Students’ use of English outside the classroom and its impact on teaching the four skills: a best practice example of an online writing project

Mag.Dr. Marlene Miglbauer
University of Applied Sciences Wiener Neustadt, Austria

Tuula Kotikoski
Senior Lecturer
JAMK University of Applied Sciences, Jyväskylä, Finland



This paper discusses the results of a survey of about 160 students at two tertiary education institutions in Austria and one in Finland against the background of teaching the four skills in the English for Specific Purposes classroom. The informants completed a paper-based questionnaire on the topic of their use of social media and their use of the English language in this particular context. The paper addresses the students’ usage habits and practices regarding social media; the kinds of different English learning needs and skills the students have developed; and what impact these results may have on teaching English at tertiary level. The results show that a high percentage of students use English in social media. Yet, a closer look at their practices reveals a focus on receptive rather than productive language use. Drawing upon these results, this presentation presents a best practice example of an online writing project between Austrian and Finnish Bachelor students,  which we instigated to complement the students’ use and skills of English.


The use of social media has changed people’s communicative patterns over the last 10 years by enabling users  “to create, distribute, share and manipulate different types of content, most of them publicly accessible” (Zourou 2012:5). The first social media application was myspace in 2003, followed by the now big players Facebook 2004, Youtube 2005 and Twitter 2006. The advent of social media has also instigated the move from web 1.0 to web 2.0, which is an evolution from the linking of information (web 1.0) to the linking of people (web 2.0) (Warschauer & Grimes 2007). This means that the introduction of new technologies and people being more easily linked on a more global scale has impacted new communicative practices.

Research on these changing communicative patterns and in particular the use of social media among students has been addressed by studies which span a range of geographical settings. Whereas most studies (e.g. Kleimann et al. 2008 and Nagler & Ebner 2009, Smith & Caruso 2010) focus on which types of social media are used, Margaryan et al. 2011 went one step further and researched how different types of social media are used. Hargittai 2010 is an example of a set of studies focusing on social variables and social media use.

Another set of research deals with the use of social media in connection with language learning & teaching focusing on different foci (e.g. Lamy & Hampel 2007, Garcia-Martin et al. 2013; Salminen 2014). The special issues by Hrastinski & Dennen and Demaiziere & Zourou consist of (case) studies on how social media can be used to support learning, collaboration and community in higher education contexts. These context-specific, tool-related studies emphasize the learning paradigms that underlie the use of the tool (Facebook, virtual games, Livemocha) and they highlight the need to approach web 2.0 supported language education not as a “generalized” concept. Regarding the implementation of social media in teaching, one finding by Reinhardt & Zander (2011) stands out. They found in this context that learners may actually resist educational use of social media when it conflicts with traditional forms of instruction.

In order to shed some light to new communicative practices among our students as well as experience with social media in learning and teaching, a survey was carried out in order to address the following three points:

1) What are students’ usage habits and practices in online communication?
2) Which role does English play in their on and offline communication?
3) Which implications can be drawn from these results for teaching English as a foreign language?

Survey results – a snapshot

Today’s results originate from a questionnaire survey that was done in the winter term 2014/15 with 163 students studying either Business Administration, Media studies, Engineering, and Sports in their first year in their Bachelor programme. The questionnaire was presented in German to the Austrian and in English to the Finnish students. There are 41 questions, which have been adapted by Melton et al. (2014) who were doing a survey on FB and twitter use in the USA, Australia and Austria, the National Survey of the English Language (2011) in Finland and some additional questions on social media and language learning. The data was analysed quantitatively with the statistics programme SPSS.

Below is an overview of which platforms were used most often, how much students use English in their online communication and information on the differences between Austrian and Finnish students.

The three main players in regard to social media applications used by the students are Facebook (89%), Youtube (87%) and Whatsapp (84%). Twitter, for example, is not very popular among the students, only 24% have a Twitter account and the majority of the Twitter users are rather passive users. As Facebook is the most widely used social media application among our students, let’s have a closer look at the students’ use of Facebook. 91% of the students have had their account for more than three years and 83% access Facebook at least once a day. Almost three quarters of the students state that they have considerable experience with and are well versed in using Facebook.

We were also interested in the role English plays in the students’ everyday online communication. 77% say that they use English in their social network communication and of these students, 65% use English in up to one-quarter of their communication. A closer look at these data reveals interesting details. Whereas close to 30% of the Austrian students never use English, only 11% of the Finnish counterparts’ online communication does not occur in English. In both cohorts most students use English in up to 25% of their online communication. Whereas the percentage of students who use English as an equal or even dominant language in their online communication decreases among the Austrian students, this number increases among the Finnish students. 22% of the Finnish students use English in 75-100% of their communication, while that number is below 5% among the Austrian students.

Looking at the results of what English is used for online, the results reveal a heavy leaning on information search, reading news and chatting to other people. Looking at the results of what is English used for in on- and offline contexts, the results do not change but underline the fact that the receptive oriented skills are mainly used, such as listening to music, reading web pages and emails, listening to English in films, before more productive skills are used by slightly more than 40% of the students like writing blogs/postings/emails/notes and speaking to friends.

However, what the data also reveals is another difference between the Austrian and Finnish students. Finnish students are generally more exposed to English and use English more regularly than their Austrian counterparts (e.g. reading webpages (77% vs 100%), or writing blogs/postings (25% vs. 83%)).

Taking these results into considerations (focus on receptive skills, English still most often used at university, the Finnish students more versed in using English), we have decided to act upon these results in our teaching. We considered we could complement their skills by exposing students with different mother tongues to each other through an online writing project. By doing so we would implement a social media aspect to our teaching as well as help them further on their way to become fully functional English language users.

The best practice example: FINAUT – an online writing Project

Creating connections is just the beginning of a project, the actual work only starts here and it is the teachers’ job to utilize the environment and the tools provided there the best they can. In our case, the actual work started in September 2014 when we were looking for a good platform to implement our idea of a joint writing project for the students at JAMK University of Applied Sciences and Fachhochschule Wiener Neustadt. We ruled out Optima (used by JAMK) and Moodle (used by FH Wiener Neustadt) and instead chose Edmodo due to its usability: it was easy to create a new workspace with two administrators, add tasks and invite students to create their own user profiles there.

When starting an international co-operation with a partner university, the first item on the agenda is understanding the partner and finding out about the implementation of their language studies in order to find a “perfect match” for the students on both sides. JAMK University of Applied Sciences (further: JAMK) is located in Central Finland, Jyväskylä and has 8,000 students and over 30 degree programmes. JAMK has only one compulsory English course for all degree students on bachelor level, 4 ECTS at present. Fachhochschule Wiener Neustadt (further: FH WN), on the other hand has 3400 students and 31 degree programmes. English is a compulsory subject in each Bachelor’s programme. In the Bachelor’s programme Business Consultancy (where the online writing project was implemented), the students have five English courses with a total of 11 ECTS throughout their studies.

One important aspect also taken into account when trying to find perfect matches and common areas of student interests was  “Internationalisation at Home” – a way to bring authentic material and real persons into language classrooms located 2,000 km away from each other. This fits nicely into the European Commission’s project of ‘virtual mobility’ (European Commission 2009). Our objective was also to let the students talk to fellow students relatively freely without any formality issues not just about themselves but also about intercultural topics and perhaps discuss differences between their education systems, free time etc.

Once Edmodo was tested and found functional for the purposes of the writing course a workspace was created for two student groups. The first year IT engineering students expressed their interest in this pilot project and FH WN invited first year Business Consultancy students to participate. Marlene Miglbauer was in charge of the technical aspects since she knew the platform from previous language courses. Altogether there were 43 students who signed in our online writing project between students of JAMK Jyväskylä und FH Wiener Neustadt instigated and led by Tuula Kotikoski and Marlene Miglbauer. The online writing project was a part of the Finnish students’ first obligatory English course, English for Working Life (4 ECTS).


The first messages written by the students were enthusiastic and most of the Finnish and Austrian students found this project very exciting. Some students complained about the work load of the English course as there were also other written tasks to write. The Finnish group had a vocational qualification background, i.e. they had finished a vocational education and were qualified IT assemblers or electricians, which meant they had less English studies before entering JAMK than the students with high school diplomas. They did not have any routine in writing paragraphs or essays, precisely the reason why they were selected as pilot group for this project. In contrast, paragraph writing was an essential part in the English course the Austrians attended and this online writing project provided them with a space in which they could practice their paragraph writing skills. We wanted to offer the students a chance to express their opinions and exchange ideas and thoughts with students from a different country in a closed group in Edmodo, which is a social media application. We knew they spend plenty of their free time in social media and thus, Edmodo should have been an easy media for them

What next?

We will continue our project together in the academic year 2015 – 2016 and possibly include students from another University of Applied Sciences into our project team. Based on our pilot online writing project, we need to make a few improvements. First, students need to be assigned to smaller groups before the first task. Interacting with 3 other students is much easier than with a faceless group of 20 students. Second, the instructions must be slightly simpler and the tasks compulsory for all students in order to pass the English course. And third, we might want to consider using a different social media platform. Salminen (2014) who researched the effective use of Facebook for student-to-student assistance in Finland found that due to the daily ritual to use FB and its easy use, communication on the FB group that he studied continued after the end of the course and thus may be preferred over traditional virtual learning environment communities.


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