impact of online social presence on Omani students’ willingness to communicate in English

Due to the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic, higher education institutions in Oman are moving fast to the transition from face-to-face instruction to emergency remote teaching and, then, to blended learning which is a combination of face-to-face learning and online learning. Dr Said Al-Amrani, an assistant Professor at Sohar University, in collaboration with Dr Michael Harrington, an Associate Professor at The University of Queensland in Australia, published a research paper in an international Scopus-indexed journal titled ‘the impact of online social presence on Omani female students’ willingness to communicate in English.’ “Social presence” is a concept that describes a set of influences on online interaction and online L2 learning. It is defined as an individual’s degree of awareness of another person during an interaction online, and the consequent sense of an interpersonal relationship.

The study reports the findings of one of the first research projects to examine the impact of student online social presence, an emerging concept in computer-mediated communication (CMC), on learners’ willingness to communicate (WTC) in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in Oman. It also examines how learners’ WTC is affected by CMC based activities that were specifically designed to address WTC for Omani EFL students. The study took place at Sohar University, the first private university in Oman, where English is the medium of instruction. The explanatory study used a mixed-method research design. The participants first answered questionnaires before and after completing online communication tasks. Volunteer students were then invited to follow-up interviews in order to expand and elaborate on their questionnaire responses.

The findings of the study support the positive influence of text-based CMC activities on students’ self-perceived communication competence in English, which in turn boosted their WTC. Levels of significance between students’ WTC varied considerably according to communication contexts (small groups, large groups) and interlocutor types (friends, acquaintances, and strangers). Interestingly, most respondents reported that they were more willing to communicate in online environments than in face-to-face environments, but the low social presence of the text-based CMC environment used in this study (discussion boards, chat rooms, emails) seems to have affected the participants' WTC negatively. Students indicated that some aspects of online social contexts, including limited keyboard skills, lack of immediacy, inadequately structured discussion, and limited interactivity had negative effects on their online WTC in English.

The study has a number of pedagogical implications which can help EFL instructors to better understand their students’ communicative behaviours and enhance their digital fluency, with an aim to increase learning engagement levels, improve overall foreign language proficiency, and increase WTC in EFL settings. For instance, to enhance online social presence, language instructors should work to improve students' keyboarding skills and train them to employ some online learning strategies like the use of spell check, grammar check, and auto spelling. It is also recommended that instructors use appropriate paralanguage and emoticons in text-based CMC. At the same time, it is important to be aware that overuse may result in confusion and perceptions of insincerity and impoliteness. Another possible means of boosting online social presence in Omani EFL settings is to keeping the number of students in real-time discussions small, encouraging students to listen, privately asking those who remain quiet to participate in conversations, and monitoring discussions. In addition, students should be familiar with the different features and message styles of each CMC system, including email, discussion boards, and real-time discussion (chat room).

In conclusion, the study presented empirical data that assess factors related to students’ interactions via text-based CMC, including their appreciation of the medium, their strengths in using it, and their preferences for online learning, and considered how these findings could help in designing language learning environments that build on students’ digital fluency to increase engagement levels, foreign language proficiency, and WTC in EFL settings. It provided an in-depth examination of how learners’ WTC changed through involvement with synchronous and asynchronous CMC-based activities that were specifically designed to address Arab EFL students’ WTC in Oman.

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