Usefulness of learner interaction with course content of an online English learning course

Thứ ba - 16/09/2014 04:06
Background and content of the online course

Online learning in general and English language online learning have been a common trend in many countries in the world and Vietnam. At Hanoi University, an English online course has been implemented for many years. The online course in this study was called English Discoveries Online (EDO). The main content of this course was divided into three levels: basic, intermediate and advanced. Each level was sub-divided into Basic 1, 2, 3 – Intermediate 1, 2, 3 and Advanced 1, 2, 3. Depending on learners’ level of English (suggested through the placement test), the instructors assigned the learners with the appropriate levels only or all available levels. Better students preferred to be assigned with all levels so they could work at their own pace and complete all of them effectively. However, weaker students were assigned with a suitable level only and clear instruction was provided to make sure that they could practice thoroughly before moving to a higher one. 
Figure 1: Course content

In each level there were eight units which cover different topics of study such as family life, sports, communication, business etc. For each unit, learners had a choice of practicing their listening, reading, speaking and grammar. In each of these components, learners were advised to start with ‘Explore’ part, which gives them an input in forms of audio, video clips, reading text, explanation of grammatical points. This was similar to the presentation step of the traditional course whe-reby learners were provided with necessary input for the next part, which was called ‘Practice’. In this second part, learners were required to do different types of exercises such as filling in blanks, answering questions, re-arranging orders, choosing the best answer etc. Learners often received instant feedbacks f-rom the course about the correctness of their answers. After completing the practice, learners moved on to the ‘Test’ component to consolidate what they had done in the previous parts.

One of the features of EDO was its speech recognition technology embedded in the listening and speaking parts of the My Courses. After doing their listening comprehension practice, learners could se-lect different sentences to listen and repeat. Their repetition was recorded and scores were given to tell them the accuracy of the oral production. They could do this again and again until they were happy with the result. They could also send the result to instructors for comments. In the speaking component, they could do the same, and/or enhance their verbal reaction by responding to prompts in a dialogue. The practices could be boring for some learners, but many others found the tool effective to make their pronunciation and intonation more accurate. 
Figure 2: Record Yourself Tool

In addition to the main content mentioned above, the online course also had other supplementary components to help learners enhance their vocabulary, idioms, fixed expressions as well as general knowledge about different aspects.

Learner interaction with the course content

This online course was used as part of the curriculum for the first and second year English major undergraduate students of Hanoi University. It was delivered in a fully online mode whe-reby learners were given privilege access to course during their own time. There was a regulation which stipulated that learners had to complete 80% of interaction with assigned levels of study (usually two levels) by the end of each semester. Failure to do so might mean that they were disqualified to sit for the term tests which evaluate learners’ overall performance of their English competence in four macro skills of reading, listening, speaking and writing. However, these term tests did not include the content of the online course.

Before learners start using the course, an orientation session was given in which learners were provided with hands-on instruction on how to work with different components, for example how to drag and d-rop an answer, how to record their voices, save and submit exercises that had been completed. They were also advised to take part in a placement test which gave them information about the level of English they were at. However, the test only measured learners’ reading and listening skills, not speaking and writing.

Survey of learners’ perception about usefulness of interaction with course content

In 2013, a survey was conducted to investigate, among other things, learners’ perceptions about the usefulness of the course content. Over 210 learners took part in the survey which gathered information about (i) their confidence of using the course, (ii) their perception about the usefulness of practicing each language skills and the overall usefulness of the interaction process.
Analyzing of learners’ responses to the above issues yielded some interesting results. First, learners of this course had a very high confidence in using the course with over 74.7% of them reporting that they were confident or very confident in using it. This meant that the orientation at the start of the course could provide learners with basic skills on how to use different course components. However, over a quarter of learners were still not confident in the interaction with content, which suggested that continuous support to the learners during the online study time was crucial to make sure that learners to make the most of what the course could offer.

Second, the learners found that practice with listening and grammar were useful the most, 45.4% and 28% respectively, followed by doing reading and speaking exercises (about 10% each). Nearly seven percent of learners viewed that these practices were not useful at all. These results seem to suggest that these learners did not have sufficient practice in listening comprehensive during school time, and that they still paid more attention to grammar, the aspect that received most attention f-rom students during school time as well. Their low rating of the usefulness of reading was probably because of the boredom when doing these exercises. As for speaking practice, the lack of accuracy in evaluating learners’ spoken English by the speech recognition technology could be one of the reasons to make them feel that it was not very useful. In addition, the speaking practices were mainly in form of ‘listen and repeat’, which became less motivating to learners who wanted to develop their advanced oral communication skills in English such as presentation.

Overall, nearly half of the learners perceived that interaction with the content was slightly useful and over 15% thought that it was not useful at all. In order to find correlation between learners’ confidence in using the online course and their overall perceptions of its usefulness, the researchers used the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) and results of analysis indicated that the relationship was negative and insignificant, rho =-.11, n=209, p>0.05.This suggested that learners’ confidence in using the online course did not have impacts on their perception about its usefulness. The content of the course itself was a more important factor.

In summary, interaction with the course content is one of the most important elements of learners’ gaining knowledge (beside interaction with peers and instructors). Thus the content of an online course should be able to provide learners with opportunities to practice in all language skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) and aspects (e.g. grammar). Learners of this study found interaction with content relatively useful for some skills (listening, grammar), but not for others (reading and speaking). This recommends that course designers should pay more attention to make the reading practice more interesting, and the speaking one more meaningful through accurate evaluation of learners’ oral performance, diversified practice.

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Tác giả bài viết: Pham Ngoc Thach, Tang Ba Hoang, Nguyen Quang Vinh (Hanoi University)

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