Modern technologies have dramatically altered global communication. The technologies have changed how people communicate and also influenced how they learn. The Internet, which transcends international boundaries, allows people to communicate with audiences afar. It also allows users around the globe to join one big learning environment. E-mail, a computer-mediated communication (CMC) technology that relies on the Internet, has become a common and inexpensive way to communicate and learn at a distance. Many scholars have addressed the topics of CMC. Two perspectives have emerged in the literature.
One perspective is that the lack of social cues in CMC is problematic. Rice (1984) and Trevino, Lengel, and Daft (1987) noted that the absence of social cues affected users' perception of communication context and constrained users' interpretation of messages. Many scholars noted that it is less appropriate to use CMC for personalized interactions which are needed in resolving disagreement, getting to know someone, or negotiation (Hiltz, Johnson, & Agle, 1978; Rice & Case, 1983; Rice, 1984; Steinfield, 1986). An argument can be made that since interactions are crucial to the learning process, CMC is inappropriate for learning. Research studies provide more specific information about the topic. According to Short, Williams, and Christie’s study (1976), when fewer nonverbal codes were available in a medium, the users paid less attention to the presence of other social participants. Hackman and Walker (1990) studied students in an interactive television setting, and they found that cues given to students such as encouraging gestures, smiles, and praise were social factors that enhanced students' learning. Without such cues, CMC can be "less friendly, emotional, or personal and more businesslike, or task-oriented" than other communication media (Rice & Love, 1987, p. 88). Because of CMC’s nature, researchers have determined that CMC is not appropriate for communication and learning.
The other perspective that emerges from the literature is that CMC is appropriate for learning. Gunawardena (1995) stressed that although CMC contained few social context cues, student perceptions of the social qualities of a medium depended upon the social presence created by the instructors (or the moderators) and the on-line community. Many scholars have described advantages of using CMC in education. They noted that CMC users adapted to the medium and developed "on-line communities" (Hiltz & Turoff, 1978; Kerr & Hiltz, 1982) and that CMC messages were friendly and personal. An argument can be made that since CMC messages are personal and foster interactions that are crucial to the learning process, CMC is appropriate for learning. Some studies provide insight into the underlying process for CMC in education. Hiltz and Turoff’s (1978) study presented cases where friendship and warm relations developed. Steinfield (1986) found that the need for communication across locations was associated positively with CMC messages. A study by Olaniran, Savage, and Sorenson (1996) indicated that students generated more ideas using CMC. Anderson and Kanuka (1997) concluded that CMC was beneficial for communication.
In summary, the literature provides support for two perspectives: that the lack of social cues of CMC is problematic and that CMC messages are personal and foster interactions. The former have not supported the appropriateness of CMC in communication and learning while the latter have. The study presented in this article extends our knowledge of CMC appropriateness in a distance learning environment by examining foreign language learners and by involving students from two nations. The study investigated (1) the difference of language performance and confidence of the participants who used CMC and who did not, (2) the content and appropriateness of CMC in distant learning, (3) the opinions of students and the instructor towards the use of CMC in instruction, and (4) the problems the participants encountered in the use of CMC.
2. The Study
2.1. Student Samples
The subjects were United States (US) students who were enrolled in a fifth-semester Spanish Conversation and Composition course offered by the Department of Languages and Literatures at a large public university. Students in two classes participated in the study. They were taught by the same instructor on the same days. One class learned and used e-mail during the semester, and the other one did not.
The e-mail group communicated with students in Mexico via e-mail. The e-mail communication was conducted in Spanish and lasted for 10 weeks. A total of 18 US students were involved in the CMC and each had two Mexican pen pals. They were encouraged but not required to communicate with their pen pals.
The pen pals were Mexican students taking a university mathematics class in Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey in Mexico. The Mexican professor encouraged the students to communicate with the students in the United States of America (USA) and to find out how students in the USA learn mathematics.
This study asks the following questions:
First, the researcher explained the project to the students of the e-mail group, introduced the possible use of e-mail in foreign language learning, and expressed the hope that the students would choose to participate. To encourage the students to write more, the instructor agreed to give extra points up to ten percent of the total grade for participating. The extra points were based on the number of the e-mail messages sent to the pen pals and the amount written in the e-mails. To get extra points, the students were told that they should send copies of their e-mail messages to the researcher. After the explanations, volunteers filled in a demographic data sheet and an attitude survey form and participated in a cloze test. A cloze test is a test for which a researcher/teacher selects an existing paragraph (e.g. a paragraph from a textbook), removes certain words, and has students fill in the blanks. The researcher administered a similar test to the non-e-mail group. Since they did not use e-mail, their extra points were based on the number of articles they read outside of class and the amount of summaries they wrote. Throughout the semester, both the e-mail and non-e-mail class received the same encouragement from their instructor to conduct the out-of-class work for extra points.
At the end of the semester, the students in both the e-mail and non-e-mail classes answered an identical cloze test and the attitude survey as they had at the beginning of the project. The e-mail group filled in an additional questionnaire to share their opinions about using e-mail in their classroom. They were informed that a telephone interview would be conducted to clarify the responses on the questionnaire. During the following days, all subjects were interviewed.
After the final examinations, the instructor provided the researcher with scores of both classes, including scores of all written reports and two oral examinations. Finally, the instructor was interviewed about the use of e-mail in his class.
Both quantitative and qualitative research methods were used to analyze the data. The data analysis consisted of three major parts.
The first part addressed the first two research questions. It included the use of statistical analysis to compare the language performance and confidence of the students of the e-mail group with those characteristics of the non-e-mail group. Both pre-e-mail and post-e-mail scores were obtained. Pre-e-mail scores included scores of the cloze test administered at the beginning of the research study, the first three written reports, and the first oral examination. Post-e-mail scores consisted of scores of the cloze test administered at the end of the research study, the final three written reports, and the final oral examination. A t-test was first used to evaluate whether the pre-e-mail scores of one group were significantly different from those scores of the other group. If there was no significant difference, a second t-test was used to compare the post-e-mail scores of the two groups. If there was a significant difference, an Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) was conducted.
The analysis of the students’ confidence was based on the attitude survey. The mean of the rating numbers of the e-mail group was compared with the mean of the non-e-mail group. The internal reliability of the attitude survey was checked by SAS. The Cronbach Coefficient alpha value of the attitude survey of the e-mail group before the e-mail communication was 0.95, and the alpha value after the communication was 0.93. The values for the non-e-mail groups were 0.85 and 0.81. The values were high, and the items of the survey were reliable.
The second part addressed the third research question. It involved the use of qualitative research methods to analyze the e-mail messages. The content topics in the e-mail messages were coded and categorized according to topics in the previous literature (Barson et al., 1993; Cononelos & Oliva, 1993; Kern, 1995). Topics in the literature included culture (e.g., values, beliefs), language itself (grammar, syntax), course management (due date, assignment), social activity (planning for a movie, a party), and so forth. In the process of coding and analyzing, other topics emerged. Further, the e-mail messages were analyzed in depth. The messages were coded and collected into specific folders.
The third part addressed the fourth and fifth research questions. It consisted of reviewing and analyzing the data collected by survey questionnaires and interviews conducted in the e-mail group. The internal reliability of the questionnaire was checked by SAS. The Cronbach Coefficient alpha value was 0.82. This value was fairly high, and the items of the questionnaire were reliable. Interviews were conducted to clarify any ambiguous information.
The quantitative results of the study indicated that there was no significant difference on reading, writing, and speaking performance between the two groups. The students’ confidence of one group also did not significantly differ from that of the other group.
The qualitative results of the study revealed that CMC provided the participants with a good language learning environment that motivated the learners, fostered learning, and encouraged communication. The content of the e-mail messages consisted of discussions about cultures (e.g. values, customs, and lifestyles) and Spanish language use, such as syntax and semantics. Similar to several CMC research studies, many e-mail messages of the study revealed that the participants developed on-line communities. Their messages were warm and friendly, and the participants became friends via CMC.
The results of the
survey and the interviews indicated that the students in the e-mail group
and the instructor were in favor of using e-mail in language learning.
The students had a strong desire to use CMC while the research study was
being conducted, as well as after the study was completed. Many
e-mail messages at the end of the semester appeared to be discussions
about how to continue the CMC. The students unanimously supported
the use of e-mail in foreign language learning and thought that e-mail
was a good addition to their class.
A limitation of this study was that e-mail was not integrated into the course instruction. The lack of integration was a result of the course design. The instructor of this study had to follow guidelines of the Spanish course decided by the academic department. He could not follow the researcher's plan to integrate e-mail into the instruction. He also could not participate much in the research project because he was not familiar with the use of e-mail. Consequently, there was not much connection between the e-mail communication and the course instruction.
6. The Follow-Up Study
The follow-up study was conducted one year after the initial study. E-mail was sent to each of the students in the e-mail group. The students were asked to answer the following questions: (1) Did the student continue writing to the pen pals after the research project was completed? (2) Was the student still communicating with the pen pals via e-mail? and (3) How did the project affect the student over time? Four students answered the questions by e-mail, and ten students answered the same questions over the phone. Four students could not be located.
One third (four students) of the participants involved in the follow-up study said that they had continued writing to their pen pals after the project was over. The communication lasted for a few weeks for two of the students and lasted for three months for one student. The fourth student was still communicating with her pen pal when the follow-up study was conducted. Other students did not continue writing to their pen pals because they were too busy to write or because their pen pals did not reply.
All of the students reiterated that using e-mail in foreign language learning was a great idea and should be integrated into instruction. Several students reported that the project has positively affected them. Three students described exactly how the project influenced them.
One of the students mentioned that although his experience with his pen pals in the Spanish class was "short lived," the project motivated him to make friends with people in Brazil and helped him to "remain in touch with the culture there." Another student stated that his pen pals in the class were not "very responsive." However, he found other pen pals and was writing to them weekly. He said, "Your study got me interested in writing to people, and I have found several lists [newsgroups] of Spanish pen-pals on the Internet." Another student mentioned that she was helping her daughter's school to connect with people in Mexico. She said that, without the experience with the research project, she could not have helped the school.
It is recommended that technology be integrated into instruction. The integration requires modification of current course designs. An instructor can provide questions that are related to course topics for the students to post to their pen pals via e-mail. For example, family structure might be one of the topics covered in a textbook and in class. The instructor can provide the students with questions such as "Who do you live with?" "When do people leave their parents to live by themselves?" "Do people live with parents after they get married?" and "How do people feel when they move out of their parents' house and live alone?" The instructor can prepare the questions or encourage the students to generate these in class.
To integrate e-mail or technologies into a foreign language course, instructors need to familiarize themselves with technologies. Inservice training needs to be provided and Internet resources should be introduced to instructors. Many resources are currently available for instructors interested in using modern technology. For example Hotmail, Geocity, Onelist, Visual Community, Microsoft Netmeeting, Camera, Software for networked classroom, and Briefcase.
It is also recommended that similar studies be conducted to examine CMC in foreign language learning. Future studies should consider involving more participants, increasing research time length, and employing a course that allows technology integration.
The research study revealed that e-mail (CMC) is beneficial for learning and communication. Although the participants lacked social cues, such as gestures, they developed an on-line community for communication. The students used CMC to discuss cultural issues and language use with their pen pals (Spanish native speakers) at a distance. CMC provided the participants with a good environment for friendship, learning, and communication. The students and the instructor who participated in the study were in favor of the use of e-mail. The students had a strong desire to use CMC not only while the research study was conducted but also after the study was completed. They unanimously agreed that CMC was a good addition to foreign language learning.
The results of the follow-up study, conducted one year after the research study, revealed the consistent positive opinions of the participants towards the use of CMC. They concluded that CMC is beneficial for foreign language learning and should be integrated into foreign language instruction.
As research on CMC continues to develop, more attributes of CMC will be revealed. We can expect to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of CMC in foreign language learning. Investigating issues like when and how to effectively use CMC in foreign language instruction becomes crucial. Answers to these questions will provide educators and students with more channels for learning foreign languages.
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