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Unintended Consequences

Katie Nielson asks if online collaboration may sabotage language learning

Facing decreased enrollment and increasing student demand for a return on investment, higher education is under more pressure than ever to improve educational outcomes. With the hope of expanding their reach to new student populations, institutions are investing heavily in online programs—and the technology that makes them possible—to promote flexibility, affordability, and collaboration among learners without compromising educational quality. Thanks to next-generation messaging and social networks, remote students can engage in real-time, peer-based learning. Dynamic collaboration tools foster a sense of community along with interactive learning activities. Additionally, mobile learning apps encourage more consistent engagement among students, giving them access to peers and instructors around the clock and from anywhere in the world. 

Online learning tools have enormous potential for all sorts of courses, subjects, students, and instructors; why then, in the world of language learning, are so many online programs getting it wrong? Can digital collaboration actually be an impediment to optimal language-learning outcomes?

To understand the answer, it is helpful to take a closer look at the natural, iterative process of second-language acquisition. When learners begin to communicate in a new language, they make mistakes. When these mistakes happen in real time, especially in face-to-face settings, they are not a big deal. The errors are fleeting, and once they have been made, instructors can help clear things up by modeling correct forms so learners are exposed to accurate, authentic input. 

In contrast, online collaboration tools can actually draw more attention to errors. Consider the case of an online classroom discussion board, which is still common practice in many online language courses. Dozens of language learners are turned loose within a forum, posting opinions and commenting in conversations rife with errors such as “Last week, I wented to class.” Errors of tense and syntax are natural and expected in emerging second-language development. But when posted online, they create incorrect and potentially misleading examples for the dozens of other learners required to read and engage with that content. Incorrect usage can, in turn, spread like fake news.

In an ideal world, real-time digital collaboration would be mediated. Faculty would ask learners to identify and correct any errors, just as instructors might in a live academic setting. But the pedagogical paradigm does not easily translate to the type of asynchronous, student-mediated discussion forum used frequently in online language classes.

Fortunately, emerging technology can empower instructors and learners alike so that online language learning is as effective as in-person learning. Today’s collaborative writing tools, for example, allow multiple learners to meet a single instructor in a shared document to work on a piece of writing together. Students can make typical developmental writing errors as instructors help them to correct the errors in real time. The emphasis here is on the real-time instructor response—when the learners are more likely to notice, understand, and ask questions about the context or nuances of the terms or phrases.

Rather than memorializing a slew of errors in an unmediated collaborative session, learners are able to view collaborative documents, perhaps with accompanying comment threads, full of rich, authentic, and actionable language. This type of instruction is ideal for language learners. It allows them the chance to work on a real, task-based piece of writing in a truly collaborative, community-building way. It taps the potential of collaboration—while solving the problem of potentially teaching learners with the language errors of their peers.

With a synchronous solution, we can simplify our online language courses by getting rid of clunky discussion forums that might actually do more harm than good.

Katie Nielson is an applied linguist and chief education officer at Voxy, where she uses technology to make language learning efficient, effective, and fun. With a PhD in second-language acquisition from the University of Maryland, Katie has produced award-winning language courses for the U.S. government, universities, and language training centers.

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