Natural Learners, Better Learners

Posted December 2004: Task-based, computer-assisted language learning projects promote natural learning and increase motivation for the Chinese EFL learners in Jin Lin's classes. See Patricia Mytkowicz's article, "Digital Portfolios for Diverse Learners," Essential Teacher, Winter 2004 (pp. 26-29).

I signed up for the first online project at Suzhou University in spring 1998, when I was an undergraduate student with fuzzy computer skills. I left the project with sharper edges and a strong determination to pursue future studies in the field of computer-assisted language learning (CALL).

Ever since, I have participated in various CALL projects, such as English Online: Writing on the Web (Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1999,http://humanum.arts.cuhk.edu.hk/~cmc/2002a) and International Writing Exchange (Vilmi, 1993-2002, http://www.ruthvilmi.net/hut/Current/iwe.php), first as a project assistant and observer, and later as an instructor experimenting with project-based learning (PBL) and technology in my own EFL classroom.

Technology Applied to Real-World Issues

PBL at Suzhou University is a group activity lasting half a semester. Students explore real-world issues and are involved in designing projects, solving problems, making decisions, and searching for and sorting information. Their final products are either hypertext research reports, Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, or group Webfolios.

Used this way, technology can make classroom projects more authentic in addition to providing tools for planning, developing, and presenting them. PBL and CALL share many goals, such as student-centered learning, learner autonomy, independent learning as well as the development of critical thinking and the ability to collaborate and cooperate.

Small, Compelling Discoveries

Project-based CALL serves as a major learning model in CALL at Suzhou University. In my CALL classes, students are pushed to the foreground, and I stay in the background as a facilitator. This role allows me to look deep inside the project. Besides the benefits I've mentioned, I've made some other interesting discoveries.

Natural Learning Works

Natural learning is the process of "assuming responsibility, asking questions, seeking answers, and analyzing information" (Webb, 2000, n.p.). In my classroom, natural learning is also "based on curiosity and projects where participants share knowledge to reach a goal" (Webb, n.p.). The students involved in the project naturally pick up some idiomatic expressions through e-mail exchanges with their native speaker counterparts.

Take the technical writing project (Gu, 2002), for example. At one point, one of the U.S. partners wrote the following in an e-mail message: "If you have the communication skills, I feel that it will be easier for you to land a job here in the USA." A Chinese student replied, "By getting involved in business activities, we land jobs that give full play to our professional knowledge and skills." Though her sentence is a bit ungrammatical, the student has picked up the expression land a job. She is not parroting it; she understands it well and uses it properly.

Another time, a U.S. student ended his e-mail message with "Have a good day and keep smiling." A few days later, the students were using this phrase in e-mail and conversation. In fact, the phrase spread so widely that, upon leaving school at the end of the semester, a visiting scholar on campus winked at me and said, "Goodbye! Have a good day and keep smiling."

A Cure for Technophobia?

After the project, the students' attitudes toward computers and their use had changed greatly. The first thing many students did after turning in their final work for the project was to buy a computer. At the beginning of the course, 30% of the participating students owned PCs; ownership surged to 100% after the project.

The project changed students' ways of reading, writing, communicating, and publishing. Even previously technophobic girls (English majors are mostly girls at Suzhou University) tended to rely on computers. The project influenced their idea of technology and their interest in future study. Some students even decided to pursue a master’s degree in CALL after the project.

Add Some Spice, Relieve the Boredom

Project-based CALL spiced up language learning at Suzhou University because it allowed students to see how to use the language to communicate naturally. I believe that if EFL learning is no longer boring and artificial, frustrated Chinese EFL learners will be motivated to practice more and become happier and better learners.

References

Chinese University of Hong Kong. (1999). English online: Writing on the Web. Retrieved September 23, 2004, from http://humanum.arts.cuhk.edu.hk/~cmc/2002a

Gu, P. Y. (2002). Effects of project-based CALL on Chinese EFL learners. Asian Journal of English Language Teaching, 12, 195-210.

Vilmi, R. (1993-2002). International writing exchange. Retrieved October 14, 2004, from http://www.ruthvilmi.net/hut/Current/iwe.php

Webb, R. L. (2000). Natural learning environment. Retrieved September 23, 2004, from http://www.motivation-tools.com/youth/natural_learning.htm

Jin Lin, who has a master's degree in applied linguistics with a specialization in CALL, is implementing the project-based CALL program at Suzhou University, in China.