Successful strategies in a hybrid, skills – intensive constructivist environment

Dr. Selia Karsten – Seneca College
Anastassios Theodoridis OISE / UT


 This paper describes the collaboration model between a college professor and a doctoral researcher and the strategies for meeting the outcomes of the curriculum while providing teacher and computer – aided supports to accommodate the language needs of second language speakers enrolled in the program.

The project involved 3 sections (classes) of Computer application students in a 3rd semester business and marketing college course that met in a computer laboratory 4 hours per week for 13 weeks. The researcher – teacher collaboration was initiated when the former sought a computer – assisted collaborative environment in order to apply Cummins’ (1998) hypothesis for effective language learning into an applied instructional environment. The design of the project was based on explicitly guiding the students through a process of examples / activities and selected instructional guidance in order to reach the outcomes of the curriculum. In addition, the teacher – researcher collaborative model falls within the wide range of action research and as such deserves further investigation.

Action Research and the parameters of collaboration

Teachers who teach skills based courses in large urban centres in North America seem to have a new role apart from teaching their course content: to teach language and academic skills to those adult learners from a diversity of cultural backgrounds while attending to the needs of English speakers.

While balancing these two challenging roles, teachers need to teach students how to use academic English and simultaneously maintain a high motivation for course participants in order to help them learn their desired skill. To respond to such diverse needs, traditionally teachers and researchers come together to form a variety of models of collaboration between them. The paradigm of action-research is often seen as an effective way of reconciling the objectives and interest of research with the object and interests of teaching, because it opens to researchers a field of observation of change and offers teachers a field of discovery of new approaches. The teacher-researcher model allows an exchange of roles and the opportunity to view the constraints of classroom management in a new way, that of bringing characteristic phenomena to light.

Very often action research is a collaborative activity where practitioners work together to help one another design and carry out investigations in their classrooms. Teacher action research is, according to John Elliott, "concerned with the everyday practical problems experienced by teachers, rather than the 'theoretical problems' defined by pure researchers within a discipline of knowledge" (Elliott, cited in Nixon, 1987).

The researcher who is affiliated with a large teacher education institution in Canada initially sought a computer – assisted collaborative environment in order to apply Cummins’ (1998, 2000, 2001) hypothesis for effective language learning into an applied instructional environment. According to Cummins’ hypothesis for effective learning of language learners should be given active support in order to a) understand the meaning of a text b) develop "language awareness" of forms and uses of the text and c) effectively use language in a generative (to produce new knowledge), creative (self- expression) and critical (communication) context. With this design, Cummins has suggested a framework for academic language learning in which he outlined some of the most prominent theories of SLA and Applied Linguistics despite their contradictory nature. (Baker, C., and Hornberger H., 2001). According to Mohan, (Crandall 1994:256)  “students learn academic language when they have something to think or write about in that language” (See Mohan and van Naerssen 1997:22; Master 1997:30), and they learn the academic registers of specific disciplines when they are engaged in understanding and constructing meaning in those disciplines.

The teacher of the course initially formulated certain questions with which to define the parameters of the study and the extent of the researcher’s involvement with the course content. As Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1990) suggest, the unique feature of teachers' questions is that they emanate solely neither from theory nor from practice, but from "critical reflection on the intersection of the two" (p. 6).  The researcher welcomed the teacher’s initiatives, since in this way he thought, such questions might somehow evoke the re-evaluation of theories and would significantly influence what is known about teaching and learning in that particular college environment.

Course structure, content and assessment schemes: professor’s notes

Marketing 333, Computer Applications for Presentations ( grew from conducting a needs assessment and is based on intended learning outcomes. The teacher developed the course for marketing students in 1996 as a hybrid or blended course, with a course home page with links to course resources such as the schedule and due dates, assignments and projects, weekly notes, and a weekly discussion forum online. The class met with the teacher in a computer lab twice a week for two hours. In addition, the teacher was available by e-mail and had office hours for one-to-one tutorials.

Class activities included planning for and working on assignments and projects ( ). There were four projects: two done with presentation software, two with a basic web editor and html coding. Learners were also expected to practice skills with word processing, email communication and post their responses to a variety of topics in weekly discussion forums using the BlackBoard learning system’s site for the course. The course home page and all related links were also integrated into the BlackBoard site. Class participation is an important aspect of the course as is teamwork for two of the projects.

There is an emphasis on self-evaluation and peer evaluation the aforementioned course. Evaluation forms for the presentations ( ), ( ) and criteria for the Web projects (, ( ) are links from the course home page. Also found is the course FAQ ( ), Resources for creating presentations ( ), resources for the Web ( ). The site has weekly announcements and presentation schedules. There are links to previous class projects and as they are completed, to the current team projects and culminating project, eportfolios.

The opportunity to explore: Professor’s comments on the research project

The project whereby my students could learn about and have access to English language support software was irresistible. The chair of my department gave me wholehearted support. I assisted in expediting the paperwork to get college approval and ethical reviews accomplished so that we could conduct the study using my classes in the fall of 2002. I met with the researcher regularly to plan ways in which the students could utilise the program without impeding the overall progression of work on the projects.  Two tutorials were developed that could be used independently, with my guidance with the language software or with a combination of these elements.

Scheduling of class activities was adjusted in order to accommodate the extra time needed for the researcher’s activities. I was not privy to the results of the testing that was being conducted by the researcher so that I would not be influenced in my marking. I did observe the involvement level of the volunteering students and concluded that these participants were enjoying the attention and privilege of using the software program specified for the research.

I would certainly recommend taking part in an action research project such as this one. I was given a wonderful chance to look at my course from a different perspective, and to approach the web-page creation activities with a greater awareness of how I use language in my class notes instructions and tutorials. I gained new insight into the language needs of my culturally diverse student population. Not least, I had a respected colleague in the classroom with me, a motivated and intensely involved “teaching partner” who understood and assisted with the students throughout the time of our work together.
Findings and discussion

The teacher – researcher collaboration explored questions of the curriculum while resolving issues of collaboration between them in the first place. Questions like: How can the teacher in this specific Business and Marketing course assist her learners to require the amount of academic exposure to language? Is a collaborative environment adequate for this reason? How can the curriculum accommodate different learning styles and competency levels? What is the role of Internet and computers in assisting the teacher and learners set such a collaborative learning environment?

As part of the researcher’s data analysis, all three sections of the course were observed and interviewed. At the same time, the researcher kept a journal for each teaching session recording any research – significant event that took place during this time. Computer logs and access to the Bulletin Board of the class was monitored and the teacher – student communication analysed. During the observation period the researcher communicated to and discussed with the teacher the following collaborative model adapted on Crandal’s (1998) suggestions:

1. Discussion and analysis on the developmental nature of second language acquisition along with a complete error analysis for those students who seemed to experience difficulties adjusting to language demands
2. Understanding of the nature of academic language and skills and strategies to help students develop this through the course activities
3. Application of grouping strategies in order to promote collaborative learning, peer tutoring, opportunities for instructional conversations and support coming from the teacher, students and computer – mediated means.
4. The use of visuals, computer simulations, and Internet resources as a means to use concrete – applied instruction to bridge what students already know (prior knowledge) and what they need to learn.
5. A clearly articulated and communicated understanding of differences in cross-cultural communication as well as an appreciation for everything a student decides to bring into class.
6. An embedded assessment and evaluation practice into the curriculum (including the creation of portfolios using available technology) which needs to be clearly adhered to by teacher/ students

  This paper suggests the following strategies be followed in order for learners to develop the necessary language  – learning skills while exploring their subject matter:

a) A clearly defined collaboration pattern needs to be set forth by the teacher with easy to follow rules and ample reference document readily available.
b) The content of the course needs to be constantly adjusted to the needs and level of expertise of the students in the course.
c) Feedback and constructive criticism needs to be positively supported and displayed, initially by the instructor and subsequently by students
d) Instructor needs to be informed of the latest advances in research / teaching regarding her / his  content area and be able to present such in relation to the students’ overall goals and learning philosophy
e) Important outcomes of the curriculum (i.e. self- esteem, time management skills, role that personality plays in one’s career) need to be more emphasized with dedicated activities and one or two projects that help students practice and perfect this particular skill.

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Crandall, J. (1998): Collaborate and Cooperate – Teacher Education for Integrating Language and Content Instruction. Forum, 36 (1), retrieved February 3, 2003 from
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____ 1998: Using Text as input for Computer - Supported Language Learning. CAELL Journal, 9 (1), 4-10.

—— 2000: Language, Power and Pedagogy: Bilingual Children in the Crossfire. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters

—— 2001: Negotiating Identities: Education for Empowerment in a Diverse Society. California: California Association for Bilingual Education
Nixon, J. (1989, Winter). The teacher as researcher: Contradictions and continuities. Peabody Journal of Education, 64(2), 20-32. EJ 395 998

Dr. Selia Karsten ( is a professor at the School of Marketing and eBusiness at Seneca College, Toronto, Ontario where she is also active on curriculum development teams for online and hybrid courses. She teaches online (“Enhancing Holistic Learning with Computer Technology) and delivers computer workshops at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto where she completed her doctoral work in Computer Applications and Holistic and Aesthetic Studies in 1999.

Anastassios Theodoridis ( is a doctoral student at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto, Ontario. He has an extensive experience as a teacher of English as a Second Language and has contributed in many electronic projects as instructional designer. His research focus is Second Language Acquisition in Computer – assisted environments. Under the mentorship of Professor Jim Cummins he has researched a prototype software called e-lective which has some unique features for second language learning.

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