Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo
The use of technology in teaching has been a constant practice in developed and developing countries. The radio has been around for 50 years and television has been giving its contribution since the 1960s. Both have been used in official distance learning (DL) programs in Brazil, although, as a whole, these experiences have not contributed significantly for the establishment of tradition in DL education in the country. More recently, the government has adopted satellite-delivered education as a medium to spread educational information throughout rural and remote regions of the country. This is another official attempt to make up for poor resources and the lack of teachers in less privileged areas, but tests of its efficiency have not yet been conducted.
Computer-Mediated Distance Learning (CMDL) cannot claim to be among any major public programs yet, but its contribution is beginning to be tested in the private sector. Computers have become an attractive professional tool for upper and middle income groups. Their use for instructional purposes is felt as a very promising area of investigation towards the development of quality in the three elements that compose DL: technology, instructional design and support (Douglas 1993).
Interaction analysis among participants in educational settings has been a constant concern to researchers (Allwright 1984, Cavalcanti & Moita Lopes 1991, Magalhaes & Rojo 1994 among others). This area of investigation has contributed to the reflection of teachers about their practice and role in the classroom.
When considering the use of computers as a medium to teach and learn, one should not only take technology, instructional design and support into consideration but also the way participants will handle and react to these three elements. This is the way reflection can also be promoted in this environment.
The lack of quality control on materials design (Hedge 1995) and of publications about computer-mediated learning of foreign languages, especifically EFL or ESP (Boyle 1992), addresses the need for investigation into interaction in this context.
This research aims at looking into interactions that take place in CMDL as compared to classroom interaction. Focus was placed on the following issues:
a) Problems of communications, analysis of their possible causes and report on solutions.
b) Teachers' and students' roles in both contexts.
Context of Investigation
An ESP Reading course was offered to two different groups of adult learners through a local BBS and the traditional face-to-face classroom mode (control group). The shared objective of the courses was to help students develop reading strategies for academic purposes.
Following Seliger & Shohamy's concept (1990), data collection had an ethnographic and qualitative profile. Information was provided by three different sources: Computerized record of the interactions through the BBS
Transcribed recordings of classroom interactions
Reflective diary in which the teacher/researcher wrote her expectations, disappointments and reactions with respect to students' responses and initiatives in both settings.
Interactions were analyzed taking the conversational structures proposed by the Systemic Functional Linguistics as the theoretical basis. According to Eggins (1994) these conversational structures describe how the interactants negotiate the exchange of meanings in dialogue. Conversational structures involve two components: the choice of speech function (the sequencing of moves that are part of negotiation in spoken texts) and the type of exchange structure (the sequencing of speech function that constitute negotiated exchanges).
The linguistic choices students made to communicate with each other and with the teacher in different environments were then observed. The teacher's choices of speech functions were also investigated.
Some expectations were confirmed with respect to factors that might affect interaction in the distance learning context (Graddol 1990, Mason 1990, Hedge 1995):
a) Different work paces among students.
b) Decentralization of decision-making (from teacher to learners)
c) Multiplicity of spontaneous interaction topics.
None of the three factors had a negative impact on interaction. In fact, as Mason (1990:336) states:
"... many apparent digressions from a set topic can be expected. However, such digressions are not nearly so injurious to a Conference System as they would be in a formal classroom. The loose bound cohesion of CMC not only encourages divergent talk but also supports it. Hence one can argue that Conference System is uniquely equipped to provide a context for adventitious learning."
However, there were some unexpected factors that were brought into the analysis:
a) Technical problems newcomers had to face when dealing with the word processor and the software.
b) Different levels of proficiency which interfered with group work.
c) Unplanned and creative use of channels eg. use of the conference to solve technical problems (rather than the public main board), posting of messages of general interest to private boxes.
d) High degree of formality among students in the conference when carrying out instructions for group work.
Results so far show that there are factors of different kinds that interfere with students' attitudes and initiatives:
Students' varying familiarity with software.
Instructions provided by the texts.
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