Saturday, October 08, 2005

Jacques du Plessis

Open Learning: A Web-based Model for Self-directed Foreign-language
Jacques du Plessis, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Friday, September 30, 2005, 11:00-11:45 am

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Research Objective
This research project on open learning and web-based instruction harnesses more than two decades of foreign language teaching experience. The objective of this research is to determine how to succeed in building an online learning community consisting completely of volunteers. The following objectives were addressed. Within an open access web learning environment, how is it best possible to:
• attract and retain learners
• enable learners to follow alternative routes in their studies and how to keep track of their progress
• present multiple ways to address the same subject matter to allow students with different perspectives and contextual backgrounds to understand
• build collaboration between novice learners and advanced learners and native speakers
• establish a feedback system in order to evaluate the learning content and how well it addresses the learning objectives

The methods to attract students require a consistent effort to get the word out to the global online population. The following methods were employed:
• tactics to rank high on popular search engines, especially on Google
• strategies to attain a good ranking based on specific search terms
• networking with similar sites to cross link to each other’s sites
• distributing the URL to discussion boards and relevant listservs
• submitting the website for peer review and using positive feedback to promote the site with noted scholars and persons with influence within the subject domain to further promote the site

Retaining students addresses complex variables, including (i) the diverse reasons for participation by at will learners, (ii) variables related to the wide geographic distribution of students, (iii) learner experiences and perceptions of the interface and the content, etc. Through a systematic approach personal contact was made with each learner and collaboration and communication tools were exploited, including threaded discussions, chat rooms, blogs, and VOIP to change the expected paradigm from student and website interacting to student interacting with website resources, and using the website as a mediation tool to communicate with other learners and speakers (Zhu and Baylen, 2005).

The website follows a modular approach that allows students to focus on any content unit. There is no rigidly prescribed path to follow and units stand independent of each other.

The expanding list of collaboration tools allows students to make each others acquaintance and to collaborate in a synchronous or asynchronous mode. Regular email with the whole online community promotes a sense of belonging and the willingness to reach out to other site participants.

A checkbox progression sheet and comment box enables learners to track their progression and to plan their study. An analysis of website traffic reveals visiting patterns, how newcomers find the site and how often users return.

With the range of learning options today, the no-fee, open access learning platform is not meant to replace other options, but it has proved to address an unmet need. In this instance, with the subject matter being a less commonly taught foreign language, the wide range of prior experience with the language demands an instructional design that is modular and allows equal access to any level. Users completely determine when they do their learning and what they want to learn. The geographic spread of users is truly global, including every continent. The reasons for committing to the learning differ widely.

It remains an ongoing challenge to exploit the communication and collaboration tools to support the learning community. The quest remains to generate social interaction centered on the language learning objective so that novice and experienced learners and native speakers provide the scaffolding to help each other along and to have interaction with native speakers. Ample opportunities can be created to listen to live radio in the target language, listen to streaming audio (stories, songs, interviews, etc.) and to watch video clips on varying topics. Many of these resources are not available in some foreign language classrooms. Within this framework the resources form a support to the individual. A collaborative community provides the dynamic support to cover the inflexibility of static resources. The learning community also provides emotional support and motivation.

An analysis of traffic to the site, as well statistics internal to the site has proven that open learning at no cost is popular. The use of audio and video streaming and interactive activities hasconfirmed that the limitations of web-based instruction are not rigid. It is postulated that the concept of self-instruction at the college level can be greatly expanded. In this specific project, the next phase is to offer online examinations and possibly tie the examinations to university credit.

Open learning on the web is enhanced by increased access to broadband. The target audience is truly global. The new challenge is how to move beyond static presentations and how to create learning communities in online learning and anchor a self perpetuating community of learning and teaching collaborations.

Chizmar, J.F. and Williams, D.B. (1996). “Altering Time and Space through Network Technologies to Enhance Learning” CAUSE/EFFECT Volume 19, Number 3, Fall 1996, pp.14-21. Accessed online on July 14, 2005 at
Davis, H. J. (1997). “The progression and future of open learning: A stakeholder perspective within management development”. Journal of Management Development, 1997, Vol. 16 Issue 5/6.
Zhu, E. and Baylen, D. (Sept. 2005). “From learning community to community learning: pedagogy, technology and interactivity”.
Educational Media International; Sep. 2005, Vol. 42 Issue 3, p 251.


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