The Networking Power of Web 2.0 in the Foreign Language Classroom: Affordances of the Online Peer Interaction Process

Date: 28 September 2018

Venue: Stadscampus | Kapel Grauwzusters - Lange Sint-Annastraat 7 - 2000 Antwerpen (route: UAntwerpen, Stadscampus)

Time: 2:00 PM - 4:30 PM

PhD candidate: Ward Peeters

Principal investigator: Prof Kris Van de Poel

Short description: Phd defence Ward Peeters - Faculty of Arts


Since the use of Web 2.0 tools in language learning contexts has gained momentum, it is vital for practitioners to assess and evaluate the ways in which computer-mediated communication affects and constrains human interaction processes. At the same time, it is important to consider how users shape the online space itself, as well as how teachers’ and researchers’ understanding of these social semiotic spaces contributes to the development and refinement of current language learning activities. Fluctuating levels of success of online peer interaction projects suggest that we do not fully understand how learners build communities and develop their own agency within online environments. This study addresses one of the major gaps in present-day applied linguistic research: How do foreign language majors use the target language to learn, play and establish themselves as learners in a new learning environment when interacting with their peers online?

This study investigates the peer interaction process among first-year language majors studying English as a foreign language at the University of Antwerp in two consecutive years (Group 1: N = 119, Group 2: N = 112). A task-based approach, aimed to facilitate engagement and negotiation, was embedded in a Facebook environment, the most frequently used Web 2.0 tool among learners, which was then integrated into the undergraduate curriculum of English Proficiency. This resulted in a corpus of almost 6,000 online postings.

The threaded conversations were coded based on the principles of Grounded Theory and show how participants socialise and negotiate, as well as how the interaction process pertains to learning and to learners’ adaptation to the new academic environment. Learners’ engagement can be summarised in four developmental processes: 1) cognitive development, or making meaning; 2) metacognitive development, or reflecting on, synthesising and planning their learning and collaboration with others; 3) organisational development, or acculturating to the new academic environment; and 4) socio-affective engagement, or establishing and maintaining social cohesion. These four developmental processes form the basis of interpersonal communication and text creation in a social networking environment and exemplify how learners appropriate the online space for language learning purposes.  

Peer interaction and information exchange in the Web 2.0 setting –adapted to serve academic needs– supports learners in finding their own voice in their new educational environment as the project tapped into differentiation, appeal and rationality to design and implement an effective and sustainable peer interaction environment. This novel stance to providing online support in language learning contexts –where a task-based approach puts emphasis on learner activation, scaffolded support and co-dependence– enables learners to explore and co-learn with a community of peers. The project empowers them to observe others, test performance criteria and evaluate their own praxis, thus raising awareness of their own conduct and behaviour, as well as of the affordances and possibilities of peer interaction as online support.

This study succeeded in creating an online community of practice in which the individual was given the opportunity to grow and develop as a language learner while being part of a collective. It shows that formal assessment does not have to hamper the informal, interactive nature of Web 2.0, but that it can be an incentive for learners to start negotiating, socialising and learning online. This perspective on the affordances of the peer interaction process through Web 2.0 tools –where boundaries between formal and informal learning become blurred– provides learners with the opportunity to experience active language negotiation, and to orchestrate their own engagement with other learners and with the materials and resources available. This approach proves that adopting social networking tools to bridge between classroom instruction and learners’ out-of-class learning activities makes learning a social process of co-dependence, giving users ample opportunity to interact, make sense of their learning environment and exchange information to become fully-interactive, critical and autonomous language learners. 

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