Twitter for Academic Writing
Presentation given at English Teachers Association Korea (ETAK) Conference in Daejeon, Korean on June 11, 2011
Full paper provided below.
Twitter for Academic Writing
Daniel A. Craig
The use of and interest in microblogging technologies like Twitter and Me2Day has exploded over the last year. These disruptive services are changing the ways in which the Web is written. Suddenly, the Short Message Service (SMS) format popular in private telephone communications was released into public view. 140 characters became a new boundary for public discourse. Naturally, researchers and educators immediately began to wonder what role, if any, this mode of communication has in education. Some worry about the artificially constrained limits on writing and the tendency for use of abbreviations and “text-speak”, while others highlight the benefits of interacting with authentic audiences and extending writing outside of the classroom. This paper will describe the outcomes from two years (four semesters) of experimentation with and use of Twitter with English for Academic Purposes (AEP) writing classes at a Korean university. Design-based research led to iterative implementations of an instructional system that eventually balanced the needs for writing instruction, communication, and learner satisfaction. Successes, failures, and the resulting model for the implementation of AEPmicroblogging will be discussed.
Keywords: Microblogging, Twitter, Writing, EAP, ESP
Microblogging seemed to begin as a technology in search of a need. Few people initially saw the benefits offered by the various microblogging services. Before long, however, use cases emerged as naturally evolving systems form around microblogging services like Twitter. A community of users and developers took the basic platform of the service and shaped it to meet their needs. Standards began to form around practices for replying (@), forwarding (RT), keywords (#), and direct messaging (D). Twitter was like a ball of clay that people could form to meet their own needs in a multitude of ways.
There was, and continues to be, skepticism over whether Twitter with its 140 character limit could really benefit education. Many language educators in particular had similar doubts, many mirroring the ongoing debate over Short Message Service (SMS). Concerns reflected the perceived inability to communicate effectively in so few characters, and the accompanying abbreviations, acronyms, and slang that seem to mark much of Twitter discourse. Others warn over the seeming lack of context and the inability to convey subtle meanings over such a text medium. Even many who support the use of Twitter do so primarily due to its benefits as a written medium and its corresponding benefit for authentic written interaction in an increasingly text-connected world.
This ball of clay, however, continues to be molded by its users. Educators are shaping both technologies and methods around Twitter (and other microblogging solutions) to fit the needs of their classrooms. Many use Twitter for class communication, the extension of class beyond the classroom walls, and to general building and strengthen classroom communities. Twitter can be seen as way to provide information and links to resources for the whole class as well as a medium for providing individualized instruction. Social studies teachers have begun accounts for famous historical figures and “Tweeted” their lives as if they were living historical events now. Language Arts teachers have done the same with characters from the literature they are addressing in class. In addition, they are having learners write their own stories 140 characters at a time, either independently or collaboratively. A number of creative uses of the service seem to emerge each day from a variety of educators around the globe.
Language educators in particular have taken part in both the effectiveness debate and the innovation in use of Twitter. Given the cross-disciplinary nature of language teaching, it is easy to see how the uses of Twitter intersect with those in the content areas. The same general instructional uses hold true for language instruction: community-building, class communication, resource sharing, and so forth. In addition, diverse learning objectives found in most language classes can be at least partially addressed through the guided use of Twitter, including linguistic, cultural, and social objectives.
Very few academic articles have been written directly about the use of microblogging services like Twitter in education. The literature is primarily dedicated to technical and network analyses of the technology. A larger network of educational practitioners, however, has actively explored and published their thoughts and experiences on the use of Twitter in education using Twitter itself, as well as blogs and other online social networks. Therefore, this literature review focuses on the theoretic constructs and rationales for the design of language instruction using Twitter and the barriers to implementation that could arise.
Educators are shaping both technologies and methods around Twitter (and other microblogging solutions) to fit the needs of their classrooms. Many use Twitter for class communication, the extension of class beyond the classroom walls, and to general building and strengthen classroom communities. Twitter can be seen as way to provide information and links to resources for the whole class as well as a medium for providing individualized instruction. Social studies teachers have begun accounts for famous historical figures and “Tweeted” their lives as if they were living historical events now. Language Arts teachers have done the same with characters from the literature they are addressing in class. In addition, they are having learners write their own stories 140 characters at a time, either independently or collaboratively. A number of creative uses of the service seem to emerge each day from a variety of educators around the globe. Tom Barrett (n.d.) put together a list of 33 interesting ways to use Twitter in the classroom (http://www.ideastoinspire.co.uk/twitter
The Output Hypothesis (Swain, 1985) figures heavily into linguistic justifications for the use of Twitter. Swain pictured Comprehensible Output as an extension to and companion for Comprehensible Input (Krashen, 1982). She posits that there are three functions of output in second language learning: noticing/triggering function, hypothesis-testing function, and metalinguistic function.
The noticing/triggering function arises when the language learner attempts to produce language, externally or internally, and notices that their production does not convey their intended meaning adequately. This noticing of a gap in their interlanguage requires that they produce the language. For this reason, teachers must present opportunities for production. Twitter provides this opportunity in written form. It can be seen as particularly valuable for noticing as production is limited (140 characters) and focused.
After noticing a gap in language, learners then utilize the hypothesis-testing function. In this function, learners create a hypothesis for how to form the language for which they have noticed a gap. This modified language is then produced in order to receive feedback. In essence, does it work as predicted or not. Twitter provides not only for an opportunity to write, but also for the opportunity for that writing to be seen and evaluated by others. Through the formation of “follower” networks in Twitter, learner can have dozens or even thousands of readers with the potential for receiving feedback from all.
The metalinguistic function of output takes in any feedback received to determine whether the language produced as part of the hypothesis testing was effective. Exchanges that result from the utterance can form the learner’s understanding of which language constructions optimally meet their communication goals. Twitter enables learners to form robust networks of “followers” who can provide the feedback necessary for learners to gage the effectiveness of their writing. This medium also allows for one-on-one or one-to-many exchanges in order to negotiate meaning. The potential for interaction and not simply broadcasting is the real power of Twitter. Through these exchanges, learners can determine if the need has been met or if there is a need for further modification of output for optimal communication.
Ideally, the use of Twitter for language learning would require that each of these functions were utilized and, thus, that not only learner performed their role, but that their “followers” performed their roles. Any attempt to design instruction using Twitter must take these requirements into account and provide clear pathways to fulfill them through appropriate scaffolding.
There is a need for language teachers to focus on the cultures in which a language is used (Kramsch, 1995). To truly separate language and culture is not possible as meaning is conveyed in culturally mediated spaces. Thus, the call for authentic contexts and tasks in language learning has been a focus of much language teaching in recent years (Gilmore, 2007).
The World Wide Web has provided teachers and learners with innumerable resources from news outlets to historical documents and speeches to the latest television programs and movies. There is more content available online than one could process in many lifetimes. However, only with the recent focus on read/write technologies (Web 2.0) has there been relative ease in both producing content and receiving feedback regarding that content (O’Reilly, 2005). These interactive technologies now enable us to go beyond static Web pages and media. Now learners can easily contact others throughout the world to exchange insights.
Twitter provides a platform for communication that people use for the very purpose of engagement. Contacting a user of Twitter is not as invasive as making a telephone call or even sending an email. There is little expectation of privacy with Twitter as the primary purpose of the service is to form and strengthen personal and professional networks. There is an expectation that strangers will follow and even contact you.
In this way, Twitter provides a platform for cultural exchange and engagement. For this to be beneficial for learners, they must “follow” other users who fit into this cultural exchange agenda. These could be other professionals in their field, international friends, relevant representatives from entertainment and politics, or even organizations. Thus, there is a need to design not only tasks that require information gathering from and interaction with those in the target culture, but also a real need for course requirements and instruction focusing on network-building.
To fulfill cultural tasks included above, it is beneficial to encourage social behaviors through Twitter. Most language classes meet for relatively short periods a few times a week. Estimates of the time required to learn English indicate that learning English a few hours each week would require many years to reach advanced proficiency (Thomas & Collier, 2002). For this reason, teachers have long tried to extend learning outside of the classroom. Twitter is one mechanism that can do so. Twitter can be used to strengthen relationships in class networks and to interact with a larger, extended network.
Twitter can be used as both a semi-synchronous and an asynchronous social communication channel. Depending on the Twitter client being used, users can receive messages nearly instantly or within the parameters set for the client’s refresh rate. At the same time, Twitter does not rely on co-presence, which means that messages will remain until they are ready to be processed and potentially answered. In addition, Twitter can be used as a social distribution channel for links to media such as text, images, audio, and video. These attributes make Twitter a flexible, powerful means for communication that goes beyond merely the text.
Sharing ideas, punctuated with a variety of media can promote cohesion within the learner’s network as well as with their class. Social presence (Gunawardena, 1995) is a concept discussed throughout distance education literature. The idea is that by interacting with learners and encouraging them to interact with each other, teachers can provide a more engaging and compelling virtual learning environment. Much of this community-building happens in face-to-face classrooms; however, relationships can be strengthened through more frequent and less constrained interactions in online spaces such as Twitter.
The challenge in designing language instruction with Twitter is to actively model and support social interaction. Modeling social interaction means that the teacher must engage learners within Twitter and encourage two-way communication. Supporting social interaction requires that teachers provide incentives for interacting with the teacher and other students within this virtual space. This could include grading requirements, assignments, and the establishment of regular, monitored group interactions within Twitter.
Twitter is a versatile tool that has much potential for language instruction. However, in addition to the design considerations mentioned above, there are some barriers to the use of Twitter that must be carefully dealt with. Some of the potential barriers are common issues regarding technology use in the classroom, such as student and teacher comfort with technology in general and lack of access to the best equipment. Other issues are unique to Twitter such as the new lexis and concepts related to use of the service and privacy concerns.
Implementing a new technology is impacted by both teachers’ and students’ comfort level with the specific technology and technology overall. Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation (1962) holds that for any technology there is aadoption curve. In Twitter’s timeline, we are likely in the early majority stage of uptake (Innovator, Early Adopter, Early Majority, Late Majority, Laggard) and in Korea I would even argue that we may be closer to Early Adopter. Given the relatively recent introduction of this technology, it is safe to assume that there are many users who will be unfamiliar and uncomfortable with it. Therefore, it is essential for instructional designers to build familiarization activities into instruction. Modeling, training, and time for uptake are necessary prior to optimal usage of the technology.
The use of Twitter requires the use of new lexis that, though limited, can be very confusing to new users, particularly language learners. These include, but are not limited to tweet, follow, follower, favorite, list, @ (reply or mention), DM (direct message), RT (re-tweet), # (hash/pound). In addition to these terms that describe the main functions and concepts of Twitter, there are a growing number of ancillary technologies that extend Twitter functionality: Twitter clients, URL shorteners, archiving services, and photo and video sharing services to name a few. This new lexis requires attention to vocabulary and concept instruction for users that must be done before users are able to fully participate in Twitter.
In addition to new lexis, Twitter requires consideration for and reconsideration of what privacy is. Twitter postings are generally available to the public. While users can choose to make their accounts private and available only to those who they give permission, this is not the default. Protected account are unlikely to acquire a substantial network, thus they limit users’ full participation in Twitter. Both teachers and students must weigh the virtues of “privacy” and adjust expectations accordingly. Many users consider privacy in Twitter to be privacy through obscurity, user accounts and contributions are lost in the sheer volume of activity on Twitter. Others participate in Twitter with the full expectation that their messages can be seen by the world and they adjust the content of those messages to fit this understanding. None the less, privacy and what kind of privacy we expect to have are considerable considerations in any implementation of Twitter and other Web 2.0 technologies.
The purpose of this research is not to investigate the value of a single or set of variables, but rather the evaluation of a research-based instructional intervention embedded in a rich environment with to many variables to control for. Descriptive theory is most concerned with validity, or how well the description matches the reality of what is; whereas, the primary concern with design theory research is the extent to which one method is better than other methods for accomplishing an outcome (Reigeluth & Frick, 1999). This is a process of establishing and modifying a design theory, which is best accomplished through developmental research (Reeves, 2000).
Developmental Research goes by many names that represent the same basic tenets: to address complex problems in real contexts with practitioners, to apply established and developing design principles to products to address these complex problems, and to study and refine learning environments and design principles (Reeves, 2000, p. 26). Similar values are applied in Developmental Research (Visser, Plomp, Amirault, & Kuiper, 2002; Richey, Klein, & Nelson, 2004), Design Experiments (Brown, 1992; Cobb, Confrey, diSessa, Lehrer, & Schauble, 2003), Formative Research (Reigeluth & Frick, 1999), and Design-based Research (The Design-Based Research Collective, 2003; Barab & Squire, 2004).
For this study, a Design-based Research process was followed. According to the Design-Based Research Collective (2003), good design-based research has the following five characteristics.
First, the central goals of designing learning environments and developing theories or “prototheories” of learning are intertwined. Second, development and research take place through continuous cycles of design, enactment, analysis, and redesign (Cobb, 2001; Collins, 1992). Third, research on designs must lead to sharable theories that help communicate relevant implications to practitioners and other educational designers (cf. Brophy, 2002). Fourth, research must account for how designs function in authentic settings. It must not only document success or failure but also focus on interactions that refine our understanding of the learning issues involved. Fifth, the development of such accounts relies on methods that can document and connect processes of enactment to outcomes of interest. (p. 5)
The central focus here is on the iterative evaluation of a method and design theory.
Data collection, analysis, revision was carried out (and is ongoing) over three semesters in advanced writing classes with English Education majors at a Korean university from the spring of 2010 to the spring of 2011. Therefore, there Twitter was implemented three times and revised twice.
Data collection included course documents, such as syllabi, assignments, and instruction related to the use of Twitter. These were living documents that changed based on the observed needs of the students and the changes required each semester. Surveys of students’ perceptions of Twitter and its usefulness in learning to write were collected from some groups. Personal communications through face-to-face encounters, email, and Twitter were analyzed. Lastly, archives of the class Twitter assignments were collected and analyzed in order to better understand how Twitter was being used and how it could be used better.
Design-based research should begin with a solid foundation of both learning and instructional theory. The design of methods are influenced by this underlying beliefs, and the outcomes can, in turn, influence these beliefs.
The foundation for instructional design in this course was based on constructivist principles (Vygotsky, 1978). We cannot assume that two people understand in the same way. Knowledge is a process of developing understanding of something in a very personal way through situated activity (Duffy & Jonassen, 1992). Learners create meaning from their experiences that are separate and different from the meanings developed by others, even those participating in the same experience. Understanding is based not just on current experiences but the aggregate of all experiences, thus each person brings with him/her a cache of experiences that are brought to bear in a particular situation (Ertmer & Newby, 1993). Students were encouraged to build knowledge through interactions with the teacher, peers, and outsiders. Twitter provided a channel for some of these interactions.
Learning should be situated in authentic contexts rather than simply contrived for classroom purposes. Kolb’s (1984) Experiential Learning includes the following characteristics detailing the role of experience in learning.
● Learning is best conceived as a process, not in terms of outcomes
● Learning is a continuous process grounded in experience
● The process of learning requires the resolution of conflicts between dialectically opposed modes of adaptation to the world.
● Learning is a holistic process of adaptation to the world
● Learning involves transactions between the person and the environment
● Learning is the process of creating knowledge
The role of experience is further situated in social practice by Lave and Wenger (1991) in their concept of communities of practice. They establish the importance of performing within groups of shared interests and practices for knowledge generation and modification. Twitter is a meta-community in which exists nearly innumerable communities that learners to join, interact with, and learn from.
Lastly, the use of Twitter in writing instruction was heavily influenced by Swain’s (1985) Output Hypothesis, particularly at the outset. As Swain acknowledges, the role of input is central to language learning, but requiring output can lead to deeper and faster mastery of learning objectives. However, not merely any production is suitable, there must be opportunities for feedback, which drives the hypothesis testing loop. This is addresses events 6-9 in Gagne’s (1997) 9 instructional events: eliciting performance, providing feedback, assessing performance, and enhancing retention and transfer. Twitter provides a fitting platform to foster these processes through input, production, and potential for feedback.
Given these theoretical foundations, design choices have to be made to conform to and promote these learning and instructional theories. The iterative implementations of Twitter in a series of writing courses were evaluated and revised in a continuous effort to reach these ideals in instruction.
Twitter was implemented in three consecutive semesters in advance writing classes. The stated aims included writing practice, informal feedback, community building, and resource distribution. Each semester changes were make to instructional methods in order to add or improve each of these aspects.
In this section, the instruction and activities in each of the three semesters will be described, including successes and failures and suggested changes to improve on practice.
Twitter was first introduced into the writing classes during the spring 2010 semester. Twitter was globally popular at the time, but had only recently entered the Korean market. Only a few students had heard of it and only one student out of 30 had used it.
Twitter was meant to be used as a means to communicate with the teacher and other students as well as to build a network outside of class. The use of twitter to improve writing skills was a secondary consideration at this time. The teacher hoped that students would naturally build up their social networks and begin to interact with them, in English, thus both producing language and receiving feedback.
Instruction: The first semester that Twitter was used, very little direct instruction was provided in the use of the technology. An assumption was made that the service was uncomplicated and required little direct instruction. Learners were simply directed to the site and told to register an account. While some learners were able to do this, the majority had substantial problems using the site. Learners reported being confused by the interface and the different lexicon required. Ad hoc instruction was included midway through the course, but the general opinion lingered that Twitter was difficult to use.
Production: Learners were not given any specific assignment other than that they should post a few times a week. It was suggested that they could write about the writing class, including questions and problems they were having. This approach did not work well. Students tended to post the minimum number of postings at one time. This meant that they did not use the service consistently throughout the week, thus little interaction occurred. In addition, the quality of the postings were not good, with many being short phrases that hardly communicated an identifiable idea. Changes needed to be made that encouraged consistent usage of the service throughout the week, and students needed to have more specific goals for using the service.
Feedback: Since little was produced, little feedback was provided. The teacher provided feedback to some users, particularly when errors interfered with communication. However, there was no feedback from peers, nora larger external network. Changes were needed to improve network-building and peer-to-peer feedback.
Community-building: There was no requirement to build a network so few students did so. Many students did not even add their classmates to their network, though they were asked to do so. As mentioned above, learners did not post many substantial messages nor did they spend much time using the service. This left very little potential interaction other than occasional responses to the teacher’s feedback. Changes are needed to encourage students to both build larger networks and interact with their network.
Resource Distribution: The teacher contributed writing and content resources to Twitter, but the students contributed nothing. In order to
By the fall semester 2010, Twitter was a little better known by the students. Nearly half of the students had heard of Twitter and a few had used it. This semester, Twitter was to take a more prominent place in the course, with changes based observations during the previous semester.
Instruction: Prior to using Twitter, and activity called “Twitter Paper” was used to introduce students to the use of Twitter. A handout with columns for user name and message was provided to the class with instructions that they were to write a collaborative story with each person contributing only one sentence. The were further instructed to write as fast as they could and then pass the paper to someone else in the room. The activity was wonderfully successful and provided an introduction to Twitter without the use of a computer.
After that, direct instruction on how to use Twitter was given to students. A handout was produced that provided a rationale for the use of Twitter, an introductory assignment, introduction to some of the new lexis, and both technical and writing resources to better support the use of Twitter. Twitter clients were not demonstrated as Twitter can be used through a multitude of clients and the teacher did not want to privilege one over others. Even with more explicit instructions on the use of Twitter, learners continued to complain about the difficulty of using the service, and they continued to use it incorrectly.
Production: Goals for production were not clear during the previous semester, so assignments were given during the fall 2010 semester, which complimented what was being taught during class time. These were referred to as “Daily Tweets”. Learners were responsible for posting one message each day on Monday through Friday as well as at least one reply to another user’s message. This increased the frequency of postings; however, learners continued to post the minimum requirements and the overall quality of postings was still quite low. It seemed that the assignments were too simple and, thus, resulted in simple responses. Assignments needed to be more creative and substantial.
Feedback: With more postings and a requirement that students reply to at least one other student, the level of feedback did rise somewhat. However, the feedback tended to be simplistic and often consisted of a few words of agreement, but nothing that drove the interactions forward. The teacher increased his feedback to the students both linguistically and conceptually. This resulted in a good deal more interaction between the teacher and students. At this point, users still had few people in their networks and little if any feedback from the broader network. Given these experiences, changes needed to be made in the requirements for feedback and the ways in which the students interact with their networks.
Community-building: Students were required to “follow” at least 50 people, which included around 30 classmates. Only a few students eventually followed as many as 50 people. Most did follow their classmates, however, which resulted in a much better sense of community. At the same time, this only increased complaints about the number of posts they were seeing each time they checked in. The requirement to follow 50 is still a good idea, but consistently encouraging students to build and interact with their network needs to be done.
Resource Distribution: This semester some assignments required the change of links to writing and content resources. Students were very receptive to this use of Twitter. Sharing the resources made their other assignments easier to accomplish. The only change that needed to be made to this is it increase the frequency with which resources were shared via Twitter.
By spring 2011, Twitter was a well-known company. Nearly all of the students polled had heard of Twitter and nearly a third had tried it. By this time, the number of smartphones had increased as well, which students saw as a benefit in using Twitter. Most of the smartphone owners were already users of Twitter.
Instruction: In addition to the instruction provided in the previous semester, the teacher included demonstrations of two Web-based Twitter clients. These demonstrations addressed the overall use of the clients as well as problems specifically encountered by the students. A connection between the lexicon and Twitter’s features were made explicit. This was more successful than previous instruction, but even more clients need to be demonstrated, particularly desktop and smartphone clients. These software clients are often more robust and feature-laden that the Web-based clients. Teaching students how to use these would likely make the experience more enjoyable and easier.
Production: More complex assignments were given this semester, including a number of research assignments and complex sentence constructions. These are worked well. In future classes, it would be best to increase the amount of higher-order cognitive skills required complete assignments.
Feedback: It was assumed that a great awareness of Twitter, combined with more robust assignments would spur more feedback, but this was not the case. There was a general increase in social feedback, but not on feedback related to students writing or ideas. The teacher increased the amount of feedback provided, but still more need to occur. Putting more responsibility on the students is one approach, but another in a better use of their Twitter networks.
Community-building: The knowledge of and comfort level with Twitter seemed to result on many more interactions between students and even some from students extended network. A sense of community did form between class members. Twitter went from a homework-only space to one in which students asked questions and met socially. However, students continue to have difficulty following over 50 users. More guidance and oversight are necessary to encourage the building of larger networks
Resource Distribution: A greater focus on research assignments increased the amount of resource sharing considerably. In future class, students should be encourage to share other media, including images and videos.
Using a modified ADDIE model, the EAP Twitter Model focuses on the iterative process of instructional design. The key elements are below.
ADDIE stands for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation. The EAP Twitter Model moves through these phases with a particular focus on four key design elements: language, technology, and social interaction.
Figure 1. EAP Twitter Model
Language refers to the language skills being developed in the writing course as well as the specific language needed to participate in Twitter. It is important to be aware of both of these types of language usage throughout the instructional design process.
Technology refers to the technical aspects of using Twitter. This includes the general Twitter features like @ replies, re-tweets, and direct messages. It also includes the use of Twitter client functions, which are slightly different in each client. Some popular features include URL shortening, media uploads, and column feeds. The better learners can use these functions, the more enjoyable their use of Twitter will be.
Social interaction refers to the process of building and maintaining a network of followers in Twitter and general interactions. There is some overlap with the proper use of available tools, but the focus here should be more on following the right kind of the people for your particular interests, encouraging others to follow you, and engaging your network.
Through this process, successes and failures can be more effectively identified, and instruction can be adjusted.
The use of Twitter for education has real potential. The ability to form large networks of like-minded people enables learners to both produce authentic messages for the network and to receive feedback from the network. This makes writing an authentic task in an authentic context. It also provides a support network that can follow learners long after completion of the class.
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