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Engaging with peers, mentors and native speakers as language learning partners in an online environment

Interagir en ligne avec des pairs, des tuteurs et des natifs comme partenaires d'apprentissage
Jessica Chakowa

Résumés

L'opportunité d'interagir dans la langue cible joue un rôle majeur dans l'apprentissage des langues et la motivation. Cet article est basé sur une étude menée auprès d'un groupe d'apprenants de français de niveau débutant, en milieu universitaire australien. Cette étude porte sur une plateforme interactive mise en place pour consolider l’apprentissage en dehors de la classe. Cette plateforme était hébergée par Wikispaces, et quatre principaux outils y ont été intégrés pour mieux répondre aux besoins des apprenants débutants : Padlet pour échanger des idées sur un mur virtuel, VoiceThread pour communiquer de manière asynchrone par écrit ou par enregistrement vocale, Voki pour créer des avatars parlant pour des jeux de rôles et Quizlet pour favoriser le partage de cartes visuelles interactives visant à mémoriser le vocabulaire. Le recours à ces différents outils a permis de faciliter la collaboration avec trois groupes de partenaires d’apprentissage de niveaux de langue différents : des pairs ayant le même niveau, des tuteurs (étudiants ayant un niveau légèrement supérieur) et des natifs de la langue cible. L'analyse quantitative et qualitative des données (activités complétées, questionnaires et échanges en groupes de discussion) permet d'identifier les facteurs qui encouragent les apprenants à interagir avec les différents partenaires d’apprentissage. Malgré la variation par rapport à la participation aux interactions et par rapport à l'attitude envers les différents partenaires d'apprentissage, des facteurs communs semblent se recouper : la familiarité avec l'interlocuteur, le timing de l'activité, l'authenticité et l'originalité de la situation, l'attrait que représente l'interaction en face à face, les éléments visuels qui facilitent la compréhension et la volonté d'améliorer la compétence de production orale. Cette étude met en avant l'avantage que représente la possibilité d'interagir avec plusieurs partenaires à la fois, permettant de mieux se conformer aux attitudes et les préférences des apprenants qui varient avec le temps. En fonction de leurs différentes aspirations, les apprenants ont interagi davantage avec le groupe avec qui ils ont eu une opportunité d'échange limitée (les natifs), le groupe auquel ils pouvaient mieux s'identifier (leurs pairs) ou le groupe dont ils pouvaient attendre une réponse rapide (les tuteurs ayant un niveau supérieur). Cette démarche s'inscrit dans une progression encourageant les apprenants à contribuer à un partage de connaissances et à améliorer leurs productions, à connaître du confort et de l'authenticité dans les interactions, tout en étant préparés aux situations de vie réelle. Cette étude démontre l’importance d’encourager les apprenants à interagir de manière progressive avec des groupes de niveaux différents, tout en s'aidant des différents outils mis en œuvre. L’approche retenue vise à considérer les trois groupes de partenaires d'apprentissage comme un tout valant bien plus que leur simple juxtaposition.

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1. Introduction

1Second language acquisition has long held that conversational interaction facilitates language acquisition as it connects input (what learners hear/read) and output (what they produce) through negotiation of meaning and adjustment (Long, 1996). While traditional classrooms suffer from limited time for interactions, educators are exploring avenues to extend interactions online. However, insufficient research has been conducted on how beginner learners, with restricted knowledge of the target language (TL), engage with different communities online and how it impacts their learning.

2The current study is based on an informal online learning environment named French Plus, implemented to help students consolidate what was covered in class and to give them the opportunity to interact asynchronously mainly with three groups of learning partners: peers, mentors and native speakers (NSs). Following an overview of the benefits and challenges related to interaction in second language (L2) learning, this paper investigates the following research questions:

3(a) How do students interact with different learning partners in terms of participation and attitudes?
(b) How does the combined engagement with multiple learning partners enhance learning experience as a whole?

2. Literature review

4L2 learners are generally motivated by the need to achieve communicative fluency, which requires interactions with others. Thus, a perceived lack of progress in communication skills contributes to decreased motivation (Busse & Walter, 2014). While traditionally interactions involve communication with the teacher and peers within the classroom, the development of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC), opened up more opportunities for interactions outside the class (Warschauer & Kern, 2000). According to Mackey and Gass (2005: 63), CMC has the potential to promote learning as it amplifies "opportunities for students to pay attention to linguistic form as well as providing a less stressful environment". CMC can occur via text, audio, video, in asynchronous and synchronous modes. Asynchronous CMC such as e-mail and discussion forums involve delayed interaction, which allows time to compose and edit thoughts before posting (Shang, 2007). In contrast, synchronous CMC occurs in real time, requiring all interlocutors to be online at the same time. This makes it better suited for discussions that require prompt answers and negotiation of meaning (Ramsay, 2003).

5Additionally, peer interaction described as "any communicative activity carried out between learners, where there is minimal or no participation from the teacher" (Philp, Adams & Iwashita, 2014) has gained greater acknowledgement over the years. In L2 classrooms it offers learners more opportunities to practise the TL, as opposed to students-teacher interaction, which is limited (Long & Porter, 1985). Many studies suggest peer interactions can benefit language learners as they encourage output, reflection on the language and noticing gaps (Swain & Lapkin, 1999). Storch (2000), Kim (2008) and Baleghizadeh (2010) found students performed better in form learning when engaging collaboratively than working individually.

6However, other researchers argue having learners interact with each other does not necessarily promote learning (Kuiken & Vedder, 2007; Nassaji & Tian, 2010). Others point out that, due to their restricted knowledge of the language, learners may focus more on meaning than form (Dobao, 2012), which may lead to exposing students to the risk of picking-up each other's mistakes (Adams, 2007). Nevertheless, there seem to be more benefits related to working with peers, such as reduced anxiety, assistance and development of a non-judgemental attitude to mistakes (Philp & Mackey, 2010). In online learning environments, these benefits are extended as students can interact with more people beyond the classroom (Blake, 2011; Chapelle, 2004), and might feel less intimidated not having to face anyone and having more time to think (Cheon, 2003). More importantly, online interaction between peers fosters social support and a sense of responsibility within the community (Peeters, 2018).

7While peer interaction can be beneficial for learners, interacting with people of a higher level can facilitate scaffolding and result in positive experiences. Vygotsky (1992) used the term "zone of proximal development" to describe the learning potential reached through collaboration between a novice (child) and an expert (adult or older child). This term has since been applied to L2 learning through collaboration with a more competent peer (Lantolf & Thorne, 2006). Similarly, when referring to social learning theory, Bandura points out that "seeing or visualizing people similar to oneself perform successfully typically raises efficacy beliefs in observers" (1997: 87).

8Murphey and Arao (2001: 3) define Near Peer Role Models (NPRMs) as people who might be near their tutees in "age, ethnicity, gender, interest, past or present experience and also proximity and frequency of social contact." The authors claim NPRMs provide real-life examples of people who have already achieved the success learners are working towards, therefore they can represent a more believable target. Exposure to NPRMs can result in benefits such as motivation and eagerness to take more risks in the TL (Murphey & Murakami, 1998). Furthermore, commenting on errors contained in videos produced by NPRMs, the authors reported this made students realise that it was natural for non-NSs to make mistakes, which resulted in increased self-confidence.

9The development of CMC has significantly increased the potential connection between learners and NPRMs, allowing the latter to be sought outside the class (Gimranova, Nurmanova & CohenMiller, 2017; Lingley, 2016). Yet, the role of NPRMs can be fragile and needs to be clearly communicated and well promoted by teachers. Cook (1999: 185) suggests teachers establish a "positive image of the L2 users rather than seeing them as failed natives".

10Finally, many studies have reported that interacting with NSs can be motivating for language learners (Gilmore, 2007; Tudini, 2003; Wu, Yen & Marek, 2011). Jauregi, De Graaff, Van Den Bergh and Kriz (2012) point out that this is particularly true with beginner level students. In a study based on three social networking sites for language exchange, Stevenson and Liu (2010) reveal most users expressed a preference for interacting with NSs over other language learners, believing they would be able to provide better responses. Nevertheless, users also wanted to interact with participants who spoke English like them and who had some teaching experience in order to have the opportunity to discuss linguistic issues.

11Paradoxically, while students appear generally willing to engage in real-life interactions with other users of the TL, they remain highly dependent on traditional methods of instruction. Indeed, in Stevenson and Liu's (2010) study, most users expressed their desire to find lessons on the website and to practise the new language before interacting with others. Although interacting with NSs is generally seen as a valuable opportunity for language learners, it can also be seen as a source of anxiety, even for advanced students (Woodrow, 2008).

12Furthermore, while the internet can be seen as a "gateway to the virtual foreign world where 'real people' are using real language in 'real context'" (Osuna & Meskill, 1998: 72), this access to the real world might not be an authentic one. As argued by Hanna and de Nooy (2003: 73), "students are still safely within the classroom [which] suffers the limitations of providing genuine opportunities to engage with the 'target culture' in roles other than that of student". Such situations seem to compromise the authenticity of the interaction but might be useful for beginner learners who need practice (Tudini, 2003) before engaging in real-life communication.

3. Methodology

3.1. Tools in use and monitoring approach

13French Plus was especially designed for beginner students at Monash university (Melbourne, Australia), and ran over two semesters of twelve weeks each. The platform was presented as an informal (ungraded), optional tool to consolidate the learning of French (Chakowa, 2018). French Plus was hosted on Wikispaces (Frey, 2005), embedded with four additional main tools to make it more suitable for beginner learners: Padlet (Goel, 2008), VoiceThread (Papell, 2005), Voki (2007) and Quizlet (Sutherland, 2007). Padlet allowed students to brainstorm on a common digital wall by posting written notes without the constraints of time and place. VoiceThread allowed asynchronous conversations around media (presentations, images, videos) in a chosen mode (written/spoken comments). Voki enabled students to create speaking avatars (from a range of physical attributes, backgrounds, voices and accents) to perform role plays. Quizlet was used to build a shared repertoire of flashcards to memorise verbs.

14I acted not only as the researcher conducting the study, but also as the teacher designing the platform and activities and providing feedback. In order to ensure a safe environment for beginners who are likely to reproduce mistakes, I monitored students' productions, making them visible to others only after my approval. In addition, I provided students with feedback, encouraging them to improve their contributions. Interactions between participants took place mainly via VoiceThread and the discussion forums of Wikispaces. In contrast with the monitoring of communications via the other tools, forum posts were automatically published, and students were subsequently encouraged to make changes if required.

3.2. Participants and activities

15Participation on French Plus was voluntary. There were 41 participants in semester 1, and 32 in semester 2. As there were 13 continuing participants in semester 2, the total number of participants for the project was 60. This paper focuses on students' participation in interactions with three groups of learning partners: peers, mentors and NSs.

16Over both semesters, students were given four opportunities to interact with their peers through role plays, mainly in Wikispaces forums. To facilitate their interaction, I randomly paired students at the beginning of each semester. Details of interaction activities are provided in Table 1 below.

17The mentors consisted of five volunteer students who had successfully completed the beginner course one year prior and thus can be considered a kind of NPRM. Their role was to initiate interactions with students by providing presentations and posting messages, and to respond to students' questions asynchronously. They were also solicited to substitute for students who did not reply to their partners in peer interactions. To further engage students with mentors, strategies recommended by Murphey and Murakami (1998) were adopted, such as sharing language learning stories and encouraging participation by providing model answers in brainstorming activities. Students were given nine opportunities to interact with mentors using VoiceThread and Wikispaces forums, as indicated in Table 1.

18Five invited NSs interacted with the students in a one-off activity each semester. NSs were from different countries/cities and cultural backgrounds, providing exposure to the diversity of French language and culture, including accents. The NSs were different each semester in order to provide students with more variety and they were invited to join the project via a written advertisement placed at the Alliance Française of Melbourne, Perth, Paris and Mauritius. They were requested to prepare a presentation using VoiceThread (see Table 1) and to answer to students' questions asynchronously.

Table 1–Description of interaction activities with peers, mentors and NSs over two semesters.

Peer interactions

Mentors interactions

NS interactions

Semester 1

Hotel Booking (week 6):

Student A took the role of the client and student B the role of the reservation officer

Wanted (week 7):

Student A described a person he/she was looking for (via the forum) and student B created the corresponding avatar who had to vocally suggest an outing (via Voki)

Fortune teller (week 9):

Student A asked questions about his/her future and student B made predictions

Presentation (week 5): VoiceThread

Mentors introduced themselves and students questioned them

Help (week 7): VoiceThread

Mentors talked about an invented problem and students provided them with advice

Invitation (week 9): Forum

Mentors posted an invitation about a fictive event and the students accepted or declined the invitation

Presentation (week 9):

NSs introduced themselves briefly and students questioned them asynchronously

Semester 2

Language stay inquiry (week 2):

Student A took the role of a learner interested in a language stay and student B acted as the course advisor

Announcement (week 2): Forum

Mentors shared a new (invented) event in their lives and students reacted to it

Eating habits (week 6): VoiceThread

Mentors talked about what they like to eat and students suggested a menu to suit their preferences

Invention (week 7): VoiceThread

Mentors promoted an object they had invented, and students questioned them on it

City (week 8): VoiceThread

Mentors presented their favourite city and students asked more information about these cities

Accommodation (week 10): Forum

Mentors described a fictive accommodation they would like to share and students interacted with them as prospective housemates

Intermediate level (week 11): Forum

Mentors gave advice about how to succeed in French Intermediate and students asked for more information about this course

Passion (week 5):

NSs talked about their passions in a longer and illustrated presentation. Students questioned them asynchronously

19Apart from the three main learning partners described above, as the project progressed, more interlocutors were solicited to meet students' interests: five advanced students who had completed an exchange program in a French speaking country (exchange students) talked about their experiences abroad, and the coordinator of the intermediate level (another NS) provided advice about how to succeed in his unit. Interactions with both were a one-off opportunity and took place via VoiceThread. Besides the online interactions, students were invited to participate in game and conversation sessions, run independently of French Plus, and open to all beginner students and mentors.

20To develop language skills collaboratively, various activities were offered on French Plus. Students were given individual work with the possibility of checking others' posts, pair/group work with peers, and the opportunity to interact with progressively more diverse/proficient groups, including more advanced students (mentors, exchange students) and NSs. Ultimately, participants were encouraged to produce for a global audience on public websites and receive feedback from people outside French Plus. As these interactions took place progressively and were facilitated by the e-tools used on the platform, I have coined the term "e-Volving interactions", depicted in the diagram below, to describe such interactions (Chakowa, 2016).

Figure 1–e-Volving interactions: progression of interactions, facilitated by the e-tools in use.

Figure 1–e-Volving interactions: progression of interactions, facilitated by the e-tools in use.

3.3. Data collection

21An activity tracker (in the form on an Excel spreadsheet) was used to monitor activities students completed and the tools used. It also indicated whether students resubmitted their contributions according to the feedback received and the mode of expression chosen in VoiceThread activities.

22At the end of each semester, students were invited to complete an online survey and participate in a focus group. Of the 60 participants, 25 responded to surveys and/or focus groups, or 42% of the total. All respondents were considered active participants on French Plus given they participated in a minimum of 9 out of 12 weeks per semester. The participation of less active students may still be examined through the activity tracker and their productions on the platform. Additionally, the mentors participated in a separate focus group at the end of each semester, to discuss their views of the platform and their perceptions of their role. While the activity tracker allowed for quantitative data, qualitative data was obtained through surveys and focus groups–the latter allowing for clarifications and more details on the former. All participants are referred to by pseudonyms throughout in accordance with ethics clearance.

4. Findings and discussion

4.1. How do students interact with the different learning partners in terms of participation and attitudes?

23In accordance with the e-Volving interactions model, students had the opportunity to interact first with their peers, then progressively with more advanced students (the mentors) and the NSs. Of the 60 total participants over both semesters, 38 (63%) were involved at least once in interaction activities. As they did not interact with the three communities to the same extent, the interaction with each group will be first examined separately before exploring the importance of combining different learning partners.

4.1.1. Peer interactions

24In semester 1, peer interactions (hotel booking, wanted, fortune teller) attracted respectively 46%, 17% and 34% of the total 41 participants. In semester 2, the language stay activity attracted 53% of the total 32 participants. All peer interactions took place in Wikispaces forums, but the wanted activity also involved Voki for the creation of speaking avatars.

25The higher participation in the hotel booking and the language stay activities may be due to their perceived authenticity and connection to students' interests. These interactions were based on information found on existing public websites and language learners often desire to travel to a country where the TL is spoken to learn the language in context. Commenting on the language stay activity, a student mentioned: "I really enjoyed this activity, even if I had to put more effort in it, it gave me exposure to a language centre I may consider in the future" (Eva). Moreover, both activities took place in the first half of the semester, when the students were more active. As French Plus was optional, it is unsurprising students tended to focus more on graded academic tasks as the semester progressed. The fortune teller activity attracted a relatively good number of students, given this activity took place in week 11, probably because it was considered unconventional and pleasurable: "I enjoyed being a fortune teller, it made me revise the future tense in an unexpected and funny way" (Brandon). In this activity students did not have to address external information, nor provide a long answer, which may have made the activity more accessible. The wanted activity attracted fewer students, even though it was held earlier (week 7), probably because Voki was technically challenging for some participants and it was the first Voki activity on French Plus. In brief, it appears students were more inclined to engage in peer interactions similar to real-life situations, even if it was more challenging in terms of content. Indeed, the hotel booking and language stay activities generated more turns in interactions (up to four), as opposed to only two for the other activities.

26Regarding attitudes, most students enjoyed interacting with their peers as they were of similar level: "I felt more at ease to interact with someone who was in the same boat as me" (Tiffany). But some were frustrated about having to wait or not receiving response from their partners. It is worth noting mentors intervened in almost half of peer interactions (17/41), which would not have taken place otherwise. Although these interactions took place between students and mentors, they were still classified as peer interactions as this is what they were intended for, and mentors only intervene after one week, when no response was received from the assigned partners.

4.1.2. Mentor interactions

27In semester 1, mentor interactions (presentation, help, invitation activities) attracted respectively 17%, 29% and 17% of 41 total participants. In semester 2, the announcement activity attracted 6%, eating habits 36%, invention and city both attracted 38%, accommodation 28%, and the intermediate level activity attracted 22% of the 32 total participants. On average, activities on VoiceThread and on the forum attracted a similar proportion of students (approximately 32% and 33% of the total participants respectively). However, students did not participate to the same degree through both tools. The most popular activity of the forum was the announcement which attracted 21 out of 32 participants in semester 2 for a total of 21 interactions, while the most popular activities on VoiceThread were the city and the invention activities which both attracted 12 out of 32 participants in semester 2, with many electing to communicate with more than one mentor. Indeed, 12 students took part in 30 interactions in the invention activity and in 38 interactions in the city activity. This suggests that even though VoiceThread did not attract as many students as the forum, those who took part in VoiceThread activities engaged more thoroughly. This is probably because this tool allows visual presentations and choice of mode of expression, as reported by students: "It was more challenging to use VoiceThread but it was visually more engaging and it forced me to work on my speaking skills" (Bridget). It is worth noting the invention activity was particularly appreciated for its originality: "I liked the invention activity as it was more challenging, you really have to try to get what the mentor is saying about his invention as this object doesn't exist, so you can't just guess" (Fiona).

28Regarding the mentors who attracted the most students, it appears those who met students at game and conversation sessions were more popular online. This demonstrates that even those students who elected to join an online platform still place importance on face-to-face interaction. Indeed, when asked what would encourage them to interact more with mentors, students agreed it would have been good to be physically introduced to the mentors at the beginning of the year. Mentors also suggested face-to-face interactions would help them to connect better with students online: "I don't know how aware the students were of our role, maybe coming to the first lecture to introduce ourselves would make them interact more" (Ellen).

29Overall, most students enjoyed the interaction with the mentors: "I felt more comfortable interacting with the mentors [as opposed to NSs] because we have some sort of common ground" (Nathan). As argued by Murphey and Arao (2001: 4), "the L2 user is a better model for second language learning (…) because they are proximal, easier to identify with, and they more easily scaffold learning". Some students were less inclined to interact with mentors because they did not trust their language proficiency: "It was good to have the mentors to interact with but they were just one year ahead of us, I'm not sure how much they can help" (Brandon). It is worth noting the discrepancy between students' perception of the mentors and the mentors' self-perceptions: mentors were very motivated and confident about their role, while some students held their proficiency in low esteem. Furthermore, some students misunderstood the role of the mentors. In the semester 1 focus group, a student stated: "they didn't correct us, the teacher always provided feedback before them" (Rose). In brief, NPRMs have a potentially major role to play in students' learning, but their role is fragile and needs to be clearly communicated and reinforced by the teacher.

4.1.3. Native speaker interactions

30In semester 1, interaction with the NSs attracted 8/41 or 20% of the participants, and in semester 2, 23/32 or 72% of the participants. Comparing the percentage of participants who interacted with more than one NS (see Figure 2 below), it appears 78% of those who engaged with a NS (18/23) interacted with more than one NS in semester 2, compared to 37% in semester 1 (3/8).

Figure 2–Interactions with NSs.

Figure 2–Interactions with NSs.

31The significant increase in interaction with NSs in semester 2 can be explained by several possible factors. First, students might have gained more confidence after completing one semester of French. Indeed, while the mentors intervened 15 times in semester 1, asking questions to the NSs in order to encourage students to do so, they did not intervene at all in semester 2. Second, the interaction with the NSs in semester 2 took place in week 5 (when students were more active), while in semester 1 it occurred in week 9. Third, students might have interacted more with NSs in semester 2 as their presentations were more engaging through more developed visual presentation. Indeed, in the semester 2 focus group, Eva said: "I felt more inclined to interact with NSs this semester as it was interesting to discover their passions through sets of images".

32Despite the increase in interaction with NSs, the proportion of students who asked more than one question to a NS dropped considerably from semester 1 (50% or 4/8 participants) to semester 2 (13% or 3/23 participants). This is probably because most students preferred to seize the opportunity to interact with the maximum number of NSs rather than focussing on only one NS, leading to 94 interactions in semester 2 versus 41 interactions in semester 1.

33It should also be noted that the most popular NSs in semester 1 and semester 2 were both French teachers and therefore they were more aware of students' language proficiency level. This probably influenced how they conveyed their presentations (they spoke more slowly, using simpler words) which helped them attract more students. Although confident language learners might benefit from interactions with unfamiliar NSs, invited NSs who are informed of the students' profiles might be more appropriate for beginner learners.

34When asked about how they felt when interacting with NSs, almost all students provided positive comments, predominantly related to the authenticity and uniqueness of the interaction such as: "I really liked it because you get to hear the real accent and the way they speak, it feels more legitimate" (Chris); "it's difficult to find native speakers on our own" (Nathan). Some students reported enjoying the interaction with the NSs even though it was quite challenging for them: "I particularly enjoyed interacting with NSs as it helped me conquer my fear of speaking French, it helped me to build up self-confidence" (John). A few participants expressed intimidation and or anxiety with regard to interact with the NSs: "It was very scary to interact with the NSs. I've listened to them but I was intimidated and I didn't complete this activity" (Fiona); "I didn't even know what they were talking about. I was completely lost" (Tiffany). These findings appear to support Cook's (1999: 185) view that the prominence of the NS in teaching "has obscured the distinctive nature of the successful L2 users and created an unattainable goal for L2 learners".

35While interactions with and attitudes towards peers/mentors/NSs vary, there seems to be overlapping factors that encourage interaction with these different groups such as: the familiarity with the interlocutor, the timing of the activity, the authenticity and the originality of the situations (even if not the easiest option), the tool in use (even if not the less challenging), students' liking for face-to-face interactions and visual features which ease understanding and their willingness to improve their speaking skills. A more detailed analysis of the interaction with the three groups in the following section reveals that having access to multiple learning partners can be considered another major factor in optimising students' learning experience.

4.2. How engaging with multiple learning partners enhance students' learning experience?

4.2.1. Comparison of engagement with the different groups

36Of the 38 students engaged in interactions at least once, 32 (84%) interacted with peers, 31 (81%) with mentors and 26 (68%) with NSs (see Figure 3 below).

Figure 3–Interactions with the three groups of learning partners.

Figure 3–Interactions with the three groups of learning partners.

37Students may have found interacting with their peers the least challenging, followed by the mentors and finally the NSs with whom they were less familiar, as supported by their earlier comments. As for the group students engaged continuously with (more than one interaction), it seems they interacted more repeatedly with mentors (53%), probably because there were more opportunities to interact with them (nine activities in total) compared to four activities with peers and two with NSs, and also because the mentors were very committed to fulfilling their duties. Indeed, they responded more rapidly than the other groups and substituted for students who did not answer their partners, which was highly regarded: "I really appreciate that they tried to answer quickly. I would do the same if I was a mentor, I think it's important" (Patricia). Although there were more opportunities to interact with peers than NSs, it seems students prioritised the one-off activity per semester with NSs over the interactions with peers, also because some of them were frustrated about not receiving answers from their partners.

38Apart from interacting with peers, mentors and NSs, students were given the opportunity to engage with five exchange students and the coordinator of the intermediate level on a single occasion. Students showed high interest in interacting with the exchange students: 59% participation compared to an average rate of 32% for interactions with mentors. Several factors have impacted on this preference as revealed in the focus group. First, it was a one-off opportunity that students did not want to miss. Second, students were more impressed with the exchange students' level of proficiency, which was higher than the mentors', and therefore represented a more aspirational model for them. As suggested by Cook (2000: 330), it is important for students to see someone proficient in the language, without being NS perfect. They need to see an achievable goal, "someone who has arrived where the students want to be, not someone who happens to have been born there". Third, and more importantly, students were more interested in hearing about exchange students' authentic experience abroad, an experience most of them would like to have one day, as opposed to the mostly fictive situations the mentors were asked to engage in. Similarly, students were given opportunities to ask questions about the intermediate level to both the mentors (who were completing intermediate level at the time of the project) and the coordinator of that level. In this regard, it appears that they engaged more with the mentors (22% versus 9%). Again, this is because, on that occasion, they reported feeling closer to the mentors and found it more relevant to hear about the intermediate level from a student's perspective, even if it was their only chance to interact with the coordinator of that level.

39In brief, we can say that depending on students' aspirations of the moment, they interacted more with the group that appeared to be a limited opportunity/their ideal (the NSs and the exchange students), but also with the group they could relate to more (peers), or the group they could expect a quicker response from (the mentors). This highlight the importance of providing students with the opportunity to interact with different learning partners, not only based on their proficiency but also on their common grounds. As argued by Murphey and Arao (2001: 4), "both non-native speakers and native speakers can be useful in the language learning process, in different ways and at different times". Furthermore, in accordance with Chang and Windeatt (2016), students should be able to decide when they feel ready to engage and they should be given time to develop confidence in interacting with others. Indeed, students might feel more confident developing their interactional skills more with a group than another, and this may vary with time. Therefore, exposure to a variety of interlocutors as a whole worth more than their mere juxtaposition. The synergy emerging from the interactions with the different learning partners provides the base for an optimal learning setting.

4.2.2. Paying attention to others

40Interacting with different groups encouraged students to be mindful of others' productions which contributed to the expansion of a shared knowledge, as opposed to individual knowledge. Indeed, when interacting with mentors and NSs, it seems students checked what others had produced as they rarely repeated the same questions and they tried to complement each other in a collaborative way. Even students who did not engage in interactions could learn from others' posts as "read-only participants" (Williams, 2004) and still considered themselves as active learners.

41Apart from peer interaction, students were given individual work (with the possibility of checking others' posts) and group work in which they were encouraged to contribute towards a shared knowledge. Students seem to have valued the opportunity to work with peers on French Plus as 83% attempted at least one activity of this type. Moreover, when asked "how useful were other participants' posts?" 84% of survey respondents answered positively. This result is particularly high, given most group activities on French Plus consisted of cooperative rather than collaborative tasks. According to Philp, Adams and Iwashita (2014), cooperative tasks involve peers working together towards a common goal, though not necessarily together, such as activities in which students were requested to brainstorm grammatical structures on a common wall or when they contributed to shared flashcards. On the other hand, in collaborative tasks, students depend on one another to complete a task, for instance, the activity in which students wrote a story together. In the cooperative tasks provided on the platform, students had access to what others produced and were requested to avoid repetition to expand their knowledge, but they were not expected to react to others' posts. However, some students took the initiative to do so, even on posts unrelated to their own. For example, in a brainstorming activity where students were required to produce sentences independently, a student commented on a peer's post to flag a mistake, in a friendly way. Therefore, it appears that even tasks intended to be cooperative were seen as collaborative by some students, which emphasises students' desire to work with others towards a common goal to acquire an expanded knowledge they would not benefit from, if they were working on their own.

4.2.3. Response to teachers' feedback

42Students were responsive in fixing their mistakes when prompted by the teacher, even if their responsiveness differed depending on who they were interacting with. Indeed, of the students required to make changes to their posts, 62% took action in peer interactions, 78% in mentor interactions and 89% in NS interactions (see Figure 4 below).

Figure 4–Response to feedback amongst students required to make changes in peer/mentor/native speaker interactions.

Figure 4–Response to feedback amongst students required to make changes in peer/mentor/native speaker interactions.

43Students probably perceived it as less necessary to fix their mistakes when dealing with their peers as they had a similar level of proficiency in the TL. They were more responsive to the teacher's feedback when interacting with mentors, perhaps because the mentors themselves showed high interest in accuracy. They were even more impelled to make the required changes when interacting with NSs, given they esteemed this group highly and wanted to be seen at their best. Furthermore, when comparing response to feedback in interaction activities in general with activities that did not involve the presence of an interlocutor, it appears students were more motivated to fix their mistakes when they engaged in interaction than in other type of activities (76% versus 64%), suggesting the presence of an interlocutor encourages students to improve their contributions.

4.2.4. Comfort/authenticity

44As students interacted more continuously with mentors and NSs, and because they did not have access to them face-to-face in class as they did with their peers, students' feelings of comfort and authenticity interacting with these two groups in particular have been investigated in depth. As depicted in Figure 5 below, students felt more comfortable interacting with mentors and perceived the interaction with the NSs as slightly more authentic.

Figure 5–Level of comfort and authenticity perceived when interacting with mentors and NSs.

Figure 5–Level of comfort and authenticity perceived when interacting with mentors and NSs.

45Students' perceptions of comfort and authenticity can also be seen in the personal comments made in mentor and NS interactions. When interacting with these two groups, students went beyond fulfilling task requirements: they not only asked for additional information, but also made personal comments which demonstrated a sense of comfort and authenticity. Indeed, 16% of interactions with mentors and 12.6% with NSs contained personal comments. Students addressed more personal comments to the mentors than to the NSs probably because they felt more comfortable with the mentors and because they had more opportunities to interact with this group. They also interacted with the same mentors over both semesters, whereas they interacted with a different set of NSs. For example, after viewing the presentation of a mentor's invention, Eva commented: "What a marvellous invention!" (translated quote). However, it seems that more authenticity was perceived in the interaction with NSs, as 6% of interactions with NSs versus 2% with mentors referred to the reality of their situation, ie French Plus participants as learners of French trying to improve their language skills on an online platform. For instance, Rose commented on the volunteering activity undertaken by a NS by posting: "It's a wonderful cause to help people in difficult situations, what encouraged you to help us on French Plus?" (translated quote).

46While most students praised the authenticity of the interaction with the NSs: "it makes you feel how it could be in real-life" (Nathan), a few of them admitted the authenticity of the situation actually made them feel uncomfortable: "it was good to be able to hear NSs, especially because it sounds more authentic, but I felt more intimidated with the NSs than with the mentors" (Chris). As Grant, Huang and Pasfield-Neofitou (2014: 23) argue, the more language learners perceive the virtual world and the real world as similar, "the more likely they are to transfer feelings of anxiety related to speaking a foreign language to the virtual environment". However, in the current study, the sense of authenticity acted more frequently as a stimulation than as a deterrent to interact with NSs. This can be demonstrated by examining the mode of expression chosen on VoiceThread when interacting with mentors and NSs (see Figure 6 below).

Figure 6–Average rate of spoken/written comments in mentor and NS interactions over both semesters.

Figure 6–Average rate of spoken/written comments in mentor and NS interactions over both semesters.

47On average and over both semesters, students used more spoken than written comments with both groups (53% versus 47% with the mentors and 69% versus 31% with the NSs). This result appears surprising in the light of Herring and Demarest's (2011) findings, as in their study (which took place in a first language setting) participants were more inclined to use the written option of VoiceThread, given they were more familiar with this mode when dealing with online communication. On the contrary, French Plus participants prioritised the spoken mode, probably because they were L2 learners wanting to practise their speaking, for which limited time was allocated in class. Students used the spoken comments significantly more with the NSs than with the mentors, perhaps because it was a unique opportunity and they wanted to make the most of it, even if they ran more risks of not being understood. As comfort and authenticity seem to be motivational factors that encourage language learners to interact online, it is important to provide them with various interlocutors with whom they can experience both.

4.2.5. Preparing students for real-life interactions

48As suggested by the e-Volving interactions model (see Figure 1), students should progressively be given opportunities to interact with interlocutors of different proficiency levels and backgrounds to develop self-confidence in the TL, with the ultimate goal of producing for or interacting with an authentic audience, preparing them for lifelong learning.

49Given all interactions took place within an educational project, it is important to question the authenticity of interactions on French Plus. Indeed, while many researchers believed the expansion of Web 2.0 would increase opportunities for learners to interact outside the classroom (Kern, Ware & Warschauer, 2004; Lamy & Hampel, 2007), in most cases the interactions students take part in are determined by the teacher who selects people who will interact with his/her students, compromising the authenticity of the interaction (Ollivier, 2012). The same criticism could be made of French Plus interactions, as students interacted with different groups in situations chosen by the teacher. Nevertheless, even if the interactions offered on the platform might not be considered fully authentic, they hold the potential to prepare students for similar situations in real life, which is particularly useful for beginner learners (eg the interaction with the invited NSs aims to prepare the learners for encounters with other NSs outside the educational context). As recommended by Ellis (2003) and Mangenot and Penilla (2009), even though in the context of a language class tasks cannot be considered real, they should at least be based on the principles of credibility and plausibility, which was the case in French Plus as the perception of authenticity was significantly high with both mentors and NSs.

50The way teachers handle feedback and corrections may also impact perceptions of authenticity. On the forums of Wikispaces, I did not have control over students' forum posts, unlike on VoiceThread or Padlet for example. Instead, I received an e-mail notification each time a post was sent to the forum, after which I provided feedback to students via e-mail to encourage them to review their contributions if needed. Students who had to resubmit their posts generally wrote "corrected version" at the top of their new message to distinguish it from the previous one. When asked how they felt about the way the correction was made for their posts on the forum compared to how it worked on VoiceThread and Padlet, a student said: "it was good to have both. It's true that it's a bit annoying to have to wait to have our post visible to all, even if sometimes it's reassuring. On the forum, it was more direct and even if I made a mistake, it encouraged me to fix it quickly" (Bridget). Another student added "it was not really an issue to be exposed to mistakes on the forum as we are here to learn anyway and usually students would resubmit their corrected version, and I have actually learnt from comparing the difference between both versions" (Patricia). Only one student expressed concerns about his mistakes: "I would prefer my post to be checked before it's published on the forum" (Martin). Overall, the different way discussion forums were monitored (as opposed to the other tools) was well regarded as it allowed students to be more spontaneous, reinforcing the authenticity of the interaction. Indeed, in public discussion forums, there is generally no-one to check for mistakes before a post is published. Enabling students to participate spontaneously in forums, as they would in real life, in fact prepares students for lifelong learning as they might be willing to participate in the public forums in the TL, even after the French Plus project.

51Although students were not given opportunities to interact directly in real-life situations in the current French Plus offering, it should be noted they were given opportunities to produce for a global audience in activities where they were encouraged to create a digital book, an interactive poster, an eCard and a word cloud on public websites. Indeed, their products could be seen by people outside the classroom, and they could even receive external comments. In brief, interactions with a variety of partners can be beneficial on their own and contribute to e-Volving interactions as a whole, enriching students' learning experience.

5. Conclusion

52This paper has demonstrated the importance of providing opportunities to interact with different learning partners, in a variety of situations and via multiple means of communication, to better prepare students for real-life interactions. However, findings cannot be generalised as students were not given the same number of activities with each learning partner, interactions were neither always proposed in the same weeks, nor always conveyed through the same tools. Further research is recommended focusing on more advanced mentors to see whether higher language proficiency would affect students' engagement. As students seem to have enjoyed face-to-face interactions, more blended-learning settings could be implemented. It would also be interesting to see whether students would engage differently if participation on French Plus was graded and if the interactions were synchronous. To examine the interaction in more details, discourse analysis could be applied. In step with the e-Volving interactions model, further steps could be envisioned beyond simply producing for a global audience, such as encouraging students to interact with other language users on selected public websites, after providing them with the appropriate scaffolding.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1–e-Volving interactions: progression of interactions, facilitated by the e-tools in use.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/alsic/docannexe/image/3864/img-1.png
Fichier image/png, 75k
Titre Figure 2–Interactions with NSs.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/alsic/docannexe/image/3864/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 76k
Titre Figure 3–Interactions with the three groups of learning partners.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/alsic/docannexe/image/3864/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 76k
Titre Figure 4–Response to feedback amongst students required to make changes in peer/mentor/native speaker interactions.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/alsic/docannexe/image/3864/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 84k
Titre Figure 5–Level of comfort and authenticity perceived when interacting with mentors and NSs.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/alsic/docannexe/image/3864/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 56k
Titre Figure 6–Average rate of spoken/written comments in mentor and NS interactions over both semesters.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/alsic/docannexe/image/3864/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 53k
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Jessica Chakowa, « Engaging with peers, mentors and native speakers as language learning partners in an online environment », Alsic [En ligne],  | 2019, mis en ligne le 23 septembre 2019, Consulté le 14 décembre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/alsic/3864 ; DOI : 10.4000/alsic.3864

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Auteur

Jessica Chakowa

Jessica Chakowa has extensive experience in teaching French as a foreign language in Australia. Her teaching and research interest lies in the development of online resources to further engage students in their learning of French. Her doctoral thesis was based on an online learning environment she implemented, facilitated and evaluated to support beginner learners at Monash University where she currently works as lecturer.
Affiliation: Monash University, Australia.
E-mail: jessica.chakowa@monash.edu
Address: Wellington road, Clayton–Victoria 3800, Australia.

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