ESL Online

and Situated Learning

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The first part of this paper discusses the emerging theories of situated cognition as a general learning theory for second language acquisition and its relevance to the communicative method and multi-dimensional model of language acquisition. The second part explores in some detail how situated theorists explain the influence of culture on the mind, how meaning is formed and the problem of transfer of school knowledge to other settings. The third part describes how recent experiences with online learning suggest ways that our schools can become "future schools" and communities of participation. Online communities are considered for their suitability as environments of language acquisition, how online activities can be recognized as task-based learning in a communicative framework, and how online learning responds to learners' needs to focus on form.



I. Second Language Acquisition Theories and Current Practice

Second language acquisition is still a relatively young interdisciplinary field of inquiry with relatively little research (Long, 1990). There are a few accepted findings in ESL to explain how we learn our second languages. For example, both L1 and L2 language development appear to depend on the same universal cognitive abilities such as the capacity for implicit and inductive learning. It is also subject to the same cognitive constraints including limited human memory, additional resources and information-processing capacity. (McLaughlin, 1987; Schmidt, 1990). Children and adults need the language they encounter to be comprehensible for it to become potential intake (Krashen, 1985). While children can learn language under quite limited conditions, the amount and kind of input available to adults does seem to make a difference to some groups of adults (Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991).

These observations point in the direction of what a theory of second language acquisition must explain. The literature that I have been introduced to at the graduate level (Krashen, 1985; Bialystok & Hakuta, 1994; Ur, 1988; Larsen-Freeman, 1986; Lambert, 1975; Lightbown & Spada 1990, ) did much to provide practical suggestions about what, how and when to teach, but none provided a satisfactory theory for learning. Chomsky's linguistic theory (1957, 1965) posits that we all possess a mental organ hard-wired with a set of formal universals. While a compelling explanation for L1, it defies easy validation, and does not account for the very important influence of culture (Bailystok & Hakuta, 1994). While space does not permit an exhaustive assessment of the state of theory in the field of second language acquisition, I will ask the reader to accept the position that compared to other disciplines, it is a field still in search of a theory. According to Long (1990), the theory of second language acquisition is probably interactionalist and must accommodate "the intriguing combination of universals and variability in adult language learning" (Long, 1990).

The communicative approach to language teaching became so popular because it makes a lot of sense to educators and learners frustrated with audio-lingualism, grammar-translation and others based on language usage that just didn't work. In the communicative approach, participants use the language to accomplish some function, such as instructing, inviting or requesting. Speakers choose a particular way to communicate depending on the relationship. It is insufficient for students to know target language forms, meanings and functions, students must apply this knowledge in negotiating meaning. Meaning is understood to arise through negotiation between reader and writer, speaker and listeners. Interaction between speakers enables this understanding to become clear. According to Larsen-Freemen, communication is purposeful and has three features: information gap, choice and feedback. The theory behind communicative language is not fully developed, but hinges on findings of L1 acquisition that suggest immersion techniques, where learners absorb most of what they need to know through exposure to comprehensible input and communications. Participants feel they are doing something useful and personally meaning ful. In the past decade, those who practice the communicative approach have incorporated methods to focus on form and accuracy, to increase competence. This is recognition that learning time has to be organized for optimum efficiency (Ur, 1988).

The multi-dimensional model of language acquisition, an outgrowth of the communicative method, is a framework consistent with the current reforms of Ministere de l'Education du Quebec (personal communication, Tremblay, 1999). It is a curriculum that recognizes that the aspects of communication, culture, language (form focus) and general language education are all important to language acquisition and teaching.



II. Situated Cognition

In the past 40 years the way we teach a language has switched from a grammarians' approach to the communicative approach because it was observed by people like Krashen that we don't have time to think of rules when we communicate; we acquire language by hearing it in the environment and through interaction, and most effectively though immersion in the L2 community itself.

Understanding language acquisition in the classroom is a forbidding task. There are simply too many factors whose interactions are too complex to grasp. One is in danger of getting lost in the hall of mirrors in which one cannot differentiate factors. My search for an understanding of learning in general and language acquisition in particular has led me to sociocultural theory -- that knowledge exists in relation to other people (Brown et al. 1989, Garrison, 1995). Situated learning recognizes that social interactions are a central component of individual learning and learning is just one part of action. Periods of reflection, meta-cognition are part of a process which I believe is essentially one of enculturation. The literature on situated cognition challenges conventional ideas about how to design classroom environments and suggests we borrow strategies of apprenticeship if we hope to maximize transferability of skills, knowledge and attitudes.

Vygotsky (1978) has served as a source of inspiration to this perspective through his suggestion that individual cognitive development is embedded in a sociocultural environment that provides tools for thinking and partners who are skilled in the use of such tools. Dewey talked of language, tools and labour and the importance of activity and enculturation to learning (Garrison, J.,1995). In fact, Dewey's view of language as communication in cooperative and coordinated partnership in the construction of all meaning is at the core of his entire philosophy (Dewey, 1925, 1981). Dewey's notion that knowledge and the tools of language do not exist in the head but in the relationship between thinking and external things is stated so eloquently as, "the hammer to the nail, and the plow to the soil". Later, Vygotsky argued that children's interactions with others in the "zone of proximal development" provide children with the opportunity to carry out cognitive processes jointly that are more advanced than they could independently, and that this joint problem-solving process serves as the basis for children's subsequent interdependent efforts. Rogoff 's (1990) concept of guided participation is an effort to extend Vygotsky's notion of the zone of proximal development. Learners are active in participating in activities with guidance from more skilled people.

In their mutual engagement, children and their partners (who facilitate or challenge them in the process), manage activity with guidance of children's efforts, with varying degrees of asymmetry between the participants in responsibility for providing and seeking guidance, and with varying goals for development in differing cultural communities.

Theoretical attempts to explain how culture acts on the mind, or how environmental situatedness that Vygotsky's followers have sought must be examined. Firstly, how can Chomsky's universal set of primitives and situated cognition be reconciled? Situated cognitivists would argue that all knowledge and meaning exist in the act of practicing the language. Chomsky's innatism says that basic concepts and ideas exist because of universal primitive notions of meaning, however, "categories are formed because of linguistically divers systems of labeling" (Bialystok & Hakuta, 1994). It is still possible that we are hard wired for learning a language while the actual languages are learned situated in the culture. The labeling in L1 that involves a large mapping of concepts and categories is a process of situated cognition. L2 acquisition is essentially the same process except that we know that it becomes harder as we grow older as the brain seems to slow down in its ability to map and integrate new languages.

The problem of transfer -- the debate among educators over the ability to transfer knowledge, skills and attitudes formed in school to the real world -- is a basic problem. The fault of our schools, situated theorists argue, is that we don't learn in the context of a community of legitimate practice. Instead, each generation in school is being enculturated to becoming school children and schooled adults. Bereiter described the problem with school and the magnitude of the obstacle presented by children's early acquisition of a "schoolwork module".

Doing schoolwork can become, in effect, an occupation, with all the cognitive and affective threads that are woven together in the making of an occupation (And this can be true whether the occupation is one that the student pursues with dedication or resentfully). Fully situated in the school environment, the schoolwork module tends to prevent the activation of modules adapted to larger contexts of learning and makes it likely that what is learned will be too closely tied to characteristics of the school environment to transfer beyond it.

Bereiter, builds on Fodor's metaphor of modules as units of cognition. He proposes that the units are acquired modules called contextual modules. Contextual refers to the set of conditions that lead to the development of a module and that later serve to start or release it.

One does not just learn how to do something; one adapts in the total and multifaceted way that we might imagine a species of fish to adapt to a particular kind of aquatic environment". The adaptation process will likely include procedural knowledge or skills, declarative knowledge, goal structures, problem models, affect (emotions), a persona (and related self-concept), and code of conduct. A contextual module consists of this entire complex of knowledge, skills, goals and feelings. The separate components come to form over time an organic whole. A contextual module is not just related to a context. It embodies the person's whole relationship to that context.

In Fodor's conception (1983) a module is not just a skill, it provides to people a certain way of relating to the world.

The influence of culture, that initially may have been identifiable in particular belief, goals and rules of conduct, can now be only globally assessed on the module as a whole. There is no longer a separate representation of the context. Instead, that representation is implicit in the whole structure of person-environment relations embodied in the module.


Two examples of modules are those of schoolwork and intentional learning. To paraphrase Fodor, the schoolwork module is likely to develop early in school children and to become quite stable, providing a coherent total response to almost anything that happens in school. Different children may evolve quite different modules reflecting different types of adaptation ranging from the willing worker to the rebel.

An intentional learning module, acquired by those who consider themselves learners differs from the schoolwork module in goals -- the intentional learning module being organized around goals of personal knowledge construction rather than goals of task performance. Students whose academic activities are all mediated by a schoolwork module may never come to think of themselves as learners.

One can conceive of an ESL module, with a range of adaptations. The ESL module develops procedural knowledge for general skills of functions, and declarative knowledge when following rules and regulations for classroom behavior. The goal structure may be a complexly interconnected set of goals and subgoals such as a class presentation or the presentation of a Web page.

The educational problem is how to develop the intentional learning module in students who are not fortunate in their circumstances (due to poverty, etc.) that it develops spontaneously. In ESL, like most subjects, the intentional learning module is desirable because of its value in general problem-solving and the desire to learn new things. Students with a strong resistance to ESL could lack this module. In the context of Québec, social pressure to strengthen and preserve one's first language and identity may produce an additional, call it the Quebecois module, that affects motivation.

Honebein et al. (1991) argue that for the naive learner, providing an authentic context is central since they do not have the experience base for generating their own context. The more a student has experience in the domain, the more the learner is naturally embedded in the authentic use of the information and the less the teacher has to worry about providing an authentic learning activity. This would probably be explained by the situated cognitivists as proof that a student's schoolwork module is doing its job!

Lave and Wenger (1991) join a growing literature in cognitive studies, discourse analysis and sociolinguistics in which the common element is the premise that meaning, understanding and learning are all defined relative to actional contexts, not to self-contained structures. Lave and Wenger reject the view that the subject operates on objective structure. They see learning not in the acquisition of structure, but in the increased access of learners to participating roles in expert performance. Garrison offers his own spin on the emerging paradigm when he writes that "the image of knowing is that of a circle, and the circle is interpretive and opens to reconstruction." It is a theory of learning where the structure and process, mental representations and skillful performance interpenetrate one another.

These systems of relations arise out of and are reproduced and developed within social communities, which are in part systems of relations among persons. The person is defined by as well as defines these relations. Learning thus implies becoming a different person with respect to the possibilities enabled by these systems of relations. To ignore this aspect of learning is to overlook that fact that learning involves the construction of identities. (Lave & Wenger, 1991)

Interpreting Lave and Wenger, in an apprenticeship model for ESL, learners should have direct contact with expert English speakers and they should practice language skills in real world settings, or very good simulations. In this theory of learning, you aren't learning English, you are becoming a bilingual Quebecker.

The word "community" is found throughout this literature. Community is used to describe the group we apprentice ourselves to. I am newcomer to a community of teachers. When learning English, students join the community of bilingual and bicultural North Americans. Authentic activities in the apprenticeship learning environment means that the activity is relatively similar to an activity where the learning will be used. ESL online, I believe, is an example of language learned in a context that is very portable, where the skills can be transferred.

Proponents of situated learning argue that school-based learning is not transferable. Indeed, from the perspective of situated cognition, learning requires a rich repertoire of essential actors and participatory relationships beyond those common to education and training now practiced.

Learning in complex social environments, where the individuals' goal structures mediate between their social, interpersonal concerns and their subject matter learning, and entering into a community is an essential part of the learning process. Schoenfeld (1985) describes how he creates a classroom of authentic mathematical practice that many ESL practitioners will recognize,

I work to create a social context in the classroom in which students become actively engaged, in which activities of making connections, generating ideas, conjecturing and convincing, are natural and valued, and in which the students spend most of their time doing mathematics rather than simply mastering subject matter. To sum things up briefly, I try to create what might be called a microcosm of mathematical practice.

The second language classroom is about the only place in school where "we can talk about anything, where the subject can be personally meaningful and relevant." (Tremblay, personal communication). While I believe there are other opportunities for such experiences in other domains, language learning and acquisition is unique in school in that the outcome includes the transformation of learners' identities, a characteristic of apprenticeship.

Apprenticeship is one of the earliest forms of learning by doing, where a student learns a task, such as weaving, masonry or even thinking under the tutelage of an expert. The important element that weaves through various forms of apprenticeship is the functional orientation. These learning environments are full, of the complexity, pitfalls, mixed messages, information sources and interaction common to the actual work environment. Under the right conditions it is clear that the communicative approach fits easily within the apprenticeship model.

There are other explanations of how culture shapes the mind. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) have argued convincingly that much, perhaps all of our thinking is metaphorical in nature. A situated strategy is for a teacher to use the students' existing metaphor for a particular situation. For instance, many teachers and students tend to view the classroom as an office, where tasks have to be completed in exchange for some sort of reward (e.g., a good grade in the course). Even the language we use to talk about classrooms is embedded with this metaphor: homework, classroom management, reading gains, teacher accountability, and so forth. The model is top-down. In consequence, learning tends to be regarded as a phenomenon that takes place in classrooms, not elsewhere, much as work takes place in the workplace.

But suppose we adopt a different metaphor, the classroom as a radio newsroom, a Website production company or an engineering firm. Now the agenda of tasks to be completed shifts from ones imposed by the teacher to ones generated by the students themselves. The classroom becomes only one of the many places where work on this task takes place. The apprenticeship environment includes real people in the target language and culture. The role of the teacher and other students shifts; they are now sources of insight and assistance, not authoritarian wisdom or competition.

From a situated perspective, second language teachers and students must construct a context for creative and meaningful discourse. Theories of situated cognition appear to be consistent with many concepts related to current ESL practices. The question raised here is how to design the classroom environment using the new networking technologies that take advantage of the personal, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds of all the participants. How do we design classrooms for apprenticeship? Nothing less than a fundamental redesign of the social context for learning is proposed by some (Brown et al. 1989; Resnick, 1991). While Lave and Wenger argue that the social context of schools only supports apprenticeship to school situated knowledge and skills that are not easily transferable to the real world, Brown et al. suggest that the authentic practice can be brought into the school. Allan Collins, John Seely Brown and Susan E. Newman (1989), believe that cognitive apprenticeship involves; 1) bringing tacit skills to consciousness 2) comparison of expert and novice performances; 3) modeling; 4) coaching; 5) scaffolding; 6) articulation, reflection and exploration. Space does not permit a full discussion of these ideas, but it requires no effort to see their relevance to the multi-dimensional curriculum.

I would add that apprenticeship in a school environment will require replacing the "schoolwork module" for the "learners' module" early on. Learners would somehow need to develop a "career module" or in the case of ESL, an "English module" as part of their apprenticeship. It also means that an ESL classroom that provides modeling and opportunities to compare expert and novice performance probably must provide access to practicing communicators such as writers, editors, orators and broadcasters. Acquiring an English module must be seen as a positive process of acculturation, or perhaps in the context of Quebec society, learning how to play the game. Now we will consider, from a situated perspective, how the convergence of media and pedagogy, presents educators, especially ESL teachers, a way to re-structure classroom practice.


III. ESL Online

Based on the review of the literature and my own experience, I believe that online language acquisition fits into the theoretical perspective of situated learning. To describe this briefly I have organized my discussion to relate to language acquisition and the multi-dimensional curriculum.

Think of how the context of a local secondary school impacts an ESL learner living in a uni-lingual Francophone speaking region. Add to the context a non-fluent, non-native speaker as their teacher, a conservative bureaucracy and a xenophobic milieu that sees English as a threat to French. With a suitable framework like the multi-dimensional language curriculum, cyberspace is a suitable environment for language acquisition where learners could overcome some of the problems of isolation from the target community.

While the anecdotal evidence suggests that the Internet can be a powerful complement to a teacher, the pedagogy and practice of online learning is not yet developed and access to resources is a major problem for implementation. Schools never made effective use of the telephone for language acquisition. Many teachers just won't have the motivation to implement the kind of change required for the future school.

The technology is not neutral; it tends to amplify the teaching approach and the context of the school. Washauser (1995) wrote about his experience as a teacher and researcher at a private college with a pedagogy of school-based goals. Students were directed to use e-mail and forums to distribute letters and essays to the teacher for correction, a week or more later their e-mail was sent. The focus on accuracy rather than communication soon led the students to complain. I tried to avoid this in my cultural exchange via e-mail with eight Belorusian University students. Each day I received their one-page compositions in a comprehensible form though full of grammatical errors. Without any prior relationship with these students, I provided the error correction they needed and expected from an ESL teacher. We managed to elicit this dialogue after the second round of my review of this woman's composition. After two rounds of review of Tanya's composition, this excerpt from our e-mail dialogue demonstrates qualities of the peer-teacher relationship.


Date: Thu, Apr 22, 1999, 2:54 PM

Tanya: Hello Tom,

Tanya: This is not an essay, just some thoughts. Anyway if you will find mistakes please let me know.

Tom: I'm taking a break from error correction. I'll just correct a few.

Tanya: To tell the truth when I was writing my essay about television I tried to imagine what would I have written if I had lived in USA where the situation with television is much different than in my country. Because in the case of my writing an essay for TOEFL exam it will be checked by a teacher from USA.

Tom: You did very well. You should write about your situation because the changes you report are very interesting for us in North American. We can't see the changes in society anymore. You can make comparisons with US television. You do seem to have some insight into our system.

Tanya: I spent almost two month in Holland last summer. When I was there I saw TV rarely but it was enough to come to a conclusion that the level of our television is significantly lower than European and I guess as well as American....

Tanya: In addition our TV companies have not enough money to buy good movies. Therefore our television is full of stupid sentimental soap operas. I think that Mexican or Brazilian soap operas are also popular in North America but our country surpasses in the number of them. Unfortunately, our television [very rarely] indulges us with a really good film {very seldom}. Our talk shows have little resemblance to talk shows which you used to see. On the other hand our people have not the slightest idea of such talk shows as {show with} Jerry Springer, I think you know what I am talking about.

Tom: Springer, from the little I have seen, is not adding much to our lives. I tutor a Francophone (French speaker) who watches Springer, I think, because he is so extreme, he'sinteresting. I think he's trash - simplifying situations instead of getting at the real problems in people's lives.

Tanya: As you can see it is harder to become a hard-core TV addict in my country. Moreover it is not so difficult to resist temptation for watching TV almost all free time. In spite of all these points I do not think that you would envy Belorusian people.


note: { } = delete or change [ ] = suggested word or phrase

This exchange could be the kind of cognitive apprenticeship, within an academic framework that, that Brown et al. see as possible. However, I must mention that with the exception of this wonderful exchange between the former soviet republic and the West, it has been very easy to feel that the focus on the exchanges has been mostly on grammar because that is what ESL students are used to receiving from their teacher and that is what they require to pass their TOEFL exams.

The constructivist reformers propose a complete re-tooling of schools. The "future school" envisioned by Dixon (1991) will be fully integrated within modern institutional models and professional practices. Alliances with government, industry and school will flourish. For example, students will work and learn as part of a community healing centre. The metaphor for this school is the consortia. Second languages in the future school will be acquired through tasks in the target community and supported by a philosophy of inter-cultural cooperation and understanding. It is easy to imagine how the environment of the future school would use online communities for language acquisition. Distance from the target community will be reduced. Virtual environments will exist where learning takes place through the interaction with all types of Native speakers in a constellation of sites such as home, workplace, day-care center, library or museum. Students interested in forestry may communicate with the forestry industry or environmental groups. They could play conservation officers in forest management simulation games. Teachers will be in person and online, modeling professional behavior in their roles as consultants, either as subject matter-experts (Lave & Wenger, 1991) or modeling knowledge acquisition strategies (Scardamalia and Bereiter, 1990). I designed a "future school "when I directed the Atii Distance Education Pilot Project. Five years ago the Inuit used videoconferencing technology (which you can now do with the Internet) to distribute learning across 4 times zones in the Arctic. The course relied on peer-interaction at the local learning centres. The technology easily supported cooperative learning activities orchestrated by a peer instructor. (Axtell, 1999). I believe that these experiences in online learning and situated theories can be instrumental in helping educators develop the pedagogy for online learning and create the future school.

Some of the characteristics of online communications are particularly advantageous for interaction with the target community. The anonymity makes it possible for shy people or members of minority groups to communicate (Reder, 1992). Online learning offers seemingly limitless access to information of all types and forms including e-mail, text, databases, video, audio and soon artificial intelligence. Online learning is situated in a technological community where interlocutors share the same networking technologies. For the first time, large numbers of students are becoming literate in the software used by the most technologically advanced communities and corporations in the world.

The Internet promotes interpersonal communication. McLellan writes that computing online supports the "the social dimensions of human learning, interpersonal and interpersonal intelligences, to an astonishing degree (1996). It supports so much more. "The [computer and Internet] media supports all dimensions of context providing tools for exploration, play, research, creation, communication, self-expression and synergistic connections with people and ideas (Ibid.).

Teachers who have worked and learned online during the past 5-years can recognize that online activities are task-based learning in a communicative framework. By task, I mean a goal-oriented activity with a clear purpose. Doing a communication task involves achieving an outcome, creating a final product that can be appreciated by others. Examples of an online task include e-mail, comparing points of view on two web-sites (Lewin 1999), becoming a member of an on-line community (Herrmann, 1998), and designing a web page with links (Ineke-Barnes 1998). Project-based learning, such as building a Web page or producing a radio documentary, provides authentic tasks (Honebein et al. 1991, Scardamalia and Bereiter, 1990), and helps students take control of their learning.

Online communication, especially with audio and video conferencing, can now replicate fate-to-face interaction and has the potential to enhance and possibly surpass interpersonal communication to support acquisition (McLellan, 1996). Activities such as role playing games permit people to "explore identity in interaction" (Ibid.). If we include other types of computer software as part of this online environment, software supports reflection (i.e. general language education) by allowing learners to "reproduce and 'replay' the performances of both expert and novice (the learner) for comparison". Courses implemented online offer advantages including: greater interaction between students; students see each other's homework (on the Web, on the listserv); and "students benefit from a broader audience, a broader dialogue" .

In communicating online, using e-mail, learners can communicate in private where mistakes, hesitations and approximate renderings do not matter so much so long as the meaning is clear. When they communicate in public, such as a forum posting or Web posting, there is a built-in desire to strive for accuracy of form and meaning, so as not to lose face. Listening (or reading) to fluent speakers, learners will notice gaps in their own language and will listen carefully to hear how fluent speakers express themselves. Online communication that is made public, like a web page, would pass through stages of development where students try to organize their writing clearly and check words and patterns they are not sure of. The teacher's role would be to raise-consciousness about language features, encourage learners to notice and reflect. Motivation for accuracy is provided mainly by the need to achieve the objectives of the task. Success in doing this can increase longer-term motivation.

Common to all these ideas about online learning experiences is the intention of the participants to take action in some way. Communication that is anchored in the real world of the Internet provides the opportunity and challenge to create new intentional learning modules that can transform learning from the classroom to the rest of the world.



The descriptions of learning provided by theories of situated cognition are based on assumptions about learning that are vastly different from those embodied in current instructional design models. Online tools and environments appear to support communication and collaboration among learners and experts that could produce situated, contextually meaningful learning. The Web is a suitable medium for implementing the multi-dimension curriculum. The pedagogy of the Web is being invented by those who are using it. Perhaps a situated language theory will help us use the online experiences to develop the future of schooling.



Contact me and I will send you the list of references for this paper.


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