Engaging language learners online: roles, methods and practice in blended learning environments

Birgit Phillips
Senior Lecturer & English Language Coordinator
Burgenland University of Applied Sciences, Austria

Urn-address: http://urn.fi/urn:nbn:fi:jamk-issn-2343-0281-4


This paper describes the implementation of blended learning in the course “English for Health Professionals I”, a mandatory course in the first semester of three Bachelor programs at the FH Burgenland, using Moodle. It describes the transition from a face-to-face learning environment to a blended environment, including the challenges involved, the changed roles of students and teachers, and the blended-learning activities created. The paper then highlights some key results from a student survey regarding the perceived benefits and drawbacks of the system and mentions some important lessons learned during the implementation, as well as some planned future improvements.


In fall 2014 blended learning was implemented in the course “English for Health Professionals I”, a mandatory course in the first semester of three Bachelor programs (i.e. Nursing, Physiotherapy, Health Management and Health Promotion) at the FH Burgenland using the Moodle platform. The central learning objective for this course is to provide students with opportunities to expand their topic-specific vocabulary through exposure to healthcare-related language used in diverse contexts. Teaching English in this program involves a specific challenge. Since English is a secondary subject in the program, the levels of motivation vary widely. While some students consider English an important subject, others are skeptical of its value. To overcome this challenge, I have found it most effective to develop activities that are based on healthcare topics and provide creative opportunities for self-expression. The content captures the students’ interest, while the creative opportunity increases their motivation to express themselves to the best of their ability.

Designing learning activities

In designing learning activities, I draw on two overarching didactic principles – learner autonomy and collaborative learning. The educational concept of learner autonomy shifts the focus from the teacher to the learner and seeks to empower learners by providing a certain level of freedom to learn in their own ways (Holec, 1981), while collaborative learning encourages students to learn both inside and outside the classroom via interaction with other learners. The incorporation of multi-media-based, interactive technologies into higher education has opened up a wide range of tools that are ideally suited for fostering learner autonomy and collaborative learning, including blogs, discussion forums, wikis, social bookmarking, and many more. Such tools encourage active exploratory learning and allow students to communicate, create, share, publish, and reflect on their work and the work of their peers.

Survey results

For the purpose of the aforementioned course, I created activities that required some level of collaborative effort and allowed students to benefit from each other’s skills and knowledge. After the first semester, I conducted a survey to capture student perceptions of blended learning activities. The sample consisted of 91 first semester students with a response rate of 87% (n= 79). At the most general level, 100% of the students indicated overall satisfaction with blended learning. More specifically, the students were asked to rate the helpfulness of the different activities in terms of learning English. The highest-rated activity (98.8% very helpful or helpful) was an interactive glossary created via student collaboration on the Google Drive platform. This showed that technology can bring a new level of interest to something as basic as a vocabulary list. The second-highest-rated activity (96.2% very helpful or helpful) was a lesson about Advergames used by corporations to get children hooked on their products. The lesson included a reading comprehension, a podcast listening activity and a subsequent quiz. In the comments section of the survey, the students expressed their appreciation for the fact that they can complete such assignments at their own speed (e.g. listen to the podcast multiple times) and they receive instant feedback on the quiz (i.e. explanations for incorrect answers).

Using podcast

The principle blended learning assignment was a project in which students created their own podcasts. Dale and Povey (2009) found that creating a podcast increased students’ intrinsic motivation to research and engage with the activity, while Amstrong et. al. showed that producing podcasts gives students a sense of ownership of their efforts by turning them into knowledge creators and “provides engaging opportunities for students to develop desirable skills as digital storytellers” (2009, p.88). In the present example, the students were given significant freedom in the design and form of the podcast to encourage them to invest time and creative energy in their podcasts. In addition to enhancing their digital literacy skills, the goal was to improve their fluency and speaking confidence. In the end, only a disappointing 63.3% of the students found the podcast helpful or very helpful. Follow-up discussions with the students revealed that this number may have been lower than the others because some students simply did not want to invest the necessary time in a project for a “secondary subject”, while others struggled somewhat with the technology.

Lessons learned

This leads to the final area of consideration – lessons learned. First, when implementing blended learning, it is important to bear in mind that many students lack experience with the technologies involved. In the present case, only 19.2 % of the students had had a blended learning English course before coming to university. It is important to provide the students with sufficient information and guidance on how to use new technologies. The present survey showed that in-class discussions (e.g. sample walkthroughs of key procedures or tasks) were the most effective way of familiarizing the students with the material, and after one semester, 84.8% of the students felt very confident or confident using Moodle. A second important lesson was that it is important to carefully coordinate in-class and online activities when implementing new technologies. One online forum, in which students exchanged ideas about a controversial health-related topic, received slightly lower ratings (84.4% very helpful or helpful) because students had trouble keeping track of what was happening when. In short, students who are not accustomed to self-regulated learning require clear and consistent communication to help them adjust to this new learning ethos. In addition to explaining the “how”, it is also crucial to explain the “why” in order to raise their awareness of the pedagogical objectives of the activity and encourage the development of meta-cognitive skills. To this end, one future plan is to use a learning journal, in which students will comment upon the different learning activities in terms of how the activity was run, their own performance, and what they learned. These journals will help to improve the activities, and, more importantly, they will encourage the students to think about their own behaviors and what they could do to make improvements on their end as well.


Armstrong G.R., Tucker, J.M., & Massad, V.J. (2009) Interviewing the Experts: Student Produced Podcast.  In: Journal of Information Technology Education: Innovations in Practice. Vol. 8. IIP-79-89.

Dale, C., & Povey, G. (2009) An evaluation of learner-generated content and podcasting. In: Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport & Tourism Education, 8(1), 117-123.

Holec, Henri (1981) Autonomy and Foreign Language Learning, Oxford: Pergamon Press.

URN: http://urn.fi/urn:nbn:fi:jamk-issn-2343-0281-4