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Supporting Communication and Collaboration

Social interaction may take place in many configurations—for example, student to student, student to group, and group to group. Learners can also interact socially with a variety of people: classmates, teachers, students in  other classes, community members, external experts, and peers around the world. Sometimes they may be part of a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) (either educational or “serious”), where they randomly join and collaborate towards a shared goal. However, because learners are part of groups or asked to participate does not mean that they will interact, or that they will interact in the target language, or that the interaction will facilitate language learning. The teacher must plan carefully to ensure that the interaction is effective. Here are two techniques for helping teachers to develop tasks that increase the possibility of quality social interaction:


  1. Provide opportunities for learners to be active.

We have all been in study groups in which some students do the work and others do not participate. Those who do not participate may acquire some of the task’s language or content, but they may also be missing out on the interaction they need to succeed. To help students become actively involved in the interaction, the teacher can build specific roles or assignments for individuals into tasks so that each student’s contribution is necessary to achieve the group or team goal. These activity structures create the need for students to interact in the target language; the more learners need to interact, the more effective the interaction should be. These principles are the basis of techniques such as cooperative learning, jigsaw, and information gap (Burns, & Richards, 2009; Kagan, 1994; Richards & Lockhart, 1994; Peregoy & Boyle, 2017).

2. Provide reasons for learners to listen and respond.

Many times at the end of a group task, learners are required to present their products to the whole class. In reality, they are addressing their presentations to the teacher for evaluation. What reason do the other students have to attend to what is being presented? By providing reasons to listen, such as adding evaluation rubrics that the audience completes, providing a handout to take notes for a quiz, or requiring a group synthesis of the information presented, the teacher encourages all learners to listen and provides a basis from which to respond.

These techniques are related, in part, to the balance of autonomy/structure principle of task engagement  (see chapter 1 for a discussion), in that the more choices (autonomy) the students have, the more they need to interact, consult, or negotiate with their team members and class.

In this chapter’s opening scenario, Mr. Ehman has planned his task carefully to support student collaboration. First, the task requires his language students to interact with native speakers and with members of their teams in the target language. Second, students in Mr. Ehman’s class have specific task roles. They must combine and synthesize the information they gather in their roles as researchers to develop a group document from their mystery character. This information gap activity, in which learners have information that their teammates do not, gives everyone in the group a reason to listen to the others’ findings. In addition, by requiring students to analyze their incoming messages independently but using a handout to support group work, Mr. Ehman is also preparing his students to interact effectively. In the mystery character activity, the technology helps to create an environment unique in supporting interaction. In other activities, the use of computers may play a more peripheral role.

Before discussing activities that support social interaction and collaboration in the CALL classroom, a brief overview of the specific physical classroom contexts in which CALL occurs can help to explain how the technology may help. Computers can be arranged in many different ways, ranging from complete labs to one-computer classrooms. The arrangement of the technology is one factor that impacts the potential for student interaction and collaboration, and teachers should consider the physical layout when designing CALL activities.

► Interaction in the Computer Lab

In a traditional CALL lab layout, students are sequestered in their own carrels or are sitting behind the computers, which obstruct clear lines of sight to the rest of the room. Although labs seem to be falling out of fashion in some contexts, they are useful not only for individual language learning activities such as using self-access software, conducting research, writing papers, sending e-mail, and completing practice exercises, but also for working on individual tasks as part of collaborations with online partners. However, the limited opportunities for mobility and difficulties in sharing hardware in a lab setting can make collaborating face-to-face difficult for multiple learners; this setting is better used, then, for individual tasks or online collaboration.

► Interaction in the Multiple-Computer Classroom

Computer classrooms, such as the one shown in Figure 4.1, allow for more group configurations and activities than traditional labs do. In this type of classroom, where computer monitors are recessed into desks and the desks are arranged in pods, students have free lines of sight to each other and an unobstructed view of the teacher. Unlike the lab, students have room to work without the computer and use it only when and if they need it. In this setting, the technology serves as a tool for all kinds of exercises, from building Web pages to creating portfolios to working with stand-alone software packages. Instructors in these settings can develop CALL tasks during which learners work with partners online and face-to-face. It is important to try out the furniture before buying it—not all desks are made the same, and buying the wrong furniture can be a pricey mistake.


Computer Classroom

Figure 4.1. A computer classroom at Washington State University.

Recently, there has been a movement toward using active learning furniture and technologies in classrooms (Fisher, 2010). These rooms (see Figure 4.2), which are built on the premise that students should be actively involved in the learning process rather than passively listening to lectures, rely on wireless Internet connections, movable furniture, and portable communications devices such as tablets and laptops or allowing students to bring their devices to provide them with an array of hands-on individual and group learning experiences. Research (e.g., Van Horne, Murniati, Gaffney, & Jesse, 2012) shows that such environments can support engagement principles by giving learners more autonomy and more chances to collaborate and problem-solve.


Active Learning Classroom

Figure 4.2: An active learning classroom at Washington State University.

► Interaction in the One-Computer Classroom

U.S. public schools commonly provide each teacher with one computer, sometimes in addition to a shared lab facility in the school with individual computers provided to students. Although one computer would seem to be insufficient for many CALL activities, the one-computer classroom has some benefits:

  • The teacher can see what all learners are doing on the computer.
  • The teacher has more control and more opportunities to directly facilitate interaction.
  • The technology is available at any time.
  • Students can see each other and work cooperatively without barriers.
  • It is easier for the teacher to give feedback.
  • Having only one computer shifts the focus from the technology to learning and interacting.
  • It is easy to use a variety of group configurations.

Learners in one-computer settings typically do not collaborate with partners at a distance, but this is a rich context for face-to-face interaction.

These three contexts—lab, multiple-computer classroom, and one-computer classroom—and other variations on technology-enhanced settings all support CALL activities. However, when designing CALL tasks, teachers must consider the physical setting’s impact on not only the efficiency but also the effectiveness with which they can meet the CALL principles. For example, for an activity that requires triads of learners to interact to be effective in a computer lab, it  might also have to be adapted. Likewise, an activity presented as a teacher-fronted lesson might best occur in the one-computer classroom.


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Supporting Communication and Collaboration by Joy Egbert and Seyed Abdollah Shahrokni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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