Online learning has become a fast developing trend in higher education in the past decades. Numerous studies have been conducted on different aspects of online learning such as learner motivation, course content, instructor pedagogy etc (Beetham & Sharpe 2013; Chang et al. 2013; Murray et al. 2012). Nevertheless, one of the little researched issues was purpose of learner interaction with their instructors and peers and its impact on their learning outcomes. In this study, online messages of learners of an online English learning course were analysed to explore the purposes of their posts.
The online course used in this study was called English Discoveries Online (EDO). It had different components for learners to interact with course content, peers and instructors. While interaction with the course content was made compulsory, learner-to-learner and learner-to-instructor interaction was not. The learners used EDO in the first and second year of their undergraduate study. During the study, learners could interact with their instructors through two main forums called Support and Class Discussion.
Past studies showed that there were different ways that interaction purposes were categorized. Some were very general, for example, asking question (Islam 2003), giving feedback (Lisa 2011), gaining attention (Hirumi 2002), responding to learner’s opinion (Dennen, Aubteen Darabi & Smith 2007); others were more specific to foreign language learning, for instance, helping with grammar points, the assignments or course infrastructure (Gibby 2007). This study, however, used the framework that was adopted by Thomas (1996) which classified online messages into five main groups: article, content, technical, procedural and non-academic.
Article: Many of the online messages were assignments f-rom learners, who were required to read an article f-rom the online course and expressed their opinions about it. Following was an example of the instructor’s requirement and a learner’s response to the task.
Instructor: This is the new task for May: Find one article in Discovery magazine (Level: advanced. Topic: free. Choose the one you like the most and write a short summary about the reading.
Learner: "Food forests" is the article I like most. The idea mentioned in the article is not only creative but also practical and helpful. That is wonderful when people eat fresh fruits which they grew themselves. I really hope there will be such kind of "forests" in Vietnam one day.
The above post f-rom the learner showed a quality learning outcomes of interaction with content (an article). Unfortunately, only one instructor (among five) asked her learners to perform the above task.
Content: In the Class Discussion forum, learners of the course submitted their assignments at the request of the instructors. They also expressed their opinions about a topic that was cre-ated by the instructor, for example about the proposed change of working time.
I think this adjustment is worse because of the following reasons:
First of all, this change does not have effect on reducing traffic jam. (cont.)
The above example indicated that the learner hada meaningful participation in online discussion. However, there were not many messages of this kind in the forum.
Technical: Content analysis of some online messages indicated that learners encountered technical difficulty in using course. The technical problems mainly appeared when they interacted with the course content.
I can’t complete the review part of grammar 1 because of some problems. There was a pop up which said “Authentication required. (cont.)
When receiving such a report, most instructors referred the learners to the technical staff. Nevertheless, some provided solutions for the problem.
I myself have never experienced the situation you mentioned. But I recommend that you change your internet network or computer, for example change the computer you use.
Non-academic: In their online messages, some learnerssent wishes to their instructors during special occasions, such as the New Year. Others expressed their acknowledgement after receiving support f-rom their instructors.
Happy New Year, teacher! I wish you good health, success and happiness in your life!
Thank you so much for your mail. I'll do tasks according to your guidance.
Procedural: As mentioned earlier, learners of the course were obliged to interact with content. They were required to complete at least 80% of the assigned study levels when a semester ended. Before this deadline, instructors often sent out messages reminding those who had not reached the threshold. Below was a message f-rom one of the instructors.
Just a friendly reminder. For those who haven't finished Intermediate Level 1, please complete it in the next ten days. (cont.)
A message like this triggered learners’ action, i.e. interacting with content. In the process of doing so, learner sent their instructors messages to report study progress, ask question about study plan etc.
I’m ….., f-rom (Class code). I haven’t finished Basic 3 yet but I have already completed Intermediate 1, so I was wondering whether I have to finish Basic 3 or not?
Discussion and conclusion
The above results showed that learners and instructors of the course interacted with each other for different purposes, both academic (article, content), and non-academic (technical, procedural). It is possible to assume that submitted assignments in English were evidence of knowledge construction (enhancement of written English), reaching phase four of Salmon’s (2003) model of teaching and learning online. The absence of messages in which learners asked about learning English could have been because learners and instructors met face-to-face in which these questions could have been raised.
The instructors’ answers to some technical questions raises an open issue concerning the role of instructors. In an online language learning context, should the instructors deal with all queries f-rom the learners, or should they only focus on helping learners enhance language competence? Some researchers (Alvarez, Espasa & Guasch 2012) posited that an online tutor or instructor needs to provide learners with answers, advice, encouragement, praise etc., and should acquire various competences, ranging f-rom basic Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to online socialization, facilitation skills. However, in order to be able to acquire all skills as suggested by Hampel& Stickler (2005), a tutor and/or instructor needs to be trained extensively for many extra skills beside his/her professional competence. This might not be feasible in a number of contexts whe-re instructors are already busy with their traditional teaching load (Ke 2010).
In this study, the purposes of interaction between learners and instructors of an online course were presented and discussed. Results of the study showed that the online messages that reflected academic purposes were not as high as for other purposes such as technical and procedural ones. Hence, it is suggested that clear instructions should be provided to learners at the beginning of the course so they could know the study progress they were supposed to following during the study. In addition, a Question and Answer (Q&A) section should be provide to learners so that they themselves could solve technical problems. These will free the instructors f-rom having to answer technical and procedural questions, and thus being able to focus on assigning learners with academic exercises for development of knowledge. This is crucial in the context that online learning is still new in Vietnam, and the learners are yet autonomous in their study (Dang 2010; Le 2013).