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Selected Article from Volume 9, nº 2

USING CHATS IN EFL: A TOOL FOR COLLABORATIVE LEARNING

Gregorio Blanco Martín
Gregorio Blanco Martín teaches English in Talavera de la Reina in IES "Gabriel Alonso de Herrera" and is working on his doctoral thesis about the use of the Internet for learning English in ESO.

The key to successful use of technology in language teaching lies not in hardware or software but in humanware -our human capacity as teachers to plan, design, and implement effective educational activity. Language learning is an act of creativity, imagination, exploration, expression, construction and profound social and cultural collaboration. If we use computers to fully humanize and enhance this act, rather than to try to automate it, we can help bring out the best that human and machine have to offer.
Mark Warschauer

CONSIDERATIONS ON THE USE OF CHATROOMS AS A TOOL IN LANGUAGE LEARNING

Internet and IT have meant an important change in the perception that everyone of us has about language learning. The exploitation of these new channels, both as tools for the classroom and as a source of written and oral authentic materials, has spread in the last few years and will unavoidably continue to do so to the point that they will affect irreversibly the existing learning theories.
In recent years, quite a few studies have been published with theoretical approaches on the new media, mostly analysing the virtues of e-mail and the web as a source of data and interaction. However, not much has been written on the application of chatrooms in language learning1. The present article will aim to offer a personal practical vision on the use of chatrooms in Secundaria and Bachillerato. It will try to go all the way from an initial hypothesis to the demonstration of the usefulness of chatrooms in the FL curriculum by showing an experimental study.

Recent studies in Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) show that the use of computers promote collaborative learning in the classroom. Additionally, most studies confirm that learners have more opportunities to speak and construct meaningful learning in peer interactive settings than they do in teacher-fronted settings. I was initially motivated in this experiment by Krashen's Input Hypothesis. Krashen (1985) states that Second Language Acquisition (SLA) depends mostly on the amount of comprehensible input one receives. Vygotski (1962), for his part, stresses the importance of activity, that is, purposeful actions for assisting students in advancing through their zone of proximal development. He considers collaborative learning essential for this development. This leads to the conclusion that tools allowing student interactions will aid to achieve more activity and more input for our students.

Several studies, like those of Sullivan and Pratt (1996), Kern (1996), Warschauer (1996) and Chun (1994), have made comparative measures of student participation in electronic and face-to-face discussion. Results show that student participation in electronic debate neared one hundred percent whereas classroom debates brought a meagre fifty percent participation. One of the most important conclusions in these studies is that electronic debates break the teacher-centred nature of the discussion, augmenting the percentage of turns used by students and thus reducing the participation of the teacher. They also found that the most silent students increased their participation online. These data suggest that electronic discussion is a very effective way of promoting collaborative learning in the classroom.

What is a chatroom?

A chatroom is an environment that allows simultaneous real time communication among people connected to a common interface -generally within a web page. This system, originally called Internet Relay Chat, permits the insertion of short text messages by several users at the same time. Every user can see on his screen the list of people participating in the event and the messages they are writing.

This produces the effect of real conversation from different workstations. On occasion, communication can also be achieved through voice transmission. This means that people located all over the world may participate in a live conversation with no other limit than the typing speed of the participants.

Initially, specific software was needed to take part in a chatroom event -programs like mIRC, Netmeeting, Iphone o Netscape Conference. However, today you only need a general browser to join them.

What can chatrooms offer?

The pedagogical values of this environment are apparent:

o It provides a substantial element of motivation for the students, since:
- They are interacting with real people,
- They are using, and reading, real language themselves.
o The element of tele-collaboration has a positive incidence in the learning process, as it generates a strong kind of compromise among peers that brings about the greatest advantage for language acquisition.
Limitations of chatrooms
o Most commercial chatrooms offer very low quality linguistic exchange, with poor vocabulary and too colloquial and abbreviated language, which greatly hinders the participation of a learner

(Image 1)


o The own essence of chatrooms affects the linearity of conversations, due to the slight delay between writing and refreshing remote screens, which accounts for some displaced strings of text.
o At a pedagogical level, teacher's control in open chatrooms is very limited, basically related to the vocabulary used and the subjects dealt with by students in the same physical location as the teacher

(Image 2)


THE PEDAGOGICAL USE OF CHATROOMS

Once we have seen what chatrooms can offer and their limitations, my thesis lies in the fact that using chats as a pedagogical tool needs a strong control on the teacher's part in the following aspects:

o The chatroom itself must be private -closed, not open to all users,
o Ideally students participating must be the same age, so that similar interests can be dealt with,
o Participants should be from different nationalities, preferably habitual penpals from different countries,
o A debate directed to a specific topic should draw better results than pure random undirected conversation,
o The debate is favoured when participants have access to previous similar background information; this will allow students to shape a personal opinion or position in the subject, and thus facilitate their participation in the discussion.

Following this hypothesis, the next section will describe the sequence followed in experimenting the use of chatrooms in three groups of 4th ESO and a group of 3rd ESO (14 and 15 years old) in March 2001 at IES Gabriel Alonso de Herrera (Talavera de la Reina).

A PRACTICAL EXPERIMENT

The objective of this experiment has been to establish the relevance of chatrooms in enhancing fluent written (quasi oral2) production in SL3.

The aim of the activity was to set up an environment in which students could practise and develop their skills in discussing on a topic in a semi-controlled situation. Specifically the discussion was about Death Penalty, dealing with the case of Joaquín José Martínez, a Spaniard sentenced to death and awaiting execution at the death row in Florida. A description of the environment and data of the activity comes next:

The groups:
I tested this activity with four classes of ESO (three of them 4th and one 3rd ESO), in split classes of 11 to 14 students. In three of the groups the students taking part in this weekly split class at the computer lab were voluntary, while the fourth one contained a random selection of students.

Infrastructure:
We had a computer room available with ten workstations plus one for the teacher. All the PCs were networked and the Internet connection was fast enough (ADSL) and didn't interfere with this particular activity (which is not always the case)

(Image 3)


This means some students had to share a computer with one classmate but most had their own PC. Additionally, we had a video projector connected to the teacher's workstation.

Materials used:
This activity ran through two weekly sessions (50 minutes each). The first one was used for gathering information -vocabulary and statements about the subject. The source of materials I used was a web page I created in a previous activity: Death Penalty Initiative4. This page contains the following elements:
a. General facts and figures about death penalty in the USA, like:
"Since 1990, more than 350 people have been executed in the USA.
More than 3300 people are waiting to be executed by US authorities.
Last December, the USA achieved the sad record of 500 executions since they were resumed in 1977. More than 300 prisoners have been killed in the last six years, as compared to 11 executed in the first six years since 1977."
b. The text of the Declaration of Human Rights promulgated by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 10 December 1948,
c. Letters from classmates to the Governor of Florida asking to reconsider the death penalty for Joaquín José Martínez.
d. There is also a link to the site of Amnesty International

(Image 4).


For the second session, we used a private chatroom at Epals5, which can be easily created and controlled by the teacher since only those who know the password can access this chatroom

(Image 5)


Sequencing of the activity:
Session one: As I mentioned above, the first session was devoted to gathering data about the topic chosen (Death Penalty) by browsing the web page based at our school's web site "Death Penalty Initiative". They read the facts and figures about death penalty in the US and went on to have a look at the Declaration of Human Rights. Most students took down the rights related to the right to live. Finally they read some of the letters (there are 20+ included) written by their peers the previous year arguing about the right to live for the Spaniard Joaquín José Martínez (at that time waiting at the Death Row)


Some of the quicker ones took some time to browse the Amnesty International website. They were advised to write down the words related to this topic that they would later need for a debate and a few ideas that they could use in the discussion.
Session two: In this session we started by practising the use of the chat environment. They soon understood the mechanics and we all discovered that having the video projector show the line of conversation on the wall screen let everyone see how fast the remote screens were refreshing. After about ten minutes, students were asked to start entering their opinions about death penalty


(Image 6)


At first, only the quick ones seemed to be making a try, but as soon as they all saw the first opinions coming up on their screens, everyone wanted to have a go. At this first stage, most statements were unconnected to the previous ones, as they all wanted to have their own opinion on the screen. Then, at the teacher's indication, they all started to follow the discussion by answering, complementing or adding comments to their classmates' opinions.

RESULTS AND ASSESSMENT

Once the activity was finished, I passed a questionnaire in order to get the students' point of view about the experiment. I wanted to know what their perception was on the suitability and relevance. I also compared their perception of their feelings to the rest of the activities done at the computer lab.
The first obvious conclusion is the positive acceptance by students in comparison with the other types of activities at the computer lab. Almost one out of three students chose this activity as the one that made them feel more comfortable.

(Image 8)

Image 9 gives an overall view of the perception of learning by the students themselves. Most of them believe that they learnt a lot, and they highlight the impact on motivation by giving this parameter the maximum mark (5). The general interest -compared to other activities is also very high, whereas the incidence of technical setbacks is seen as very low -most students rating it 0 (null) or 1 (very little incidence).

On my part, I will also note the interest shown by most students in this activity, many of them still asking to repeat the experience.

On the negative side, I will mention the fact that typing in a keyboard makes for further mistakes, especially in an environment of quick, unreflecting writing -they all want to be immediate in their contribution to the debate. That means a compromise between accuracy and fluency, being the latter the main objective of this activity. On top of this, chats do not provide for perfect synchronicity, which allows for a certain handicap in the achievement of a neat line of conversation.

CONCLUSION

Taking into account the initial aims of the experiment, the obvious conclusion is that chatrooms offer an adequate means to foster inter-peer communication in a real and meaningful environment, revealing itself as a valid pedagogical tool for teachers in EFL. The stress must be set on fluency and the teacher must remain in control of both the participants and the topics dealt with. A previous preparation of the topic within the class environment has shown to be an effective way of initiating significant online discussion. It has also been observed that computer-assisted discussion allows for more planning time than oral face-to-face discussion, thus permitting more complex language (collocations, common phrases) and a more balanced participation among students, with far less domination by either the teacher or more advanced students (cf. Salaberry 2000).

FURTHER READING
Beauvois, H.M. 1992. "Computer-Assisted classroom discussion in the foreign language classroom: Conversation in slow motion", Foreign Language Annals, 25.
Berge, Z., & Collins, M. 1995. Computer-Mediated Communication and the online classroom (Vols. 1-3). Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
Gaer, S. 1997. "Structured chatting on-line with ESL students", in Boswood, T. (ed.) New Ways of Using Computers in Language Learning. TESOL Inc.
Warschauer, M. 1996. "Motivational aspects of using computers for writing and communication", in Warschauer, M. (Ed.), Telecollaboration in foreign language learning: Proceedings of the Hawai'I symposium.
Warschauer, M. 1997. "Computer-mediated collaborative learning: Theory and practice", in Modern Language Journal, 81 (3).

REFERENCES
Biesenbach-Lucas, S. et al. 2000. Use of cohesive features in ESL Students' e-mail and word-processed texts: a comparative study. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 13/3.
Chun, D. 1994. Using computer networking to facilitate the acquisition of interactive competence. System, 22/1: 17-31.
Krashen, S. 1985. The input hypothesis. New York: Longman.
Kern, R. 1996. Computer-mediated communication: Using e-mail exchanges to explore personal histories in two cultures. In M. Warschauer (Ed.), Telecollaboration in foreign language learning. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai'i Second Language Teaching and Curriculum Center.
Kitade, K. 2000. L2 Learners' discourse and SLA theories in CMC: Collaborative interaction in Internet Chat. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 13/2.
Pratt, E. & Sullivan, N. 1994. Comparison of ESL writers in networked and regular classrooms. Paper presented at the 28th Annual TESOL Convention, Baltimore, MD.
Salaberry, R. 2000. L2 Morphosyntactic Development in Text-Based Computer-Mediated Communication. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 13/1.
Sullivan, N., & Pratt, E. 1996. A comparative study of two ESL writing environments: A computer-assisted classroom and a traditional oral classroom. System, 24/4.
Vygotsky, L. S. 1962. Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Warschauer, M. 1996. Comparing face-to-face and electronic communication in the second language classroom. CALICO Journal, 13/2: 7-26.

NOTES
1 See References.
2 CMC has assumed features associated with formal writing as well as spoken language.
3 Further studies elaborate on the features of CMC associated to verbal vs. formal written interaction (cf. Kitade, 2000; Biesenbach-Lucas et al.,2000).
4 http://centros5.pntic.mec.es/ies.gabriel.alonso.de.herrera/joaquin/joaquin.htm
5 http://www.epals.com/chat

 

 

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