William Tagata
Universidade Federal de Uberlândia, UFU

This paper is based on my teaching experience in a virtual learning environment (Moodle) created for undergraduate students of English in a federal university in Brazil. These students were all enrolled in a subject aiming to help them develop their listening skills in English, in the first semester of 2011. Compulsory for students majoring in English, this subject focused primarily on the development of listening skills, although other skills such as reading, writing and speaking were not neglected. It extended over 18 weeks, with 4-hour-lessons once a week, during which students were requested to do listening comprehension activities, note-taking, vocabulary, speaking and reading activities. Most of the lessons were complemented by supplementary listening and grammar activities posted on a Moodle course specially devised for those students.

Why create a virtual learning environment with supplementary activities for students already attending a weekly course? Firstly, from the outset it was important to encourage students to practise listening comprehension outside the classes, so as to maximize their exposure to different varieties and accents of English, and hence make them aware of the hybridity characteristic of all languages. This led to a second reason why the Moodle should be used to complement the weekly classes: the opportunity to develop students’ critical literacy and sense of social inclusion. I use the term “inclusion” as suggested by Souza and Monte Mor (2006), according to whom social inclusion is indissolubly linked to a critical awareness of cultural and linguistic hybridity. In this view, exclusion is grounded in the belief that languages and cultures are abstract, homogeneous and immutable systems, whereas inclusion takes account of cultural and linguistic heterogeneity. For Souza and Monte Mor (2006), social inclusion as such can give rise to a critical literacy project allowing one to build useful knowledge about the cultural uses and implications of language use. Likewise, Cope & Kalantzis (2003) suggest that such literacy projects can help to expand one’s cultural and linguistic repertoire so that one can “have access to a broader range of cultural and institutional resources”. (Cope & Kalantzis 15).  Thirdly, another reason for using the Moodle was my own curiosity about its potential for the development of students’ listening comprehension skill, and how its tools would be used, or appropriated, for that purpose.  The term appropriation is particularly useful here, especially as conceived by Rogoff (apud Buzato 2010). According to Rogoff’s concept of participatory appropriation, when performing activities requiring the use of technology, people adapt and transform the meaning and uses of that technology by means of social interaction and the negotiation of meanings. Thus, the idea of appropriation closely linked with transformation. In this sense, I was interested to find out the ways in which the virtual learning environment would be appropriated by students, and the effects or changes this would have on their learning process.

Paiva (2010) discusses the potential of three virtual learning environments, among which the Moodle, and their epistemological implications. According to the author, these virtual learning environments have brought about changes to the ways in which knowledge is built in traditional teaching and learning venues. In them, there still prevails a vision of knowledge as stable, fixed and objective, which the teacher can simply transfer to the student, conceived of as a passive recipient of this knowledge, in a conception of knowledge that the author considers “objectivist” (2010). Or else, these traditional venues privilege a vision of knowledge as something subjective and individual that thrives or develops as the learner actively builds and rebuilds it – according to the author, a “subjectivist” conception of knowledge.  The author suggests that virtual learning environments imply a different epistemology altogether, one in which knowledge is regarded as ongoing and dynamic, arising from the interaction among all the participants of the teaching and learning process in a collaborative manner. Therefore, knowledge can emerge through one’s participation in communities of practice (Wenger 1998), in a paradigm that the author considers to be experiential.

The ubiquitous presence of new technologies in teaching and learning contexts has led many scholars to look into their potential for education. Ribeiro et al. (2010) offer a series of accounts of the use of the internet in secondary and tertiary education, involving resources like social networking sites, chats, as well as virtual learning environments like the Moodle. In some cases, the authors report significant progresses brought about by the use of these resources, like greater autonomy on the students’ part. In others, where the use of technology did not have a noticeable effect on learning outcomes, the authors point out the need for digital literacy for teachers and students, especially in the use of the resources available in virtual learning environments. As far as these environments are concerned, López et al. (2010) imply that the Moodle has markedly improved student performance in all the subjects of a social science undergraduate course, allowing for more collaborative group work through the use of resources like the glossary and the wiki. Furthermore, the authors state that the use of the forum and the chat has had a positive impact on the communication between students and teachers, in addition to promoting the development of spoken and written communication, boosting students’ confidence and initiative, as well as greater responsibility over their own learning. Also in a tertiary education context, Arieira et al. (2009) realized the popularity of Moodle among administration undergraduate students, especially on account of its flexibility as regards physical space and timetables. Nevertheless, the authors point out that the Moodle has gained acceptance from the students only as a complement for the learning that occurred within the classroom, that is, although many students recognised the advantages of this virtual learning environment for their academic development, they seemed to resent the absence of a teacher in the classroom, whose on-the-spot guidance was considered to be “indispensable”.

My interest in investigating the relationship between classroom and virtual learning led me opt for the Moodle to complement the weekly lessons over the course of 18 weeks, as I mentioned earlier. However, as we will see below, according to the feedback given by some of my students, this relationship between the classroom and the virtual has gone far beyond mere complementation. Next, I go on to describe in brief how the Moodle was used in our subject.

Using the Moodle to teach undergraduate students of English
Of all the tools available on the Moodle mentioned by López et al. (2010), the quiz, the glossary and the forum were the most frequently used by the students enrolled in the course. Every week, there would be a new listening activity with an accompanying audio Mp3 file, along with general and specific comprehension questions. The students had a week, on average, to carry out the tasks, and were allowed to post their answers twice, always in the target language. Usually, a second attempt was made when the first one had an excessive number of grammar mistakes, or because the student had been unable to demonstrate basic understanding of the listening passage. Students’ mistakes were then commented in the classroom, followed by remedial work and further practice on the Moodle, including extra exercises and suggested links to internet sites where more practice could be done. After doing the extra exercises, students were then invited to resort to the glossary to insert definitions of new words they had learnt while reading the grammatical explanations or examples following them, or the readers suggested by the teacher for vocabulary improvement.

Two weeks from the end of the course, I asked students to answer a questionnaire, giving their opinions about the activities done in the virtual learning environment during the semester, and the ways in which they had helped them (or not) improve their English. There were four questions:

  1. Which Moodle activities did you find most useful? Why?
  2. Which Moodle activities did you find least useful? Why?
  3. Which skills (for example, listening, writing, etc.) do you think the Moodle has helped you to develop?
  4. What do you think of the feedback you got from the teacher and your peers?

Some of the students’ answers to the questions above are presented and commented below, according to their relevance to the issues that I want to tackle in this paper.

By and large, most of the students who answered the questions reported that they had felt considerable progress in their listening comprehension skill. Another skill that was frequently mentioned was writing, since all the answers to the tasks had to be posted in English. In addition, some students also reported that they had noticed a significant improvement in their vocabulary, especially as a result of the glossary activities:

“I really like the listening activities because they helped a lot to improve my skills listening to other people speaking English, and also the activities in which we had to write short texts about a given topic, I think this kind of exercise helps to improve writing, and in this case practice is key.”

“I think all my skills have improved. Writing and rewriting, for example, is something crucial for self-critique. However, every student has their own way of learning and the tasks we do today may have positive results on other professional or academic occasions.”

 “Doing the activities on the Moodle, I could practise my English in a more effective way, listening, writing and acquiring more vocabulary, since all the listening activities had different topics, helping to learn vocabulary related to different topics in a more practical and meaningful way.”

Apart from the progress in the skills mentioned above, one student in particular stated that she had noticed a direct effect of the Moodle practice on her performance in listening comprehension exercises done in the classroom, attributing this improvement to her study in the virtual learning environment:

 “As I mentioned before all these aspects were practised and they helped my English in terms of vocabulary, listening and also to put into practice things I have been studying about grammar. Also, they helped me especially in the classroom listening comprehension tasks, because practising on the Moodle at home, at my own pace I developed techniques to listen better.”

Not only in the classroom but also on the Moodle, all the listening comprehension tasks were based on audio recordings representative of various accents of English. This was due to my concern to expose students to a number of different varieties of spoken English and hence develop their critical literacy, making them aware of the heterogeneity of different languages and cultures, and the social uses of language. This variety of accents did not go unnoticed, and was mentioned by some students as something positive:

“All the listening activities were useful, because we had the chance to get to know the different ways of speaking English, listening to accents from several countries, and also to people speaking naturally, in authentic contexts, since the recordings were not specially made for students learning the language in schools.”

“As I see it, the tasks were all more or less the same, only the topics changed. Yet the level of difficulty was not the same in all the exercises. In some way most of them were useful and helpful. I prefer the kind of listening task which highlights different accents of English; what matters, after all, is to be able to undertand.”

One of the students went further and besides showing approval of listening passages with different accents of the language, pointed out significant changes to the way he studied in general, in terms of better organization in and out of the classroom, as well as more learner autonomy:

“In general all the activities were useful. Although there was nothing new for me in terms of grammar, I had the opportunity to review and develop some points. For me the most useful were the listening activities. I reckon the themes of the activities were relevant and pertinent as a complement to the lessons. The activities had a variety of topics and accents, which helps to develop our listening comprehension. Besides that, the Moodle activities helped to organize what we were learning, as well as transfering learning to an environment not focused on the classroom, and developing student autonomy.”

The same student still highlights the collaborative aspect of one of the Moodle tools, the glossary – where the students were invited to post definitions of new words they had learnt while reading the suggested texts in English – recognizing the importance of his colleagues’ participation and contributions:

“Without doubt, the Moodle activities were crucial in helping to improve my listening comprehension. This is one of the most difficult skills for me, and doing the activities regularly was essential to help me form the habit of listening and exposing myself to the spoken language. After one semester, I put my improvement in listening down to the Moodle, to a large extent. Also, I could improve my vocabulary by writing texts using the new words we learnt in the classroom. The glossary based on the readers was also very important. It was an interesting idea and it really works, because in addition to inserting their own words, students have access to all the other words inserted by their colleagues. The glossary was easily accessible and made reading the texts a lot more profitable.”

Despite all the positive points mentioned by the student above, it is necessary to acknowledge that there were only few opportunities for students to read and comment other students’ postings. Only on two occasions did I use Moodle tools which encouraged interaction among students. First, the use of the glossary mentioned above, in order to help students make the most of suggested texts. Second, a wiki activity in which students had to write a short text in English related to the theme of the listening passage, and then read and comment on the short texts written by their peers. Only a few students posted comments on their peers’ texts, with suggestions for improvement. When asked in the classroom, about the reasons for not having participated more actively, some students admitted to feeling rather uncomfortable about commenting on their peers’ texts, in part because they felt linguistically unable to evaluate the quality of those texts or to suggest improvements. Therefore, maybe I should have insisted on the importance of this tool for collaborative learning, so that students might gradually feel more confident about themselves as sources of systemic knowledge of the language. Other comments posted by students led me to reflect about what kind of activities would be more adequate for this virtual learning environment. All the listening comprehension activities on the Moodle had basically the same format: an Mp3 file, with a brief introduction with instructions followed by general and specific comprehension questions. As one of the students remarked below, that is the kind of activity which could be done in a language laboratory, or in a conventional stereo:

“Honestly, my opinion about the Moodle isn’t very good. I don’t think it’s a useful tool for learning, because despite being modern, it’s full of problems. Sometimes I would try to post my answers and the program just went awry, other times there were problems with the internet connection, and when I wanted to try again, the program had already closed. I don’t like this kind of exercise. It’s boring and tiring, not to mention the assignments, exercises, tests we already have to do for other subjects, so having to access the internet to post exercises is an extra burden. For this reason, I just gave up doing many of the exercises. I haven’t found anything useful on the Moodle, I think these exercises would have been much more useful if they had been done in the classroom or in the language lab. I have nothing against the exercises, I think they’re important and useful, but I don’t like to do them on the internet.”

“I liked the activities involving free writing, in general, and those based on what we heard; I didn’t like the activities which involved specific information, because I had to listen over and over again, not because I hadn’t understood, but because I couldn’t remember what I had heard, and this can be a bit boring.”

The comments above invite a reflection about how to make the most of the resources available in such virtual learning environments as the Moodle. What kinds of activities would be more appropriate for a distance learning platform, and thus justify their inclusion in this kind of environment? What would be specific about these platforms, or their differentiating qualities in relation to classroom practices, and how to best exploit these qualities? Only after reading the students’ feedback did I realize the need for developing my own digital literacy, as well as developing students’ digital literacy, as the following remarks show, in response to the fourth question (“What do you think of the feedback you got from the teacher and your peers?”):

“I couldn’t access my feedbacks.”

There wasn’t any feedback on my activities. I didn’t read any because I couldn’t find it.”

For the students who did have access to the teacher’s feedback, it was a positive learning experience altogether, as the following comments attests:

“The feedback was very useful, because after reading it I started paying more attention to the points that I had got wrong and were corrected for me, and I try not to repeat those mistakes.”

 “I thought all the activities relevant and pertinent. I also liked the format of the feedback, first on the positive points of our performance and then what we had to improve. I could notice, in the activities of the Moodle, a clear and genuine concern for learning in a democratic manner, an effort on the teacher’s part to help students achieve their goals, and these goals may vary from student to student. I know that students (myself included) don’t always recognise their responsibility as learners, but that’s part of academic life. Feedback makes the difference between testing and teaching the student, so maybe we could start having feedback earlier in the semester.”

The second comment underscores the importance of feedback in the teaching and learning processes, and points out the “democratic manner” characteristic of learning through the Moodle, perhaps in the sense that it enables the teacher to take account of the individual differences in learning styles. Another interesting point raised by the student above was the difference between “testing” and “teaching”; this difference, according to the student, was noticeable through the feedback given by the teacher. Unfortunately, there weren’t any other opportunities for students to interfere collaboratively in their peers’ work, which would have fully tapped into this virtual learning environment’s potential for the sharing and distribution of knowledge. In the next section I would like to get back to this last point, having in mind other researches carried out by scholars involved with similar critical and digital literacy projects.

Concluding remarks
On the one hand, the answers to the questionnaire posted by the students show the Moodle in a favourable light, owing to its contribution to the development of students’ listening, among other skills. On the other hand, the answers indicate that students have to develop their digital literacy. Indeed, as pointed out in the previous section, a significant number of students did not know how to have access to the feedback posted by the teacher, or how to submit their revised texts after the teacher’s comments. In this sense, giving a workshop at the beginning of the course, in order to explain how to use the main tools of the Moodle to all the students would have helped to anticipate and deal with most frequent queries and devise an action plan to develop the students’ digital literacy and hence enable them to make the most of the Moodle resources.

However, while reading the students’ answers to the questionnaire I realised the need to develop my own digital literacy as a teacher and researcher too. As Paiva (2010) remarks, by allowing for learning experiences in collaborative networks, virtual learning environments displace the teacher from the central position they occupy in traditional learning environments as the only source of knowledge, and place them on a par with the students. In a way, that is how I felt working with the Moodle, as a learner. I can safely say that preparing listening  comprehension activities for this virtual learning environment has certainly developed my own digital literacy, making me aware of the enormous potential of some of its learning resources. Nevertheless, in retrospect it would have been better to devise activities that are more appropriate or closer to the nature of the new digital technologies on the internet; I could have devised activities based on YouTube videos, for example. This kind of resource would differ from the activities normally done in traditional English language classrooms, which would justify doing them in a virtual learning environment, rather than in a classroom or language lab, for example. Furthermore, there could have been more collaborative tasks, encouraging students to interact more by reading and commenting each other’s answers; with the exception of the glossary tool, in which students could read and edit their peers’ answers, only the teacher had access to all the postings. In general, it was always the teacher who was in charge of the selection of content, as well as the evaluation of students’ production, even though the Moodle has resources that can decentralize the teacher’s power and encourage distributed knowledge, through genuinely collaborative and interactive activities. This reminds me of Lankshear & Knobel’s (2003) suggestion that as teachers and students, we should constantly submit our mindsets to a critical revision, especially in the face of the ubiquity of technology in learning environments, and the multiple possibilities or opportunities it creates. If we do not, we are likely to find what the authors have called  “old wine in new bottles” (2003), that is, the use of technological resources in educational environments where the traditional ethos of teaching and learning still prevails, with the teacher as the main source of knowledge to be transmitted to the student.

I do not mean to deliberately and sharply criticize this traditional ethos, doing what Paiva (2010) calls “demonization of the traditional classroom”, since I also believe, as the author suggests, that good and bad educational experiences can happen in any learning environment, whether traditional or virtual. Perhaps the best thing we can do is to remain permanently open to the challenges and revisions that virtual learning environments invite us to do, challenging our ways of teaching, learning, producing and transmitting knowledge. This means rethinking “education” and “knowledge” as categories of “weak ontology” or “weak thought” (Vattimo 2004): according to the Italian philosopher, that is an ontology based on the belief that the categories available for thinking about our experiences, like “truth”, “justice”, etc., should always be regarded as partial, contingent and therefore subject to revisions and criticisms. Thus, what we conceive of as “knowledge” or “education” today, for example, ought to be permanently open to reconceptualizations or reformulations such as those caused by new technologies. For this philosopher, the internet is a model of “weak ontology”, as its content is always going through changes, in a process that consists of “the dissolution of the principle of reality in a wide range of interpretations” (2004 20). If, for some philosophers this sounds like moral and epistemological relativism in which everything is relative and all truths are equally valid, for Vattimo this could lead to the questioning of our systems of belief and values, and the ethos of the social institutions to which we have grown used to (and hence become naturalized), besides promoting a self-reflexive attitude towards other systems, institutions and ways of being. I am using “reflexive” as conceived by Gillian Rose (2007 136), for whom

“reflexivity is an attempt to resist the universalizing claims of academic knowledge and to insist that academic knowledge, like all other knowledges, is situated and partial. Reflexivity is thus about the position of the critic, about the effects that position position has on the knowledge that the critic produces, about the relation between the critic and the people or materials they deal with, and about the social effects of the critic’s work”.

In this perspective, it is possible to conceive of learning and teaching environments where teachers and students can work together in favour of collaboratively and locally constructed knowledges.

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