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CMC in a distance English course for school teachers: a case study Katherine Ackerley & Paula De Waal University of Padova “in language learning, distance learning seems almost a contradiction – language is communication, how can you learn it in isolation?”

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cmc in a distance english course for school teachers a case study

CMC in a distance English course for school teachers: a case study

Katherine Ackerley & Paula De Waal

University of Padova

“in language learning, distance learning seems almost a contradiction – language is communication, how can you learn it in isolation?”
  • (Goodfellow, Manning & Lamy, 1999:267)
  • Ensure communicative language learning is taking place
  • Overcome isolation of studying on a distance course
the distance degree
The distance degree
  • Scienze per la formazione dell'infanzia e della preadolescenza (Primary Education)
  • Faculty of Education, University of Padova
  • For primary & nursery school teachers
  • 3-year degree started 2006-7
  • 2nd year – English exam A2 or B1 level
    • 2007-8
  • 3rd year – ‘English teaching’ course
    • 2008-9
the distance english course
The distance English course
  • September 2007- June 2008
  • 2 parallel courses
    • 0-A2
    • B1
  • Students
    • 170 primary & nursery school teachers
    • 2nd year of distance degree
    • 1 year’s experience of distance learning in Moodle
  • Final exam: ‘idoneità’ – pass/fail
  • Attendance non-compulsory
language competence groups
Language competence & groups
  • 135 students working towards A2
    • 3 levels
    • 6 tutors
  • 35 students working towards B1
    • 21 of whom already have credits
    • 1 tutor
  • A total of 33 students are exempt from taking exam
  • 2 tutors for induction sessions & technical support
the learning environments
The learning environments
  • Main learning environment
    • Moodle
  • Multimedia interactive course content
    • Learning Links (0-A2)
    • B1 Online (A2.2 – B1)
  • Synchronous oral communication
    • FlashMeeting


  • Main learning environment for all courses on distance degree
  • Instructions & announcements from teacher
  • Group forums with tutors
    • Asynchronous written & spoken activities
    • Organisation of synchronous meetings
  • Helpdesk for use of FlashMeeting/Audio Recorder
  • Learner diary
  • Primary school teacher glossary
  • Progress tests
  • Access to course materials

Learning Links

  • Developed at Padova University Language Centre
  • Originally developed
    • for use in Language Centre’s blended English courses
    • for independent language study
  • Changes made for distance course
    • Print-outs to guide students through each module
    • Plan to help students organise study and stick to group schedule
    • Suggestions for writing and speaking activities for each module for online asynchronous and synchronous communication
  • 12 modules of interactive multimedia content
    • 0-A2
  • Detailed progress report of student responses and results

B1 Online

  • Developed by Cambridge University Press for Italian University students
    • Team of English teachers at Italian Universities
  • Online course designed for blended learning
    • Interactive multimedia materials
    • Written tasks to be sent to tutor via platform
    • Suggested activities for face-to-face meetings

Developed by Open University

  • Chosen to support synchronous video communication
  • Used to discuss topics and language
    • dealt with in Learning Links/B1 Online
    • prepared in Group forums in Moodle
  • Multimodal communication
    • Video
    • Whiteboard
    • Text chat
    • Emoticons
  • Groups meet for 60/90 minute sessions
  • All meetings are recorded and can be watched again

Oral communication

With or without webcam

Speakers must take turns

Possibility to book turns

All participants can be seen simultaneously

Flashboard can be used:

to post pictures

to write words

to draw things

All participants can contribute to Flashboard

Text chat


Feature of replay

Allows selection and replay of an individual participant

Allows review of kind of interaction and turn-taking

Facilitates monitoring of participation, performance & teacher -talking-time

tutor views use of flashmeetings
Tutor views & use of FlashMeetings
  • Students (and some tutors) initially afraid of taking part
    • Particular problem for complete beginners
  • Tutors enthusiastic about student reactions
  • Find students are naturally curious about each other & levels of interaction are good
  • However…
      • Software doesn’t lend itself to totally spontaneous conversation
      • More of a problem for complete beginners
  • Different approaches
    • Conversation about pictures
    • Grammar drills
    • Conversation/speaking activities based on language in online courses
    • Teacher-centred vs learner-centred approaches
    • Varied use of visual support
students views
Students’ views
  • Questionnaire on:
    • Asynchronous written & oral communication in forums
    • Synchronous oral & written communication in FlashMeeting
    • Perception of role of online courses (Learning Links/B1 Online) in their language production
  • Responses from 76/90 current participants
general attitudes to synchronous asynchronous activities
General attitudes to synchronous & asynchronous activities

Writing in the forum helps me learn English

FlashMeetings help me learn to speak English

anxiety in online environments
Anxiety in online environments

I feel at ease writing in English in the forum

I feel at ease speaking in English in FlashMeetings

pre flashmeeting anxiety curiosity
Pre-Flashmeeting anxiety (& curiosity)
  • I'm very preoccupied, but I'm very curious, too!!
  • I hope that it isn't difficult meeting!
  • I'm very, very  preoccupied.
  • Let's hope for the best, I am troubled but curious.what  troubles  me is ... my pronunciationand the grammarand, ...  but I am very very curious
  • I'm not curious... but I'm very afraid.I'm a little worried because I don't speak English very well! I hope you'll help me!
  • I'm worried too... I hope I'll be able to speak English!!!
  • I hope to be able to say something ... I hope in your help
  • I'm very preoccupied!
  • my web cam is very afraid...this evening it's fail (non funziona...!!!!)

the flashMeeting was wery interesting!!It is possible to take part of next flashmeeting?I like spiking whit you!!

our meeting was very interesting and our problems were funny.

our  meeting has  "mitico" and  very funny! Now I 'm not scared anymore.

I'm sorry for my mistakes and for my giggles. I had a laugh " di gusto "!!!

Tanks every body for our meeting! It was very interesting and very funny!

asynchronous written communication in moodle
Asynchronous written communication in Moodle

The activities in the forum promote collaborative learning

attitudes to learning from peers
Attitudes to learning from peers

Reading my classmates’ messages help me learn English

Listening to my classmates in FlashMeeting is useful for my language learning

integration online courses forums flashmeeting
Integration online courses, forums & FlashMeeting

What I study in the online course helps me to express myself in the forum

What I study in the online course helps me to express myself in the FlashMeetings

The activities in the forum help me prepare for the FlashMeetings

synchronous oral communication in flashmeeting
Synchronous oral communication in FlashMeeting

FlashMeetings give me motivation to follow the course

mixed initial reactions to flashmeeting
Mixed initial reactions to FlashMeeting
  • I’m very happy I was in the FlashMeeting last night. It was very difficult for me... the words didn't coming in my mind (is it correct?)...also that I generally know! I was very imbarassed... I never speak English!But I think that's a good way to learn really English, I hope that the next meeting will be better for me...
  • Flash meeting it’s a very thrilling experience for me! Yesterday I was worried and moved before it. I’m afraid I won’t succeed when I speak English so I’m embarrassed.
  • wonderful, Laura, you've hit the mark: 'chi vuol essere milionario' is exactly the way I feel when I'm at the flashmeeting, too.
  • I was nervous and anxious, I can't speak, my head turned! It was terrible!
  • I feeled a little embarrassed during the meeting and I didn't remember either words that I generally know! How shameful!
  • I think that our flashmeeting was fantastic even if I felt very nervous. I speak never English…flashmeeting is an excellent occasion to practise listening and speaking and to incite speaking! I liked listening informations of each one and put questions to other, a good idea to create a conversation.

pratical 3

flexible 3

impossible 1

nice/pleasurable 7

complete 3

stressful 3

collaborative 4

a challenge 2

effective 14

not very collaborative 1

difficult 9

interesting 11

stimulating 16

individualised 2

too much autonomy 1

hard work 11

lonely 1

well-structured/ organised 6

rich 5

fun 9

complex 6

unclear 3

motivating 2

bitty 2

useful 5

Innovative 5

demotivating 3

guided 3

open 2

participation in english course
Participation in English course
  • 130 out of 170 students started the course
  • By mid-April only 90 students
  • Need to understand reasons for
    • Not starting
    • Not participating
possible reasons for not participating
Possible reasons for not participating
  • Heavy workload for English course
    • hard work 11
  • Work & family commitments
  • Pressure of other courses
  • Technical problems
    • though Faculty offers high level of technical support
  • Fear – in particular complete beginners
  • Confusion caused by course complexity
  • Lack of motivation caused by isolation
    • not very collaborative 1
    • too much autonomy 1
    • lonely 1
    • demotivating 3
  • Enthusiastic reactions to synchronous oral communication in FlashMeeting
  • Students find that course components are relatively well-integrated & help performance
  • Students still need & favour independent study in online courses (Learning Links/B1 Online)
  • Need to examine what reasons for non-attendance & dissatisfaction
  • 22% of complete beginners never started course
  • 69% still participate, including students who are exempt from the exam have followed course throughout
  • High level of participation in synchronous and asynchronous activities
next steps for the distance english course
Next steps for the distance English course
  • Maintain same learning environments
  • Use results from further analysis to provide
    • Clearer guidelines for tutors about interaction in Moodle forums & FlashMeetings
    • Extra preparation & support for complete beginners
  • Carry out more research into CMC components
    • writing in forum
    • use of audio recorders
    • participation in FlashMeeting
  • Carry out cross-analysis on different groups
    • Final performance (end-of-course exam)
    • Tutor approaches characterising most successful groups
use of flashboard
Use of Flashboard

Not all tutors use Flashboard during Flashmeetings

Presentation of new vocabulary

Use of photos as prompts

Students enjoy asking each other questions about each other’s pictures

Use of personal photos gives students something real to talk about

use of chat as support in flashmeeting
Use of chat as support in FlashMeeting

Can be disorientating as it distracts students from their speaking turn

For guessing games

For praise

Prompts for speaking drills

For correction

To answer student queries without interrupting oral production

course timescale
Course timescale
  • September 2007
    • familiarization with English course in Moodle
    • Audio forum - Ice-breaking activities using Audio Recorder (developed by Nottingham University)
    • Helpdesk active – help with Audio Recorder
  • October 2007
    • Students can access Learning Links for independent study
    • Helpdesk active for technical problems with Learning Links
    • Familiarization with FlashMeeting – training sessions with technical support tutor
  • November 2007
    • English tutors start working with groups
    • Ice-breaking activities in Moodle (written and audio)
  • November – June 2008
    • Students work through course materials with tutor support
    • Work in forums with tutor support
    • 12 FlashMeetings with tutors based on materials in online courses