Successful design and implementation of a networked learning course not only requires familiarity with modern digital tools and resources, but also a strong understanding of the social, cultural and educational factors of the students and institutions it will support. While education systems in the Western world have undergone large scale reform over the past century, other nations can be tentative in their approach to pedagogical change. The following proposal will investigate how the implementation of networked and global learning (NGL) principles can achieve improvement of communicative English education in my role as a teacher of English in Japan.
Statement of Problem
In my context as a secondary classroom teacher of English as a second language (TESOL), I have observed that despite the fact many of my students have been studying English as a second language (L2) for more than five years, most still struggle to acquire the communicative skills to hold even the most basic level of conversation. Students were encouraged to practice speaking English with me in the staff room, yet this offer was never taken up in over four years. When questioned, all students informed me that they never used English outside of English lessons at school or private after-school tuition. Students and homeroom teachers explained that this was due to students commitments to club activities and their shyness to use English with a native speaker.
In interviews that I conducted with former co-workers in Japan, all agreed that there are significant issues with the way English education is delivered. Lack of opportunities to practice speaking and listening skills, excessive teacher focus in classrooms, inauthentic and unengaging teaching practices, and a lack recognition of the usefulness of English as a global language were given most frequently as reasons for ineffectual English acquisition. Analysis of test-data supports these conclusions with Japan ranking 40th out of 48 countries in 2016 on their average score on the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) (Educational Testing Service, 2016). While no longer recommended by the Japanese government, teaching in a Japanese classroom typically follows the grammar-translation method (Saint-Jacques, 2006). Students generally spend a significant portion of lessons being lectured about the use of specific grammar rules and then spend the remainder of the lesson practicing these rules by translating texts from Japanese to English or English to Japanese. This method of teaching language originated in Europe around the 1500s but by the late twentieth century had been rejected by most researchers in the field of education (Richards & Rodgers, 2001). Kotaka (2013) argues that task-based language teaching (TBLT) in Japanese classrooms would better foster communicative English acquisition, though he concedes that limitations in teachers’ understanding of its unpinning principles would require extensive teacher retraining to achieve this more modern approach/view of teaching, learning and the role of the teacher.
The primary research question of this proposal is:
How can implementation of NGL principles enhance L2 learning for English as a foreign language (EFL) students?
Secondary questions to be researched are:
-Which NGL principles best facilitate development of student English use with communities outside the classroom?
-What are the main challenges to implementing these principles?
Ikegashira, Matsumoto and Morita (2009) suggest that the greatest issues with English education in Japan lie with the Japanese education system and Japan’s exam culture. These place excessive stress on students and negatively affect teaching methodologies by encouraging or forcing teachers to focus on teaching to the test. Three teachers were found to have been given the responsibility for teaching more than five hundred students in one particular school, leaving teachers with inadequate time or attention to achieve satisfactory levels of communicative ability in their students. Ikegashira, Matsumoto and Morita identified a fear among parents, administrators and other members of the community that high student achievement in English education will have a negative impact on students’ first language (L1) skills. Ruegg (2009) challenged this idea as she believed the Japanese government has displayed clear evidence of commitment to high communicative English achievement through the implementation of communicative teaching methods in classrooms at increasingly younger ages. Ruegg believes that native Japanese teachers frequently lack English language skills and confidence in their communicative abilities, leading them to focus more heavily on teaching grammar and vocabulary. She suggests that students require greater exposure to more natural communicative experiences with native English speakers. Samimy and Kobayashi (2004) strongly disagree stating that their analysis of the introduction of communicative language teaching (CLT) methods in Japanese schools in the 1980s found these teaching methods to be “not adequate nor feasible” (Samimy & Kobayashi, 2004) for Japanese educational contexts. Educational and socio-cultural factors, claimed to lead to this conclusion, included students’ limited communication needs, limited exposure to English in daily life, most Japanese English teachers being non-native English speakers, a pervasive exam culture and differences in traditional expectations of learning methodologies and educational outcomes.
Friedman (2013) believes that aside from economic benefits that improved English language achievement will bring, efforts by the Japanese government to reform English education are aimed at allowing Japan as a nation to better shape foreign perceptions of the ideas and opinions of its people. With the goal of “developing English skills for persuasive writing, rhetoric, and argumentative analysis” and “to win over other nations and convince them of Japan’s good intentions” (Friedman, 2013), Freidman suggests that reform of learning outcomes is a necessity and is already well in the process of occurring. Similarly to Ruegg, he points to the Strategic Plan to Cultivate Japanese with English Abilities (“Japanese Government Policies in Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology”, 2011) as clear evidence of the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s (MEXT) dramatic shift to more modern teaching and learning outcomes for students in the Japanese English language education system.
Research into the use network learning technologies existed even before the boom of creative tools brought about by web 2.0. An article Yang (1998) in the early days of mainstream Internet adoption focused primarily on the transformative benefits multimedia brought to the field of English education. Major benefits identified by Yang include the effective engagement of all language skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking), student focused learning, greater feeling of student autonomy due to lowered focus on the teacher, increased flexibility of scheduling and location, and greater communicative access to other learners due to the removal of geographic barriers. At the time of writing, Yang noted the severe limitations networking, software development and processor power placed on networking technologies. Student social interaction was predominantly limited to text communication in early online tools and environments such as email, multiple user domains (MUDs) and object oriented MUDs (MOOs).
In contrast, Allen (2000) analysed the benefits the social and collaborative aspects of networked learning offered. She believes that community connected learning provides a range of opportunities for secondary English students including interaction in authentic environments and situations, integration of ideas and interests with the wider community, promotion of active learning rather than passive learning, the ability for students to make future professional network connections, access to professional work skills, and insight into opportunities at postsecondary institutions. Allen suggests project-based learning as a powerful tool for integrating multiple student abilities and areas of knowledge into English education, while at the same time fostering knowledge sharing and collaboration skills.
In a more recent paper, Jauregi, Graaff, and Bergh (2012) analysed studies involving university graduate education students’ use of networked learning technologies to complete collaborative task-based assessments. Results revealed students gained communicative fluency and displayed higher levels of interactive engagement. Students reported that Web communication environments offered more opportunities for authentic and functional interactions than they experienced in traditional classroom settings. Problems were encountered; technical issues and delays in communication could cause frustration or impede student progress. Test subjects felt that the use of this form of learning in secondary settings may carry significant risk. Suggestions included the need to ensure sufficient numbers of work partners, good access to the Internet and required technologies, and the ability to schedule synchronous sessions. With these conditions met, students felt networked learning experiences were worthwhile as the learning they experienced was more fun and rewarding, required innovative methods of thinking, used a variety of communicative skills and required more natural and interactive language usage.
Improvement of learning of communicative English could best be facilitated by an environment that:
- provides opportunities for authentic language usage (Van Lier, 1996)
- integrates usage of reading, writing, speaking and listening skills (Li, 2012)
- has a focus on knowledge construction, rather than knowledge reproduction (Jonassen, 1999)
- promotes student ownership of work (Newmann, 1992)
- presents opportunities for students to reflect on tasks (Jonassen, 1991)
- supports collaborative construction and sharing of knowledge (Siemens, 2005)
In my context, I am proposing the use of formative task-based (or performance based) assessments that consist of the creation and sharing of online multimedia (Leek, n.d.). All Japanese public junior high schools possess at least one modern Internet connected computer laboratory. Well known platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo, WordPress and Soundcloud are examples of tools that students would be encouraged to utilise. These tools would bring about transformative change to learning by allowing students to create, connect and share their work with global communities that pursue similar areas of learning. By building connections with global communities, it is hoped that the concepts of connectivism can be adopted to modernise English learning experiences in Japanese classrooms and move away from primarily summative assessment models. An example assessment activity for a group of students could be to produce a short informative YouTube video about a traditional Japanese festival. Students would need to research accurate information. This information would then be used, in combination with English language narration and digital video editing skills, to publish a publicly accessible educational video. Students would then receive feedback from online communities. This feedback could be used to reflect upon and improve the video that was published or used for future similar networked task-based assessments.
Authentic learning experiences encourage assimilation and connection of new knowledge, enhance application and transferability of theoretical learning to ‘real world’ scenarios, build students’ capacities to make professional judgements, and foster attachment to professional principles and knowledge (“Benefits of Authentic Learning”, 2015). This intervention meets the criteria for authenticity as it has real-world relevance, is ill-defined (requiring students to define the tasks), comprises of complex tasks to be investigated over a sustained period of time, provides opportunities for students to examine the task from different perspectives (using a variety of resources), provides opportunities for collaboration, provides opportunities for reflection, is integrated and applies knowledge from different subject areas leading to beyond domain-specific outcomes, is seamlessly integrated with assessment, creates a complete product usable in its own right, and allows for a variety of solutions leading to a diversity of outcomes (Reeves, Herrington, & Oliver, 2002).
Creation of online media requires students to engage in all four skills of communicative English. Reading and listening are required when conducting research of relevant literature, engaging and responding to online communities, analysis of the ideas and opinions of others and in interpreting the design work of collaborative group members. Speaking and writing skills are engaged while recording video and sound, collaborating in real-time through audio and video communication applications (Skype, Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts etc) and during classroom planning and design work. With access to digital communication and collaboration tools, learning is transformed to allow uploading and sharing of large documents, and real-time high quality (and high bandwidth) video demonstration of processes, ideas and designs.
In an age when information is both overly abundant and easily accessible, to make decisions objectively, students need to learn the skills for effective analysis and assessment of information and its sources. By allowing students to construct their own meaning from multiple sources, they can be helped to understand that information must be viewed from a variety of perspectives for objective conclusions to be extrapolated (Monteith, 1998). By working on ill-defined or self-defined tasks, students are required to make independent decisions about what information they choose to seek, assess and utilise. This process also has the benefit of making students feel ownership of their work, as task completion is self-directed and collaboration is an active process (Mitnik, Recabarren, Nussbaum, & Soto, 2009). Research into online and independent learning has shown higher dropout rates, particularly in off-campus study (Patterson & McFadden, 2009). This means that teachers must ensure that students clearly understand assessment criteria, have access to motivational support and gain a sense of being part of a learning community for optimal learning outcomes to be achieved (Rovai, 2002).
By sharing their work and the processes used to complete their assigned tasks with members of online communities, students are given opportunities to reflect upon what decisions they have made and why they have made them. Publishing of work makes online community feedback available. The internet transforms reflection by exposing students to a range of perspectives previously unaccessable in offline learning environments (Towhidi, 2010). Japan has displayed an increased concern regarding Internet privacy and safety in recent years (Kommers, Isaias, & Issa, 2015; Thomson, 2015). This is not a concern without warrant and could be a significant impediment to the application of this intervention. Not using student’s real identities online may help to resolve this issue, though there is no guarantee this will ensure that student identities remain anonymous. At the least, all online communications by students while undertaking task activities should be visible to the teacher and school administrative staff to ensure student safety is not compromised. Further research and communication with government and school administrators would need to be undertaken to identify how this intervention would pass potential risk assessments.
While this proposal would almost certainly face challenges regarding student privacy, teacher training, acquisition of digital technologies, and community and administrative support, it is clear that innovative change to English language education is a necessity if Japanese students are to acquire the communicative skills necessary to succeed in an increasingly globalised world. MEXT has made it clear that new approaches to language education need to be adopted for Japan to remain economically competitive and for good relationships with the international community to be maintained (“MEXT : English Education Reform Plan corresponding to Globalization”, 2015; Okamoto, 2014). Through the integration of programs that promote NGL principles, transformative change to education will occur and a more holistic understanding of English will be achieved.
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