Learner autonomy and digital media More interactive, more authentic, more individual

Digital media generate individuality.
Digital media generate individuality. | Photo: © Syda Productions – Fotolia.com

Digital media are becoming more and more popular in foreign language teaching, too. Besides its actual language learning potential, another advantage of increased media usage is that it promotes learner autonomy. But what precisely are the strengths of digital media when it comes to learner autonomy?

Although only proven empirically to some extent, the use of digital media is assumed to add value in foreign language teaching – added value that is wide-ranging in comparison to analogue learning. Mobile devices are often used as a source of information and material in the classroom. However, working with digital media not only enhances general media skills but can also motivate learners to engage in authentic and autonomous language activities in the foreign language. What is more, the use of digital media in the classroom can also promote learner autonomy.
                                                                  
Increasingly, learners are involved in all decisions that concern the learning process, from planning and implementation to a critical assessment of their own work. In this way, they learn to ask and answer questions about the What?, Why? and How? (Dam 1995) themselves. In this context, the first step towards autonomy is the knowledge that they are responsible for their own learning and the willingness to accept this responsibility. Thus the goal of our teaching activities should be to create a learning environment and atmosphere in which learners are motivated to engage with their own learning process in the foreign language. If used correctly, digital media can make an important contribution here.

Potential of digital media

Apart from their organizational benefits, like giving learners easier access to information and allowing them to store and retrieve such information, digital media offer educational advantages in particular. Learning is no longer restricted to the classroom but can take place anywhere and at any time thanks to mobile devices and apps. If linked to effective exercises, these can give rise to authentic learning environments in which real learning goals can be achieved with the help of realistic material and subsequently assessed.

Autonomy also involves choosing the site of learning. Autonomy also involves choosing the site of learning. | Photo: © Eleven studio – Fotolia.com A whole range of digital media with numerous applications is available to achieve these goals. When it comes to learning new vocabulary in the foreign language, for example, tools like Quizlet and VLE glossary allow learners to add new words and their definitions to virtual learning maps and can therefore learn them individually, but in a way that is accessible to everyone. Afterwards, they can practise using the new vocabulary in an interactive quiz (Kahoot) and incorporate it into learning group-specific word clouds (Wordle).
 
Digital media can also be useful when developing writing skills in the foreign language by fostering collaborative writing processes in which learners jointly work through all steps and support each other in their individual learning progress. Google Docs, Lucidpress – a drag-and-drop app to facilitate content creation – edublogs and blogger are merely a few examples.
 
What almost all tools have in common is the fact that they promote autonomous learning by offering opportunities to address the individual needs of learners without losing sight of the learning group and its joint goals (Dal- Bianco and Moore-Walter 2017).

Flipping the classroom with digital media

In short, digital media allow us to rethink our lessons. In line with the flipped classroom principle, learners can use explanatory videos and accompanying material to learn theoretical content on their own and at their own pace. In the classroom, these basics are then discussed and practised according to the needs of the learners. This frees up time for communicative and interactive learning arrangements – especially in foreign language teaching – because teachers need to spend less lesson time on teaching content. Video and audio recordings such as YouTube tutorials or websites designed by the teacher or the learners themselves are an excellent way to get learners to work independently on content. This not only has a particularly motivational effect on learners, but also leads to deeper engagement with the information in question and reveals whether something was really understood. When creating videos and/or websites, learners can focus on things that interest them and give free rein to their creativity, and can also try out various methodological approaches. This freedom to make their own decisions has a positive impact on the development of learner autonomy. A phase of exercises in the classroom, involving for example problem-oriented tasks, is followed by a further phase of knowledge acquisition outside school using podcasts, blogs or online discussion forums.

Example: digital collaborative writing

Online encyclopaedia Wikipedia is one of the world’s best-known websites and can also be used in a variety of ways in foreign language teaching. Wikipedia offers many advantages over a conventional analogue encyclopaedia, for example the hypermedia and multimedia presentation of information, which heightens learner awareness of the importance and reliability of sources. One exercise based on Wikipedia involves getting learners to team up and jointly compose one or more Wikipedia articles in the foreign language. These can either be written collaboratively by the learning group as a whole or, depending on the particular interests of the learners, in smaller groups. If the learning group is unable to come up with its own ideas for a new entry, or if the chosen entry already exists, learners can refer to Wikipedia: Requested articles which lists a large number of topics. Once a group has chosen a topic, it begins its (Internet-based) research. Learners can collect together the results of their research in a Web-based text file such as Google Docs and then present them to the rest of the class using PowerPoint. Feedback can be given both in person following the presentation and directly online in Google Docs. Tools such as Vocaroo – an app for voice recordings – and MailVu are a good choice for appropriate feedback. Once complete, the articles can be uploaded to Wikipedia. Such exercises allow learners to take part in genuine language situations that enhance their skills while at the same time having a potentially motivational effect because they are authentic communicative situations.

Good media use demands learner autonomy

Used properly, digital media offer many ways in which to make learning processes more interactive and more authentic. On the other hand, the integration of digital media also allows teachers to adapt their lessons to the abilities and needs of individual learners. However, the particular challenge when promoting learner autonomy in media-assisted learning environments is that their successful use often requires precisely those skills and competencies that the digital media are supposed to enhance. For example, the pronounced collaborative character of digital media requires learners to have a wide range of skills and competencies – such as the ability to design their own work processes or to subsequently organize and assess the group’s collaboration – which working with mobile devices and tools helps develop in the first place. Last but not least, the use of digital media requires a degree of rethinking about the role of teachers and learners in institutional learning environments.
 

Literature

Dam, Leni (1995): Learner autonomy 3. From theory to classroom practice. Dublin: Authentik.

Dal-Bianco, Veronica/Moore-Walter, Lawrie (2017): Tools and Collaborative Tasks for Enabling Language Learning in a Blended Learning Environment. In: Ludwig, Christian/Van de Poel, Kris (Ed.): Collaborative Learning and New Media: New Insights into an Evolving Field. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, p. 107-131.