. (2002). Enhancing Learners' Communication Skills through Synchronous Electronic Interaction and Task‐Based Instruction. “Foreign Language Annals”, 35(1), 16-24.

Lewis, M., & McCook, F. (2002). Cultures of teaching: Voices from Vietnam. “ELT journal”, 56(2), 146-153.

Kern, R.G. (1995). Restructuring classroom interaction with networked computers: Effects on quantity and characteristics of language production. “The Modern Language Journal”, 79(4), 457-476.

Mangenot, F., & Nissen, E. (2006). Collective activity and tutor involvement in e-learning environments for language teachers and learners. “Calico Journal”, 23(3), 601-622.

Nunan, D. (1991). “Language teaching methodology: A textbook for teachers”. New York: Prentice hall.

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Smith, B. (2003). Computer–mediated negotiated interaction: an expanded model. “The Modern Language Journal”, 87(1), 38-57.

Tomlinson, B., & Dat, B. (2004). The contributions of Vietnamese learners of English to ELT methodology. “Language teaching research”, 8(2), 199-222.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). “Mind in society: The development of higher mental process”. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Stefano Maranzana is a PhD student in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching and Italian language instructor at University of Arizona. His main research interests include English as a Lingua Franca, technology in SLA, telecollaboration and Sociocultural Theory.