Patterns of EFL Learners’ and Instructor’s Interactions in Asynchronous Group Discussions on Free Writing

Mohammed Abdullah Alharbi
Journal of Information Technology Education: Research  •  Volume 17  •  2018  •  pp. 505-526

The aim of the present study was to examine peer interactions and the instructor’s facilitation of online asynchronous group discussions on free writing among 20 learners of English as a foreign language (EFL) joining one Saudi university over one academic semester. The study also attempted to explore the views of the learners on the online interactions.

Peer interaction has been one of the interesting topics for research on the applications of computer mediated communication (CMC) tools among learners in different domains, including language learning and writing. However, most of the EFL classroom practices lack such peer interactions and are dominated by teacher-centered approaches. Moreover, although CMC tools serve as interactive platforms for online peer interaction, such interaction needs to be cultivated and maintained by instructors.

The study was conducted among 20 learners of English as a foreign language (EFL) in one Saudi university over one academic semester. The instructor of the writing course facilitated the asynchronous group discussions of free writing. The data was collected from (l) learners’ peer interactions, (2) instructor’s comments in the discussions and (3) learners’ follow-up individual interviews. A qualitative content analysis of online interactions and a thematic analysis of the students’ responses to the interview questions were performed.

The use of technology reported in this study maximizes the opportunities for teacher-learner and learner-learner interactions, which are restricted or almost lacking in the EFL writing classroom. The findings of the present study also contribute to previous research on learners’ peer interactions and instructors’ facilitation of asynchronous group discussions. More specifically, the study informs us of the role of peer interactions through asynchronous tools in language learning, including writing. It also highlights the role of instructors in facilitating asynchronous group discussions.

The findings showed that the EFL learners posted 1702 comments distributed among eleven patterns in terms of its language functions: evaluation, problem identification, alterations, clarification, suggestion, justification, agreements and disagreements, comprehension check, procedural, error acknowledgement and others. Analysis of the foci of peer interactions illustrated that the learners engaged in task-oriented interactions: content, organization, purpose, grammar, vocabulary and spelling and punctuations and non-task-oriented interactions: task management and socialization. Based on the analysis of the instructor’s comments, the instructor played an important role in facilitating the group discussions as indicated through his various comments (n=852) on the learners’ discussions. Although the learners expressed their positive views on the role of peer interactions and learner-instructor interactions in enhancing language learning, including writing, grammar and even reading, some of them were challenged by the flow of online interactions, weak net connection and sensitivity to peer feedback.

The findings of the study provide valuable recommendations to both learners and instructors who are interested in using asynchronous tools for language learning and, in particular, writing through interactions. The application of such tools is promising, and its value is maximized with instructor’s facilitation of peer interactions.

The study provides valuable insights into how peer interactions and instructor’s comments are both important when investigating asynchronous group discussions in EFL learning. Therefore, researchers should search this interesting research topic further to enrich our knowledge of it.

Since the study focuses on one country of the EFL context, it is expected to have an impact on the society, particularly university learners and instructors by raising their awareness of the role of technological applications in learning and teaching.

Future researchers should focus on how peer interactions are distributed among individual learners and how the instructor’s facilitation affects peer interactions in asynchronous group discussions over time.

peer interaction, instructor’s facilitation, asynchronous tools, EFL writing
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