LET’s Learn English with Technology Gabriela Grosseck1, Ramona Bran1, Carmen Holotescu2 (1) West University of Timisoara, Department of Psychology 4 Bd Vasile Parvan, 300223 Timisoara, Romania E-mail: gabriela.grosseck [at] e-uvt.ro, ramona.bran [at]e-uvt.ro (2) University “Ioan Slavici” of Timisoara 144 Paunescu Podeanu, 300569 Timisoara, Romania E-mail: carmen.holotescu [at] islavici.ro Abstract The paper looks at our experience as teachers, of English and ICT respectively, in designing a MOOC for English language learning. LET, the acronym for Learning English with Technology, is the title of the massive open online course we are proposing to beginners who are looking for digital and online means of learning English as a foreign language. While adding content to this MOOC, we encountered certain challenges, such as: what are the best software for language acquisition, how can one accurately evaluate the progress made by learners, or how to facilitate interaction between peers, to mention just a few. Including multimedia, digital, and online elements in the language-learning process definitely has numerous advantages, but this article focuses more on the decisions that have to be taken and the challenges that have to be met when building a MOOC for language learning. Keywords: MOOC, English Language, learning
1 Introduction With all the changes brought about by the digital revolution, the technological trend was bound to catch on to education, too. One of the most interesting online phenomena is represented by online courses open to a big number of participants (Jansen and Daniels, 2016), in short MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). MOOCs are courses designed for large numbers of participants, that can be accessed by anyone anywhere as long as they have an internet connection, are open to everyone without entry qualifications, and offer a full/complete course experience online for free (OpenEd, 2016). As opposed to “traditional” online courses which incorporate videos, various reading materials and/or sets of exercises, MOOCs do not have specific requirements for those who wish to enroll. MOOCs can include different forms of assessment and interactive forums, where participants can communicate with each other and with the tutors in charge of the respective courses. In recent years, it has become even clearer that MOOCs have the potential to revolutionize education. But are MOOCs suitable for teaching any subject? For instance, is this type of online course appropriate for second language teaching and learning? The present paper aims to analyze this question. After looking at the literature available on the topic and reviewing the LMOOCs (Language Massive Open Online Courses) currently offered by the already established platforms (such as Coursera or FutureLearn), we will present the challenges we have encountered while designing an LMOOC. Our course is a MOOC for beginners in English, which is why we called it Learning English with Technology (LET).
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2 Are MOOCs a viable alternative in the learning process? The term MOOC first appeared in 2008, but it really developed on the scene of online distance education in 2012. This was called by specialists „the year of the MOOCs” due to the fact that several well-financed providers, such as Coursera, Udacity or edX, affiliated to some top universities, appeared (Sandeen, 2013; Ying, Jinlei and Baohui, 2013, Giuntini and Venturini, 2015). Moreover, MOOCs have the potential “to disrupt the way higher education is organised and delivered”, with important impact on aspects such as teaching practice, quality assurance, accreditation, learning analytics, business models, and concepts of openness, success and completion (Jacoby, 2014). Since 2008, this form of e-learning has constantly gained in popularity. After 2013, the MOOC phenomenon simply exploded, the number of MOOCs growing exponentially. At the moment, MOOC providers are continuing on this ascending path and are developing real ecosystems. Only in October 2016, 1800 MOOCs are starting, more than 200 being new (Shah, 2016). The MOOCs on offer cover a wide range of fields: Art & Design, Business & Management, Computer Science, Education & Teaching, Engineering, Health & Medicine, Humanities (with subfields as (Learning) Languages & Cultures), Mathematics, Personal Development, Programming, Science, or Social Sciences, as specified by the MOOC Class Central portal (https://www.class-central.com/subjects), other portals or platforms defining similar categories. In 2016, the first four fields of interest continued to be Business & Management, Science, Social Sciences and Computer Science, as revealed by the Class Central reports. A lot has been written about the advantages of MOOCs, so in what follows we only mention some (Conole, 2015; Xia, 2015; McIntyre, 2016a; Chengjie, 2015): - the opportunity for organizations to close partnerships with universities well-known around the world; - most MOOCs offer free (or extremely affordable) knowledge to all those who want to enhance their knowledge and skills and thus adapt to the requirements of the everchanging job market; - there are no pre-requisites (McIntyre, 2016) or formal admission criteria; - MOOCs are usually offered by prestigious universities, so their content is going to be of high quality; - in general, MOOCs are interactive and integrate videos, articles, discussion forums, social media tools and different types of exercises. However, each course has its own specificity; MOOCs have a high degree of flexibility, although they are organized according to a structure and they bring together a community sharing the same interests. On the other hand, some MOOC platforms offer sets of courses to master a subject in depth, packed as Nanodegrees (Udacity), Specializations (Coursera), XSeries and MicroMasters (edX) or Programs (FutureLearn); - learners who meet the basic criteria of participation get a certificate and those who finish all the online assessments get a certificate of competence. A delicate problem remains the fact that most employers do not yet acknowledge these certificates; - until recently, most universities did not assign transferrable credits for the completion of a MOOC. But some higher education institutions have started partnerships with the largest MOOC platforms in order to provide courses with transferrable credits. Although such programs are not free, the costs are substantially lower than those for academic courses. - high accessibility and huge variety of topics; - the majority of MOOCs are in English, French or Spanish, which means that participants will study certain subjects and practice their language skills at the same time.
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Researchers have spotted some disadvantages as well (Yanfeng, 2015; Xiong & Wu, 2015; Haywood and Macleod, 2014): - participants do not get credits (just a certificate of completion or competence); - MOOCs are still unavailable to people who do not have Internet access or cannot understand the language in which the course is delivered; - because of the big number of students, it is impossible for instructors to evaluate everyone’s work; if automated tests are not created, peers have to evaluate each other, which raises doubts and controversies; - in fact, teacher-student interaction is virtually absent, also due to the large numbers of participants; - low rates of graduation; - sometimes, the information offered for free is limited, so in order to learn more, students have to pay certain taxes; - synchronous communication is difficult to achieve, because of time zone differences and work schedules; Other critical comments, formulated by universities, include: „sanctioning edutainmentˮ, „unprofessional teaching methodsˮ, and turning higher education into a „corporationˮ (Zemsky, 2014; Jaschik, 2013). 3 MOOCs in Romania In 2013, there were only very few reactions from representatives of Romanian universities regarding this form of education. Currently in Romania there are many initiatives related to MOOCs: implementation of platforms and MOOCs (http://mooc.ro, http://unicampus.ro, http://novamooc.uvt.ro, http://unibuc-virtual.net, http://udemy.com/management-ong, http://estudent.ro, http://eliada.ubbcluj.ro/proiect); no MOOC is for language learning, the topics are related to teacher training, engineering, management or social skills; experiments for integrating MOOCs in blended academic courses can be found at the Politehnica University of Timisoara and the University „Ioan Slavici” of Timisoara (Holotescu et al., 2014; Vasiu and Andone, 2014); workshops and national conferences on open education organized by the Romanian Coalition for OERs. 4 Exploring Language MOOCs (LMOOCs) Language literacy is an essential life skill for the 21st century, providing access to information, easing communication and collaboration, helping in keeping pace with the ongoing changes of the knowledge society, and in obtaining a professional advantage in labor market as they facilitate the access to multilingual resources. Moreover, exploring other languages and cultures is an efficient way to acquire multiple skills like social skills. But how easy is to cover the linguistic needs of a big number of people who aim to live and work efficiently in the global community? Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a promising solution to this problem: due to their openness and flexibility, MOOCs seem to be a great choice for contemporary autonomous learners, for learning and practicing of foreign/European languages (Perifanou et al., 2014). When we speak about languages and MOOCs, we can note two aspects: one is the language in which the course is developed and offered, and one refers to the course topic, if it is related to learning a foreign language, culture and civilization; in both cases the (thousands of) participants can have a large number of native languages. For this article, we will refer only to MOOCs for learning a foreign language - Language MOOCs (LMOOCs), in our case English.
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Yet, for LMOOC developers, things are not always clear-cut. How should they address a diverse, heterogeneous public? What materials, activities, and tasks can be added, so that they are suitable for various age groups, cultural backgrounds, or professional paths? Moreover, those who enroll in such a course have different reasons and purposes. If we think of beginners who take up an English MOOC, some might register because they want to find a (better) job, others need some basics to get around on a holiday, whereas others desire to become fluent/proficient/articulate. And this doesn’t even begin to cover the wide range of learner intentions and needs. We could mention the large category of MOOCs for learning English provided by FutureLearn in collaboration with British Council, Open University, or other prestigious partners (https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/categories/languages-and-cultures). Some of them deal with continuing professional development for English language teachers, preparing them to teach participants with different levels of English proficiency, such as “Teaching your subject in English”, “Exploring the World of English Language Teaching”, or “Teaching for Success: Lessons and Teaching”. In May 2015, the largest MOOC ever - "Understanding IELTS: Techniques for English Language Tests" - was run for 440,000 learners from 150 countries, having as motivation to improve English (80%), to learn new things (47%), and to prepare for further studies (44%) (FutureLearn, 2015). The Coursera platform comes with a large category of English LMOOCs too (https://www.coursera.org/browse/language-learning). There are specific specializations for English-teaching strategies, such as "Teach English now! Technology Enriched Teaching", "English for Teaching Purposes", or "Shaping the Way We Teach English". "Interacting with students from around the world is one of the most enriching aspects of learning on Coursera. For teachers, this means exposure to an entirely new base of educators to collaborate and gain strategies from." (Coursera, 2014). A catalogue of LMOOCs was realized by Martín-Monje and Bárcena (2014), containing the courses on the market at that time. Their list was not that long, even though they took into account all the second language learning MOOCs, not only those aimed at people willing to study English. They found that most of the existing MOOCs are quite specific, with topics like business English, or improve the writing in English. In the same year, Perifanou and Economides (2014) have found too that the number of LMOOCs was relatively small. Only 16 such courses met the dimensions they consider essential for an efficient LMOOC: ● Content (check for: authentic educational resources, use of multimedia, variety of activities that promote all basic language skills); ● Pedagogy (check for: communication, collaboration, autonomy, engagement and motivation, game-based learning, number of instructors); ● Assessment (automated, instructor, peer-peer, open; is there a final assessment? is feedback provided for ongoing and final evaluations?); ● Community (integration of social media and other tools in order to enhance community building); ● Technical infrastructure (number of participants, security, performance, usability); ● Financial issues (charges for certificate, accreditation). Their research has shown that most of the LMOOL initiatives are based on the cognitive behavioral pedagogical model (xMOOC type) and don’t promote “a highly interactive environment where the learners are interconnected to a language learning community and build collectively their language skills”. Although most language courses of this type are still free, have a good infrastructure, and offer some form of certification, designers and educators should focus on improving the pedagogical aspects of their LMOOCs.
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Learning a language is an extremely complex endeavour, involving thousands of exercises, long hours of practice, and a lot of individual effort. Therefore, some reasons why not many LMOOCs have been developed so far may be: ● not enough exercises (how many to be practiced/solved before you allow the participants to move on to the next level?); ● not enough time (MOOCs typically end after a few weeks); ● no follow up (?); ● no or little interaction with a tutor (pronunciation, grammar, lexical subtleties require feedback from a language teacher, a peer may not be better prepared than the other students to answer these inherent problems); ● too little interaction with peers (not enough authentic communication in the target language); peers are not natives, so there is basically no one to correct their possible mistakes; ● grammar drills, reading comprehension, listening tasks might work, but speaking and writing need feedback; ● learners lose motivation if their learning needs are not covered; ● conversations take place on threaded discussion platforms. Maggie Sokolik (2014), facilitator of the edX “Principles of Written English” (MOOC averaging approximately 50,000 participants per five-week segment of the course), stresses how important the instructor’s presence is in an LMOOC. Practically he/she facilitates community building, keeps up students’ motivation, clarifies certain problematic issues. Therefore, ideally, the platform hosting the LMOOC should allow for: ● self-organization (users should have the option to create groups or follow other users); ● voice/video posts (authentic language materials, an opportunity for students to become engaged in culture as well as the language itself they are studying); ● users to be able to see when instructors and facilitators are online and available for contact; ● lessons adapted to online teaching (attention span is shorter); ● structured peer assessment (but peers should be trained by an instructor - rules should be read and understood by them) - many disadvantages; ● structured self-assessment (auto-scored multiple choice); ● informal peer feedback (on discussion forums) leads to learning in social context. In the same study, the steps to be followed when creating an LMOOC are highlighted (Sokolik, 2014): ● placement test; ● realization of tasks (study course material, explore resources and other material they find on their own, produce artefacts and interact with peers, thus they create knowledge in a social context); ● teacher presence is created through the learning guide, the detailed instructions for the tasks, the introductory videos for each topic and a weekly feedback message, based on the information prepared by the support team. One or two synchronous sessions (Google Hangout, web conference, etc.) during the course, preferably with one or several relevant guests, should be used to increase teacher/teaching presence, and strengthen the social ties in the learning community; ● resources: mainly OERs, other free online material and participants’ artefacts; ● different versions of the same task (for different levels); authentic tasks; also some extra tasks for those who want to achieve more;
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● feedback: self-correct, peers, teacher; ● credits: e-portfolio presented by the participants (50%), combined with a final, face to face exam (50%). A combination between an xMOOC format (tutor-centric) and a cMOOC format (supporting connectivist autonomy) would be desirable when designing a language MOOC. The cMOOC format places “its emphasis on interaction and community building”, qualities which are important for language learning (in the communicative approach, the focus is on enabling the learner to use the second language in authentic contexts), thus not suitable for beginners, though (they have to navigate the medium, acquire a big amount of information rules, vocabulary, sometimes even a new alphabet - and then have to communicate in the target language with peers who are in the same situation). In this case, the “medium of instruction is the medium of communication”, in a language they are not familiar with. xMOOCs are similar to the traditional classroom (there is an instructor, a syllabus), but Siemens (2012) said they only encourage “knowledge duplication”. However, when it comes to learning a new language, repetitive tasks and drills are probably still necessary - before you can communicate, you have to know basic verbal forms, for example. But interaction is vital to achieving the main goal of language learning, which is to be able to have a conversation despite the fact that your grammar is not perfect. More than that, LMOOCs should be designed to make use of developments in technology that have the capacity to help solve inherent challenges in language education (Adams et al., 2016): ● data-driven technology - information that can be derived from learning analytics; ● informal learning - to engage in authentic and meaningful interaction with peers; ● mobile learning - ubiquitous opportunities and access to apps and speech-tospeech translation tools that support on-the-go learning; ● immersive technology - online games, virtual and augmented reality that simulate real situations. 5 Discussion: Own initiative to run an LMOOC A major part of the NOVAMOOC project is the building and running of our own pilot / prototype Language MOOC. We decided to host the LMOOC in the cloud, on a free and flexible external platform (Teachable). One thing that we pay attention is to have a successful pilot LMOOC, which to be assessed and accredited by the Ministry of Education, so that the West University of Timisoara, Romania (WUT) becomes the coordinator of some digital learning centers in Romanian speaking spaces (including diaspora, Moldova etc.). Our aim is twofold: to integrate our LMOOC in the university educational strategy and to increase the institutional online visibility. In the table below we have selected a few strong and a few weak points of MOOCs in general and we have tried to see whether they verify for language MOOCs. We would like to stress the fact that we are focusing on language MOOCs for beginners who want to study English. MOOCs Strong free/low costs no pre-requisites interactive (integrate video, etc.) community/collaborative learning (shared interests) flexibility, learner autonomy accessibility lifelong networked learning
Weak no credits big number of participants assessment (automated, self, or peer) little/no teacher-student interaction big dropout rates inaccessible to those who do not have Internet access
LMOOCs for beginners Strong Weak x X X x X x X x x x
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6 Thoughts at the end The big obstacle in designing MOOCs comes from the “massive” numbers of potential participants, and language learning raises other specific challenges as well. For example, the need for oral interactions (teacher-student, student-student), or the need to practice certain structures several times, in different types of exercises, before moving on to the next level. The constant need for feedback from an instructor is a challenge that is very hard to deal with. Synchronous communication is difficult on a MOOC (Skype, Google hangouts); social media sites and applications can be used, but what if the teacher is only available when you are at work or the peers you were supposed to talk to at a certain hour can’t/don’t access the Internet or even drop out of the course meanwhile? Moreover, beginners could only practice some constructions learned beforehand since they lack the lexical knowledge that would allow them to communicate in authentic, unplanned situations. The fact that students create their own Personal Learning Environment, where they manage their learning process (publish their work, communicate and collaborate with peers) is an advantage. Digital inclusion is another plus. The interactive nature of MOOCs, access to OERs and updated information, render such courses more interesting and motivating. In a globalized, technologically connected world, “the focus in language education (…) is no longer on grammar, memorization and learning from rote, but rather using language and cultural knowledge as a means to communicate and connect to others around the globe.” (Eaton, 2013). Moreover, we would like to personalize the LMOOC in the context of the Romanian cultural space, issuing certificates and formal university credits as possible. For WUT students, these courses will be free, for the others the costs will be lower than the usual courses which have accreditation. It is an important challenge, but we are at the beginning of this adventure, and we are still trying to figure out what MOOCs will be successful in the future. That is the ultimate goal of the NOVAMOOC project. If we achieve it, we believe we can become innovators of the Romanian educational system, challenging universities to rethink their strategies in order to maintain competitivity. This effect of liberalization and opening of education will represent a real change in Romanian higher education. At the same time, we aim for WUT to become a pole of career development, by supporting students / participants in our courses to acquire relevant knowledge for today’s world and to consolidate their feelings of self-worth. The quality of the NOVAMOOC project and its results is a key parameter for its success. The MOOCs developed within the project will meet all the quality requirements (design, content and presentation) and, for this reason, they will be validated by organizing some pilot learning labs. These labs will take place in WUT and they will enroll at least 150 participants, students from all fields; in the spirit of the MOOC definition most used in the European educational space, 148 – the Dunbar number - is considered the minimum number of participants in a MOOC (OpenEd, 2015). The labs will be organized during the current academic year and the results will be used for improving and validating courses. Acknowledgement: This work was supported by a grant of the Romanian National Authority for Scientific Research and Innovation, CNCS - UEFISCDI, project number PN-II-RU-TE-20144-2040: NOVAMOOC - Development and innovative implementation of MOOCs in Higher Education. References Adams Becker, S., Rodriguez, J.C., Estrada, V., & Davis, A. (2016). Innovating Language Education: An NMC Horizon Project Strategic Brief. Volume 3.1, February 2016. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.
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