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This article discusses findings from two pilot studies that investigated the use of Internet-based audio conferencing and e-mail by distance language learners. Students enrolled in courses at the British Open University met once a week online with their tutor to complete a series of tasks that were designed to help them improve their spoken competence. In addition, learners were encouraged to use the online environment for further meetings without their tutors. It is suggested that the higher number of opportunities learners had to communicate in the target language as a result of the availability of an online environment increased both their interactive competence and their confidence in their target language skills. Another outcome was that students with different levels of proficiency appear to require different types of tutorial support and that communication and fluency-related tasks are ideally used in an online environment with learners of at least intermediate competence in the target language.
To date, most language courses in open and distance language learning have relied mainly on printed material in the form of course books. Some providers of distance education have supplemented these with videos and audiotapes, or referred their students to specific television programmes or radio broadcasts. However, while these resources provide learners with various stimuli to practise their reading and listening skills, it is also true that each medium provides students with only a limited range of opportunities to practise their productive skills.
Distance learners have few opportunities to write in the foreign language for an audience other than their tutor. But they normally have even fewer chances to test and to improve their speaking skills in authentic communication. The number of tutorials available to students is usually restricted by financial and logistic constraints and much time that could be used for communicative activities is lost because tutors have to deal with the preparation of, or feedback on, assignments or with administrative jobs.
Several projects carried out over the past few years have sought to remedy this situation by investigating options that would give language learners more opportunities to encounter the foreign language in spontaneous interaction and in less predictable ways that is the case in written or recorded course material. Studies undertaken in this direction range from e-mail projects such as the International Writing Exchange or a tutored use of bulletin boards (e.g., Lamy & Goodfellow, 1999) to the investigation of point-to-point video conferencing between groups of learners (Skowronek & Kind, 1997; Zahner, 1998). Studies like the MERLIN project, which combined a "pathway" of activities with computer conferencing and a website that allowed students to initiate telephone conferences with their tutor and! or other learners (Marsh, Arnold, Ellis, Halliwell, Hodgins, & Malcome, 1997), even began to investigate the benefits for language learners of being able to talk to other students from home by way of a second teleph one line. However, none of these projects has yet addressed the benefits for students of being able to engage in verbal interaction in real-time online environments from their homes over a single telephone line.
This article reports on a pilot study conducted at the British Open University (OU), which was designed to provide participants with opportunities to talk to each other by means of a series of meetings over an Internet-based audio conferencing client using a single telephone line. Nine groups of students on the OU's first-level German and third-level French courses met once a week with their tutors, each of whom worked for the OU's Centre for Modern Languages. Students who commanded a basic and an upper-intermediate level of proficiency in the target language respectively met over a period of three months during which they completed three task-based activities. Learners had access to the conferencing tool, e-mail, and to a dedicated project website where they could find regularly updated information about their activities. Furthermore, they were encouraged to hold additional meetings among themselves to benefit as much as possible from the fact that the server hosting the audio software was available on a 24 hours a day/7 days a week basis.
Tasks, which were made available to students one week in advance through the project website, were designed to engage students in collaborative based projects which were true to life but also encouraged them to experiment with their target language. Each task description referred students back to selected pages in their course material. Great care was taken to ensure that learners could start with vocabulary and structures with which they were already familiar but that they also could experiment with less familiar vocabulary or grammatical structures.
This article begins with a discussion of findings from previous research into networked language learning. It then goes on to outline the design and the pedagogy adopted for the present study, paying particular attention to the specific situation of OU language students. It presents data about learners' use of and their feedback on the individual tools they used and it discusses the effect on the outcome of the project of variables such as student attendance, the tutor role, the availability of context cues, and the significance of error correction.
CMC AND LANGUAGE LEARNING
The exponential growth of access to the Internet and the development of increasingly versatile and reliable computer applications have led many providers of distance education to rethink the way in which they deliver their courses or provide tuition for their learners. Computer mediated communication (CMC) by way of e-mail and synchronous text-based user-extendable environments such as Multiple-User Domains (MUT)s or MOOs) has provided educators with effective means to increase the amount of interaction between learners and their tutor.
Studies investigating the in-class use of networked writing (Beauvois; 1992; Chun, 1994; Kern, 1995) as well as research into cross-classroom collaboration (Brammerts, 1996; Donaldson & Kotter, 1999; Sanchez, 1996; Schwienhorst, 1998) found that, while reducing the amount of context cues available, CMC encourages discussion among learners by giving them more opportunities to express their ideas than would be possible in an oral discussion of equal length. CMC secures fast transmission and allows participants to receive instant feedback, and to save and revisit their data. Moreover, it facilitates language learning by giving students more time to reflect on their fellow students' contributions and to develop and refine their own responses. This in turn may lead to greater precision and sophistication of expression. Finally, these written exchanges are informative equally to students who participate in a discussion and to those who follow but do not actively contribute to a particular thread.
CMC is a tool, which is highly useful in facilitating communication in a variety of contexts. However, e-mail, MUDs, and MOOs allow only for written interaction. Thus, although it has been demonstrated that e-mail exchanges and real-time interaction through typing on a keyboard can produce positive effects on students' writing skills, at present it can only be assumed that the same is true with regard to learners' spoken competence (Chun, 1994; Kern, 1995). In a recent survey, Warschauer (1998) concluded: "While it is reasonable to assume that computer-mediated discussion contributes to written fluency (if for no other reason than increased time on task), any claim that this transfers to oral communication is at this stage purely speculative."
In parallel with the investigation of written communication, some researchers have begun to explore the potential of online environments in supporting distance language learners in their development of aural and oral competence in the target language. However, the number of such projects as well as written evidence discussing the pedagogic use of audio applications is still very limited. There is streamed radio, plus a number of websites allow visitors to listen to prerecorded files much in the same way as in a listening exercise. Two excellent examples are Davis' Randall's ESL Cyber Listening Lab and Williams' ESL Multimedia Language Learning. Yet, there seem to be only a handful of studies which, like Heeren (1995), were specifically "carried out to investigate small-group collaborative learning through real-time" provision. Still, Heeren focussed on assessing the technology' s potential to foster decision-making among students of philosophy, while Dymock and Hobson (1998) used andioconferencing and voicem ail mainly to foster leamer autonomy among students of education and to help them to "overcome the[ir] sense of isolation" (Dymock & Hobson, 1998, p. 157).
Little is known as to whether or not the increased flexibility offered by Internet-based learning environments modifies the behaviour of language learners as a result of increased collaboration and peer support. Moreover, research is still in its infancy concerning questions such as:
* whether and, if so, what (else) learners may gain from utilising an online environment to practise the target language in spontaneous two-way interaction; and
* what kind of support these learners require to use the tools provided effectively and efficiently.
RESEARCH INTO ONLINE PROVISION AT THE OU
Language courses at the OU are normally taken over eight months (February--September). Learners are provided with course books, video and audio documentaries, audio activity cassettes, …