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Editor’s Note: The editors appreciated the depth of this study and look forward to research data that will clearly delineate specific functions and levels of learning for students in computer mediated communication for foreign language learning. 

Computer Mediated Communication and
Foreign Language Education: Pedagogical Features

Long V Nguyen

New Zealand


This meta-analysis article starts with a critical review of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) from various theoretical perspectives, namely structural, cognitive, and sociocultural. This is followed by the discussion characteristics, modes, and scopes of CMC. The presentation then moves from an overview of didactic features of CMC in general education to pedagogical benefits of CMC in foreign language learning and teaching. The conclusion drawn from the discussion is that CMC, both synchronous and asynchronous, possesses potential advantages capable of improving learners’ foreign language development; and that future research in many aspects of CMC in language education is still needed.

Keywords: Computer Mediated Communication, CMC, CMC Learning, CMCL, Computer Assisted Language Learning, CALL, Asynchronous CMC, ACMC, Synchronous CMC, SCMC, English as a Foreign Language, EFL, face-to-face, FTF, Pedagogy, Socio cultural theory, SCT.

1 Introduction

The development of the computer along with the widespread use of the Internet has rapidly promoted Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) as a very important communication media, which has been used widely and effectively, and has a profound effect on many aspects of education (Beatty & Nunan, 2004; Pfaffman, 2008). Alongside face-to-face (FTF) communication, writing and printed material, CMC - as the fourth revolution in the means of knowledge production (Warschauer, 1997) and as a new medium with unique characteristics - is becoming an increasingly significant element in teaching and learning environments. In fact, CMC has proved to be a feasible and preferable alternative to FTF communication as in many ways it provides an ideal environment for English to be used in communicative situations. CMC-based Computer Assisted Language Learning (CMC-CALL) has considerably revolutionized the world of education by offering countless new ways to teach and to learn (Boone, 2001). Researchers are constantly exploring how CMC may contribute to the education process in particular sociocultural settings while also identifying some of its limitations. It has introduced us to the idea of new literacies and language genres; and at the same time, has blurred the line between written and oral communication (Kern, 2006; Warschauer, 2004). A thorough understanding of CMC-supported learning processes is unequivocally essential for not only educators but language teachers as well. Hence, language professionals need to capitalise on the advantages and potential strengths that this technology has to offer.

2 What is CMC?

CMC has been extensively researched from various disciplinary and methodological perspectives. This form of communication, with a broad scope of processes and tool-use, facilitates information design and delivery, and human-human and human-machine interactions with structural, cognitive and sociocognitive implications. It has been more than ten years since the online CMC Magazine started a debatable question of “what is CMC?” in 1997. Various definitions have been offered from a diversity of perspectives. CMC, as first coined by Hiltz and Turoff (1978), was originally defined as “the process by which people create, exchange, and perceive information using networked telecommunications systems that facilitate encoding, transmitting, and decoding messages” (December, 1996). This rather technical-oriented definition has been endorsed by a number of researchers. Luppicini (2007), for example, defines CMC as “communications, mediated by interconnected computers, between individuals or groups separated in space and/or time” (p. 142). Similarly, according to Herring (2001) and Warschauer (1999), CMC is openly delineated as communication taking place between human beings via the instrumentality of computers. Technically, CMC is widely known as a transmission and reception of messages using computers as input, storage, output, and routing devices.

However, just like the fast-changing CMC technologies themselves, the definition of CMC is not fixed. But rather, there has been an evolution from focus on tool or medium to emphasis on process or interaction between human. A human-oriented description of CMC can be perceived as any form of organised computer-supported interaction between people; or as an environment in which users interact with other users over the network (D. E. Murray, 2000; Paramskas, 1999). In other words, CMC is a generic term that embodies all forms of communication between individuals and among groups via networked computers. Another more abstract definition claims that CMC “means different things to different people, which is both its strength and the source of some of the problems arising in the research literature” (P. J. Murray, 1997, p. 1). In reference to language learning, “CMC allows language learners with network access to communicate with other learners or speakers of the target language” (Kern & Warschauer, 2000, pp. 11-12).

Many a researcher has recently suggested the application of Sociocultural theory (SCT) as a theoretical framework into the study of CMC (Chapelle, 2001; Kern & Warschauer, 2000). Looking from the sociocultural perspective,

CMC is not just a tool. It is at once technology, medium, and engine of social interactions. It not only structures social relations, it is the space within which the relations occur and the tool that individuals use to enter that space” (Jones, 1995, p. 16).

In quite a few circumstances the uniqueness of CMC mirrors and contributes to recent changes in society and developments in educational theories (Romiszowski & Mason, 2004). Regarding the contextual setting, CMC is “more than the context within which social relations occur… It is commented on and imaginatively constructed by symbolic processes initiated and maintained by individuals and groups” (Jones, 1995, p. 16).

Accordingly, as a pedagogical shift has moved language educators from cognitive assumptions about knowledge and learning as brain-local phenomenon to contextual, collaborative, and sociocultural approaches to language development and activity (Kern & Warschauer, 2000; Lund, 2006), CMC - like all other human creations - should be considered as cultural tools possessing particular interactional and relational associations, expectations, and preferred uses (Thorne, 2008a). In other words, CMC with its own social and cultural features has various implications, meanings and uses in different communities.

In general, CMC can be viewed both as mediational tools and as a communication process. When viewed as tools, CMC is examined from technological aspects that provide the medium for communication. Other aspects are revealed when CMC is perceived as a communication process, which includes the message, the sender and the receiver. It is therefore human factors with their sociocultural and historical background that play significant roles during the interaction process. A more comprehensive understanding of CMC will be attained through the examination of its characteristics, modes, and scopes.

2.1 Characteristics of CMC

Though there has been an exponential increase in the number of CMC publications available (Abrams, 2006; Shi, Mishra, Bonk, Tan, & Zhao, 2006), research interests are often centred upon those characteristics of CMC that are supposed to differentiate CMC from the traditional form of FTF communication (Abrams, 2006; Sierpe, 2005). It is noted that “CMC differs substantially from FTF communication, in form if not in function” (Walther, 2007, p. 2539). The various features of CMC presented below are, therefore, those that make it different from traditional FTF communication mainly in terms of forms; and where possible, functions of CMC are marginally mentioned. These discussions include the technological, social/cultural, and linguistic characteristics of CMC.

Technologically, hyperpersonal and interpersonal communication (Walther, 2007) is facilitated by the use of computer network technology, which theoretically makes online participants communicate with each other independent of time and space. In other words, CMC provides freedom from temporal and spatial constraints (Luppicini, 2007) and communication via CMC is either synchronous or asynchronous. Besides, CMC affords a variety of media, combining text, audio, and video with hyperlink and hypermedia features. Multimedia CMC is now becoming popular and used everyday by a large number of people the world over. Another technological affordance of CMC is that it enables multi-dimensional communication including one-alone, one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many. Regarding language learning, the electronic nature of CMC “makes language manipulable” (O'Rourke, 2008, p. 232). In sum, it can be seen that all of the technical and technological developments of CMC are combining various media tools and potentially fostering a renovative style of collaborative learning.

In terms of social and cultural communicative aspects, impersonality in CMC has been mentioned in literature (Kreijns, Kirschner, Jochems, & Van Buuren, 2004). Previous research has noted the negative aspect of non-humanlike communicative nature of CMC (Jonassen, 2004; Lund, 2006) and that CMC lacks the particularly relational features, “which enable the interlocutors to identify correctly the kind of interpersonal situations they find themselves in” (Riva, 2002, p. 581). Hiltz and Turoff (1978), for example, asserted that computer conferencing seemed much less intimate and self-exposing than oral communication due to its impersonal nature. Also, misunderstandings and thereof misinterpretations may occur due to the lack of gestures, facial expressions and other general social, non-verbal or para-verbal cues (such as head nods, smiles, eye contact, distance, and tone of voice).

However, regardless of the limitations mentioned, the impersonality itself brings certain benefits to learning. Mental and physical effort can be focused on the topic discussed rather than on unnecessary visual and auditory cues. Research (Q. Wang & Woo, 2007, for example) also revealed that CMC users take more time than those in FTF communication in order to reach a common view, which helps them make better decisions with appropriate attitudes and language. In other words, despite the lack of human qualities including paralinguistic and non-linguistic behaviours (O'Rourke, 2008), CMC, while gaining more and more popularity, allows relational development through extended communication (Knight, 2005). There seems to be a trade-off between social skills and technical expertise in this regard.

Last but not least are the linguistic features of CMC, being described as having its own unique language. For Murray (2000), CMC in general has four linguistic characteristics. First, it is related to both spoken and written language. According to Crystal (2006), CMC is fundamentally different from speaking and writing media; it shares in their properties, but possesses those features that neither could possibly have. CMC combines oral and written language forms and provides for real-time communication, similar to oral language. There is a complex interaction of contextual aspects in specific contexts. In many cases, CMC exchange may be viewed as a typed conversation (Sierpe, 2005), in which participants can freely use the ability to stress words and phrases in italics or by bolding, the same functions seen in speaking in a first person’s point of view (Smith, 2003). Smith (2003) also described some characteristics of written language in CMC, such as the lack of intonation, the permanent record of the discourse, the lexical density, and the use of punctuation and textual formatting in messages. In other words, some textual features of CMC are comparable to those found in writing and others found in oral language. Second, CMC language has a simplified register due to the fact that the speaker either perceives the addressee as a language user with limited competence or performs under constraints of time and space. It is reported in Murray’s study (2000) that learners in CMC environment delete subject pronouns, determiners, and auxiliaries, use abbreviations, do not correct typos, and do not use mixed case in order to reduce typing time. It is popular to see “shorter sentences, abbreviations, simplified syntax, the acceptance of surface errors, and the use of symbols and emoticons to express emotion” (Smith, 2003, p. 39). In general, it must be asserted that the language of CMC is developing as less expressive and less sophisticated than previous forms of writing.

The third linguistic attribute of CMC deals with the structure of conversations. Regarding conversational structures, there are at least two aspects that make CMC conversations different from the traditional telephone or FTF exchanges (Smith, 2004). Due to the automatically technological-supported identification, some norms, such as openings, closings, greetings, and different turn-taking strategies (Gains, 1999) are optional in CMC. Also, because of its reduced sensory nature, CMC conversations require more explicit signifying of understanding and nonunderstanding. Lastly, the mechanism of maintaining topic threads like in email, blog, and wiki exchanges make conversations more cohesive and coherent. This feature of threaded discussion is considered to promote collaborative learning (Suthers, Vatrapu, Medina, Joseph, & Dwyer, 2008). The critical issues, however, are different technologies amplify certain features of communication and reduce others. To sum up, regarding the language used in CMC, Warschauer (2005) concluded that it is not merely an amalgamation of a traditional form of written language plus computers, but rather there is now a completely new system of language that needs to be discovered, analysed, and studied. The use of the new technology for human communication is said to promote language change and to demand the acquisition of new literacy skills (Braga & Busnardo, 2004).

2.2 Modes of CMC

It is conventional to divide CMC into two basic modes including synchronous (SCMC) and asynchronous (ACMC) communication capacity with high and multiway interactivity (Levy & Stockwell, 2006; Luppicini, 2007; Pfaffman, 2008). SCMC discussion involves users exchanging opinions in real time format via chat rooms, instant messengers, or video conferencing. Participants in SCMC environment post typed messages which appear on the computer screen; and they can scroll back and forth to review previously sent stretches of the discourse text. SCMC discussion not only allows learners to communicate similar to FTF discourse (Lee, 2001), but, at the same time, also increases learner monitoring of language usage (Sykes, 2005). Learners must however sign onto a computer system simultaneously to launch the network, which is considered the downside of this mode of communication with regard to different class times and time zones (Levy & Stockwell, 2006).

On the other hand, in ACMC, such as World Wide Web (WWW), e-mail, web blog, newsgroups, and postings in bulletin board system, interaction does not need to be simultaneous. ACMC mode allows students more time to read, understand, reflect and respond to the posted written messages. Learners also have a chance to monitor and edit their own or other learners’ writing. ACMC has been widely used in collaborative writing and brainstorming, fostering critical thinking habits of the participants (Lee, 2004).

Still, this binary division is not absolute. As far as the simultaneity is concerned, even real-time chat, for example, is hardly completely synchronous due to delays depending on such variables as Internet speed, typing speed (D. E. Murray, 2000), and preferences of use, in which an offline chat message, for example, may be received and responded to days after being received.

Another widely-accepted classification of CMC is whether it is text-based or audio/video-based (Figure 1). Text-based computer-mediated communication (CMC) still remains most common in education environments, although bandwidth and hardware for two-way audio and video is now widely available and gaining jn popularity (Paulus, 2007). The textual nature of CMC, which makes language more “persistent, visual, and archivable” (O'Rourke, 2008, p. 232), still has a significant impact on language study (D. E. Murray, 2000; Warschauer, 1997). It has introduced us to the idea of new literacies and language genres, and has blurred the historical division between written and oral communication (Kasper, 2000), both of which have been merged into a single medium of text-based CMC, as previously discussed. Because of this, text-based CMC has been the subject of research in many disciplines from general education to language studies.

Figure 1 Modes of CMC

Nevertheless, information technologies in general and CMC technology in particular have been developing so fast and growing to be so hybrid that the bimodal partition of CMC has almost become obsolete. Historically, CMC has developed from the first generation of email and chat to the second generation of Wikis and Blogs, which has recently combined and a new name has been coined as Bliki, and then to Podcasting and Gaming, which are considered the third generation (Thorne, 2008b). Regarding both technical and communicative issues, some CMC forms, such as blogs and wikis, are hardly listed as either asynchronous or synchronous. These mediation tools can be used either asynchronously or at the same time depending, mainly, on participants’ preferences and objectives, which makes the synchronicity classification of CMC unnecessary. Similarly, online chat services in many of the providers, such as MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, Skype, and Google Talk now include both text and audio/video functions, which makes textual/aural/visual grouping of CMC redundant.

The categorisation can also be made according to the various affordances of different modes of CMC, namely temporal, social and psychological, linguistic, material, and individual (Levy & Stockwell, 2006), which have various potentials to influence the communication mediated through CMC. In other words, CMC “technology plays a major role not only in the choice of language used, but also the types of messages that can be conveyed, the social relationships that can be formed, the psychological pressure that participants may feel, as well as the choice of tool in conducting the communication” (Levy & Stockwell, 2006, p. 97, italics added).

Socioculturally, the concept of multimodal CMC is therefore suggested (Thorne, 2008a) and now commonly used (Blake, 2005; Kern, 2006; Lamy & Hampel, 2007). Kern (2006) identified that CMC is not a single uniform genre of language use, but rather a collection of genres related in part to the particular medium (Figure 2) and in part to the particular sociocultural contexts of a given act of communication.

Kern explained that while at the product-oriented end of the continuum, messages are composed as wholes before being released to their readership, on the process-oriented end utterances may be more fragmentary, multiple participants communicate spontaneously and simultaneously, and several turns may be required to accomplish a single message. Communicative motivation or purpose tends to vary along the continuum in terms of forms and functions. The end product is biased toward information exchange, whereas the process end is inclined toward phatic communion, reinforcing social contact in and of itself (Crystal, 2006; Herring, 2001; D. E. Murray, 2000).

Figure 2. CMC continuum

In summary, together with ACMC, having already gained its place in both everyday communication and language education with a steady increase in formality, “using SCMC for learning and practising a target language now seems like the most natural thing in the world” (O'Rourke, 2008, p. 227). SCMC and ACMC each has their own characteristics, complementing each other (Honeycutt, 2001). While synchronous discussions may be best suited for brainstorming and quickly sharing ideas during interaction, asynchronous exchanges allow more time for considered opinions and are more effective for deeper discussion of ideas (Ingram & Hathorn, 2004). A combination of synchronous and asynchronous experiences seems to be necessary to promote the kind of engagement and depth required in collaborative learning. In line with the current communicative, sociocognitive trends in education, both synchronous/process-oriented and asynchronous/product-oriented CMC as everyday authentic communication tools offer numerous possibilities for SLA in terms of collaborative learning and are now a significant avenue of enquiry in applied linguistics.

It is emphasised that the selection of synchronicity-based interaction modes via CMC depends largely on the temporal, cultural, socio-psychological, institutional, linguistic, material and individual dimensions, purposes, aims, objectives and preferences (Levy & Stockwell, 2006), while technology with its various affordances just moderately affects the choice. This is confirmed by Stockwell (2007), who claimed that the reasons for choosing a particular technology are probably as varied as the range of technologies themselves, but some of the main reasons may include pedagogical objectives, institutional decisions, personal curiosity, and trends and fashions. Similarly, Salaberry (2001) argued that pedagogical goals should be the driving force behind decisions of what medium is most efficient in implementing a particular task.

2.3 Scopes of CMC: Intercultural versus intracultural

CMC, due to the characteristic of space and time independence, is widely known for affording both intercultural and intracultural exchanges (alternatively termed as inter-cultural and intra-class/group respectively by Chun, 2008). Intercultural CMC is also known as telecollaboration, in which participants are from at least two different countries or communities. Conversely, intracultural CMC involves participants who share a native language (Abrams, 2006), and can be conducted within-class and out-of-class, i.e. on campus, at canteens or at home.

Intercultural CMC is exemplified in Ware and O’Dowd’s (2008) study. Spanish students learning English and American students learning Spanish exchanged online across the two countries over a year-long period in a telecollaborative research project. These students were required to write at least an essay in their foreign languages weekly. They were placed into pairs (one English native and one Spanish native) and then exchanged their writings through the function of asynchronous CMC in Blackboard for peer responses. Another similar telecollaborative language learning is found in Greenfield’s study (2003), which examined high school students’ attitudes toward and perceptions of a telecollaborative email exchange between a 10th grade English class in Hong Kong and an 11th grade English class in Iowa.

On the other hand, Liu and Sadler (2003) divided their EFL students in a large university into traditional group and technology-enhanced group. The two groups followed the same syllabus; but different from the traditional group who used pen and paper for their writing and editing, the technology-enhanced group exploited Microsoft Word for writing assignments and MOO for group discussion. The study, thereof, investigated whether differences in modes of interactions resulted in differences in students’ quality of peer revisions. Similarly, Beatty and Nunan (2004) also investigated intracultural CMCL. However, they examined group work at the computer, rather than via various CMC tools. Students in their study were divided into pairs, sitting and collaborating orally in front of the computer to solve various language tasks. The study strived to test the hypothesis that a constructivist interface generated greater collaboration than the behaviourist model of instruction.

3. CMC in language education

3.1 Pedagogical benefits of CMC

Since being applied to the educational environment, CMC is believed to offer a number of pedagogical applications. Numerous primary and secondary studies on didactic characteristics of both SCMC and ACMC have been published, through which educators are gradually realising their educational potential to the learning context. CMC is reported not only to support a range of learning activities such as discussions, role-play, and simultaneous games but also to serve different functions and learning goals. The applications of CMC, either intra-class or inter-class and with or without teachers, are hardly limited to any particular topic or discipline. CMC is seen a dynamic and adaptable application for educators and teachers who need to be familiar with its strengths, limitations, and weaknesses in order to improve pedagogical sound activities.

Within a socio cultural theory (SCT) framework, it is argued that “socialization and language acquisition cannot be separated from the interactive linguistic contexts in which they occur” (Kitade, 2000, p. 145). Looking from a SCT perspective, educational CMC offers a variety of potential benefits to human’s social and cultural development alongside language proficiency. CMC can be considered as one of the potential technical and linguistic mediators (Darhower, 2002) of the transformation process from lower mental functions to the higher, cultural functions (Vygotsky, 1978). In Vygotskian terms, CMC could be argued to give learners access to two types of mediators which develop their cognitive processes: psychological tools and other human beings. CMC allows learners to mediate their psychological processes by facilitating the exchange of text between human beings. In addition, CMC can assist learners to develop a greater sense of mastery if the conditions are right, i.e. if learners are working collaboratively on tasks or if learners are interacting with domain experts. In the case of language learning, these experts are native or proficient speakers of the target language. Darhower (2002) comparatively claimed that if mediational means are viewed as a series of items making up a “tool kit” (p. 253), CMC then should be considered as one of the items in the language learning tool kit. The social, cognitive, and affective functions found in CMC interactions in Darhower’s study are reported to be consonant with the SCT view of constructed second language learning.

A review of the literature on SCT in education also exposes that CMC not only provides opportunities for socialization, but also facilitates collaborative and comprehensible interaction (Kitade, 2000) together with reflective learning and learner autonomy (Benson, 2007). CMC facilitates the collaborative construction of knowledge through the social negotiation of ideas in an authentic context (Jonassen, 2004). In addition, it provides access to a variety of perspectives due to the fact that participants could be based in any number of different contexts. CMC also provides learners with opportunities to engage in activities which require them to perform relevant tasks with an emphasis on reflection and production. This kind of social interaction, according to Vygotsky (1978), promotes cognitive development.

Pedagogical features of CMC

features of CMC

Sample research

Mode of CMC



Increase motivation

Lee, 2004; Schwienhorst, 2004; Smith, 2003



Sotillo, 2000


Weasenforth, Biesenbach-Lucas, & Meloni, 2002


Support active learning

Warschauer, 1996


Lee, 2005


Bikowski & Kessler, 2002


Promote reflective learning

Swaffar, Romano, Markley, & Arens, 1998


Jonassen, 2004; Weasenforth, Biesenbach-Lucas, & Meloni, 2002


Enhance learner autonomy

Arnold, 2002; Payne & Whitney, 2002; Warschauer, 1996



Beauvois, 1995; Schwienhorst, 2004


Chiu, 2008


Foster collaborative learning

Darhower, 2002; Leahy, 2008; Warschauer, 1997


Abrams, 2005; Savignon & Roithmeier, 2004; Weasenforth et al., 2002


Presented in Table 1 is a summary of the pedagogical features of CMC reviewed from key studies. The principle pedagogical features to be discussed are believed to support the SCT view on CMC in education. It is also argued that there is a cause-effect relationship among these didactic features of CMC.

3.1.1 Motivation

Research has shown that learners’ motivation can be more positive in the CMC context than in FTF interaction (Beauvois, 1998). Interaction with a real, often international, audience in the target language via CMC may linguistically and socially affect the quality of online negotiation and students' motivation toward CMC (Lee, 2004). This authentic and meaningful type of interaction also supports learners to become more responsible and willing to engage in their own learning (Chen, 2005). Besides, many studies have reported that the level of motivation and attitudes towards learning during a CMC task is enhanced due to the interactive nature of the activity (D. M. Chun, 1994; Lee, 2004; Sotillo, 2000), which contributes to the reduction of shyness and anxiety about computer use. Another motivating factor of CMC is novelty; learners are exposed to a different type of language learning activity (Meunier, 1998). These aspects of the activity could be said to be unique, such as interacting with different people, meeting people from other countries, chatting in real time and using the computer to communicate. Students are fascinated by how the system works and are reported to write more due to the novelty factor (Felix, 2005), which then augment learners’ active learning.

3.1.2 Active learning

CMC is reported to support active learning, in which learners take the initiative to explore and manipulate information in the learning process. The literature on conditions for language learning and acquisition indicates that learning takes place when learners are active (Egbert, 2001; Lee, 2005; Warschauer, 1996); and active learning is one of the crucial elements creating a successful online learner-centred language learning environment (White, 2007). The electronic medium allows for more lateral exploration access as structured by learners who are given more freedom to discover alternative pathways to develop their one learning styles. Egbert (2001) also claimed that CMC can often make it easier to develop meaningful tasks during which language learners of any language level are active and have opportunities to interact. This idea is endorsed by Lee’s study (2005) on learners’ perspectives on online active learning. Lee confirmed the use of web-based instructional tool, like Blackboard or WebCT, not only facilitated the development of students’ language skills and reinforced their cognitive skills but also supported an active learning environment. It is reminded in Lee’s conclusion that “for online active learning to occur, both effective pedagogical principles including specific instructional goals and procedures, as well as technological tools must be thoughtfully taken into account at the stage of implementation” (p. 152).

3.1.3 Reflective learning

Reflective learning engages learners in evaluating their experiences, and is a trend in language learning. This style of learning, as one of the metalinguistic functions (Yamada & Akahori, 2007), is supported in CMC environments where learners have more time to reflect on others’ work than in FTF conversations. The idea is endorsed by Jonassen (2004), stating that CMC, especially ACMC, allows more time for reflection and referring to other electronic sources of information. Moreover, the asynchronous nature of the CMC medium not only allows learners to prepare their messages more carefully in a word processor but also is believed to invite quiet students to play more active roles since their more reflective learning styles are easily accommodated (Weasenforth et al., 2002). Finally, it is proved that with the social-oriented development of CMC technology, such as wikis and blogs, learners are able to more easily access people and knowledge in ways that encourage creative and reflective learning practices that extend beyond the boundaries of the school and the limits of formal education. 

3.1.4 Learner autonomy

Learner autonomy, a central but complicated concept in online learning (White, 2003), is defined by Sinclair (2000) as the notion of taking responsibility for one’s own learning and also associated with a number of other terms, such as learner independence, independent learning, lifelong learning, learning to learn, thinking skills. Advances in CMC technologies are encouraging the development and promotion of autonomy in language learning (Arnold, 2002; Benson, 2007; Chiu, 2008). Chiu’s study (2008), for example, asserted that there is a positive connection between CMC and learner autonomy in language education and that the use of networked computers not only shifts the authority from the teachers to learners but also provides opportunities for interactions, especially among learners. Online language learners automatically become partly interdependent of the teacher because of the easy availability of supporting tools such as online dictionaries, word processing tools, and the Internet which give students control over their own learning (Chapelle, 2001). In other words, it can be seen that the roles of the teacher as provider of information and the student as receptacle thereof have shifted radically in CMC environments (Nguyen, 2008). In addition, according to Toyoda and Harrison (Toyoda & Harrison, 2002), CMC technologies are getting more and more user-friendly, which results in the fact that the more learners get to know the tools, the more autonomy they develop. With CMC technologies, individuals are given the opportunity to move out of their individual comfort zones in order to participate productively and effectively in the learning process (Hoven, 2006).

Furthermore, by looking at three different approaches to learner autonomy, including an individual cognitive, a social-interactive, and an experimental-participatory perspective, Schwienhorst (2004) claimed that combinations of CMC technology and pedagogy can lead to more successful implementations of learner autonomy principles. In general, CMC provides an environment that promotes learners’ autonomy with the teacher as the facilitator (Warschauer, 1999), through which learners will be able to “experience autonomy in order to become more autonomous” (Murphy, 2008, p. 83) in a process of the so-called autonomisation as the results of their getting opportunities for more control, more participation, and more interaction via online exchanges, all of which are believed to be premises for collaboration.

3.1.5 Collaborative learning

Motivation, participation, reflection, and autonomy all play significant roles in collaborative learning (Figure 3); and all have been evidently researched in literature. In fact, online collaborative learning research in education in general and in language learning in particular has been widely published. The text-based nature of CMC has meant that collaboration has become a prime source of data for researchers from both interactionist and sociocultural approaches who are investigating second language acquisition. Online interaction environments, which involve active construction of knowledge, can be potentially used as a powerful tool for collaborative learning and group communication. CMC, according to Kaye (1989), can provide a valuable dimension to collaborative learning as it both fosters more equally distributed turn-taking and supports more thoughtfully composed inputs. Similarly, Harasim (2007) claimed that this technology provides a new way for interaction between teachers and learners and among learners themselves and this new form of online environment creates a new domain which facilitates collaborative learning.

Reviews on online collaborative learning started with Warschauer’s (1997) influential study, which discussed five distinguished features of CMC that were believed to enhance collaboration: (a) text-based and computer-mediated interaction, (b) many-to-many communication, (c) time/place-independence, (d) long distance exchanges, and (e) hypermedia links. Warschauer presented CMCL by using a conceptual framework starting with famous theories of input and output and leading to sociocultural learning theory. Later studies (Beatty & Nunan, 2004; Greenfield, 2003; Harasim, 2007; Marmini & Zanardi, 2007; Sotillo, 2006) have also shown the promising capacities of CMC in collaborative learning.

Figure 3. CMC pedagogical circle


3.2 Benefits of CMC in language development

Numerous studies have been devoted to CMC in language education so far (Kern, 2006; Kern & Warschauer, 2000; Luppicini, 2007; D. E. Murray, 2000; Romiszowski & Mason, 2004; Stockwell, 2007; Thorne, 2008a, 2008b). CMC is reported as a student-centred tool in language learning to facilitate interaction, discussion, and collaboration among learners from a variety of backgrounds. This enhances the social component of any course and gives learners access to multiple perspectives (Jonassen, 2004). All of the pedagogical benefits of CMC discussed above clearly support, augment, and enhance language development via electronic exchanges.

Presented in Tables 2, 3, and 4 below are both metalinguistic aspects that are believed to be effective for SLA and language areas and skills that language learners are able to develop through CMC environments (D. M. Chun, 2008; Lamy & Hampel, 2007; Levy & Stockwell, 2006; Thorne & Payne, 2005).

3.2.1 Metalinguistic aspects

A substantial number of CMC research has examined various metalinguistic aspects of language development, including negotiation of meaning, sociolinguistic environment, and intercultural competence (Table 2). A variety of studies, from either an interactionist approach or a sociocultural viewpoint to SLA have been conducted on negotiation of meaning and CMC (D. M. Chun, 2008). Covering the topic from different focuses and angles, previous studies have been proving that CMC, both ACMC (Kitade, 2006) and especially SCMC (Blake, 2000; O'Rourke, 2005; Pellettieri, 2000; Sotillo, 2005; Tudini, 2003) facilitates interaction and negotiation of meaning. Interestingly, as far as task types concerned, research ahs shown that while SCMC and ACMC may complement each other in completing different tasks leading to successful linguistic objectives (Ingram, Hathorn, & Evans, 2000).

CMC is also known for providing a profitable environment for sociolinguistic development (Kitade, 2000; Smith, 2003). Learners reflect less anxiety and increase self-esteem, thereby liberating the minorities (Honeycutt, 2001) during electronic communication than in face to face interactions, which has led students, often reluctant to participate in oral discussions, to contribute more actively in electronic discussions (Al-Sa’di & Hamdan, 2005). Similarly, data analysis in the study by Kitade (2000) revealed three salient distinctive interactional features of CMC which facilitated encouraging conditions for developing positive attitudes towards language learning: no turn-taking competition, text-based interaction, and a lack of nonverbal cues. Finally, intercultural competence (Abrams, 2006; Kramsch & Thorne, 2002; Ware & O'Dowd, 2008) is evident through CMC research as these tools provide “convenient, authentic, direct, and speed access to native speakers and their cultures” (Kramsch & Thorne, 2002, p. 100). According to D. M. Chun (2008), though many studies have focused on intercultural competence via both ACMC and SCMC, attention has also been paid to intracultural CMC in the EFL/ESL classroom (Abrams, 2006).

Benefits of CMC in metalinguistic aspects

Metalinguistic aspects

Sample research

Mode of CMC



of meaning

Blake, 2000; O'Rourke, 2005; Pellettieri, 2000; Shekary & Tahririan, 2006; Sotillo, 2005; Tudini, 2003; L. Wang, 2006



Sotillo, 2000; Toyoda & Harrison, 2002


Kitade, 2006


Sociolinguistic environment

Kern, 1995; Kitade, 2000; Warschauer, 1996


Schwienhorst, 2004

Intercultural & intracultural competence

Kramsch, A’Ness, & Lam, 2000; Sotillo, 2005; Thorne, 2003


Abrams, 2006; D. M. Chun & Wade, 2004; Kramsch & Thorne, 2002; Thorne, 2003


Itakura, 2004; O'Dowd, 2003; Ware & Kramsch, 2005; Ware & O'Dowd, 2008


3.2.2 Language areas and components

A number of studies, taking a more cognitive approach to SLA, have suggested an increase in linguistic competence, both quality and quantity, among learners (Table 3). The influential study by Kern (1995) revealed that CMC-supported learners created more language production that the FTF group. Kern found out that SCMC discussions produced between two and four times more turns, more sentences, and more words than in the oral discussions. This conclusion is later confirmed by Abrams (2003), who claimed that students produced more language in CMC environments, especially the SCMC, than the control group. Another beneficial effect is that CMC also fosters the improvement in linguistic and grammatical development, which is proved in Kern’s (1995) study, showing learners’ language production was at a greater level of sophistication regarding grammatical accuracy and complexity. Similarly, Shang (2007) demonstrated that the nature of CMC application promoted written accuracy and sentence complexity. In addition, previous studies also indicate that the delayed nature of ACMC exchanges appears to give learner more chances than SCMC to produce complex language (Sotillo, 2000).

Expectedly, not all studies release positive results. It is reported in Fitze’s (2006) study, for example, that there is no statistically significant difference in the number of words produced by students in CMC versus FTF discussions. However, the greater range of vocabulary is found in electronic exchanges than in FTF discussions (Fitze, 2006; Fuente, 2003; Li, 2000). Moving beyond the text-based CMC out to voice chat rooms, Jepson (2005) focused on the pronunciation when comparing the patterns of repair moves of non-native speakers in text chat rooms versus voice chat rooms. It is concluded that there are a higher number of total repair moves made in voice chats than in text chats, and that these repairs in voice chats are often pronunciation-related. To sum up, based on previous studies, CMC environments enhance the improvement and development of various language areas and components.

Table 3
Benefits of CMC in language areas or components

Language areas
or components

Sample research

Mode of CMC




Bax, 2003; Fiori, 2005; Fitze, 2006; Kern, 1995;
Lee, 2006; M. R. Salaberry, 2000; Sotillo, 2005;
Van Deusen-Scholl, Frei, & Dixon, 2005



Abrams, 2003; Dussias, 2006; Honeycutt, 2001; Sotillo, 2000


Gonzalez-Bueno & Perez, 2000; Li, 2000;
Shang, 2007



Fitze, 2006; Fuente, 2003; Toyoda & Harrison, 2002



Fotos, 2004; Li, 2000



Jepson, 2005


3.2.3 Language skills

Both written and spoken language skills are enhanced through various CMC in language learning projects (Table 4). In fact, there is a common tendency to associate CMC with the development of specific language skills (Levy & Stockwell, 2006). Authentic communication through CMC, especially ACMC, is reported to develop writing skill due to the fact various forms of text-based CMC resemble written language and allow more time, more autonomy, and more opportunity for learners to brainstorm and discuss the topic among groups, in comparison with in-class teacher-fronted writing classes (Davis & Thiede, 2000). Also, the teacher is able to participate in collaborative activities, thus models the writing process in real time and real situation, thereby creating the Vygotsky’s concept of ZPD. Improvement in reading abilities is also provided via CMC. Authentic interactions in ACMC, such as email, blog, and wikis, provide meaningful reading for learners (Levy & Stockwell, 2006). In addition, during text chat exchanges, learners are more adept at skimming and scanning at rapid speeds in order to follow and participate fully in the conversation thread (Godwin-Jones, 2008).

Furthermore, possibility for cross-modality transfer between real time, online conversational exchange text and oral language production has recently mentioned in various CMC projects (D. M. Chun, 2008; Lund, 2006; Thorne & Payne, 2005). The hypothesis that SCMC may improve speaking proficiency has been tested by Payne and Whitney (2002), who found that participants in a chatroom have a significantly higher oral proficiency than those just spending time in traditional oral classes. This obvious benefit of CMC for speaking competence is confirmed by Dussias (2006), who suggested that the language competence mediated via CMC appeared to readily transfer to spontaneous oral language production. In general, as learners traverse the boundary zone, they introduce language elements from one modality to another (Lund, 2006).

Table 4

Benefits of CMC in language skills development

Language skills

Sample research

Mode of CMC




Li, 2000



Blake, 2000


Davis & Thiede, 2000; Meunier, 1998



Godwin-Jones, 2008; Greenfield, 2003



Fotos, 2004; Gruber-Miller & Benton, 2001


Stockwell, 2003



S. Chun, 2003; Jepson, 2005; Payne & Whitney, 2002; Tudini, 2005


Abrams, 2003; Dussias, 2006



Volle, 2005


To recap, the text-based nature of CMC brings about many meaningful applications in language education. This medium, according to Blake (2000), Hampel and Hauck (2004), and Y. Wang (2004), not only amplifies students’ attention to linguistic forms, but it also stimulates increased written production of the target language as well as creates a less stressful and more equitable environment for discussion. It can therefore be seen from the tables that CMC has been used widely in developing most of language areas and skills, except for listening skill which is normally supported and developed through other forms of visual and audio technology (Blake, 2000).

4 Conclusion

The discussion has shown that CMC with its particular characteristics, modes, and scopes possesses potential benefits applicable to language development, from metalinguistic aspects to language components and skills. The conclusion drawn from the article will hopefully sketch an overall picture of naturally integrating CMC into language education. This will then foster a confident attitude among language institutes and teachers in bringing various CMC types into language classroom settings.

However, as far as SCT is concerned, “one size fits all” is not certainly pertinent to the prospect of integrating CMC into language education in all contexts. This opens a wide avenue of inquiry for language practitioners and researchers. In other words, more comprehensive studies about the introduction and application of CMC into language learning and teaching in different sociocultural, institutional, and individual contexts are required. Let us take research on computer mediated collaborative learning in language development as an example. Even though collaborative approaches to foreign language learning via various forms of CMC have now been well established with a theoretical underpinning (Warschauer, 1997), there are still questions left unanswered. What actually is CMC in regard to collaborative learning? What are the unique social activities of the online collaborative environment? What theories and forms of collaboration can be applied in the CMC environment? What are learners really doing in the process of online collaboration? How do learners view CMC and what are they doing in collaborative processes? Does proficient collaboration in CMC contribute to language improvement? How may differences in learners’ sociocultural backgrounds affect the learning process? How can SCMC and ACMC complement each other in collaboration? And most importantly, how can CMC be naturally immersed into the collaborative learning so that the use of computers should not be framed as a special case but rather as an integral aspect of foreign language education? As a result, further research on authentic online collaborative learning is needed.


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About the Author

Long V Nguyen has been a lecturer in English at the University of Danang, Vietnam since 1996. He received his MA in TESOL Studies from the University of Queensland, Australia in 2005. Long is now a doctoral candidate in the Applied Linguistics program at the School of Language Studies, Massey University, New Zealand. His research interests are in the areas of educational communication and technology use in foreign language learning and language teacher education.

Long V Nguyen
School of Language Studies
Massey University
Palmerston North City
New Zealand


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