Learner contributions in an open and distance language setting

Hurd, Stella and Murphy, Linda (2012). Learner contributions in an open and distance language setting. In: Mynard, Jo and Carson, Luke eds. Advising in Language Learning: Dialogue, Tools and Context. Applied Linguistics. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, pp. 213–230.

URL: http://pearson.com/uk


Much has been written on the contributions learners make to their study of language learning in the classroom (Breen, 2001; Dörnyei & Ushioda, 2009; Larsen-Freeman, 2001; Robinson, 2002), and how these are central to the language learning process, but there is less research that directly addresses the contributions of learners in settings that demand a greater role for the learner, such as open and distance language learning (Hurd, 2003, 2007; White, 2003). In any learning context, these contributions, both cognitive and affective, take many forms and cover a wide spectrum ranging from fixed innate factors such as age and aptitude, to variables amenable to change such as motivation, anxiety and emotional states. Others lie in an area that is less easy to categorise in that they are largely stable but may be amenable to change in certain circumstances, such as learning strategies, beliefs and attitudes, goals and approaches, and these are of particular interest as they indicate an area where intervention by others can make a positive difference. In an open and distance learning setting, it could be argued that the context itself, through its potential for isolation and reduced opportunities for face-to-face interaction, suggests a more complex picture of learner contributions. Moreover, difficulties of access to learners, their entitlement to privacy and a mode of communication that is almost entirely virtual make any investigation into their learning profiles especially problematic.

This chapter is concerned with three main topics: (1) the nature of learner contributions in an open and distance language learning setting, (2) the power of such contributions to influence learning, and (3) the appropriateness and timing of pedagogical intervention to take account of these contributions and provide targeted learner support (see also Carson, this volume). Set in the context of open and distance language learning in the UK, the chapter starts with a discussion of learner contributions in relation to research into individual difference. We examine first the research literature on individual difference and learner contributions, focusing in particular on the complex issue of context and the impact of affect as a variable amenable to change. We then offer two case studies to illustrate aspects of the range and diversity of individual differences among adult learners in open and distance language learning. We conclude with a discussion on the nature of advising in this context, the need for learners to manage and actively contribute to their learning, and the role of the tutor in providing a supportive framework which takes account of individual difference, balancing proactive support with respect for learner independence and the fostering of learner autonomy.

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