Introduction: technology and the learning process
Researchers and practitioners, both agree on the essential role played by technology in the learning process. Yet the discussion on the changes brought about by the adoption of ICT is still controversial. An emerging topic is the importance of technology in motivating students. Academic motivation is a critical need to address, especially in high school education, since motivational features change and can significantly influence the engagement, learning, achievement, and future aspirations and intentions of students (Deci and Ryan 1985; Hardré and Reeve 2003; Pintrich and Schunk 1996). Motivation is a result of interaction between external and internal factors. It depends on individual differences, influence of outside experiences, and from interactions with teachers and peers in school. Different studies have shown the use of technological tools to increase motivation and Computer Assisted Learning (CAL) has been encouraged and developed in every field. The use of Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) has produced a great deal of literature from perspectives such as cognitive psychology, constructivism, psycholinguistics and has undertaken different phases from behaviouristic to integrative or integrated. Bax (2003) talks about approaches from restricted CALL, open CALL to integrated CALL. He describes them concluding that teachers’ aim should be to attain a state of 'normalisation' in which the technology is invisible and truly integrated.
The expectation that teachers would adopt ICT and change their practices in particular ways has been recently questioned by research which indicates that teachers have not changed in the ways expected and researchers try to understand why. J. Orlando(2009) explores the existing literature on the matter stating that effective practices include frequency of use for knowledge construction, using ICT to enhance teaching efficiency and to extend and transform learning teachers’ practices. She notes that there is a common assumption that teachers move along and complete a determined path of change caused by the ‘techno-centric’ expectation of immediacy of change in their practices as a result of the use of ICT. She proposes a different design considering research as an evolving process, fashioned over the course of the study. This change may produce new data. But the change with ICT is distinctive and complex mainly because ICT resource innovations are continuously and rapidly changing. A new perspective helps to understand how and why changes in teaching practices mediated by ICT occur and contribute to understand the phenomenon of ICT and the impact it is having on teaching practices.
Improvement and integration of the learning process in foreign language teaching
Recent studies explore the increasing role of educational activities outside the classroom in the teaching and learning of foreign languages by means of hybrid learning arrangements and the integration of e-learning with classical classroom instruction. Bärenfänger (2005) explores the studies on the subject and introduces the elements of resulting pedagogic arrangements such as online references, asynchronous web-based learning, email, online assessment and testing, mentoring and tutoring. The study includes portals, synchronous web-based learning, electronic performance support systems, simulations, knowledge management, self-paced CD-ROM based content, communities of practice, video broadcasts, virtual labs and chat rooms. The author notes that these new tools satisfy the needs of learners, improve the quality of the learning experience, decrease the time a learner needs to achieve a learning goal, improve quality of the learning content and materials, improve re-usability of the learning content and materials. Among the advantages these tools also reduce cost of program delivery, allow a more effective map learning components to objectives and reduce cost of program development.
Other studies have shown that distant or blended courses do not interfere with oral proficiency and interaction. According to Blake and others ‘many teachers still harbour deep-seated doubts as to whether or not a hybrid course, much less a completely distance-learning class, could provide L2 learners with a way to reach linguistic proficiency, especially with respect to oral language skills’ (Blake et al., 2008). In their study, they show that classroom, hybrid, and distance L2 learners reach comparable levels of oral proficiency during their first year of study.
The Italian context
In most Italian secondary schools the language course takes place mainly in the classroom (often three hours a week) with students having the opportunity to practice the four skills in a more conventional way. Some schools offer additional hours in which students are asked to work in the school multimedia laboratory, and integrate their language abilities with ICT.
The majority of Italian secondary school students have, at home, a personal computer and an easy access to the web, but most of their time is spent chatting in their mother tongue and using a social network. When they are asked to visit foreign websites, find information in English or other foreign languages, do online language practice or similar activities, only a few of them are capable to accomplish the task, while the remaining students want to do the activities at school under the supervision of the teacher.
The result is that most of the time is spent doing, at schools, activities that could be easily done at home. Moreover, very few students write and speak in English to communicate, apart from the simulations during the lesson, and their listening practice is mainly with songs. The procedure planned here tries to solve these problems and aims to improve and integrate the learning process with online activities.
Using the platform Moodle to integrate the textbook
Second language teachers can find a help to create engaging online language learning activities using the Moodle platform in different web sites, and a recent book has been written by J. Stanford for teachers, trainers, and course planners, with little or no experience of Moodle, who want to create their own language learning activities (Stanford 2009). It offers plenty of suggestions and examples for adapting classroom activities to the virtual learning environment and the author has also created a demo site http://moodleforlanguages.co.uk).
What we are trying here is slightly different: we try to use the platform Moodle to support and integrate conventional class language activities.
Creating learning tasks with Moodle
The tools provided by Moodle can be used to integrate any level course, provide additional work outside the class and experience cooperative learning. According to Brandl ‘as a courseware package and learning System, Moodle has great potential for supporting conventional classroom instruction, for example, to do additional work outside of class, to become the delivery System for blended (or hybrid) course formats, or even to be used as a standalone e-learning platform’ (Brandl, 2005). Moodle and its platform can thus be used to integrate the school course, inviting the students to join the modules and try the new experience. They can be asked by the teacher to attend the platform and receive credits or marks, which will contribute to the end-of-year evaluation. The result of this kind of experience may contribute to support the use of new technologies in secondary schools, and increase foreign language proficiency.
Preparing the platform
Teachers or instructors should first prepare the platform and its parts before starting the activities, caring that each language skill could be exploited, and then they could invite their students to join the integration course. As regards language learning, among the different features, the quiz-making function has been analysed and used by many instructors and authors. Robb states that Moodle's functions ‘allow you to make different types of quizzes. Quiz types relevant to language teaching are: Multiple choice, True/False, Numerical, Matching, Description, and Cloze. A wide range of options allows you to randomize the questions and multiple-choice items, specify a time frame for availability, choose whether the students receive feedback or not, decide if they are allowed to view the correct answers, and determine how many times they may take the quiz and how it is to be scored (first attempt, highest attempt, average of all attempts or last attempt)’ (Robb, 2004).
Planning the procedure
Since the intention is not to substitute the textbooks, CDs or CD ROM, but to integrate them with an e-learning environment, the following steps may be followed, to create the module or sections in the platform and provide the interaction needed:
- The teacher chooses some Units of the textbook (or textbooks) that can be more easily considered as Learning Objects (modular digital resources that are uniquely identified and can be used and reused to support learning. The main idea of 'learning objects' is that educational content is broken down into small chunks that can be reused in various learning environments).
- Some of the audio material (tracks) on CDs can be saved as audio files in a directory to be used as a resource.
- Short video sequences can offer dialogues corresponding to the units chosen. Many sites such as the site of the BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish and other sites ( e.g. http://www.lingual.net/lingualproductitems/details.php) provide this sort of video material that can be linked or downloaded from the platform.
- Additional audio material should be prepared, such as listening exercises, whose solutions and answers could be sent via e-mail to the teacher for correction or recorded by the students and put in an area of the platform where other students could access for listening and discussion in a chat room.
- A particular section of Moodle offers the opportunity to create quizzes of different kinds. Instructors and teachers who are familiar with ‘Macromedia Flash’ or similar programs can also produce interactive web pages with exercises such as drag and drop or true or false. Otherwise, each section could have some links to web sites with plenty of exercises. The teacher has only to take care that there is a great deal of interaction and feedback.
- Evaluation may be done through different kinds of tests. At the end of each test a mark or score can be given to each student, and added to the general evaluation in the subject. An additional mark may be given to the frequency with which students attend the platform and the areas in which they can swap information.
To illustrate the procedure we have created a module choosing some of the contents of Horizons Options preintermediate used in Italian secondary schools mostly in the second or third year. The first approach, after the login and the choice of course, may be with a chart similar to figure 1 that can be put in the main frame:
The access to each Section can be done either independently or in sequence in the sense that Section 2 can be opened only after having done the main activities in Section 1. The ‘i’ on the right provides general information about the content of the Section. By clicking on one of the titles of the sections, e.g. Clothes and fashion you can open either a frame or a new window similar to the following (figure 2):
The exercises provided are mostly interactive and they can be scored independently. A particular area of the platform may be used as a kind of forum where the students write their doubts and the teacher gives explanation. They can also be encouraged to suggest the solution to the questions asked by others. Another area may be used to chat freely in the foreign language. To avoid the unbalance between oral and written skills, particular care should be taken in using tools that allow the recording of the voice and the oral communication. Students could be asked to telephone and record their call or interview a friend and put the recording on the platform.
The ideas provided in this article are only the starting point for the acquisition of a deeper competence in the use of Moodle for language learning. The choice of the Italian context is influenced by the ongoing experimentation of Moodle in Italian secondary schools, but many suggestions can come only after having used the package and the Learning System for a long time. We should reach what Bax calls normalisation referring ‘to the stage when the technology becomes invisible, embedded in everyday practice and hence ‘normalised’. To take some commonplace examples, a wristwatch, a pen, shoes, and writing - these are all technologies which have become normalised to the extent that we hardly even recognise them as technologies’ (Bax, 2003). What is important, at the moment, is starting to explore new ways of teaching and keeping alive students' interest and motivation using their means of communication.