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Vol 26, No. 2 (January 2009)

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Student Agency and Language-Learning Processes and Outcomes in International Online Environments

Olga Basharina
University of New Mexico

Abstract:
This research focuses on the kinds of learning afforded by asynchronous international computer-mediated communication (I-CMC) among Japanese, Mexican, and Russian English language learners and the role of student agency in learning. To find learning evidence, the discourse analysis and content analysis of interaction protocols were conducted in two focal forums. These findings were triangulated through pre- and post- questionnaires and interviews. The discourse analysis of interaction protocols identified the communication moves potentially leading to learning (e.g., critical reflections, comparisons, and questions) and moves not leading to learning (e.g., phatic messages). The types of messages students produced, analyzed through content analysis, reflected their deep, strategic, or surface approaches to interaction and were closely tied to their degree of motivation and engagement with the project. Finally, the interviews identified seven recurrent themes, revealing students' learning perceptions that were tied to their local cultures-of-use of technologies and learning goals. The interview results were confirmed by pre- and post- questionnaire results. The study offers a discussion on how to bridge the ecological (open) and structured (task- or test-based) conceptualizations of learning and how to enhance development of intercultural communicative competence in global online environments.

Student Agency and Language-Learning Processes and Outcomes in International Online Environments

KEYWORDS

Telecollaboration, I-CMC, Intercultural Communicative Competence, Agency, Sociocultural Perspective

INTRODUCTION

Over the last decade we have been able to observe the expansion of the context of interaction from a single classroom to broader international community-, implemented interaction via long-distance collaborative projects. International computer-mediated communication (I-CMC) or telecollaboration is valued for providing students with opportunities to participate in authentic interactions in a target language and cross-cultural engagement with people located across different time zones and geographical areas. These opportunities have a great potential for students' development of their L2 and intercultural awareness.

Earlier studies on I-CMC, both long distance and within the context of a single classroom, have been criticized for being too narrowly framed and failing to document the diverse factors influencing learning, such as local contexts, different learner frames of reference, and instructors' mediation. Instead, research designs which are process oriented and which include the context of computer use, interaction, and multimedia networking, have been advocated by key scholars in the field (Chapelle, 2001; Kern, 2006; Kern & Warschauer, 2000). They have emphasized the significance of the processes through which linguistic interaction

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helps to construct meanings relevant to learning. Recent studies on I-CMC by Belz (2003), Belz and Thorne (2006), Kramsch and Thorne (2002), O'Dowd (2003a), and Ware (2005) have explored the processes of interaction and the kinds of cultural contact afforded by the technological medium. These studies were among the first to question the success of learning processes through international telecollaboration. It was found that I-CMC may lead to a genre clash (Kramsch & Thorne, 2002), missed communication (Ware, 2005), learning related "less to the pedagogical goals of the tasks assigned ... and more to epiphenomena which arise in the process of task completion" (Belz, 2002, p. 75), often reinforced by the inability of learners to effectively take part in email exchanges (O'Dowd, 2003a). These studies were based on the language-exchange projects in which participants were students from the USA studying German, French, or Spanish, while their European counterparts were studying English and interacting in pedagogically structured online environments. Little is known about how ESL/EFL students learn through asynchronous communication in English via many-to-many bulletin boards with participants from countries other than America and those in Western Europe. This study fills in this gap by exploring the kinds of learning that took place as a result of a 12-week I-CMC project among 52 Japanese, 37 Mexican, and 46 Russian English learners who were interacting in four many-to-many asynchronous WebCT forums with the purpose to improve their English language proficiency and intercultural awareness. This telecollaborative project was integrated into the English courses the students were taking in their instructional contexts in Canada, Mexico, and Russia. The study is guided by three overarching research questions:

1. What kinds of learning were afforded by I-CMC among Japanese, Mexican, and Russian English language learners?

2. What was the role of student agency in learning?

3. What were students' perceptions of learning?

LITERATURE REVIEW

Characteristics of International Online Environments

I-CMC with users located across different geographical areas provides participants with opportunities to engage in authentic interactions in the target language and to develop intercultural awareness through shaping their transnational, individual opinions on social, political, and cultural issues. In addition, the affordances of I-CMC include availability 24/7, the possibility of interacting at one's own chosen time and pace, the chance to connect with the outside world at no cost, extra time provided for thinking through one's ideas before posting them online (Carey, 1999a, 1999b; Harasim, 1990), persistent conversation (defined by Erickson (1999) as the possibility of returning to posted messages again and again), and "re-structured author-text-reader relationship which allows a degree of textual malleability in terms of both production and interpretation" (Rassool, 1999; p. 203). Whereas in face-to-face interaction participants talk one at a time, in asynchronous many-to-many online interaction there is no need to wait for one's turn, which makes it easier for shy students who tend to avoid taking their turns in face-to-face interactions. At the same time, restructured author-text-reader relationship can promote missed communication (Ware, 2005) when students misinterpret or avoid answering questions addressed to them. Moreover, I-CMC can be time consuming, especially if the internet connection is slow and students type slowly. In addition, students may encounter various technical problems and get overwhelmed with message overload (Basharina, 2005; Sengupta, 2001). A student from this study, for example, said: "Something that I didn't like was that the messages was so difficult to find.. you know .. you didn't know if somebody answered you.. and you couldn't keep a conversation with one

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person" (Stella,1 MS,2 interview). Some participants may feel uncertainty and anxiety when they return to an interaction after taking a break: "I do not have enough time to read every single message. If I can't read every message it makes me feel that I am not sure what exactly is going on" (Miki, JS, interview).

Furthermore, it is important to note that in I-CMC the ways students engage in interaction may differ in accordance with the local 'culture-of-use' (the term coined by Thorne, 2003) of computer technologies. Culture-of-use is defined as "historically sedimented characteristics that accrue to a CMC tool from its everyday use" (Thorne, 2003, p. 40). This concept denotes different ways of engagement with computer technologies, depending on the cultural, economic, and historical contexts in which they are embedded. For example, in this study all the Japanese and Mexican students had free and unlimited internet access, and all of them--except four Mexican students--had internet at home. In contrast, 28 (61%) of the Russian students did not have internet access at home. Instructors implemented the project in accordance with their local institutional conditions and curricula requirements, also reinforcing differences in cultures-of-use of computer technology in the three contexts (see Figure 1).

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The Japanese and Mexican students were afforded more flexibility, whereas the Russian students were restricted by their limited access. For example, as shown in Figure 1, the Russians wrote their messages off-line in Word documents at home and posted them online in the lab. For them, this activity became more structured and formal. The Japanese and Mexican students with unlimited internet access engaged in open, mostly informal interactions directly on the bulletin board.

All the characteristics of I-CMC described in this section should be taken into consideration when one evaluates the learning processes and outcomes of L2 learners in different parts of the world.

Conceptualization of Learning

According to the sociocultural perspective, learning takes place as a result of mediated conversations among members of peer groups, local learning communities, and broader cultural systems within a Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD, Vygotsky, 1934/1986, 1978). The notion of ZPD implies that in the process of interaction with more capable peers the learners internalize the collaboratively generated knowledge and move from a present state of cognitive development and understanding to a more advanced level, which would be impossible to achieve on their own. Learners internalize language, culture, and content simultaneously (Cazden, 1999; Crawford-Lange & Lange, 1984; Mohan, 1985) through socialization into activities (Nardi, 1996; Vygotsky, 1934/1986) or communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). I-CMC can be viewed as one tool among many others through which knowledge, identity, and power relations are constantly (re)negotiated and collaborative international and intercultural learning may take place.

I-CMC as Promoting Intercultural Communicative Competence

In Chapelle's (2001) view, the key question educators and researchers need to address is: "How can computers be used effectively to promote the development of communicative L2 ability?" (see also Pellettieri, 2000). Chapelle defines communicative L2 ability as "communicative competence including control over both form and function of the L2" (p. 41). The learners who engage in authentic and meaningful interaction on electronic bulletin boards are provided with opportunities to comprehend message meaning, produce modified output after receiving a feedback, and attend to L2 form (Chapelle, 1997).

Lamy and Goodfellow (1999) extend the discussion on communicative L2 development in online environments by adding the "social interaction" perspective, according to which the best quality of learning takes place during "contingent interaction" (van Lier, 1996). Contingent interaction is defined as a form of communication which exhibits the greatest equality among participants and communicative symmetry in terms of the distribution of turns and roles and a combination of familiarity of subject matter with unpredictability, when "the agenda is shared by all participants and educational reality may be transformed" (Lamy & Goodfellow, 1999, p. 180). Lamy & Goodfellow distinguish among (a) monologue-type exchanges, (b) social conversations, and (c) dialogic conversations in online environments. They find the latter to be the most proximate to contingent interaction and effective and valuable for promoting L2 communicative competence.

Following the line of thought by Lamy and Goodfellow, it has been argued recently that learning is determined not only by the amount of information exchanged, but also by the ability

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to establish and maintain human relationships (Byram, 1997; Carey, 1988). This can be also referred to as community development--a concept which became popular in the study of online environments over the last decade. The ability to form a community is closely tied to the development of intercultural communicative competence. According to Byram, intercultural communicative competence is manifested in having knowledge and attitudes to sustain sensitivity to others with different origins and identities and using the skills of discovery and interpretation.

O'Dowd's (2003b) taxonomy to measure intercultural communicative competence in online environments is well correlated with Byram's model. O'Dowd's model consists of the following four elements: (a) knowledge of interaction (e.g., introducing, apologizing, and joking), (b) knowledge of self and other (e.g., reporting factual or personal information about one's own culture), (c) skills of interpreting and relating (e.g., critical reflection on the home or target culture or explicitly comparing two cultures), and (d) attitudes of curiosity and openness (e.g., asking questions to members of the target culture). The frequent use of these elements leads to the development of a stronger sense of community and more effective intercultural learning outcomes.

To summarize the principles outlined above, the interaction dynamics leading to learning through I-CMC can be identified using a taxonomy based on Byram's (1997) intercultural communicative competence model, Lamy and Goodfellow's (1999) reflective conversation model, and O'Dowd's (2003b) intercultural learning model. The three models are compared in Table 1.

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The Role of Agency in Learning

It takes not only affordances and constraints provided by learning environments, but an active agent to succeed in learning. Agency is defined by Murray as "the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices" (as cited in Kramsch, A'Ness, & Lam, 2000, p. 97). Chapelle (1997), for example, points out that "since meaning-based tasks fail to proscribe the use of particular structures, learners have to take an active role in sorting out exactly what they are learning" (p. 47) or use their own means of accountability, defined as the learners' responsibility to keep track of what they learn. Chapelle refers to Larsen-Freeman and Long's (1991) as well as Swain and Lapkin's (1995) interaction modification theories to explain the notion of accountability. The conscious, active approach to learning is about noticing linguistic problems brought to learners' attention by feedback. Noticing problems pushes learners to modify their utterances.

Agency can be manifested through the use of deep, surface, or strategic approaches to learning, presented in Entwistle's classification (as cited in Thorpe, 2002, p. 139). Students who take a deep approach to learning use more effective learning strategies and, therefore, can be expected to benefit more from learning (see Table 2).

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The use of Entwistle's classification has the danger of ascribing learners' failure to achieve entirely to their low aptitude, lack of motivation, or inappropriate learning strategies instead of to their possible marginalization from a community of practice, insufficient mentoring from an expert, or scant access to a learning community (Norton & Toohey, 2001). This pitfall can be avoided by researchers if they consider two aspects: the affordances/constraints of a learning environment and the students' agency--provided that they implement careful observation of students' behavior in various contexts.

The literature review in this section can be succinctly presented in the form of the model developed by the author (Figure 2), which represents learning as taking place as a result of a complex interrelationship between structure (affordances/constraints of a bulletin board and contexts from which students interacted) and students' agency.

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METHODOLOGY

The Participants

The project comprised 52 Japanese exchange students in a university in southwestern Canada, 37 Mexican students in a university in northern Mexico, and 46 Russian students in a university in northeastern Russia. The participants were between 18 and 22 years old. The overall level of written English proficiency among all three cultural groups was approximately similar and mostly at the intermediate level as evidenced by students' postings on the bulletin board.

The students participated in one of four forums which were balanced for culture and gender. One instructor was assigned to each forum. The instructors were to play the roles of facilitators of interaction and troubleshooters of possible problems. By the end of the project the students posted 3,022 messages, with an average of 700 messages in each forum. Tables 3 and 4 show posting and reading activity of students by culture and gender.

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* The number of messages read is somewhat overstated because it was calculated by WebCT in cases when students might have only hit on the messages but not necessarily read them.

Data Collection and Analysis

Evidence for the quality of online learning can be determined by analyzing easily stored and retrieved electronic discourse (Chapelle, 2001). Therefore, whereas the students' perceptions of learning were found through the theme-based analysis of their interviews, journals, and questionnaires, the evidence for the kinds of learning afforded by the WebCT asynchronous interaction and the role of students' agency in learning were identified through discourse and content analysis of interaction protocols.

Discourse analysis of interaction dynamics

Based on the interaction functions outlined in Table 1 above, a list of five elements was made (Table 5). Each message was then coded for the presence of these elements and their functions two separate times in order to eliminate possible inaccuracies.

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The use of critical reflections (reflective dialogues), explicit comparisons, and questions to communication partners served as indicators of students' development of intercultural communicative competence. Critical reflections and comparisons have features leading to learning such as stretched cognitive and linguistic processes, negotiation of contingent aspects, form and strategy focus, and structured opportunities for comprehending meaning and producing modified output (Lamy & Goodfellow, 1999). In addition, questions provide stimuli for evoking responses. Questions indicate that those who ask the questions have attitudes of

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curiosity and openness necessary for the development of intercultural competence. The following is an example of critical reflection:

Subject: National Identity

Since I came to Canada, I noticed that it is common to have Canadian flags in their rooms and on their backpacks.

However, I do not think many people in Japan have strong national identities, especially among young people. ... Do you know why? I think it is related the history in Japan. Actually, the Japanese flag used to be a symbol for the Japanese militarism during the wars. The Japanese national anthem has also the same meaning. However, we are still using these symbols for the militarism as our national flags and anthem. ... If I am carrying a Japanese flag, people might assume that I am the right wing. That is why Japanese people tend not to have our national flags ...

How about in Mexico and Russia? Do you take your flags and your national identities become stronger?

The use of fact-reporting messages (monologues) was considered as a less effective indicator of the development of intercultural communicative competence. Such messages are similar to controlled interaction-response-feedback classroom discourse in which an exchange ends after a learner replies to a teacher's question. In addition, it lacks features characteristic to critical reflections and, therefore, is not as effective for deep thinking and learning (Lamy & Goodfellow, 1999). The following is an example of a fact-reporting message:

Subject: National Identity

In México the National Identity is very strong in the soccer games, when the national teams plays here or in other country people of México or mexican people that live in that country they carried big flags and paint their faces and make a lot of noise to support our team...

Phatic messages were considered as not leading to intercultural communicative competence development. Lamy and Goodfellow (1999) characterize phatic communication as follows: "Given the relative superficiality of phatic communication, it is difficult to see in what non-trivial sense understanding is being negotiated or how a focus on form might work through such an unreflective, though protracted, exchange" (p. 50). The following is an example of a phatic message:

Subject: Globalization

Hi!!! Of course globalization helps us to grow up. To my mind may be in the nearest future you will have technologocal progress and the globalization will take place there.

Content analysis of students' quality of participation

After outlining the general picture of interaction dynamics in two focal forums, the participation of individual students was analyzed using Entwistle's taxonomy as a guide (Table 2 above). Categorization of students into deep, strategic, or surface communicators was based not only on the quality of messages they consistently produced, but also on their language

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proficiency, and was correlated with their performance in off-line contexts. Finally, the findings were triangulated through interview and responses on pre- and post- surveys focusing on students' perceptions of learning.

FINDINGS

Research Question 1: What kinds of learning were afforded by I-CMC among Japanese, Mexican, and Russian English language learners?

In both forums, learning took place due to the significant increase of the students' critical reflections toward the second half of the project (see Tables 6 and 7). In addition, phatic interaction was not significant in either forum. The quantity of social interaction (e.g., greetings, appraisals, and personal inquiries) decreased toward the second half of the project indicating that the students had passed the stage of introducing themselves to one another.

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There were fewer fact-reporting messages in forum B, compared to forum A, and the number of these messages decreased in the second half of the project. Based on these data, the online interaction in forum B was more successful. This was confirmed by the students from this forum who, according to interview analysis, had a stronger sense of community, a greater satisfaction with communication, and a better participation experience.

Research Question 2: What was the role of student agency in learning?

Interactions evolved due to the contributions of individual students who consistently wrote messages, which were critical, less critical and more social, or phatic and reflected students'

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deep, strategic, or surface approaches to learning and interaction in online environments (see Table 2 above). The content analysis of interaction protocols identified approximately equal numbers of students who took deep (25-30%), strategic (50-55%), and surface approaches to interaction across cultures. The number of students who took deep, surface, and strategic approaches differed across forums, though, with deep communicators in forum A comprising 26.3% and in forum B 30.6%; strategic communicators in forum A 39.5% and in forum B 50%. Students who used a deep approach to online interaction engaged in critical reflections and invested more effort in writing messages of good quality that stretched their proficiency in the L2. The deep approach to interaction was expressed by Salvador, a Mexican student, who said in the interview:

I take my time to read things over, to think carefully, to start writing and to proofread what I've written, and then post. ... I try to be active, and also try to give something meaningfull to the discussion, but also keeping quiet so that others can speak. I'd rather make a few posts of something that really interests me, and make good ones, than to speak lightly about some I might not care too much.

In addition, deep communicators used such learning strategies as consulting additional sources, self-correction, and writing in their best English, all of which could have improved their L2 and intercultural competence. They reported the following in their interviews:

1. Consulting additional sources

When I was interested in a topic, I searched for more on it on the Internet (Keiko, JS). Before writing something about my country I checked information in the books (Alla, RS).

2. Self-correction

Bulletin board helps me reinforce my English because I must proof read, so to say, the message that I'm reading, picking up the mistakes and thinking of ways of correcting them (Salvador, MS). I liked to reread my messages, when I reread, I corrected my mistakes. It is somehow interesting to reread your own writings even when significant time has passed. If I don't correct, it means I like my messages (Alla, RS).

3. Writing in the best English

I tried to write my best to not look less knowledgeable in the eyes of instructors and classmates (Erika, MS).

The use of these learning strategies serves as evidence of these students' accountability, which helped them control their own learning. They invested extra cognitive effort and time in message reading and writing. They tended not to give up when they encountered a misunderstanding but, instead, made an effort to get their point across, thereby practicing their persuasive writing process and providing their interaction partners with accurate information. Most important, deep communicators had intrinsic motivation. In comparison, students who used strategic approach, did not invest extra effort in the project but wrote just as many critical and fact-reporting messages as needed to satisfy their instructors and to have an enjoyable English learning experience. The surface communicators only engaged in interaction not to fail the course. Their focus was not on the quality of their messages, but rather on leaving short, often phatic evidence of their presence. They seemed to write what

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was easiest for them, something that came to mind on the spot that did not require extra cognitive or linguistic effort. It can be also inferred that their participation was restricted by the academic and asynchronous nature of the bulletin board, a less desirable medium to someone who prefers informal and synchronous chat interaction.3

Research Question 3: What were students' perceptions of learning?

Pre- and post- survey results

At the beginning of the project students responded to the pre- survey question "What do you expect from participation in this Intercultural Project?" (Table 8).

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*Students could choose several options, therefore percentages were calculated independently for each category.

For 94.6% of the Mexican students learning other cultures was the most important objective, while Mexican students also wanted to improve their English (62.2%). The Russian students thought that practicing English (51.3%) and learning cultures (46.2%) were equally important. Interestingly, only 6.7% of the Japanese students wanted to improve their English. Some Japanese students (20%) had expectations of comparing cultures, and 11.1% expressed their willingness to become more intercultural. This might be because they were located in Canada, where they were exposed to native English speakers and were in a constant state of comparing cultures.

"To communicate" and "to find friends" were the next important goals for students from all three cultures. Comparing cultures and becoming more intercultural were not even considered as educational options by students from Mexico and Russia, indicating that they separated these important aspects of international telecollaboration from learning experiences. Only one Japanese student indicated she wanted to learn more about her own culture through the project, and only one Mexican student had a goal to self-express herself through writing.

The analysis of the post-survey showed that the project helped students gain more knowledge about other cultures rather than to improve their proficiency in English (Table 9), which coincides with their interview reflections.

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It is interesting to note that before the project the students did not even consider learning more about their own cultures, however the postsurvey revealed that this was one of the significant learning outcomes. This change may have taken place because the students read messages by their own classmates and were asked questions about their own culture. Twice as many of the Japanese students (71.1%) felt they improved their knowledge about their own culture as compared to the Mexican (29.4%) and Russian (35.9%) students. It is likely the Japanese students noted this improvement also because of learning through their everyday intercultural experiences in Canada where they had to constantly explain their culture to Canadians and had a chance to look at their culture from the outside. Furthermore, only 24.4% of the Japanese students reported that they improved their academic language, which is compatible with their initial goal to improve knowledge about other cultures rather than the L2 and with their negative attitude toward interactions with nonnative speakers of English (see Table 10 below).

Many students from all three cultures also mentioned the improvement of their reading comprehension probably because they had not had a chance to read so much in English online. In addition, a substantial percentage of Mexican students reported an expansion of their vocabulary as a result of this interaction. Overall, students thought that the project was useful for improvement of their informal rather than academic writing.

Students' Interview Reflections

The interviews with the students revealed the following recurrent themes reflecting students' perceptions of learning: (a) learning the L2 through practice, (b) nonnative participants and the absence of error correction as an impediment to L2 learning, (c) project as the first step toward learning other cultures, (d) remembering striking information, (e) making impressions of one another based on genre differences, (f) learning about oneself and classmates, and (g) Russian students' gains.

Learning the L2 through practice

Several students said that the project's interaction made them think of the discussed problems in the target language: "It makes you think at the discussed problem a lot and, moreover, think in English" (Alla, RS, interview). They felt that the online interaction was a good language practice for them:

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I feel that every time that we are reading, and writing more and more English, we are improving it. I feel that my abilities to write, and my skills to read and understand more things are improving since I'm in this forum. (Jose, MS, interview)

Some students said that the bulletin board was a good method of learning language: "not boring" and "the best way to improve English when we practice, not sit and study drills, but talk freely, interact, share with our thoughts" (Zhanna, RS, online message). In addition, some students thought they improved the ability to better express their thoughts on various topics:

What we improved is not academic English, but the way to express our own thoughts. In our classes we are lacking it. We are not asked "what do you think about this or that?" (Alya, RS, interview)

Nonnative participants and the absence of error correction as an impediment to L2 learning

Despite the practice in the L2, some students did not believe the project was effective for improving their language proficiency: "For cultural understanding this bulletin board is good idea, but I think this bulletin board is not so good for improving English ability" (Yuka, JS, interview).

There were two reasons why some students thought they did not improve their English. The first was because they interacted with nonnative speakers. As Yuko wrote, "it's better to include some native English speakers" (journal). Whereas the Mexican and Russian students had positive or neutral attitudes toward interacting with nonnative speakers of English, 44.4% of the Japanese students were negative about it (Table 10). This may be due to the fact that the Mexican and Russian students were in the English-as-a-foreign-language (EFL) environment; they viewed any interaction in the target language as extremely beneficial. However, the Japanese students were in an English-as-a-second-language (ESL) environment in Canada, surrounded by native English speakers whose presence undermined the usefulness of interacting online with non-native speakers.

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The second reason was that the students thought they did not make linguistic gains because their errors were not corrected: "Even though you wrote a lot and practice, there's no one to correct your mistakes, so you didn't really learn something new" (Dolores, MS, interview).

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Project as the first step toward learning cultures

The students saw the beneficial role of the project in connecting them and making them think of cultures that they were not interested in before. This was well expressed by Miki, a Japanese student:

I feel like that if I do not have opportunities to talk and to know people from a different country, I might not be even interested about the country. However once I meet someone and talk to the person, I will feel like I really want to know their culture and country. It is just like a discovery of new things in my life. ...In my case, it is a usual signal that I start to learn about new cultures. (journal)

Francisco, a Mexican student, said in the interview: "It [the project] can be assessed that it's the first step on learning about their culture to treat them right and know what to expect from them." For the Mexican and Russian students it was a "discovery" of each others' cultures because students from both countries knew more about Japan than each others' countries. More of the Japanese students had more knowledge about Mexican culture than Russian culture. Such an unequal awareness about the culture of communication partners can be explained by modern geopolitics, with the three countries being at a considerable political and economic distance from one another but with Mexico and Japan, probably, having better developed economic and cultural ties.

Remembering striking information

When asked what cultural knowledge they gained, the students tended to recall the facts from their partners' messages that were striking and very new to them. Shura, a Russian student, said,

Mexicans wrote that people think they were poor, but in fact, they are not. It turned out, that Japanese are more Americanized. E.g. many Japanese wrote about their love of baseball, Kenji wrote about his "Harley Davidson." That was something new to me. (interview)

Tsuki, a Japanese student, described the following example of intercultural learning through comparison:

I found some opinion of Russian student in WebCT. He said Russia is suffering from economic crisis now and there are lots of unemployment people but even he does not be satisfied with current Russian circumstance, he respected a present president. I was surprised because if I was in situation like as him I would criticize a present president and I would not show respect to him. So I think it is interesting that people have different view and different way of thinking. (journal)

Some students had a hard time determining whether differences in opinions should have been ascribed to individual or to cultural differences. For example, Salvador, a Mexican student said: "There are differences among us, but I still don't know them well enough to say which are attributable to their culture and which to their own personality" (interview).

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Making impressions of one another based on genre differences

Many of the Mexican students expressed their dissatisfaction with the Russian students' messages because they perceived them to be dispassionate, formal, and distant. Moreover, the Mexican students accused the Russian students of plagiarism: "Japanese and Mexicans write their own postings, and Russians copy and paste (plagiarize) and it is not fair" (Francisco, MS, interview). As a result, the attitudes of 38.2% of the Mexican students toward the Russian students became less positive over time (Table 11).

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In contrast, most of the Japanese students did not change their attitudes toward the Russian students because they did not relate the writings of the latter to plagiarism. The Japanese students' perception of the Russians might have been formed as a result of interaction with me, their instructor from Russia.

The Russian students gained the impression that the Japanese and Mexican students were more relaxed and informal. Zhenya, for example, said in the interview: "They write in 'free English' and don't use dictionary. Japanese and Mexicans are more free: 'hi!' 'Wow!' We wrote 'faithfully your's' we were not as free as they were."

Learning about oneself and classmates

The students from all three cultures reported in the interview that they learned about themselves as a result of participating in this project: "My opinion is not strong enough" (Michi, JS), "I don't like to write too long, I go straight to the point" (Erica, MS), "On the bulletin board I was careful to not offend others, usually I am not like that" (Luis, MS).

In addition, many students learned about their classmates. Miki, a Japanese student, said: "Actually, it is very interesting to read messages by my classmates (italics added) as well. I know them, but I do not know exactly what they are thinking about different cultures" (interview). Yukako, another Japanese student, said: "Some topics make me eager to know how Japanese students introduce our culture to foreign students; or how they are interested in other cultures and ask them questions" (interview). Similarly, Shura, a Russian student, said: "What about my classmates: there were so many postings of them, and it was interesting for me to read them and to know their opinion (italics added)" (interview). Some Russian students felt attracted to messages of their quiet and reserved female classmate Alla. Semyon said:

When Alla writes and makes reports in English and talks about her interests - it is very interesting to listen to her. I think she is the most interesting person who

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I interacted during my studies very little. ... Due to this forum I began to treat our students ... not differently, but simply knew more about them, about those people who were interesting to me. (interview)

Thus, the I-CMC provided students with additional new context in which they could learn more about one another.

Russian students' gains

Analysis of the data showed that the Russian students benefited from the project by increasing their confidence in their use of English and computer technology. Students who had limited levels of electronic literacy said in the interview after the project, "I increased my speed of typing," "I subscribed for e-mail for the first time," "I gained some experience in such work," "at last I feel myself freely with computers and realize their importance."

In addition, participation in the project increased the Russian students' confidence in interacting with foreign students. They realized that their English was at a similar level, if not more advanced than that of the Japanese and Mexican students. Kostya, for example, said in the interview:

I was concerned about participating in the project. I thought they would be all monsters-I thought Japanese and Mexicans would be so advanced. If they read my poor messages, I would disgrace my department of World economics and myself. ... I was not sure in myself in my knowledge of language. And this project gave me an opportunity to look at their level and compare it with mine. I realized that somebody knows English less then me.

A concern about appearing less knowledgeable made many of the Russian students prepare for the project beforehand, therefore, as Shura said in the interview, "I had to learn grammar again, such as, e.g. the word order. ... This might have improved my grammar."

Summary

The model of the complex interrelationship between structure (cultures-of-use of computer technologies, local contexts), students' agency, and learning was developed (Figure 2 above). In addition, the study developed a taxonomy which helped to find evidence of learning through international online interaction. Using this taxonomy the author's analysis of interaction protocols identified the following interaction moves that lead to the development of intercultural communicative competence: critical reflections, questions, and social interaction associated with Entwistle's deep and/or strategic approaches to learning, monologic factual or personal information associated with strategic and/or surface approaches to learning, and phatic communication reflecting surface approach.

The study revealed the presence of students' agency through their use of deep, strategic, or surface approaches to interaction/learning. Deep communicators used such learning strategies as consulting additional sources, self-correction, and writing in their best English, all of which may have improved their L2 proficiency and intercultural competence. The deep communicators said in the interview that they learned L2 through practice. Some students sensed that interaction with nonnative participants and the absence of error correction

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hampered their L2 learning. Both surveys and interviews revealed that the project was more beneficial for learning more about other cultures and one's own culture and the development of informal writing rather than academic English. The project resulted in some Mexican students forming negative impressions about Russian students, whose writing genre tended to be formal and dispassionate. Interestingly, students from all three cultures initially did not expect to learn about their own cultures, but by the end of the project many reported that they did.

DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS

Despite the clearly positive interaction dynamics in two focal forums including the increase of critical reflections, comparisons, and questions leading to intercultural communicative competence development, the students' perceptions of learning the L2 were not that definitive. Those whose behavior, attitudes, and beliefs reflected an ecological approach to language learning felt that they had improved their L2 and intercultural understanding. The ecological approach to learning views success in education as primarily dependent on the quality of the activities and the interactional opportunities available to learners in the educational environment (van Lier, 2000). On the other hand, those whose behavior, attitudes, and beliefs reflected a conceptualization of learning as a task- or test-based finite activity involving error correction did not believe in the usefulness of the project for improving their L2 proficiency.

In order to accommodate both perspectives, instructors would be well advised to follow a balanced approach--a combination of structure and freedom--when implementing bulletin board projects so that students have a clear sense of what exactly they are to learn and, at the same time, gain a sense of ownership of the bulletin board activities. Structure can be established in the design of the project (e.g., see projects described by Kramsch & Thorne, 2002; O'Dowd, 2003a) or in evaluation methods used in the project since students relate their L2 improvement to error correction. It is, nevertheless, unrealistic for instructors to correct all students' errors; therefore, they can randomly select and check a few messages every 2 or 3 weeks. Instructors should also agree on the length of messages, acceptable level of quality, and common requirements such as writing five messages a week as well as reading a specific number of messages. It is crucial to emphasize the investment of a sufficient amount of time in reading and posting messages as well as accountability, that is, control over one's learning (Chapelle, 1997).

The students in this project were attuned to remembering new and striking information. Differences were very exciting for students to the point that there was a danger they would "exoticize" their own cultures in order to surprise the others and have a stronger impact on their communication partners. This finding implies that the focus should be on learning through exposure to "different points of view and ... visions and impressions about other countries as told by residents" (Salvador, MS, interview) rather than being attuned only to surprising facts about different cultures.

It is interesting that the students formed attitudes toward one another (which is also a part of learning other cultures) based on the writing genres of their communication partners. Indeed in online environments impressions are made based on the genres of writing (especially in online environments lacking visual cues), which, "deal not with what is talked about, ... but with who acts ... in relation to whom, with the question of purposes" (Kress, 2003, p. 84). As this study showed, students can form negative impressions of one another because of the genre clash. The Russian students, for example, seemed formal and dispassionate because they were restricted by limited internet access and many of them composed their messages off line. This raises an issue of teaching students communicative competence

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in global online environments, which is different from teaching them communicative competence in face-to-face situations. In this study differences in genres of writing were catalyzed by the differences in cultures-of-use of computer technologies (Thorne, 2003; Basharina, 2005) in Canada, Mexico, and Russia. Therefore, "FLT needs ... to go beyond linguistic realizations of politeness to take account of the ways of living out of which others speak and write" (Byram, 1997, p. 4). Instructors need to call students' attention to how their writing genres demonstrate particular stances and carry traces of a wide range of contextually and culturally situated views and also cultures-of-use of computer technologies. It is desirable to introduce students to netiquette stances that value intercultural engagement in asynchronous multithreaded bulletin boards. Instructors should encourage less focus on cultural "otherness" (Guest, 2002) and more on developing a sense of a common world through a "dialogue of cultures" (Safonova, 1996). They should teach students the differences between reporting facts, critical reflections, phatic, and social communication. They should also emphasize the importance of critical reflections as the most effective method for learning. A model of a deep learner who is a critical thinker seeking common ground with others and having a well rounded personality should be reinforced (Wenger, 1998).

LIMITATIONS

Although this study can inform other educators and instructors as to the range and types of issues that may be pertinent to their own settings, the results cannot be extended and directly applied to other learning situations. In addition, one can have concerns about students' inaccurate accounts and false claims. The researcher minimized this problem by creating a trusting relationship with the students, conducting anonymous surveys, and reassuring the students that their grades would not suffer for providing honest opinions.

DIRECTIONS FOR FURTHER RESEARCH

Future research can be directed toward exploration of ways to increase the effectiveness of learning processes and outcomes through international telecollaboration. It is particularly important to explore student motivation and compare the effectiveness of learning in structured versus open-ended online environments. Future studies can also explore the relationship between off-line teacher scaffolding and online learning as well as the ways in which projects are integrated in different contexts. Investigations in this area could well focus on the ways teachers integrate exchanges into their classes and take a proactive role in guiding students in their intercultural interactions. One of the ways to implement such research is to analyze the classroom transcripts of teachers who scaffold their students to interact with others online and then conduct evaluations of the effectiveness of this scaffolding.

NOTES

1 The style and form of students' interview and bulletin board reflections are kept unchanged.

2 MS is an abbreviation for Mexican students, JS for Japanese students, and RS for Russian students.

3 The interviews revealed that at the time of participation in the project, many of the Japanese, Mexican and a few of the Russian students were engaged in the chat interaction with their own friends outside of the project.

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I am very grateful to students, instructors, and project coordinators from three universities in Canada, Mexico and Russia. I would like to separately acknowledge Dr. Paige Ware for her constructive feedback on the rough draft of this paper.

AUTHOR'S BIODATA

Olga Basharina is a recent Ph.D. graduate from the University of British Columbia. She is currently an adjunct faculty at the Department of Language, Literacy and Socio-cultural Studies at the University of New Mexico. The interdisciplinary areas of her research interests include language and literacy development in a sociocultural context, instructional technology, and theory and practice in ESL teacher education.

AUTHOR'S ADDRESS

Olga K. Basharina

Department of Language, Literacy and Socio-cultural Studies

MSC05 3040

1 University of New Mexico

Albuquerque, NM 87131-0001

Phone: 505 615 3572

Email: okb@unm.edu

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