Academic journal article Language, Learning & Technology

Flexibility and Interaction at a Distance: A Mixed-Mode Environment for Language Learning

Academic journal article Language, Learning & Technology

Flexibility and Interaction at a Distance: A Mixed-Mode Environment for Language Learning

Article excerpt


This article reports on the process of design and development of two language courses for university students at beginning levels of competence. Following a preliminary experience in a low-tech environment for distance language learning and teaching, and a thorough review of the available literature, we identified two major challenges that would need to be addressed in our design:

(1) a necessity to build sufficient flexibility into the materials to cater to a variety of learners' styles, interests and skill levels, therefore sustaining learners' motivation; and

(2) a need to design materials that would present the necessary requisites of authenticity and interactivity identified in the examined literature, in spite of the reduced opportunities for face-to-face communication.

In response to these considerations, we designed and developed learning materials and tasks to be distributed on CD-ROM, complemented by a WebCT component for added interactivity and task authenticity. Although only part of the original design was implemented, and further research is needed to assess the impact of our environment on learning outcomes, the results of preliminary evaluations are encouraging.


This article reports on the process of design and development of two distance courses, in Italian and French, for beginning learners. The language courses were part of a new Graduate Diploma in Language Teaching (GradDipLT), offered by the Department of Languages at Flinders University (Australia). The process was initiated in 2000, by a request from the South Australian Department of Education, which identified a demand for language teachers in schools, particularly in remote areas of the State. It was decided that the course would be offered by distance to cater to students unable to attend our regular language classes on campus. The South Australian Department of Education offered scholarships for registered teachers to be trained in languages. Therefore, our primary target was identified as full-time, non-language teachers, looking at career diversification. As a consequence, we expected the majority of our students to be mature-age women, with numerous work, family, and social commitments.

In 2001, when the GradDipLT was first offered, a low-technology version of the course was implemented. The instructional materials initially used were merely an adaptation of those prescribed in our regular classes on campus. The use of print-based materials was complemented by audiotapes provided with the selected textbooks, (1) e-mail correspondence, and weekly telephone appointments between students and their instructors.

A few weeks into the first semester, however, it was clear that distance learners had different study patterns from our campus-based students and that a highly flexible environment was required in order to accommodate a variety of learner needs and skill levels. First of all, their full-time employment and family commitments made it difficult for these learners to follow the regular work progression set in our 13-week semester schedule, as most students worked in spurts contingent upon their professional calendar. Secondly, although the course was designed for absolute beginners, great variety was observed in students' levels of proficiency in the target language, as well as in terms of learners' general academic skills and learning styles and preferences. Some students had had some exposure to the target language in their school years or due to their family backgrounds. Some had learned a second language before, which had provided them with strategies that could be applied to their current learning situation, while other learners had no prior language learning experience. As a consequence, it was particularly difficult to set a course pace that would satisfy all learners' needs.

From the point of view of the instructors involved in the delivery of the course, this was a very formative, but at the same time challenging and demanding pedagogical experience. …

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