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Commentary: Preparing teachers for open L2TL: Frameworks for critical awareness and transformation

Jonathon Reinhardt

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1. Introduction

1In recent years the open education movement has garnered interest and support by many professionals in second and foreign language teaching and learning (L2TL). The Open Education Consortium (2015) defines the concept by its means and purpose: "Open education encompasses resources, tools and practices that employ a framework of open sharing to improve educational access and effectiveness worldwide." While the open education mission is laudable, the practice is more complicated than one might first expect, as the papers in this special issue argue well. That "open sharing" is central to this definition justifies the purpose of this special issue–to examine social dynamics in open L2TL (OL2TL) and identify challenges for research and practice. The notion of sharing clearly implicates the social, which is a concept also at the center of L2TL.

2The concept of the social is approached slightly differently by each author. Kurek recognizes the social in the cultural, which she argues is a definitive factor in understanding how instructors of various languages from a variety of backgrounds engaged in OL2TL. MacKinnon et al. examine how official Australian university policies support the social aspect of open education sustainability, and find it is often given short shrift. Whyte describes a L2 teacher pre-service training course in France, supported by social media, with the objective to develop teachers as social actors, and Blyth and Dalola show that social dynamics play a key role in the semiotic practices of L2 teachers in an open social media group. Finally, Zourou explores the social dynamics of OL2TL more broadly, and the potential of social networking to mediate OL2TL practices, by surveying experts in the field.

3Social networking, as argued by several of the authors, has great potential as a medium for OL2TL–an ideal space to reuse, remix, revise, redistribute, and retain (Wiley, 2014's 5 Rs) materials and resources. Social networking dynamics reflect and facilitate the dispositions towards authorship, identity, and social value that are commensurable with OL2TL–the same dispositions that digital literacies scholarship has identified as key to participation in new digital literacy practices (eg Knobel & Lankshear, 2014). Yet some dissonance underlies the apparent commensurability between social networking and OL2TL, because the messages from open education supporters sometimes conflict with the real social dynamics of L2TL practice. As MacKinnon et al. explain, the messages about open education that institutions broadcast are inconsistent. As Kurek illustrates, actual OL2TL practices vary widely according to experience and culture, and as Whyte shows, pre-service language teachers can be overwhelmed with the wide variety of messages they hear when learning to teach. Blyth and Dalola show that in open social media, teachers themselves engage in multimodal, hybrid translinguistic practices which are quite divergent from the standard varieties they are charged with teaching. Finally, as Zourou indicates in her survey findings, experts report that teachers are less engaged in OL2TL because of a variety of conflicting constraints.

4As the findings of the articles in this issue implicate, teacher development is key to helping educators reconcile conflicting messages, identify and potentially resolve tensions, and successfully participate in OL2TL. Taking these goals as educational objectives, the remainder of this commentary proposes instruction for OL2TL training using the concepts of critical awareness, situated learning, and social network literacies. The proposal is guided by three sets of interrelated questions:

  • What is the Open Education movement, and what is it not? What ethos is behind the movement? What are the inherent conflicts and tensions between open and "closed" educational practices? How commensurable is OL2TL with individual and institutional philosophies, beliefs, and practices?

  • How does one engage in OL2TL? What L2TL theories and practices are more or less commensurable with openness? Where does one find, adapt, create, and share resources for OL2TL?

  • How can social networking be an ideal space for OL2TL? How does social networking afford or constrain social dynamics (like sharing and remixing) and dispositions (towards authorship, identity, and social hierarchy) that facilitate OL2TL?

5Each question serves to guide the creation of objectives for OL2TL teacher development curricula. Each is discussed below, with reference to the findings of the articles in this special issue. Before any curriculum proposal, however, it is important to understand learner needs, in this case pre- and in-service L2 teachers, and to imagine their stances towards open education, both positive and negative. A devil's advocate would start with the negative, examining why teachers might perceive social network-mediated OL2TL as a challenge, a threat, or an impossibility.

A devil's advocate view of social network-mediated OL2TL

6Since the "Web 2.0" turn of the millennium, social networking has become a key aspect of the global post-industrial information economy. Facebook is valued at more than $250 billion USD (Huddleston, 2015), social media is understood as an election "game changer" (Green, 2015), and the concept of Internet virality is a legitimate research topic (Tierney, 2010). Social networking technologies–like rating and recommendation systems, crowdsourcing, and sharing dynamics–have upset and infiltrated many traditional social institutions and practices. Through social media, for example, consumers rate business services and products, patients learn about illnesses and medicines, travellers share accommodation, and learners customize their own education outside of schools. Traditionally defined salespeople, doctors, hoteliers, and teachers no longer monopolize expertise as measured by access to goods, services, and knowledge. In short, social networking is revolutionizing human economic activity, with far-reaching and still unknown long-term effects on society.

7To add to the concerns of teachers in particular, social networking is sometimes identified as an agent of the social and economic forces changing education more broadly, for better or for worse. Facing budget cuts, educational institutions around the world are adopting corporate ideologies, commodifying learning, and considering students to be "clients". At US universities skyrocketing tuition, adjunct lecturers, and online offerings are seen as cost saving solutions. Driven by political pressures, educational policymakers are forcing regulation and standardization of curriculum and assessment practices–some say by the invisible hand of an educational testing industry, which in the USA alone had an estimated value of $4.5 billion USD in 2014 (Cavanagh, 2013). Commercial publishers create, and administrators mandate, comprehensive textbook-based curricula that are unchangeable and "teacher-proof". From a cynic's point of view, the average teacher finds himself in a profession that is quickly de-professionalizing and de-humanizing. In the USA teacher attrition rates, already higher than comparable professions, are rising–some estimates are that 40% of new public school teachers quit before their fifth year (Riggs, 2013).

8Into the fray come OL2TL supporters, whose well-meaning response to the growing corporate-capitalist educational leviathan is for teachers to take back some of their agency by sharing their practices with others in a space free from exploitation. Teachers are understandably wary, however, perhaps because of mixed messages. Supporters say to remix and re-appropriate materials, while the teacher knows students must learn the value of individual work and the dangers of plagiarism. Supporters say to give the materials away, while school lawyers argue that whatever staff creates legally belongs to the school. Supporters say to collaborate and share with colleagues, while individual authorship earns merit raises and royalties. Supporters argue to make materials adaptable, while all the commercial examples a teacher sees are self-contained, inflexible, and not particularly innovative. Finally, supporters want teachers to use social networking for OL2TL practice, when the word on the street is that Facebook actually owns whatever one posts there, and sells it to marketers. Moreover, the ratings, recommendations, and evaluations one finds on review websites like Yelp come disturbingly close to calls that teachers be judged, hired, and fired according to learner outcomes and popularity. Faced with so many contradictions, it is no wonder teachers are unsure whether and how to participate in OL2TL, and just what its supporters are advocating.

2. Critically defining open L2 teaching and learning

9The open education movement is in some measure a reaction to two interrelated societal developments. First, the Internet and WWW have opened or "flattened" access (Friedman, 2006) to knowledge and expertise, so that the means of education is no longer controlled by traditional gatekeepers; and second, according to critics, the educational publishing and testing industries, in response to market pressures, have kept materials pedagogically conservative while increasing their costs and inaccessibility. In contrast, open teaching and learning practices involve the free and open (re-)creation, (re-)use, and (re-)distribution of learning resources, afforded by new technologies. To address justifiable quality control, copyright, and sustainability concerns, the open education movement has developed new evaluation, author recognition, and economic structures to support open practices (Blyth, 2012), although some issues remain. Related to academic principles of free inquiry and the spirit of the open source software movement, the ethos of open education is one of egalitarianism, altruism, and a cultural ideal of accessibility for all.

10The term "open" implies that the opposite end of the educational practice spectrum is "closed"–in other words, learning that is socially isolated, textbooks and curricula which cannot be altered, and pedagogies which are traditional, transmission-oriented, and teacher-centered (Baraniuk, 2007). Many open education supporters argue that closed educational practices are unsustainable, since they are increasingly grounded in neoliberal corporate economic models that commodify learning and treat both teachers and students as consumers, even as new technologies blur the boundaries between formal and informal learning and between production and consumption. The UNESCO publication Educating for a Sustainable Future (1997) advocates structural reform in education that "re-examines the centralized mandating of courses and textbooks in order to allow for locally relevant learning programmes" and decision-making (point #72)–a practice clearly more commensurable with open practices than closed.

11In this issue, MacKinnon et al. examine how institutional policies present the notion of sustainability, and show that even though open educational practices are framed as institutional strategy, sustainability is rarely mentioned with it. Most importantly, the role of the social in open education or sustainability is nowhere to be seen. While the authors' analysis is of policies from Australian and New Zealand institutions, surely university policies and mission statements around the world would also be as vague and inconsistent, considering the radical de-funding of public higher education in the last decade, and the conceptual rise of so-called "new" university models that are by some accounts frighteningly exploitative (Warner, 2015).

Pedagogical implications: Developing critical awareness

12Making sense of the above paradox–that educational institutions may support open practices rhetorically but might ignore or even thwart them in actual practice–requires critical awareness of the socio-political and techno-historical context of the open education movement in relation to modern education. To this end, developing criticality should be an objective of any curricula for training language teachers to participate effectively in OL2TL. Key objectives would be to explore what the open movement is, what is it not, and what ethos lies behind it. Objectives would include examination of the inherent contradictions and tensions between open and closed educational practices, and reflection on the commensurability between OL2TL, institutional missions and practices, and individual philosophies and practices.

13Critical awareness as a learning objective has roots in Paolo Freire's (1973) emancipatory pedagogy to develop critical consciousness–the ability to reflect critically on, and take action on, one's socio-political context. As linguistic and symbolic activity mediates action and reflection, awareness of language use, or "the capacity to consider language use as the result of and, at the same time, a tool for social and ideological practice" (Cots, 2013: 2) is central to such activities, and is reflected in language awareness (eg van Lier, 1995; Carter, 2003), genre awareness (eg Hyland, 2001), and Hallidayan approaches. These frameworks can help awareness become the means for "exposing the choice making that lies behind the apparently solid and taken-for-granted world, forcing us to address the ethical question of our responsibility for our world" (Bazerman, 1992: 62), and helping us understand how and why we teach.

14Pedagogical frameworks designed to develop awareness balance experiential and analytic activities (Kolb, 1984), so that learning is embodied through both action and reflection, which grounds participation. The policy and mission statements MacKinnon et al. examined, as well as documents by UNESCO and organizations like the Open Education Consortium or Creative Commons, would serve well as texts for contextual and rhetorical analysis of audience, style, and purpose. OL2TL resources and materials themselves can also be critiqued and compared with commercial textbook materials. As Blyth and Dalola implicate, the teachers' own linguistic production, perhaps in social media, might be an object of analysis as a means of developing awareness of how meaning making is often translingual, hybrid, and multimodal–unlike textbook representations. As experiential learning activities, trainees can implement open resources as mock teaching activities, or test them out in the classes they teach, followed by reflection. Crafting a teaching philosophy of OL2TL through reflective writing can help trainees grapple with associated ethical and social issues. Finally, as Kurek's findings implicate, discussion of variation in attitudes towards, and practices of, OL2TL in different contexts of situation and culture would be important for developing a culturally relative sense of criticality.

3. Engaging in OL2TL communities of practice

15Participation in OL2TL is not as straightforward as finding a repository and partaking at will. The complex interaction of a variety of factors influence whether teachers engage in OL2TL practices, and how they perceive agency to do so in the face of social friction and structural discontinuities. Encouraging individuals to put effort into finding, adapting, creating, and sharing resources may depend greatly on whether the notion of openness is commensurable with their personal beliefs and philosophies about what language is, how it is learned, and how it should be taught, and crucially, the communities to which they have access, in which they participate, and into which they may apprentice. Social constructivism, socio-cultural theory, and language socialization are among the L2TL frameworks commensurable with open practice, and if they are not a substantial part of a trainee's broader preparation curriculum, trainees may have difficulty realizing the purpose and potential of OL2TL.

16In her study, Zourou found evidence that experts in the field valued the social aspect of OL2TL quite highly, and advocated peer mentoring as a means for socialization into practices. However, Zourou and her surveyed experts point out several issues that may constrain socialization, four of which are worth reviewing. First, the aforementioned mixed messages coming from institutions and administrators hinder participation in OL2TL. Second, there may not be enough reward and incentive to encourage OL2TL. Third, participation in OL2TL may be impeded by fear of face threat–contributors must be confident in realizing that if their materials are re-mixed before re-use, it should not be taken as a critique. Relatedly, the fourth issue is that re-use seems to be the least practiced of the 5 R's. Zourou and Kurek both point out that in order to reflect strong pedagogical principles of task contextualization and authenticity, materials should be organic and tailored to a specific context; however, once they are made modular and adaptable for OL2TL purposes, they may lose these key qualities. If a teacher does not understand or value L2TL principles that emphasize the socially emergent or situated context, she or he may not recognize this to be a problem. Whyte recognized this contradiction in her participant Steffi's desire for a stricter and clearer framework for learning about OL2TL, at the same time Steffi wished for experiential learning, since "after all it's by using technologies that we can best understand how they work".

Pedagogical implications: Situated learning

17A second set of objectives, designed to address the above issues, would focus on how one engages in OL2TL, what L2TL theories and practices are more or less commensurate with openness, how one finds, adapts, creates, and shares resources, and how and why Wiley's (2014) 5 R's are crucial aspects of practice. As noted in some of the articles, Lave and Wenger's (1991) situated learning framework, the pedagogical application of their notion of community of practice (CoP), is useful for conceptualizing how learners might become practitioners of OL2TL. According to the theory, learning is most effective when situated in meaningful context and learned through hands-on experience in a context of joint enterprise, mutual engagement, and shared repertoire–this sets it apart from language awareness pedagogy, which does not emphasize the social. CoP theory advocates learning through legitimate peripheral participation, which implicates scaffolded apprenticeship of novices by experts, from the periphery of a community to its core.

18Case studies and user profiles can serve to model expertise. For example, the free publication Voices for Openness in Language Learning (2012) developed by the US National Foreign Language Resource Center COERLL (the Center for Open Educational Resources in Language Learning) profiles 17 language educators and learners who have developed and/or use OL2TL resources, providing novices with firsthand accounts and personal narrativization. A training activity with this document might invite teachers to reflect on, recount, and narrativize their own experiences with both open and closed L2TL practices–perhaps in a social media space like Blyth and Dalola's teachers. Another situated activity might involve groups actually finding, adapting, creating, and sharing OL2TL resources, and practicing Wiley's (2014) 5R's with them, perhaps with expert guidance in the form of models and scaffolded examples. Such experiential activities might also include an analytic element involving reflection and discussion of the four aforementioned issues, for example, on what difficulties they had applying the 5R's to materials, and what effective OL2TL resource design entails.

4. Leveraging social networking dynamics and dispositions for OL2TL practice

19The main theme of this special issue is exploration of the commensurability between the dynamics of human social interaction, the sustainability of OL2TL, and social networking technologies as a potential medium for practice. The notion of commensurability was touched on by all of the articles–whether current practices and ideal OL2TL practices are compatible, whether contradictions and mixed messages are ultimately reconcilable, and whether sustainability is possible in light of these contradictions. To understand how social networking dynamics and dispositions can potentially be leveraged for OL2TL involves recognition of what they are, how they function, and how commensurable they are with OL2TL practices.

  • 1 It is interesting to note that the latter finding is similar to the tension in OL2TL materials desi (...)

20Research on social networking for L2 learning (Reinhardt, in press) implicates the role of self-organized, autonomous learning processes, the development of socio-collaborative learning community, and the design challenge of balancing top-down curriculum-driven objectives with the affordances for learning that emerge bottom-up with learner-user agency1. In other words, research has found that social network-mediated learning is most effective when learner-users have a sense of control over how they design (Kern, 2000) their networking experience, even though much of the experience has been designed for them, and is highly dependent on other users. In the same way, teachers might participate more readily in OL2TL practices if they can retain a sense of agency regarding how their contributions are evaluated, shared, and re-used, even though they can't determine some ultimate re-uses.

21The dynamics of social networking are afforded by particular technological designs that may differ according to platform, like Twitter, Facebook, SnapChat, or Instagram. For example, an interface design may afford resource curation and sharing, network cultivation, and identity presentation through clickability, graphics, and suggestions based on previous activity. Other dynamics emerge from evaluation designs like badge and rating systems, gameful designs like time pressure and competitions, and place-based designs like "checking in" to a physical location.

22If technological designs afford dynamics, which are related to user behaviors, dynamics both facilitate and reflect dispositions, which are related to user stances or orientations. Scholarship on digital literacies argues that effective language use and learning practices in new digital contexts involve new dispositions towards authorship, identity, and social value (Knobel & Lankshear, 2014). Having emerged in a post-industrial, post-modern era, new digital social networking dispositions are both highly socio-interactive and collaborative, at the same time they are individualized, unique and contingent. While they may be seen as "new", these dispositions are better understood as shifting and gradual, as they have emerged over time, especially since the Web 2.0 turn of the millennium. In practice, because they are everyday and ubiquitous, users are generally unaware of them.

23New dispositions impact OL2TL practice. Authorship dispositions may involve positive stances towards remixing, repurposing, and sharing to the point where mainstream conceptualizations of authenticity, ownership, or originality are challenged. Identity dispositions involve new understandings of self-presentation, image, audience, and privacy, and that online identity and networks demand cultivation and management. Dispositions towards social hierarchy put prestige on cultural capital, creativity, and social impact, and shuffle traditional attitudes towards expertise.

Pedagogical implications: Social networking literacies

24Aligned with the aforementioned critical awareness and situated learning approaches, a multiliteracies approach (New London Group, 1996; Kern, 2000) is an appropriate pedagogical framework for developing familiarity, comfort, and competence with social networking dynamics and dispositions. The third set of objectives for teacher preparation include developing awareness that social networking technologies may afford or constrain certain social dynamics, like sharing and remixing, that are commensurable with OL2TL. A related objective would be to develop awareness that social networking dynamics may also facilitate, and be facilitated by, the aforementioned dispositions towards authorship, identity, and social hierarchy, which themselves may align with OL2TL to a greater or lesser degree.

  • 2 As Blyth and Dalola's study implicates, a similar analysis activity might be for teachers to examin (...)

25A multiliteracies framework acknowledges the new nature of literacy as multiplex social practice. When seen as a new literacy genre, social networking engenders an entire suite of new forms of conventions and competences–especially socio-interactional (eg new turn-taking conventions) and socio-pragmatic (eg appropriate address forms)–that in turn involve usage dynamics and practice new dispositions. Similar to awareness and situated learning frameworks, multiliteracies pedagogy advocates a transformational learning cycle (Thorne & Reinhardt, 2008; Reinhardt & Thorne, 2011)–traditionally presented as situated activity, guided analysis, critical framing, and newly transformed practice. To develop the literacies associated with social network-mediated OL2TL, situated activities would ask trainees to relate and reflect on their own practices of both social networking and OL2TL–for example, an activity might ask teachers to journal their own social networking practices, or their own practices of developing and implementing L2TL resources. Guided analysis activities have learners examine the textual and contextual qualities of associated texts and practices2. In this case, teachers might examine a social network page and analyze how texts like memes or posts are re-used, re-mixed, or re-distributed; a parallel analysis activity of open or closed teaching texts, like lesson plans, textbook units, worksheets, or webpages, might examine them for features that are open, closed, sustainable, or adaptable. A critical framing activity might then ask learners to critically situate and compare the texts they have analyzed, in this case, perhaps by juxtaposing and comparing social network sharing and re-purposing with print sharing and re-purposing, or an open activity with a closed one. Finally, transformed practice activities would have learners participate in actual CoPs–perhaps first in a scaffolded or sheltered space if necessary. Having gone through the transformative cycle, a teacher trainee would ideally be more aware, more consciously situated, and more engaged in OL2TL as literacies-focused practice.

5. Conclusion

26In sum, the social dynamics of OL2TL are indeed commensurable with social networking practices, as long as they are subject to the same criticality as closed L2TL practices. The contradictions that emerge have potential as resources for developing critical awareness, new forms of participation, and new socio-literacy practices. As part of teacher development curricula, transformation-focused pedagogies are useful to this end. As the articles in this special issue illustrate, however, transformation is not a straightforward path. Sustainability may depend on whether teachers perceive and practice agency in all the processes involved, and whether training is situated in L2TL ecosystems that truly are open (Blyth, 2012). Teachers are understandably wary of being overworked and exploited, and do not want to be fooled into giving their hard work away for free.

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1 It is interesting to note that the latter finding is similar to the tension in OL2TL materials design between the top-down modularity needed for re-usability and the bottom-up need for contextualized and locally relevant content.

2 As Blyth and Dalola's study implicates, a similar analysis activity might be for teachers to examine the translingual features of their own naturalistic, interactional use of the L2 and contrast them with textbook representations, to the end of critical framing the highly standardized and seemingly unnatural dialogue found in traditional, closed textbooks.

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Jonathon Reinhardt, « Commentary: Preparing teachers for open L2TL: Frameworks for critical awareness and transformation »Alsic [En ligne], Vol. 19, n° 1 | 2016, mis en ligne le 07 août 2016, consulté le 05 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Jonathon Reinhardt

Jonathon Reinhardt is Associate Professor of English Applied Linguistics at the University of Arizona (USA). His research focuses on the relationships between techno-social development and the theory and practice of technology-enhanced second and foreign language teaching and learning, especially with emergent technologies like digital gaming and social media. He has presented widely and has published in numerous journals and edited volumes and sits on the editorial boards of CALICO Journal and Language Learning and Technology, for which he serves also as Book Review Editor.
Affiliation: University of Arizona, Tucson, USA.
Address: University of Arizona Department of English, 1423 E. University Dr. #445, Tucson, AZ 85721 USA.

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