LANGUAGE LEARNING AT A DISTANCE: SPANISH WITHOUT WALLS [1]

Robert Blake
University of California, Davis
Ann Marie Delforge
University of California, Davis


ABSTRACT

This study examines the outcome results from a university level virtual Spanish course, Spanish Without Walls (SWW), that enrolls working professionals from the Sacramento Area. The curricular materials include: (1) five CD-ROMs (Tesoros) that present the first-year grammar and vocabulary in a detective-style format; (2) online content-based cultural readings/activities; and (3) a sound/text chat tool. The SWW students, despite having less high school experience with Spanish, performed significantly better on discrete grammar tests than their classroom counterparts enrolled in a traditional classroom format.   Possible reasons for this difference are discussed along with student attitudes toward distance-learning language courses.

1.0.   INTRODUCTION

The introduction of new technologies into the foreign language curriculum separates teachers into two groups: a few eager, early adopters versus a majority of skeptics who resist any changes. This division especially applies to teaching languages at a distance, which provokes particularly negative attitudes.   Undoubtedly, the idea of teaching languages at a distance is further complicated by teachers' worries about having their role in the classroom displaced by these new technologies or by their own lack of familiarity with the goals and techniques involved in distance education. Both are sources of real fears concerning language learning delivered at a distance.

For a language like Spanish, there are ample opportunities to enroll in classroom offerings through a number of venues, such as community colleges, community centers, and universities. Yet there will always be students who are unable to take advantage of these face-to-face formats. In today's ever-changing marketplace, students are constantly retooling and enhancing their training without abandoning their present employment. This is the nature of continuing education. These learners typically have little or no time during the day or evening to attend a course that might be scheduled in a place and/or at a time incompatible with their busy schedules. Even students who have not as yet entered the job market can often be attracted to the distance-learning format for reasons dealing with their own classroom-performance stress or a basic preference for technology-mediated learning.

There are financial motivations for distance language learning as well. Some educators are beginning to propose that university students be allowed to satisfy graduation requirements by participating in distance education courses or replacing a portion of class time with some form of independent learning as a viable means of alleviating the enrollment pressures experienced by impacted language programs (Rogers & Wolff, 2000; Soo & Ngeow, 1998). For instance, at the University of California Davis, about 100 students are unable to enroll in lower-division Spanish language courses. These students must postpone satisfying the language requirement until space opens up. At 42 sections a quarter, the dean is not willing to add any more for fear of having to cancel sections in other languages. If some of these courses were taught in a hybrid format meeting in class only two days a week, then the same number of instructors could teach twice the number of students. In this sense, courses that teach Spanish at a distance address the problem of an over-subscribed language, as opposed to the situation found with under-subscribed LCTLs where instructors are constantly looking for ways to help increase student access to their courses. Bringing in virtual students from other campuses for the LCTL programs is one way to increase their closely scrutinized enrollments in today's financially constrained university environment.

There is reason to believe that within the options loosely defined by the term distance learning, i.e., learning when the instructor and students are not physically in the same time and place, online courses represent a particularly effective solution for meeting the needs of foreign language education. Various other types of distance-learning formats, including live satellite and cable transmission as well as pre-taped video and audio materials, have been employed to deliver language instruction to distance learners over the years.   But none of these methods is capable of providing the type of interactivity and scaffolding that current theories deem necessary to promote second language learning (Long & Robinson, 1998, Gass, 1997).  

Furthermore, recent innovations in computer technology including multimedia CALL materials as well as the availability of systems capable of supporting computer- mediated communication (CMC) make it possible for participants in online courses to engage in the active construction of L2 knowledge and to interact with each other in ways considered conducive to language learning.

In this study, we will evaluate the results for one such online course, Spanish Without Walls (SWW), taught through the University of California Davis Extension, using both quantitative output data (grammar tests) and qualitative measures (student surveys).   SWW is a totally virtual first-year Spanish course that combines CD-ROM materials (Blake, Blasco & Hernández, 2001) and Web readings with online content-based [2] activities and bimodal CMC, i.e., sound and text, in a blended synchronous and asynchronous format. Our data (Section 5.0) showed that students enrolled in the SWW course appeared to fare at least as well as the undergraduates enrolled in conventional introductory Spanish classes at UC Davis in terms of grammatical accuracy. The results suggest that well-designed distance language instruction can offer a viable option for learners without access to the traditional classroom setting or for those who prefer the online learning environment to the face-to-face class format.

This study is unique in that few completely virtual language courses such as SWW exist and even fewer have been evaluated for their effectiveness (see the review of the literature in Section 2). Furthermore, researchers have primarily examined the use of chat tools that support only textual exchanges, mostly within the context of experimental CMC projects carried out with second- or third-year, i.e., intermediate or intermediate-advanced, students carrying out face-to-face conversations (Kern, 1995).   In contrast, this study looks closely at a fully implemented virtual language curriculum for beginners with daily access to bimodal chatting (Blake, 2005). In the final sections (6.0 and 7.0), we will discuss the lessons learned from creating the SWW curriculum, the successes and failures of its implementation, and new directions for research.  

1.1. Multimedia CALL

While early computer assisted language learning (CALL) programs were exclusively text-based and typically limited to providing rote practice activities, the multimedia forms of CALL presently available are capable of providing not only interesting and authentic materials, but also content-based activities that promote acquisition rather than just mechanical, rote learning (Jones, 1999; Soo & Ngeow, 1998). From the learner's standpoint, it has been suggested that CALL materials may have a positive effect on the language learning process because they stimulate metalinguistic awareness, allow for self-directed learning ( Murray, 1999), and accommodate different learning styles (Bull, 1997).   Likewise, high interactivity, once thought to be the exclusive domain of the classroom, now also takes place in the virtual classroom, thanks to an array of CMC tools. The communications component of SWW is crucial in helping to maintain student interest in learning Spanish, as described below in Section 1.2.

1.2.   Synchronous Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) [3]

Although online distance learners do not enjoy access to face-to-face in situ interactions, synchronous CMC does make it possible for online classmates to communicate with one another in real time as well as deferred time. While distance-language education may never provide the same quantity of interaction as in situ courses, recent research indicates that the quality of textual CMC interaction has close similarities with the exchanges that take place in face-to-face conversations in conventional classes (Blake, 2000). Payne & Whitney (2002) have also found that even pure textual chatting has a positive impact on oral proficiency. Salaberry (2000) has argued that each CMC tool and educational setting provides special affordances that promote SLA.   As a result, online students may reap special benefits, or at least many of the same SLA benefits, from CMC exchanges with their classmates that mitigate any disadvantages they might experience in this format vis-à-vis their in-class counterparts. Several studies (Blake, 2000; Pellettieri, 2000; Smith, 2003; Sotillo, 2000) analyzed language students’ synchronous computer-mediated communication and found that virtual exchanges contain the same type of negotiation of meaning as are typically found in face-to-face classroom discourse and that are hypothesized to play a fundamental role in second language acquisition by adherents of the Interaction Hypothesis (Gass, 1997; Gass, Mackey & Pica,1998; Long & Robinson 1998). Other benefits often associated with CMC are reduced anxiety (Chun, 1998), fewer asymmetrical power relationships (Warschauer, 1996), and more collaborative efforts and special socio-cultural affordances (Belz, 2002). The technology that supports spoken computer-mediated communication in online classes is now widely available. Audio-graphic collaboration tools such as Lyceum, currently being piloted by the Open University (Hampel 2003; Hampel & Hauck 2004), and the Flash-based chat tool utilized in Spanish Without Walls (see section 3.1. below) allow students in online classes to engage in audio exchanges and practice. These tools give students the opportunity to speak to one another in real time via their computers while at the same time augmenting their spoken communication with the additional support of written text as desired. By permitting learners to develop and practice their oral communication skills, this technology offers a way of addressing, at least to some degree, the lack of in situ speaking practice that used to constitute one of the apparent shortcomings of learning languages at a distance.  

2.0 EVALUATION OF ONLINE LANGUAGE LEARNING

As stated above, very little empirical research has as yet addressed the overall effectiveness of online language learning, compared the progress of students participating in such courses with the performance of those enrolled in traditional classes, or examined students' perception of the online learning experience (see sections 2.1 and 2.2 below). Providing more data to address these issues is one of the goals of the present study.

2.1. Hybrid Courses

To date, most studies of online language learning for beginners have evaluated hybrid courses that combine regular class meetings with computer-mediated instruction. Results indicate that online activities can be substituted for some of the class time normally required in language courses without adversely affecting students' progress. As a whole, they also suggest that students who learn language online may develop literacy skills that are superior to those of students enrolled in traditional courses (Warschauer, 1996).

Researchers (Adair-Hauck, Willingham-McLain & Earnest-Youngs, 1999; Green & Earnest-Youngs, 2001) compared the achievement test scores of students enrolled in standard elementary French and German classes that met four days per week (control group) with the scores of other learners who attended class three days a week and who participated in technologically enhanced learning activities in lieu of a fourth hour of in-class contact (treatment group). Adair-Hauck, Willingham-McLain & Earnest-Youngs (1999) found that students participating in the treatment group did as well as those in the control group on tests of listening, speaking and cultural knowledge. In addition, these students performed significantly better than the control group on measures of reading and writing ability. The authors speculate that online students were more motivated to write, but they offer no explanation with respect to the reading results. In contrast, Green and Earnest-Youngs (2001) found no significant difference between the scores of the treatment and control groups on the same type of tests used in the above study adapted for the Web. Why these two studies report different findings is not immediately clear. Perhaps it is the result of methodological differences.

Chenoweth & Murday (2003) examined the outcomes of an elementary French course, Elementary French Online (Carnegie Mellon University, 2000), conducted mostly online, that included an hour-long, face-to-face class meeting once per week as well as weekly twenty-minute individual or small-group meetings with a native speaker tutor. The progress of students in the online group was compared to that of others who attended a traditional class four hours per week on tests of oral production, listening comprehension, reading comprehension, grammar knowledge and written production. The results showed that the scores for the treatment and control groups differed significantly only in the case of the writing samples, with essays by students in the online group being judged superior to those of the control group on a variety of measures including grammatical accuracy, syntactic complexity, use of transitions and cohesive devices, and organization. It was also found that the online students spent approximately one hour per week less studying than did those in the traditional class. These findings suggest that the online course was more efficient because students achieved results similar to those attained by learners in the conventional class with less time expenditure.

Nieves (1996) reported on the performance of students enrolled in Éxito (Federal Language Training Laboratory, 1990), an introductory Spanish course in a format very similar to the online French program in the study by Chenoweth & Murday (2003) described above. The Éxito program is a survival Spanish course developed for government employees. It was originally a 10-day course with each day being devoted to learning to survive in Spanish with regard to some aspect of daily life such as ordering meals, getting driving directions, etc. Nieves expanded it into a semester-long course in which students worked with the materials primarily on their own and attended a one-hour face-to-face class meeting per week. Besides the video newscast, the other multimedia components were audiocassettes and graphics. There were no Web-based activities since the study was done in 1994 when the Web was not yet widely employed in language teaching. Nieves used her own set of outcome listening measures to show that students who participated in the multimedia-based course outperformed those enrolled in traditional courses on measures of aural and oral communication skills, but scored slightly lower on a test of writing ability.

To summarize, the two studies described above provide evidence that the online format can contribute to foreign language learning, but that a great deal depends on the learning environment, pedagogical materials, and tasks. Since these studies combine online instruction with face-to-face class meetings, it is difficult to generalize their results to language courses conducted entirely online. Specifically, it should be noted that although the regular small group or individual meetings with instructors in the online French course studied by Chenoweth and Murday (2003) and in the Éxito program might have been beneficial for students, they complicate the interpretation of outcome data because such opportunities for intimate interaction with fluent speakers of the target language are rarely available in any introductory language class, either conventional or online, with SWW being no exception.

2.2. Courses Taught Entirely Online

Thus far, only two studies (Cahill & Catanzaro, 1997; Soo & Ngeow, 1998) have evaluated language courses taught entirely online on the basis of empirical data. In both cases, online learners were found to outperform students in conventional courses on the grammar output measures.

Cahill and Catanzaro (1997) reported on an introductory online Spanish class that might be considered somewhat low-tech as it did not have a multimedia component. The Dos Mundos textbook (Terrell, Egasse, & Muñoz, 2002) along with the accompanying audiocassettes and lab manual were used as the core course materials. Online activities included synchronous chat sessions, open-ended Web assignments, practice tests and a substantial number of penpal writing assignments. Responses to two essay questions were used to compare the progress of students participating in the experimental group to that of students enrolled in conventional Spanish classes. Based on ratings of global quality and percentage error scores, the writing samples of students in the online course were judged to be significantly better than those in the traditional classes. Although not discussed by the authors, it seems clear that more writing was demanded of the online students, thereby making it hard to ascertain whether this effect was due solely to the online teaching format.

Soo and Ngeow (1998) compared the performance of 77 students enrolled in conventional English classes with 111 students who studied English exclusively through a multimedia CALL program. A comparison of pre- and post-test TOEFL scores showed that students in the online group not only made significantly greater improvement than those in conventional classes but also did it in a shorter period of time since the experimental course was 5 weeks shorter due to technical difficulties.

As is the case for the hybrid courses reviewed above, the results from these two studies suggest that online language learning can be effective, at least as a means of improving writing, reading and listening comprehension abilities. But these studies did not explain why the online environment produced these results, and more research is needed to substantiate these initial observations. Cahill & Catanzaro's (1997) results must be viewed with caution since it could easily be argued that the reason distance students wrote better final essays was simply a function of the large amount of writing practice.  

2.3. Students' Perceptions of the Online Learning Experience

A handful of studies have asked students to describe and rate the quality of their experience in online language classes (Adair-Hauck, Willingham-McLain & Earnest-Youngs, 1999; Chenoweth & Murday, 2003; Green & Earnest-Youngs, 2001).

Adair-Hauck, Willingham-McLain & Earnest-Youngs (1999) used a self-report questionnaire to compare the attitudes and opinions of students in their hybrid French course with those of students taking a conventional class. They found that a greater percentage of students in the hybrid class reported meeting their personal language-learning goals over the course of the semester than those in the traditional class. A number of students in the technology-enhanced class also indicated that the flexibility of the multimedia materials contributed to their progress in the class, noting the advantage of being able to spend more time on activities they found particularly difficult; in short, there was more student-centered learning. This is not to say that student-driven materials cannot be incorporated into the regular classroom, but rather that students often perceive that the classroom is teacher-driven as opposed to the student-driven nature of the online format.

Responses to a self-report questionnaire administered to online and offline students by Green and Earnest-Youngs (2001) and the results of course evaluations collected by Chenoweth & Murday (2003) shed a less positive light on the online language learning experience. Students in the hybrid and conventional courses studied by Green & Earnest-Youngs (2001) reported equal levels of satisfaction with the progress they had achieved. However, students who completed Web-based activities in place of a fourth hour of class time found some Web pages too difficult and some of the activities not sufficiently well organized. The mostly-online French course evaluated by Chenoweth & Murday (2003) received a lower overall rating on student evaluations than did a conventional class taken by learners in the control group. The authors note that the low course ratings may be due to factors other than its technological component, because their complaints dealt with organization and grading.

Murray (1999) also reported on students' assessment of their experiences learning language with CALL materials. He interviewed Canadian university students who used an interactive videodisc program to study French for one semester and obtained responses that were very similar to those of Adair-Hauck, Willingham-McLain & Earnest-Youngs (1999) described above. For example, students in Murray's study commented that they liked the ability to work at their own pace and focus their efforts on activities that were particularly difficult for them, indicating once again the benefit of student-directed learning. In addition, a number of students stated that they found working independently with the videodisc materials much less anxiety-provoking than participating in a conventional language class.

Thus, according to the limited amount of research available at this time, students' reactions to the experience of learning language online cannot be considered universally positive. However, it does appear that students respond favorably to the flexibility afforded by CALL materials and to their potential for self-directed learning. Murray's (1999) results also indicate that working with CALL may make language learning less stressful for some students.

2.4. The Present Study

Although existing studies (see Sections 2.1 and 2.2 above) found that the progress of students who learn language online tends to equal or surpass that of students in traditional courses, further research is necessary in order to more thoroughly evaluate the quality of online language courses, especially those conducted entirely online. More information regarding students' perceptions of the online learning experience also needs to be gathered in order to improve the design of such courses in the future.

The present study seeks to address the need for more outcome research bearing on the relative efficacy of online language learning. The progress of students enrolled in Spanish Without Walls, a completely online introductory Spanish course currently offered through the University of California Davis Extension, was compared to that of undergraduate students enrolled in regular year-long introductory Spanish language courses (SPA 1, SPA 2, SPA 3) at UC Davis. Several measures were used to rate performance, including results from multiple-choice tests of grammatical knowledge and attitude surveys regarding the quality of the online learning experience. The online students' spoken interaction with their instructors via sound/text chat were also transcribed and analyzed.  

3.0. RESEARCH METHODOLOGY

3.1. Course Design of Spanish Without Walls

Spanish Without Walls is a year-long course divided into three quarters that combines multimedia language materials from three sources:

  1. Tesoros [4] , a five-disk CD-ROM detective story (Blake, Blasco & Hernández, 2001);
  2. Content-based Web readings and Flash activities [5] ;
  3. A collaborative CMC tool running on the Flash communications server that allows for both asynchronous and synchronous textual communication with half-duplex (walkie-talkie) sound.

The five CD-ROMs served as the course textbook. The remaining online materials were packaged into a course management system designed to teach first-year Spanish grammar and vocabulary, provide exercises, conduct testing, present authentic Spanish-language readings, and enable oral communication with teachers and peers.

Students alternated between use of the CD-ROMs and the SWW Web site in order to cover the scope and sequence of a normal university Spanish language course. They were held accountable for the CD-ROM material by means of online exams that covered the vocabulary, storyline, and grammar presented by Tesoros. Students were also required to chat live with their instructor in groups of no more than three at least once a week for one hour and several more times with their assigned partners as time and schedules permitted in order to complete the collaborative content-based tasks. For example, one student would research the capital cities of four Latin American countries, while his/her partner would investigate the same type of information for four other countries. During the chat, the students would share their results with each other in jigsaw fashion.  

The chat tool allowed three different CMC modalities (see Figure 1):   (1) the exchange of half-duplex sound (TALK button); (2) individual keyboard chat delimited by a carriage return (CHAT window), and (3) a shared writing space that updated output character-by-character (TEXTPAD window). Students had to take turns using either the TALK or TEXTPAD functions because only one individual can hold the floor or cursor at a time, but they could use the CHAT window to express their opinions at any time without waiting for a turn.

Figure 1. Chat Interface 


3.2. The First-Year Spanish Program at the University of California Davis

First-year Spanish courses at UC Davis use Dos Mundos (Terrell, Andrade, Egasse & Muñoz, 2002) as a textbook and follow a communicative approach to language instruction. Classes meet five hours per week and include a variety of activities including information-gap tasks, skits, role-plays, and songs. Students are also required to listen to audiotapes and complete the workbook exercises (hard copy) that accompany the text. The exams for this level primarily consist of fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice items that test grammatical structures, vocabulary, listening comprehension, and reading. A short essay is used to test writing.

3.3. Participants

3.3.1. Spanish Without Walls Online

Students who enroll in the SWW online class through the UC Davis Extension are for the most part adults who work full-time. Out of 133 enrollments over the last three years, 96 students completed SWW I and/or SWW II (37 students dropped out and 11 failed), which translates into a 72% retention rate, well above the standard rate of 50% often quoted in the literature as the norm for a distance-learning format (Carr, 2000, A39 ).   However, the retention picture is more complicated if one looks separately at the enrollment patterns for the first-quarter sections in contrast to the second-quarter sections. While retention rates for SWW I were close to 68% (72/106), students enrolled in SWW II were self-selected and consisted of a group that was already successful in studying via the distance-learning format. Accordingly, the SWW II group exhibited a retention rate of 88% (21/24).   Of those that passed, students in the SWW I group received A's or B's while the SWW II cohort all scored all A's, which further underscores the fact that those who stuck with the distance format were highly motivated to learn.  

A sample cohort of 21 students participated in the survey reported here. More students were invited to participate but data collection from virtual students is fraught with difficulties because they tend to not comply with the surveys or other activities that are not graded because they are working professionals with limited time. The classroom setting normally allows instructors to administer surveys in person and generates more data. After the course is over, virtual students feel no compulsion to participate in follow-up course evaluations, and it is against university policy to contact them directly by email for reasons of privacy. Information on previous language experience in high school and reasons for studying Spanish for this cohort of 21 online students were extracted from a chatting assignment at the beginning of SWW I and is presented in Tables 1 and 2.  

Table 1.   SWW I students' experience with Spanish in high school.

Student Level

None

One year

Two or more years

SWW I & II

71%

 

11%

 

18%

 


Table 2. SWW I students' reasons for taking Spanish in the online format.

Student Level

Professional development

Personal interests

Satisfy language requirement

SWW I & II

57%

 

38%

 

5%

 

Tables 1 and 2 make it clear that most SWW students (71%) were taking Spanish for the first time and were motivated by career-related factors (57%). This should not be surprising for an adult continuing education course. One very experienced SWW student was clearly using the online format for language maintenance and/or improvement because she was required to teach Spanish by her school. The following quotes represent some typical responses from those who take Spanish for professional reasons:

  • I run a small vineyard in Napa, and would like to be able to communicate better with the people I work with.
  • I am an elementary school teacher and am trying to get my CLAD certificate […] It requires two semesters of a second language.
  • I am a part-time teacher at the San Francisco Conservation Corps. The corps members who are working toward their GED or high school diploma are 80% native Spanish speakers.
  • I am a specialist in diabetes/nutrition. Learning Spanish is good for my job.
  • I work with many Spanish-speaking people in my work with the labor unions.

Online students preferred the online format to taking Spanish in a conventional setting mostly for reasons related to their busy schedules. Some sample responses: are given below:

  • With three children and an at-home business my schedule allows for evening/night study and this seems to be the best way.
  • I took the online class because I am a single mother and didn't want to rely on somebody else in order for me to attend class.
  • I chose this course because I did not want to sit in a traditional classroom.   I wanted the flexibility to attend class on my own schedule.

3.3.2. The First-Year Spanish Program in the traditional classroom

For purposes of comparison, we also gathered biodata from 46 UC Davis students enrolled in traditional language classes during the Winter Quarter of 2004:   23 undergraduates in a UCD first-quarter Spanish course (SPA 1) and 23 from a section of second-quarter Spanish (SPA 2). The data for these students is presented in Tables 3 and 4 below.

Table 3.   UC Davis students’experience with Spanish in high school

Student Level

None

One year

Two or more years

Four or more years

First-Quarter Spanish (SPA 1)

39%

 

13%

 

44%

 

4%

 

Second-Quarter Spanish (SPA 2)

22%

 

39%

 

35%

 

4%

 

Table 4.   Reasons for taking Spanish at UC Davis.

Student Level

Satisfy language requirement

Personal interests

SPA 1 & 2

76%

 

24%

 

The data in Tables 3 and 4 reveal that language students in introductory courses at UC Davis are principally fulfilling a language requirement, despite the fact that most of them (61%) have already taken one or more years of Spanish in high school. Their main objective is to fulfill the language requirement for graduation (76%).   This pattern stands in sharp contrast to the SWW students and their professional orientation.

4.0.   DATA COLLECTION AND OUTCOME MEASURES


4.1. Tests of Grammatical Knowledge

Several grammar tests from the Spanish Without Walls course were administered to the undergraduate subjects in order to compare their grammatical knowledge with that of online students. These tests included multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank items that were slightly adapted for use in this study in order to maintain parity between the two courses. First, certain vocabulary items and grammar structures were modified to ensure that the material was also covered in the Dos Mundos curriculum used by the undergraduate students. In all such cases, an attempt was made to preserve the difficulty level of the original questions. Second, most of the tests were divided into two sections and administered to the undergraduates at different times to accommodate slight differences in their syllabus.

The scores obtained by undergraduates on these modified exams were compared with those achieved on the original tests by SWW students enrolled thus far in all sections of the course offered by the UC Davis Extension. Data for all SWW sections was aggregated in order to increase sample size because the number of students in each online class at any one time tended to be relatively small. Since the SWW course content and instructional methods have remained consistent from term to term, this amalgamation of the data seemed justified (see Section 5.0 below).

4.2. Self-report Questionnaire

This instrument was completed on a voluntary basis by SWW students from the Winter and Fall terms of 2003 and from the Winter, Spring and Summer quarters of 2004 (see http://philo.ucdavis.edu/zope/home/rblake/survey_SWW.html). Students completed this questionnaire online after their grade was assigned and sent it to an evaluator not associated with course. As explained above, some questionnaire items asked students to describe previous coursework in Spanish and to give reasons for choosing an online rather than a traditional language course. Other items asked students to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of taking an online Spanish course and to compare the experience with any conventional classes they might have taken in the past. In addition, students were asked to indicate whether they were satisfied with the progress they had made in SSW and if they would be interested in taking another online language course in the future. Since students enrolled in the Fall, Spring and Summer sections of the course used the Flash-based chat collaboration tool, the questionnaire administered to these groups asked them to rate its effectiveness.

5.0. RESULTS

5.1. Tests of Grammatical Knowledge

For comparative purposes, UC Davis students enrolled in a traditional classroom course were given the same discrete-point grammatical tests that the SWW students took online. The results of a t-test comparison, an appropriate measure for judging inferences associated with two groups of relatively small samples, are given below in Tables 5 and 6. The SWW students scored significantly higher on all discrete-point grammar tests, as judged by their t-test values as compared to the undergraduates enrolled in the classroom Spanish 1 and Spanish 2, respectively.

Table 5.   Results of a t-test comparison between SWW I and SPA 1 grammar scores.

Grammar tests

Total points

SSW1

SPA1

t-test

 

 

Mean

SD

Mean

SD

 

3.1

8

n=42

n=42

t=4.44
p<0.001

 

 

7.14

1.03

5.83

1.10

3.2

17

n=42

n=20

t=2.36
p<0.05

 

 

15.5

1.92

14.2

2.12

4

21

n=35

n=19

t=2.18
p<0.05

 

 

17.3

4.31

14.5

4.55


Table 6.   Results of a t-test comparison between SWW II and SPA2 grammar scores.

Grammar tests

Total points

SSWII

SPA2

t-test

 

 

Mean

SD

Mean

SD

 

5

6

n=35

n=23

t=3.24
p<0.01

 

 

7.69

1.69

6.26

1.54

6

14

n=13

n=21

t=3.95
p<0.001

 

 

11.8    

2.30

8.76

2.17

7.1

10

n=10

n=23

t=2.32
p<0.05

 

 

7.70

2.91

5.61

2.13

7.2

17

n=10

n=20

t=3.17
p<0.01

 

 

 

13.7

3.40

10.2

2.62

Again, it should be remembered from Tables 1 and 2 that a majority of the SWW students (71%) had no previous high school Spanish experience in contrast to most of SPA 1 classroom students, most of whom had taken Spanish in high school (61%). This fact helps lend support to the notion that the SWW students' progress was due to their online training. In the last section, we will address additional motivational factors.

Responses to the Self-Report Questionnaire

Four of the ten students enrolled in the SWW course during the Winter Quarter of 2003 and four of the five students who took the class in the Fall term of that year returned the online questionnaire. While it would be premature to draw firm conclusions from such a small sample, the similarity of these students' comments to findings previously reported in the literature (Adair-Hauck, Willingham-McLain & Earnest-Youngs,1999; Murray, 1999) lead us to suspect that future data collection from the SWW project will confirm the following preliminary observations.

As shown in Table 7, students found the flexibility of being able to work at their own pace and at times most convenient for them to be the greatest advantage of using the SWW program rather than taking a traditional class. A majority of students also mentioned the opportunity to focus on topics that were more difficult for them and skim over material that they found easier as a positive aspect the online learning format; in other words, they appreciated the opportunity to engage in more self-directed learning. Two students reported that they found the online learning environment to be much less stressful than a conventional classroom setting and that the lower anxiety level they experienced while taking SWW improved their performance in the course. The two major disadvantages mentioned by students were the limited opportunities to practice speaking Spanish and general technical difficulties with various components of the course. Overall, it seems that these students found the advantages of SWW to outweigh its disadvantages since all reported an interest in taking more online language courses in the future.

Table 7.   Responses to Self-Report Questionnaire (N = 8).

Advantages

More flexible schedule

1.00

(8/8)

Opportunity for self-directed learning

0.75

(6/8).

Less anxiety provoking

0.25

(2/8)

Disadvantages

Less face-to-face contact or speaking

0.50

(4/8)

Difficulties using web-based materials

0.25

(2/8)

Difficulties with the chat tool

0.25

(2/8)

Interest in further online language study

Desire to take another online language class

1.00

(8/8)

Interaction via the Chat Tool

The Flash-based chat collaboration tool was first integrated into SWW in the fall of 2003. This technology was primarily used as a means for holding virtual office hours between students and their instructors, but it also facilitated pair work among students. An informal examination of student-instructor sound exchanges via the chat tool that occurred every week for an hour gives the impression that these conversations were quite similar to exchanges that typically occur among instructors and students during face-to-face classroom contact or office hours (Blake, 2005). Most of the focus for these exchanges revolved around issues of formal accuracy and correct pronunciation; they were, for the most part, teacher-centered with both English and Spanish being used freely.  

Exchange # 1

Student

So I would say mi familia es piqiña, I think. Mi hermana se llama, I think; I'm not sure if I'm saying that right.

Instructor

Yes, you're on target: Mi familia es pequeña. And then you're talking about your sister and what her name is: mi hermana se llama. You're saying it correctly, the ñ is pronounced as a ny. Remember, don't pronounce any of the h's.  Give it another try.

Student

Mi familia es pequeña. Mi hermana se llama Alexanne.

Instructor

Mi hermana [the "h" is not pronounced]. And, careful with the vowels. (Models the Spanish vowels: a, e, i, o, u)

Student

Ok, here goes.   Mi familia es pequeña, mi hermana se llama Alexanne .

Students also used the chat tool to work with other students to finish a series of content-based tasks as described above in Section 3.1. These exchanges were entirely student-directed and can be characterized within an interactionist framework (Blake, 2000, 2005) where pairs of students supported each other to complete tasks. Exchange #2 below is representative of this type of student-student interaction. A misunderstanding arises here when student K is unable to comprehend a calendar date. The more advanced Student T provides the necessary feedback to move forward on their team assignment.

Exchange # 2

Student K

Could you repeat that slowly?   I'd like to hear how you say the year

Student T

Claro que sí.  Mil is 1000. A hundred is cien. But when it's plural, it's cientos. So you want 800, so you say ochocientos. And you want cuarenta which is 40.   Cuarenta y ocho is 48; you add the one's place like that.

Student K

Mil ochocientos cuarenta y nueve .   Eighteen forty-nine.


6.0. DISCUSSION

Drawing definite conclusions from so small a sample of online learners would be unjustified. The following comments are tentative in nature for the reasons we have already discussed above. Nevertheless, the fact that SWW students outperformed the classroom students on discrete grammar tests invites further speculation, especially in light of the fact that SWW students had little previous high school Spanish (see Table 1). Both curricular programs teach approximately the same grammar scope and sequence. The SWW students must rely on self-study and practice through a predominantly textual medium, whereas the classroom students are accustomed to oral practice in small groups and teacher-led discussion. Perhaps the online medium, which is mostly textual in nature, made the SWW students concentrate more on the visual modality and, consequently, more on grammatical details. [6]

The superior performance of SWW students on some of the measures of language abilities included in this study may also have to do with motivational factors. Many of the undergraduate classroom participants and a majority of the SWW students stated that they were studying Spanish because they felt that it would be helpful to them in their careers. However, in the case of the SWW students, who are already in the professional workforce, the potential benefits of being able to communicate in Spanish in career situations might be felt in a much more tangible and compelling way. This may help explain their stronger overall motivation to learn.  

Other motivational factors concerning the performance of the two groups on the grammar tests could have also come into play. SWW students undoubtedly tried hard on these tests because the results affected their course grade, while the classroom undergraduates may not necessarily have tried as hard because their scores did not count towards their grade. Additionally, the SWW online readings and activities provided students with very engaging self-study materials designed to maintain their interest and increase their reading and listening proficiency. However, it is difficult to measure what impact these curricular materials, specifically designed for home study, had on grammatical accuracy.  

7.0. CONCLUSIONS

This study does not provide sufficient quantitative data to allow the unqualified conclusion that students in the online SWW course perform on a par with the undergraduates enrolled in the conventional introductory Spanish courses, although the results from the tests on grammatical accuracy are promising. [7] We have also alluded to the self-selecting nature of the type of student who thrives in the online format that might tend to skew the results. Nevertheless, our findings are consistent with previous trends reported in the literature. Soo and Ngeow (1998) found that students enrolled in an English class taught completely online made greater gains in proficiency as measured by the TOEFL than did a similar group of learners enrolled in traditional English courses. Adair-Hauck, Willingham-McLain & Earnest-Youngs (1999), Cahill & Catanzaro (1997) and Chenoweth & Murday (2003) all found that students in online courses received higher scores on measures of written ability than did learners enrolled in conventional classes, demonstrating superior grammatical accuracy as well as a more cohesive writing style.

Several researchers (Blake & Zyzik, 2004; Warschauer, 1997) have speculated about why online students demonstrate superior performance on grammar tests. Since the written language is the primary mode of instruction in online courses, it might promote increased metalinguistic awareness that is considered to be part of the crucial priming mechanism for language acquisition by interactionist researchers (Gass, 1997, pp. 104-132).

The qualitative results of the present study are also in agreement with other findings concerning the experience of online language learners. Many SWW students, like those in the studies by Adair-Hauck, Willingham-McLain & Earnest-Youngs (1999) and Murray (1999), praised the flexibility of the course materials and indicated that they liked being able to work at their own pace and spend more time on the material that was most difficult for them. As in the two studies above, a small number of SWW students mentioned that they found it much less stressful to learn the language online than in a conventional language class. They also felt that they made much more progress in the online format than they had in traditional language courses they had taken previously.

Their comments lend support for Liontas' (2002) contention that CALL materials may have the effect of lowering students' affective filters by allowing them to work with the target language without having to be embarrassed by making a mistake in front of other learners. SWW students' positive evaluations of the chat tool, despite the technical difficulties involved in its use, are also similar to those reported in the literature by Hampel (2003) and Hampel & Hauck (2004).

Taken as a whole, the results of the present study suggest that online courses may provide an effective format for foreign language instruction, being especially conducive to the development of grammatical competence and written expression. Whether or not keyboard chatting and voice-over IP sound exchanges will have a significant effect on oral proficiency is a topic that has just only begun to attract researchers' attention (Payne & Whitney, 2002). Confirming a link between keyboard chatting and oral proficiency development will be crucial to student success and teacher acceptance of this language-learning format. Future evaluations of on-line learning will need to measure carefully the oral language progress achieved by online students before language teachers accept this new format. We are presently experimenting with administering a twenty-minute phone test that rates oral proficiency in Spanish (Spanish Spoken Test [SST], http://www.ordinate.com/content/prod/SST/prod-SST.shtml). We have already gathered data from first-year students in classroom courses that can serve as a baseline with which to compare our virtual students.

On all accounts, the new distance-learning format for language learning needs more data to clarify the issues raised here. Fortunately, the SWW project, as well as other similar efforts, will continue to generate more information on these aspects of online learning in the near future.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Robert J. Blake (Ph.D.University of Texas, Austin) is Professor of Spanish at UC Davis and founding Director of the UC Consortium for Language Learning & Teaching. He has published widely in the fields of Spanish linguistics, second language acquisition, and computer-assisted language learning. He was the academic consultant for Nuevos Destinos (Annenberg/CPB Project, WGBH, and McGraw-Hill Companies) and co-author for Tesoros (McGraw-Hill Companies), a five-disk multimedia CD-ROM program for introductory Spanish. He has co-authored with María Victoria González Pagani both Al corriente: Curso intermedio de español, 4th Edition (McGraw-Hill Companies) and Spanish Without Walls, a distance-learning course offered through the UC Davis Extension.   In May of 2004, Professor Blake was inducted into the North American Academy for the Spanish Language, making him a corresponding member of the Royal Spanish Academy as well.     

Ann Delforge is a UC Davis doctoral candidate in Spanish Linguistics specializing in phonology. Her primary research interest is the analysis of language change and variation from an optimality theoretic perspective. She recently returned from Cusco, Peru where she collected data for her dissertation on unstressed vowel reduction in Andean Spanish.  

NOTES

[1]  The Spanish Without Walls project was funded by a three-year FIPSE grant, P116B000315.   For a brief description of the project, go to http://ittimes.ucdavis.edu/mar2001/blake.html.

[2] Content-based activities are defined as tasks that require learners to focus on meaning first and on linguistic forms second.  

[3] Although this paper focuses on online language courses and synchronous chat, we readily acknowledge other benefits of asynchronous CMC that accrue from writing and other scaffolding activities from both a linguistic and socio-cultural perspective.   These benefits, however, are outside the scope of this study.

[4] A review of the Tesoros CD-ROMs can be found in the CALICO Review, http://calico.org/CALICO_Review/review/tesoros00.htm.

[5] The fifteen-unit online reading materials and activities were developed by María Victoria González Pagani (UC Santa Cruz) within a content-based instruction framework.   The units followed the scope and sequence of the Tesoros CDs but provided extensive opportunities for the SWW students to work together in pairs using the chat tool to solve a series of tasks.

[6] As with any completely virtual course, there are no absolute guarantees that the students will do their own work when taking exams.   Obviously, the SWW students took the grammar test online from home and the classroom students did so in class.   These conditions could not be controlled for.   The robustness of the statistical differences could be due to the effectiveness of online learning environment, along with other motivational factors discussed later, or due to a consistent strategy of cheating on the part of all of the online students.   The latter scenario seems unlikely since these working professionals have paid their money to learn rather than receive institutional credits or certificates.

[7] We also asked the same cohort of 21 SWW students at the end of their respective courses (SWW I or SWW II) to take the Spanish Computer Adaptive Placement Exam (S-CAPE) and used as a placement test at UC Davis and many other institutions.   Again, the online students tended to not complete any task not directly related to their grade; only eight students took the online S-CAPE exam.   All eight placed above the level of the SWW course they were enrolled in. But, again, the sample is too small to draw any reliable conclusions.

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