Since 2003, the authors from Japan and Korea have consecutively conducted a joint class for university students between Nagasaki Junshin Catholic University (NJCU) and Hannam University (HU) using a bulletin board system (BBS) found on the Junshin Online Academia (JOA) website, in which the participating students practiced written communication in English, their target language, on various discussion topics varying across 45 global issues such as 'natural disasters', 'Internet addiction', 'children and crimes', and 'friendship between Japan and Korea'. On the whole, the joint project has been verified to be effective in attaining the authors' original goals of fostering Asian university students' 'global mind', 'critical thinking', and 'communicative competence in English'. It has also been proved particularly beneficial for the process-oriented writing class (Suzuki, Jung, Watanabe, Yoshihara & Chang, 2008). The authors, however, have admitted that there is a need for implementing a measure to sustain the development of online activities and to develop students' language skills thereby enhancing participating teachers' perspectives on internet-based collaborative learning in order to maximize the benefits of using information and communication technology (ICT) for the process-oriented writing class (Suzuki, Watanabe, Yoshihara, Jung & Min, 2006). This article attempts to respond to this need by looking at the feasibility of action research (AR) in online environments, and by gauging the effectiveness of an international collaborative online class designed to engage Asian students in practicing English as a foreign language (EFL).
Action Research for Sustaining Internet-Based Learning
AR in the field of education can be defined as a collaborative process in which participants examine their own educational practice systematically and carefully while searching for solutions to everyday, real problems experienced in schools, or looking for ways to improve instruction (Ferrance, 2000; Kemmis & MaTaggart, 1988; O'Hanlon, 1996). As Ferrance (2000) points out, it is a reflective process that allows for inquiry and discussion as components of the research. AR in its nature allows practitioners to address those concerns over which they can exhibit some influence and make changes. It is carried out within the context, that is, at the school in which the teacher works. AR will not provide all the answers to questions about how students learn or what educators can do to improve practice. However, it has been argued that AR happens at the place where these questions arise; it happens where the real action is taking place; and it allows for immediate actions (Ferrance, 2000; Watts, 1985).
Taking notice of the observations that AR in education is encouraged for activating both students and teachers to continuously develop themselves (Jung & Chang, 2006; O'Hanlon, 1996; Stinger, 2007b) through maintaining their group and personal interactions, the authors proposed a hypothesis that integrates an AR method into a collaborative online discussion project to maximize the effects of using ICT for a process-oriented writing class. The following describes an attempted case study of importing AR into an international collaborative online class using ICT which was carried out for about five months: From September 2007 to February 2008. It shows the feasibility of AR for maximizing the benefits of using ICT in the process-oriented writing class for EFL learners. The attempt was made on the basis of the following assumptions:
1) Teachers' professional development is most likely to be promoted through collaborative AR;
2) Engaging students in meaningful language use will raise their language awareness;
3) Learning by scaffolding in a cooperative environment is beneficial to cross cultural awareness gained through negotiation of meaning; and
4) Building up learner autonomy and empowering learners to write with confidence are indispensable in a process-oriented writing class. …