Engendering WTC in Online Learning Spaces: Peer Connectivity Is More Important Than We May Think

Engendering WTC in Online Learning Spaces: Peer Connectivity Is More Important Than We May Think

Amelia Yarwood (Kanda University of International Studies, Japan) and Phillip A. Bennett (Kanda University of International Studies, Japan)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-8717-1.ch012
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Abstract

Since 2020, language learning environments have had to swiftly transition from traditional face-to-face learning to remote learning contexts. This chapter interrogates factors related to students' willingness to communicate (WTC) in online-mediated discussions in a Japanese university classroom. Using a self-determination theory framework to conduct a thematic analysis of data collected from focus group discussions and the written reflections of English L2 learners (N=19), three main factors were found to contribute to a lack of WTC. Two of the three are unique to online learning: disruptive environmental factors and a thwarting of relatedness between classmates. The third factor, a perceived lack of communicative ability, although not unique to online learning, was amplified by the online environment. In order to address these factors, which contribute to a lack of WTC, a number of teaching interventions aimed at fostering communicative online classrooms are introduced.
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Introduction

The role of technology in language classrooms the world over has undergone a significant change since early 2020, when institutions were confronted with the unprecedented task of moving to online classrooms following the global pandemic. For classrooms which relied on communicative pedagogical approaches, they faced the daunting task of creating safe, social spaces online for facilitating a free flow of dialogue between students. However, communicating in a synchronous classroom through video-conferencing platforms and other online communication tools is subject to challenges outside of those present in traditional face-to-face learning environments, especially in terms of learners’ Willingness To Communicate (WTC).

WTC originally emerged as an affective construct applied to L2 communication by MacIntrye and Charos (1996) following its conception in L1 communication studies. In its original form, WTC was viewed as a personality construct (McCroskey & Baer, 1985; McCroskey & Richmond, 1987) measuring individuals’ willingness to communicate during interpersonal encounters. Since then, it has evolved to include an array of dynamic contextual factors (MacIntyre & Legatto, 2011; Yashima, 2002; Yashima, MacIntyre & Ikeda, 2018) often found in the L2 speaker’s situated environment. Additionally, factors such as perceived communicative competence (Joe, Hiver & Al-Hoorie, 2017), communicative apprehension (Yashima, 2012), and self-evaluation (King, 2013; Gregersen, MacIntyre & Meza, 2014; MacIntyre & Doucette, 2010) are viewed as integral influences on WTC.

When looking at the field of TESOL in Asia over the last two decades, the WTC of East Asian learners has been somewhat controversial. In particular, Shao and Gao (2016) investigated the question of whether or not “East Asian learners’ “unwillingness to communicate” was a result of “long-standing prejudice and hackneyed Eastern-Western stereotypes” (p.116). Based on a summary of publications over the past two decades, they concluded that East Asian language learners’ unwillingness to communicate “cannot be solely accounted for by cultural reasons and have to be understood in relation to a variety of cultural, historical, and social conditions and processes” (Shao & Gao, 2016, p. 119). With this in mind, the authors believe it to be important to define and distinguish nonverbal communication in the online classroom.

Nonverbal communication in the classroom is often referred to as silence; however, researchers have differentiated between silence and reticence. As Bao (2019) details, reticence stems from deficiencies in communicative competence, which results in the avoidance of participation. At its severity, reticence can be thought of as a verbal paralysis resulting in a complete loss of autonomy: where students perceive themselves in a learning environment that is akin to drifting in a gravity-less void. On the other hand, silence can be utilised as a powerful communicative tool to show agreement, disagreement, respect, moments of reflection, or even a scheme to negotiate power (Bao, 2019; King; 2013; Shao & Gao, 2016; Ellwood & Nakane, 2009). Bao goes on to state that one of the distinctions between reticence and silence is “a question of motives.” In this way, silence can be utilised as a form of interpersonal discourse to fulfil a communicative function; it can be used as a form of supportive control, giving space and adequate time for others to gather their thoughts and form a reply. In the case of reticence, the motive is often to save face when dealing with communicative apprehension. As previously mentioned, distinctions that can be made between reticence and silence, however, research that shows there are intersections between the two, generated from shyness or due to communication breakdown.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Competence: The feeling of effectiveness and mastery in doing an action (e.g., speaking in an L2).

Online Classrooms: A learning environment that takes place via video conferencing platforms and possibly supported by learning management systems, and other software.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT): A theory of human motivation developed by Ryan & Deci over the past 40 years, stating that three basic psychological needs (autonomy, relatedness, and competence) must be met for individuals to flourish.

Reticence: The result of a communication breakdown and/or a deficit of communicative competence ranging from a choice to avoid communication to the complete inability to participate in communicative L2 activities.

Willingness to Communicate (WTC): Autonomous verbal communication in a language learning classroom.

Relatedness: The connection an individual feels with members of a group.

Silence: The result of a self-endorsed, non-verbal communication strategy.

Communicative Apprehension: The hesitancy to speak in an L2 due to a fear of mistakes.

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