Innovation in Language Learning

Edition 12

Accepted Abstracts

Online informal learning of English: how students use technology to supplement classes

Ruth Trinder, Vienna University of Economics and Business (Austria)


Students form their own conceptions about how languages are learnt and which resources and environments are beneficial. Based on a recent survey amongst Austrian ESP students, this talk aims to identify the reasons governing students’ preferences concerning technologies for language learning. The data suggests that students are well aware of the complexity of the language learning process and adept at recognizing the affordances of technologies to match individual needs, aims and interests – without disregarding the benefits of formal instruction.

In Austria, where the penetration of smartphones and high-speed internet is above European average, students have easy and cheap access to a wide array of technologies, employing them regularly for entertainment, personal communication and information seeking. Downloading services and streaming now make English-language films and TV series available in a country where ‘regular’ TV only shows dubbed versions; social media offer membership and interaction opportunities in international communities. With the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and netbooks, this means that students are increasingly exposed to English in informal settings.

Given that opportunities for incidental as well as deliberate practice of English have thus multiplied and far exceed what can be done in more formal environments, ‘Online Informal Learning of English’ (Sockett 2014) clearly deserves more attention. Despite the sizeable literature on learner perceptions of specific digital resources, few studies have investigated the unscheduled, impromptu, out-of-class use of technologies. I will present data on how Austrian business students practice informal learning using digital tools, focusing in particular on their views of the usefulness of some resources for specific language competencies – and their reservations concerning some others. Wherever possible, students’ evaluations will be juxtaposed with outcomes from the research literature.

In some cases, student assessment of the effectiveness of particular resources conflicts with research evidence. What is more, different research outcomes on the same technology may be hard to compare – or even contradictory – due to different research designs and learning contexts. ‘Effectiveness’ of resources will always depend on individual learner needs and interests as well as on the affordances of the technology itself. Despite these caveats, it is important for teachers to be aware of students’ practices to be able to help them make more informed choices. Whilst it may not always be expedient to accommodate student preferences directly by integrating media into the classroom, raising awareness about the benefits of underused resources, exploring reasons for use and rejection, and developing/discussing strategies to better exploit digital tools are valuable steps towards promoting optimal use of technology for language learning.

Sockett, G. (2014) The Online Informal Learning of English.

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