I’ve been interested in English Language Learning for some time now. It’s always an option I keep in the back of my mind, mulling it over and thinking about what all it entails. I’m not particularly trained to teach English as a foreign language, but I am trained (sort of? as much as any of us are) to teach English. It can’t be that different, right? So, whenever I have some inkling of a research itch that can’t be scratched easily, I turn to ELL/EFL as a research topic.
This week, the article I am reviewing is a very specific study on how stress comes in to play in student learning when Japanese students use online learning as a tool in learning English. Before I get to the review, I’d like to point out a few things that I think are important. Many countries can be said to have a “better” (whatever that means) education system than the United States. Japan is not one of those countries. The school system is incredibly stressful, competitive, has long hours, and has been proven to be highly ineffective in preparing students for the “real world” after their equivalent of the end of compulsory education (which is in middle school – you’ve got to test into high school). So they’re already very stressed, and many of these students go full time to two different schools.
Anyway, on to the article. The article’s findings aren’t particularly revolutionary, so I won’t focus on them for long. What’s more interesting is the assumptions made by the article and the sorts of things we have to take into consideration as educators because of them.
The short-and-sweet of this article is that the Japanese learning culture encourages students to look towards their teachers as masters of content, Japanese culture discourages individuals from striving towards individual success, and Japanese students, because they are obsessed with furthering the needs of the group and with appearing proficient in front of their peers and instructors, tend to get nervous in online learning settings, especially those in which they are expected to use English. Students get very stressed having to use English because it isn’t their first language, and they’re nervous about not looking perfect in their writing. They are worried about losing face to their peers and making their peer group look less competent in the eyes of their instructors. They also aren’t too keen on being put in charge of their own learning, instead preferring the passive learner role more commonly associated with lectures. Most of the modern research literature on online learning looks at it through a distinctly Western lens, and as such, many online class structures serve to heighten stress levels among Japanese students. Stress, though it is good for learning to a certain extent, can discourage students and shut down learning if present in too high of levels (Jung, et. al, 2012, 1023-1027).
That’s pretty much it. The article also identified key stress related factors, and went into more specifics regarding the origins of stress in certain contexts. The article is fairly well written and its findings seem sound enough, but I’d prefer to talk about something else.
Have you ever been to a “foreign” part of the internet? To Japanese image boards, Chinese chatrooms, or places where Korean netizens congregate (mostly to complain about idols, it seems)? Every country with internet access has its own “internet” that is simultaneously very similar to and very different from the internet to which we are accustomed. I’ve played around in various parts of the internet from the three countries above. It’s a strange experience. Countries have different internets, and they have different school systems, so it would make sense for them to have different online course structures, right?
Most of us, I imagine, rarely think about this. It’s an unusual blend of commodity, culture, and education, that doesn’t really have many other parallels. The assumptions we have to make about online education, specifically in how it divorces itself from a traditional “classroom,” are subject to the culture in which those assumptions are being made. I spend a lot of time in forums filled with expats teaching English (stay away from them, they’re some bitter places) and they often talk about how their students are not motivated by individual success and out-of-classroom learning. That’s not the norm in many cultures; elders (and teachers, and bosses, and the like) are expected to be knowledge bearers, and the “student” is a little more receptive to their direction than to building their own direction. That’s anecdotal of course, but this study and the studies it draws from back that statement up.
When I picture online instruction that fits this model, it seems awfully boring to me. It sounds very teacher-directed, like the kind of online classes I took in high school. The teacher decides exactly what you’re doing so there’s no need to worry about your individual path not meshing with that of the group, but it’s also kind of…boring. Right?
Classes with minimal peer interaction so you don’t need to worry about losing face in front of your peers. While that’s certainly less stressful, doesn’t that in some way negate the above? You’re no longer learning “together” as much. The English is certainly a major factor in that, of course. You can go to many places on the internet and see people stress about their foreign language skills. I don’t particularly enjoy going to Chinese language learner forums and having to type in Chinese when I have what amounts to an elementary schooler’s (and not one that’s particularly bright) understanding of the language. I certainly can’t type it! That is stressful. Language classes of any kind are a special situation. There’s almost nothing harder to learn and master than another language that’s fairly distinct from your own. I imagine having to do that all the time in front of dozens of people would turn me off to learning to. If you want to get students comfortable with typing in English, though, what better way is there to do it? I’m not sure.
The article left me with a lot to think about but not many conclusions. I’ve done a lot of reading about what schools are like in China, Korea, and Japan. They don’t sound particularly pleasant. A lot of memorization, high failure rates, little individual learning, no alternate paths. Much of the research into these schools indicate that they produce great test-takers but terrible learners. The kinds of students who do well on paper but not in the work force or at the university level. Exactly what online instruction, which seems to oppose that approach inherent, looks like in Japan of all places, is hard to imagine.
This article seems to hold no particular prejudice either for or against these class structures. That is refreshing. Often in educational research, the writers are very impassioned for or against something and that colors their writing, even if it does not technically affect their conclusions. As such, I am walking away from this article a little more confused than usual. Is it a…good thing…to push students from collectivist students towards these kind of individual stresses? If the authors weren’t Japanese we’d accuse them of ethnocentrism if that were their argument. Is it a good thing to create structures that are comfortable, and by association, not challenging? That seems like it would attract just as serious of an accusation of close-mindedness. I think students should be challenged. I also think students should be allowed to be comfortable with their learning styles and cultural expectations as to how learning functions. This article seems to imply, in a subtle manner, that in the case of online learning, those two things are often at odds. I do not think that is the case. I’m certain a happy medium can be found, but my admitted unfamiliarity with the nuances of collectivist societies’ views on learning makes those assertions difficult to put into words.
I guess I’d like to open this up if people are willing. Thoughts on this? Have you tried to learn a language online? Do you know much about schooling, particularly online schooling, in non-Western countries? Do you feel stressed when you have to “perform” in front of a cohort? Any other thoughts? This article represents a very specific situation (foreign language learning and the stress that comes from showcasing your language skills online) but I think it generalizes well.
Jung, I., Kudo, M., & Choi, S. (2012). Stress in Japanese learners engaged in online collaborative learning in English. British Journal Of Educational Technology, 43(6), 1016-1029.