An analytical review of the literature on
Second Language Education Issues in Online Learning Environments
Submitted by: Leslie Davis
The purpose of this paper is to present an analysis of the theme exploring the second language learning issues that are becoming more prevalent as education increasingly turns to computer-mediated communication (CMC) and web-based learning (WBL). Second language education refers to alternative or foreign language education, from the perspective of both instructor and student. Due to the era of internationalization and globalization, having an alternative language is a valuable and relevant skill in commerce and education (Shih, 2010). Access to language learning opportunities, free of the physical limitations of traditional face-to-face contexts, has allowed more and more language learners to participate in virtual classrooms, and to interact and collaborate online (Loewen & Reissner, 2009). Needless to say, such opportunities have their own implications for second language education programs and how foreign language teachers themselves communicate, facilitate, and evaluate in both online and blended classrooms. Therefore, it is important to examine the influence of e-learning systems on educational paradigms and, consequently, on how alternative language learners flounder or flourish in these online learning environments.
Organization of this paper
This paper begins with a methods’ section that describes how the analysis was conducted. The findings section outlines the main common sub-themes that emerged from the ten studies, while the discussion section interprets, assesses, critiques, and debates what was actually revealed through the analysis. Lastly, the concluding section examines the main findings on second language education issues in online learning environments, lists a few limitations, and explores the pedagogical implications of these issues.
The ten sources were selected from ten peer-reviewed educational technology journals, and because so, all included an electronic medium. The analysis only included sources with the words second or foreign language and online (or related words indicating web, blogging, chatroom, Internet) as part of the title. To figure as part of the analysis, the journal sources had to include research participants. This means that meta-analyses, book reviews, etc. were excluded. The studies selected ranged from 2002 to 2011, and were culled from a detailed search through such academically accepted databases as The Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC), Education Research Complete, and Google Scholar. Table 1 lists the characteristics that satisfy the course requirements for this analysis.
Table 1: Characteristics of the Studies
Chen, Chen & Lee (2011)
Online; “F2F”synchronous audio conversation
Taiwan, ESL-Teacher as facilitator
Quantitative-pre-test, post-test questionnaires
Doerr & Sato(2011)
F2F; Online-blog instruction, establishing criteria for assessment; blogging
USA, JFL-Teacher as facilitator-Teacher as researcher
Lin, Lin & Hsu(2011)
Taiwan, ESL-Teacher as facilitator
Quantitative-pre-test, post-test journals & essays
Loewen & Reissner(2009)
14 students/27 students
University/private language school
New Zealand, ESL-Teachers as facilitators
Quantitative-coding of FFE type & linguistic focus
Online/F2F-synchronous student CMC/ teacher emails & blogs, F2F meetings
Canada, FSL-Teacher as facilitator-Teacher / researcher partnership
Qualitative-design experiment (observations, discussions, reflection, revision; interviews)
Radia & Stapleton(2008)
F2F; Online-task-based workshops;research logs
Canada, EAP-Teacher as facilitator
Qualitative-log analysis & interviews
F2F & Online-continuing combination of blogging & F2F instruction
Taiwan, ESP-Teacher as facilitator
Quantitative-survey, comments & feedback, self-reflectionsQualitative-interviews
Stapleton, Helms-Park & Radia(2006)
F2F; Online-90-minute lesson;annotated bibliography indicating electronic sources
EAP-Teacher as facilitator
Qualitative-analysis of web sources; interviews, for possible clarification of web sources
F2F; Online-blog instructions; blogging
Taiwan, EAP-Teacher as facilitator-Teacher as researcher
Quantitative-rating criteria and syntactic complexity, survey
Wang & Sutton(2002)
Online-online learning module
Taiwan, ESL-Teacher as facilitator
Quantitative-entrance exam English score; pre-test, post-test questionnaires; survey
**face to face (F2F), English for academic purposes (EAP), English for specific purposes (ESP)
Initially, such an outline of the studies’ features revealed a number of structures and designs. For instance, all but one of the studies examined the learning experiences of traditional F2F classrooms and those encountered in online education. The number of participants was relatively small, ranging from four to 92. Additionally, all of the studies based their research on second language (L2) student participants, particularly those in English as a second language (ESL) courses and at a university level, yet involved the instructor as an integral non-participant in the research process. Three of the studies went even further by either having the teachers working closely with the researcher in developing the study, or being part of the research team itself. Lastly, the studies were equally divided as to whether data were collected through quantitative and/or qualitative methods.
The purpose of this analysis, then, was to go beyond these initial impressions to search for common sub-themes; to investigate the studies in order to identify similarities and differences, and to determine patterns that revealed second language education issues in online learning environments. In order to do so, a content analysis was conducted. An inductive approach was employed to identify and organize content relevant to this paper’s theme and medium by further examining the frequency of and the amount of space dedicated to certain words, phrases, topics, concepts, or other characteristics contained within the ten studies. Subsequently, qualitative analysis was used, as Kondracki, Wellman & Amundson (2002) explained, “to examine latent or inferred meanings of the communication under study, which may lead to the development of constructs or theories based on the researchers’ knowledge and evidence drawn from the study.” Therefore, by cross-referencing key textual components, this meta-analysis identified common subjects by which to further examine the underlying implications for both learners and educators when dealing with CMC in various learning spaces.
After a detailed review of the ten studies, predominant topics were identified in order to further examine the overall theme proposed by this paper. By analyzing such issues as the style of instruction, and the roles of the L2 student and teacher, two main sub-themes emerged: 1) the benefits of blended instruction; and 2) the influence of student anxiety on interaction, collaboration, motivation, and independence. Whether addressing speaking and/or writing activities, these second language education issues were a fundamental part of the studies analyzed.
Benefits of blended instruction
In one form or another, all but one of the studies dealt with the issue of L2 students and teachers’ learning experiences with online or blended learning. On one end of the spectrum, Lin, Lin & Hsu (2011) argued that their statistics showed that participants taught using blogs improved in writing equally well as in a traditional F2F classroom. They concluded that, given the associated increase in time and effort in maintaining a blog project, teachers may question the efficacy of such online activities.
On the other hand, most of the studies’ findings supported online instruction, but indicated how a blended learning approach may best benefit both teacher and L2 student. Shih (2010), in particular, utilized a completely blended methodology when using video-based blogs for an ESP course in public speaking, purporting contributions to learning effectiveness and student satisfaction. The study by Chen, Chen & Lee could also be considered a beneficial blended learning environment, where the online synchronous “F2F” (audio only) enabled continuous teacher feedback and, as a result, positive results and responses from the students involved. Additionally, Murphy’s (2009) design-based research clearly demonstrated how F2F consultation and instruction was essential in reflectively and spontaneously improving the online synchronous French-as-a-second-language (FSL) activity of her study. Consultative and remedial F2F communication proved invaluable in a primary school setting while F2F preparation (outlining goals and objectives, technical training) also proved central to the successful implementation of such online activities.
In fact, most of the studies indicated that some preparation in the F2F classroom work was necessary for L2 students. Specifically, acquainting students with CMC program features was an initial priority in Sun’s (2010) research on extensive writing in blogs. On the topic of academic research, the two related studies of Stapleton, Helms-Park & Radia (2006) and Radia & Stapleton (2008) ultimately argued that there needed to be a “strongly interventionist approach to guiding EAP students’ Internet-based research” (p. 72), and that F2F workshops were necessary to help foreign language students become more aware of native speaker (NS) connotations and more adept at deciphering inappropriate web-based academic resources. Doerr & Sato (2011) also adapted this partially blended approach in their research on governmentality. Yet, their case study of a Japanese-as-a-foreign-language (JFL) blog revealed that such an education issue required not only a F2F introductory lesson but a F2F summative analysis as well.
Influence of student anxiety on interaction, collaboration, motivation, and independence
Another sub-theme that emerged was that of student anxiety during second-language acquisition. A number of studies examined how online educational activities could alleviate learner nervousness and, therefore, promote a greater sense of student motivation and independence. Specifically, Chen et al. (2011), studied how human pulse signals helped an English teacher recognize, and thus manage, student anxiety in an online one-to-one synchronous learning environment. Also conducting research on synchronous (audio) web-based activities, Murphy (2009) concluded how a low level of anxiety, leading to improved self-confidence, self-image, and motivation, facilitated learning a second language. She further proposed that student anonymity in the activity lessened the stress of trying to learn a new language, which enabled students to feel more competent. Such an increase in confidence then lead to greater motivation and risk-taking.
As for asynchronous studies, Shih’s (2010) research found that using a video-based blog to learn public speaking could help some L2 learners overcome “stage fright.” Students felt that being able to have unlimited opportunities to revise their self-created videos helped them to give, and accept, peer feedback. They believed that such review and cooperative learning enhanced their motivation and eventually helped improve their public speaking. Likewise, the study on foreign-language writing by Sun (2010) demonstrated that as students wrote more extensively over time, they became less concerned about the complexity of their sentences, yet showed improvement in terms of mechanics and organization. Here, results indicated that motivation increased with the authentic, purposeful language used in the blog, while confidence was built up through the frequency of review and revision. Nevertheless, since the blogs were open to the public (increasing writing anxiety), the students felt more strongly about monitoring the quality of their performance. Thus, as these L2 students became more involved in the blog’s self-reflection process, they took authorship of their own entries and assumed greater autonomy in the learning process. Finally, while Wang and Sutton’s (2002) results did not confirm nor refute their questions of increased motivation from learner control with advisement, their study did raise questions as to the importance of interest toward a subject and whether ESL students were learning formally or informally online as being prime factors.
Conversely, in their study on focus on form episodes in a CMC context, Loewen and Reissner (2009) showed that a lack of concern, i.e., anxiousness over teacher feedback, could negatively affect interaction, motivation and independence.
The research showed that the students communicating in a chatroom, whether they were monitored by the teacher or not, focused significantly less on correcting formal aspects of language (grammar, vocabulary, spelling) than students in a F2F context. Even within the CMC context itself, unmonitored L2 students statistically showed no interest in self-correction. The authors discussed how an absence of teacher supervision, let alone advisement, adversely influenced student motivation “to pay more attention to the accuracy of their language rather than focusing only on meaning” (p. 110)
This analysis presented a closer look at some of the research identifying, and making recommendations for dealing with, second language education issues in online learning envirionments. Dominating the analysis, for instance, was the concept of blended learning, a comprehensive approach important for considering the problems encountered in L2 education. Most of the studies presented in this paper found that some kind of F2F instruction was necessary in order to fully communicate aspects of second language learning that may not be possible strictly online. As Stapleton et al. (2006) stressed, there is a “pressing need to bring critical Internet literacy strategies into the [L2] classroom” since the problem with understanding the subtleties of culture and language are manifested in online environments. In addition, non-visual CMC does not allow for such language cues as body language, gestures, and facial expressions, while meaningful communication may suffer in purely writing activities with the absence of tone of voice. A teacher in Chen et al.’s (2011) study commented that she paid more attention to the emotions of L2 students in a traditional F2F classroom than in the web-based learning environment. If online instruction deprives teachers of important visual and/or audio cues, an analysis of second language education issues must also consider the effects of such deprivation on students striving to acquire a foreign language online.
It was interesting to note that the one study in this analysis that did not purport advantageous results for conducting L2 activities online did not utilize a blended learning approach. The research conducted by Lin et al. (2011), which compared writing performance between an experimental group working solely online and a control group working in a traditional ESL classroom situation, determined that the final results (both groups improved equally well) did not justify the associated increase in teachers’ workloads in maintaining a blog project. Such an “all or nothing” methodology, as well as a teacher-centred concluding focus, ignores the reality of today’s unbounded learning space and is short-sighted in looking at the investment of educational efforts.
The blended learning approach was also instrumental in helping L2 students manage the use of technology, with software in a foreign language, as a mode of instruction. However, this proved to be a greater issue in studies that focused on ESL learners since many of the computer programs were in English. Subsequently, the analysis revealed that research by Doerr and Sato (2011) and Murphy (2009) were somewhat weakened in that the JFL and FSL participants were using English-based technology. The study by Sun (2010), too, was undermined, in part, due to the Taiwanese students using a blog technology formatted in Chinese.
In examining another aspect of second language issues, a number of the studies in this analysis associated certain web-based learning difficulties for L2 students with problems in dealing with cultural differences and understanding. It seems obvious that research on foreign language learning cannot avoid, explicitly or implicitly, the issue of understanding the linguistic and cultural nuances of communicating in a foreign language. At the forefront of this issue were the related studies by Stapleton et al. (2006) and Radia and Stapleton (2008), who specifically looked at the inability of L2 students to critically assess the vast sources of information, and disinformation, available on the Internet. These students not only had to deal with the connotations of the English language itself, but with the cultural biases (commercially or ideologically motivated) of the web resources they cited as academically acceptable. Even with a review of research guidelines beforehand, these students were still unaware of the underlying bias and hidden agendas of their citations. More telling was the fact that these students “not only viewed such sources as objective, but also used them to support, if not construct, their own viewpoint” (Radia & Stapleton, p. 13).
Understanding the culture of the target foreign language was particularly important in other studies as well. Although their findings were not statistically significant, even Wang and Sutton (2002) tried to relate motivation with learning about American culture. In Doerr and Sato’s (2010) study on governmentality in a JFL course, this issue of culture proved to be an important aspect of the research. Here, typically formal Japanese manners, as well as attitudes of “regular Japanese” toward the Japanese language learner, highlighted the comments of NS visitors and their responses posted to one JFL student’s blog space. Designed in part by a NS professor, the study had to have anticipated such cultural “conflicts” in both the student’s writing and choice of topics since the Japanese language closely reflects the governmentality of the culture itself.
Lastly, in many of the studies, the issue of student anxiety in learning a second language was connected not only to teacher/student interactions but also to student/student interaction and collaboration, as well as individual student motivation and sense of independence. Loewen and Reissner (2009) examined how the absence of a teacher impacted the quality of L2 students working in a CMC context: that by not being monitored by a teacher made the students less concerned (anxious) with improving their grammatical skills than students with some sort of teacher interaction. Since the unmonitored group was less motivated to focus on form and self-correction, they did not exhibit independence in learning online. Murphy (2009) on the other hand, discussed how grade 6 FSL students became more autonomous as they became more confident in their online activities. Teacher-centred instruction eventually receded as tutorials and peer learning moved to the forefront.
The studies by Murphy (2009), Shih (2010), Sun (2010), Chen et al. (2011) all determined that resolving anxiety or nervousness positively affected students’ motivation and independence through greater peer interaction and collaboration. Specifically, L2 peers could share more vocabulary or discuss more topics online in an authentic situation than what might be covered by their teacher in class. CMC also allowed for a range of anonymity that may boost confidence and enhance self-esteem. Foreign language students took more care and greater pride in posting videos and blog entries when they were able to review and revise on their own, as well as learn from others.
conclusions, limitations and implications
The findings of the ten sources indicated that there were specific education issues that second language students faced when learning online. The analysis outlined how blended learning, versus strictly online instruction, enabled L2 students to deal with cultural and linguistic problems. In addition, this paper examined how overcoming the acknowledged anxiety associated with learning a foreign language fostered greater student interaction, collaboration, motivation, and independence in a web-based learning environment.
The ten studies included in this paper allowed for a wide-ranging analysis. From Canadian FSL students and JFL students in the USA to the numerous studies on ESL students in Taiwan and elsewhere overseas, there was diversity in age, grade, and academic level. While the majority of participants were included in ESL research, there was enough variety to indicate the cultural and linguistic implications of studying any foreign language. Nevertheless, it might have been interesting to highlight what issues were completely specific to L2 learners by including some statistics or literature review on first language (L1) education issues in online learning environments. As well, perhaps more studies on learning a second language strictly online might have revealed more relevant issues as a greater number of educational institutions turn to distance education, and more companies conduct business over the web.
Pedagogical implications revolved around the need for improved structure and guidelines to allow for greater learner control and success in learning a foreign language online. As for blended learning, Stapleton et al. (2006) argued that learning critical web-source evaluation was required “not only through a series of lecture-format guidelines, but also through student-centered workshops, and, where necessary, one-on-one conferencing”(p. 72). Radia and Stapleton (2008), went even further in suggesting how context-driven and culture-specific studies would also be instrumental in helping students to become more media literate and aware of the bias existing when researching online. Shih (2010) also advocated the idea of a carefully designed instruction plan for a blended public speaking course in order to balance the benefits of online review/revision and those of F2F practice. Loewen and Reissner (2009) argued that teachers needed to re-evaluate their own beliefs regarding the roles of accuracy and fluency when establishing feedback standards for ESL students in both CMC and F2F contexts. Likewise, Doerr and Sato (2011) maintained that teachers needed to involve L2 students in a class to analyze blog comments so that they could understand, and respond to, how relationships of governmentality were established in such a learning environment, and how they could ultimately be transformed. Murphy (2009) discussed the need for teachers to be better prepared to integrate computers and technology into their teaching: to develop strategies in multi-tasking in online and traditional classroom activities, and in promoting an effective student-centred learning space.
Furthermore, with regard to online instructional procedures, Murphy proposed pedagogical training that “might help teachers design scaffolds to support students’ linguistic progress using the [online] activities” (Conclusion, para. 3). This kind of hyperlink structure, with visual dictionaries, thematic vocabulary, etc., could help strengthen learner independence. In their study on advisement and learner control, Wang and Sutton (2002) also argued for reliable guidelines on the content and frequency of hyperlinks in web-based learning activities for ESL students. Finally, Sun (2010) believed that a well-designed CMC activity would encourage students to make a greater, more strategic effort to improve the quality of their work and, therefore, become more autonomous.
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