An investigation of learner interaction in a MOO-based virtual environment
This study investigated how EFL learners managed their real time interaction in a computer-mediated communication (CMC) environment called Schmooze University MOO. Fourteen undergraduates enrolled at two universities in Tokyo took part in weekly text chat sessions over a semester. Four task types were implemented; information-gap, jigsaw, decision-making and opinion-exchange. Qualitative data such as transcripts, field notes and questionnaires were analyzed within the framework of a case study. Findings indicated that the subjects actively managed their interaction, monitored their linguistic output, supported each other and exercised autonomy. Analysis of the transcripts revealed that the subjects consistently produced coherent target language output focused on the tasks, while at the same time, overcoming the challenge of communicating effectively in a new online environment. They achieved this considerable feat in part, by utilizing features of the environment designed to facilitate interaction. Moreover, they utilized a mix of transactional and interactional discourse management strategies that have been identified in the literature on native speaker interaction in real time CMC. Transactional strategies identified in the data were addressivity, time saving and feedback. Interactional strategies were the use of pseudonyms, positive and negative politeness, greetings, leave-takings and off-task discussion. These strategies enabled the subjects to track turns, provide feedback and build the social cohesion necessary for sustained communication in online environments. The analysis showed that as the project progressed, the subjects utilized a greater number and wider range of strategies than in the earlier sessions. The majority of these appeared the result of transfer from conventional forms of communication. However, others were adaptive and appropriate to the online nature of the interaction. These strategies that have not been reported in the literature on learner-learner interaction in CMC, were use of the to command, split turns, suspension dots, quotation and omission. The appearance of these medium induced strategies highlights the subjectsʼ increasingly sophisticated and successful attempts to deal with real time computer-based nature of the interaction. Analysis of the data further revealed that when communication problems arose the subjects overcome them by utilizing communication strategies involved in negotiation of meaning. The most frequent strategies identified in the data were definition and clarification requests followed by self-, other-initiated correction and non-response. The subjects also made limited use of confirmation and comprehension checks. These strategies were more frequent in the jigsaw tasks than in the other task types. The data showed that learner-learner negotiation in this type of CMC broadly follows the model proposed for face-to-face interaction in conventional classrooms. However, analysis indicated that the interplay of proficiency levels, task, the computer-based nature of the interaction and sociocultural concerns appeared to influence the frequency of negotiation.