Zhang, Jie. “Learner Agency, Motive, and Self-Regulated Learning in an Online ESL Writing
Class.” IALLT Journal 43.2 (2013): 57-81.
Framing a case study through Vygotsky and Leont-ev’s activity theory, Zhang examines computer-mediated communication (CMC) in ESL online writing classrooms. He provides a literature review comparing face-to-face and CMC, ESL classrooms, determining that student-focused responses to online classes are lacking. He interviews two students from his online ESL writing class, asking how much of a student’s experience in an online class is dependent on individual behavior as viewed through activity theory. Using activity, action and operation as ways to examine students’ class performance, he defines these by looking at activity as the motive, action as the process, and operation as the “doing” or moving toward the goal (63). He sees a student’s motivation as being connected to how he/she makes decisions as to investment in a class – in this case, the online environment.
In Zhang’s approach, by using self-regulated learning (SRL), students make decisions in a learning environment based on choices and/or goals they set during the class term. This is a “dialectical relationship” as learning contexts change, students lack full control, and thus outcomes are not stable. In classrooms using CMC, “online learning requires more learner control and self-discipline than traditional classroom-based instruction” and while more opportunities are available online, these may also result in students who are less disciplined, lose interest, or do not participate as they might in a face-to-face classroom (63).
From Zhang’s results looking at learner agency, motivation affecting performance and achievement, he finds that these factors are very different for the two students and impact their success in the class. Zheng concludes that “computer technology contextualize[s] learning for different people in different ways by empowering some and handicapping others” (73). He stresses that not all students are ready for the “autonomy and flexibility of computer-mediated learning,” especially ESL and first-year students who benefit from increased support and closer direction from classmates and faculty during their initial enrollment term. The article concludes with a list of suggestions to minimize student anxiety in an online course.
This article was useful in introducing activity theory to me; however I did expect it to be more focused on the specific writing challenges of ESL students in an online classroom. It was not evident from Zhang’s argument how ESL students were differentiated by activity theory from any other students. However, gaining insight into the different and sometimes unfathomable reasons why students sign up for classes and how motivation and learner agency can affect student performance in a class was worthwhile. Remembering that student success or failure in a class may have nothing to do with the class itself, online or face-to-face is somewhat comforting to keep in mind for future classes, rather than internalizing the reasons why some students disappear from a class, or choose not to succeed.