Can blended learning aid foreign language learning?

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  • DOI 10.1515/cercles-2013-0007CercleS 2013; 3(1): 127149

    Marta Gens Pedra and Ma Teresa Martn de LamaCan blended learning aid foreign language learning?

    Abstract: There has always been a debate around the issue of what it is that improves learning: the instruction itself or the media used for it (Clark 1983; Kozma 1994). It has also been said (Kulik and Kulik 1991; Andrewartha & Wilmot 2001) that computer mediated learning, as opposed to traditional instruction, positively influences the students achievement. However, some researchers (Clark 1983; Schramm 1977; Wiley 2002) point out that it is not the use of media that improves learning but the strategies and the material developed for this particular kind of instruction.Online tuition is a trend which is being introduced by many educational institutions both as a core instructional mode, as in the case of pure online or blendedlearning courses, or a as a complement to traditional facetoface learning (Ko and Rossen 2010). Online asynchronous learning is implemented in order to attract students who desire to receive a quality education regardless of time zones, location and distance. Synchronous online learning is being used to increase interaction between students and teachers. In blended learning these two modalities, asynchronous and synchronous learning, are frequently combined to design full courses that promote meaningful learning. This paper will examine the benefits and difficulties of the combination of asynchronous and synchronous learning modes in blended learning and the theoretical and practical implications in the design of effective blendedlearning materials for foreign language learning.

    Keywords: Network learning, blended learning, connectivism, learning ecologies, foreign language learning, computerassisted language learning, asynchronous and synchronous communication

    Marta Gens Pedra: Nebrija University, c/ Pirineos, 55 28040 Madrid (Spain). E-mail: mgenis@nebrija.esMa Teresa Martn de Lama: Nebrija University, c/ Pirineos, 55 28040 Madrid (Spain). E-mail: mmartinl@nebrija.es

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  • 128Marta Gens Pedra and Ma Teresa Martn de Lama

    1IntroductionBlended learning is an umbrella term under which a wide spectrum of learning approaches are clustered. With the emergence of digital technology, there has been a considerable variety of terms used to name this methodology which current literature typically describes as combining facetoface and computer mediated learning.

    It has been called hybrid learning (Hall and Davison 2007), mixed learning (Bartolom 2004), blended learning (Vasileou 2009) or blearning (Baados 2006). These last terms, blended learning or blearning, have prevailed at last as opposed to elearning, in which content is delivered only though the Internet without the interlocutors being physically present. Both terms will be used interchangeably throughout this article.

    There have been many definitions. Osguthorpe & Graham (2003: 227) defined blended learning methodologies as pedagogies that change according to the unique needs of learners. Highlighting this flexibility, Thorne (2003:18) characterizes blended learning as the right learning at the right time and in the right place for every individual. Anderson (2001: 12) describes blended learning as a methodology that combines the best attributes of electronic and traditional classroom experiences to present and reinforce learning.

    In a more comprehensive definition, Dziuban, Moskal and Hartman (2004: 3) state that blended learning should be viewed as a pedagogical approach that combines the effectiveness and socialization opportunities of the classroom with the technologically enhanced active learning possibilities of the online environment.

    However, a definition which comprises all the key pedagogical features of blended learning is preferred by the authors. This definition includes online and faceto face devices for effective learning; flexibility to adapt to the learners needs as regards time, place and pace; and socialization, interaction and active learning opportunities.

    This article intends to analyze the theoretical implications behind blended learning, as well as to examine the reasons why blearning aided by computerassisted language learning can possibly aid foreign language learning.

    2Theoretical implicationsThe use of new technologies has revealed new ways of teaching and learning as instructional means have changed. In this sense, blearning is highly influenced by the medium being used at each given teaching/learning moment (Anderson

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  • Blended learning129

    and Elloumi 2004). As early as in 1964, Marshal McLuhan declared that if we want to understand social and cultural change, we have to consider media as an ecosystem (McLuhan 1964: 26). More recently, Prensky (2001: 1) divided people into digital natives and digital immigrants. In opposition to this, Jones et al. (2010) consider that there is not such a clear distinction. They argue that the university students profiles and backgrounds are varied, and therefore we should be cautious about adopting technological determinist arguments that suggest that universities simply have to adapt to a changing student population who are described as a single group with definite and known characteristics (Jones and Cross 2009: 19). Nevertheless, what we can be sure of is that learners are increasingly adopting new technological media, very much different to formal traditional learning within a new learning medium, ecosystem or ecology.

    2.1Learning ecologies

    In this recent learning scenario, the traditional bookbased learning is out of date, and we need to talk about learning ecologies instead. These are learning structures that emulate the connections triggered in our brains when we learn (Siemens 2004).

    John S. Brown (2002: 25) defined a learning ecology as an open, complex, adaptive system comprising elements that are dynamic and interdependent. Its characteristics are: (1) it is informal and nonstructured; (2) it uses many different tools; (3) it is consistent and safe; (4) it is simple and decentralized; (5) it is fostered and not managed; and (6) it is connected and tolerant with failure (Siemens 2004).

    In this light, students can acquire knowledge from different sources, both formally and informally, creating a network among users who learn from each other as well as from other information devices (Downes 2007). The theory of connectivism (Siemens 2004), described in the following subsection, tries to analyze how in a learning ecology all members and other sources of information are continuously connected, sharing learning experiences and knowledge.

    2.2Connectivism

    As new media and technologies are being introduced in educational contexts, the processes of teaching and learning need to be viewed from a different perspective. Siemens (2004), reflecting about the inadequacy of the existing theories of learning and teaching for our technologically advanced society, explains that:

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  • 130Marta Gens Pedra and Ma Teresa Martn de Lama

    Connectivism is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and selforganization theories. Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements not entirely under the control of the individual. Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing. Connectivism is driven by the understanding that decisions are based on rapidly altering foundations. New information is continually being acquired. The ability to draw distinctions between important and unimportant information is vital. The ability to recognize when new information alters the landscape based on decisions made yesterday is also critical. (Siemens 2004: 4).

    According to Siemens, we learn in a chaotic and messy way, i.e. we are interested in many issues, so we connect with other people using social and collaborative networks in order to interchange opinions and thoughts, and to try hypotheses and propose alternatives. Downes (2007: 4) shares this view when he says that learning occurs in communities, where the practice of learning is the participation in the community. A learning activity is, in essence, a conversation undertaken between the learner and other members of the community.

    Siemens (2004) also suggests a move from transmission of established knowledge by an instructional organization to acquisition, which involves selfselection of content according to personal interests and hobbies. He implies that the process of learning begins with transmission and follows with acquisition, emergence and accretion. Emergence is a cognitive process that entails reflection, innovation and creation; accretion implies considering learning as a neverending process.

    This holistic view of learning, which is incorporated in the new social and cultural context, considers all the available information resources and background and goes beyond the mere delivery of information.

    2.2.1 Principles of connectivism

    Connectivism relies on the following principles (Siemens 2004; Downes 2007): (1) diversity of opinions is essential for acquiring knowledge; (2) learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources; (3) learning may reside in nonhuman appliances; (4) what is currently known is not as important as our capacity to know more; (5) we need connections to make constant learning possible; (6) the pivotal skill needed is the ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts; (7) all learning activities should be aimed at acquiring currency (accurate, uptodate knowledge); (8) decisionmaking is in itself a

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  • Blended learning131

    learning process in which we choose what to learn and can understand that reality is constantly changing.

    As it can be noticed, connectivism shares many principles with constructivism, which also considers the individual mental process when learners are actively interacting with the medium. Constructivism (Ausubel 1968; Vygostky 1992; Bruner 1960) mainly emphasizes the importance of: (1) individual knowledge construction; (2) individual responsibility, effort and information discovery; (3) individual differences in learning styles and strategies; (4) the active and creative role of the student; (5) meaningfulness and purposefulness of learning; (6) cooperative work and interaction for effective learning.

    2.2.2Problems when applying connectivism

    The application of this new paradigm can present some problems. One of these difficulties is the huge amount of information available. Our students are exposed to a lot of information, and they very often lack criteria to select it, validate it or to know the original source. This can be a problem as students might not be able to identify the original sources and consequently choose inappropriate or incorrect information (Downes 2011).

    An additional problem is knowledge creation, which is not the same as knowledge consumption, as we have to build up new knowledge out of the information we receive. However, sometimes students do not realize that the sources used to support their own ideas have to be mentioned and cited, and quite often students appear to plagiarise (Downes 2007).

    Evaluation can also become a difficult task for teachers. First, we have to consider whether any evaluation is needed and, if so, adapt old evaluation methods or establish a new assessment model from scratch in order to assess socially constructed knowledge.

    Likewise, the profiles of instructors, learners and learning materials need to change in the context of connectivism. Downes (2002: 1) claims that: Educators play the same sort of role in society as journalists. They are aggregators, assimilators, analysts and advisors. They are middle links in an ecosystem, (...), parasites on information produced by others. Traditionally, until now, teachers have been considered the ones that hold the knowledge, while knowledge is now distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks. Knowledge, therefore, is not acquired, as though it were a thing. It is not transmitted, as though it were some type of communication. (Downes 2011: 1). This theory conceives the teacher as a person who helps students to learn by themselves, encourages them to find their own sources, helps them to select the resources they need, and fosters logical

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  • 132Marta Gens Pedra and Ma Teresa Martn de Lama

    thinking and knowledge acquisition through group connection naturally via any form of technology.

    This view is shared by some other theorists (Siemens 2004; Gonzlez 2004; Brown 2002) who believe that knowledge is not acquired but that it just happens as connections are formed naturally by association. Thus, the activities we may undertake are very varied, as we can use all the conventional media along with the new ones such as fora, chats, videoconferences, links, wikis, blogs, webquests, instant messenger, and many other ways.

    3 Advantages and disadvantages of using blended learning for foreign language learning

    Despite its drawbacks, as it will be explained below, blearning can present considerable advantages in providing students with effective, low cost tuition, autonomous learning, interaction and socialization, collaboration and connectivity (Nicolson et al. 2011) to improve their competence in the foreign language.

    As Bonk, KyongYee and Tingting (2006) argue, it is not a matter of whether to blend or not, but how it is done. For this reason, when designing blearning it is necessary to bear in mind the advantages and disadvantages that this methodology can offer.

    3.1The advantages of b-learning

    According to Bonk and Graham (2005), there are several good reasons to implement blearning programmes:

    3.1.1More flexibility, easier access and self-directed learning

    As discussed above, distributed or online learning allows students to reconcile their personal and working lives with their studies. Moreover, blendedlearning follows a studentcentred approach, and therefore students autonomy and responsibility are fostered as learners feel in control by accessing learning materials when they need them and at their own pace, taking...

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