The blended learning potential in future diplomatsТ foreign languages professional competence acquisition

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №5 - 2013

Author: Mamchur Konstantyn, Kyiv National University of Economics, Ukraine

The scope of diplomacy has expanded from traditional interstate relations to international contacts that include non-governmental actors. Therefore, the acquisition of new knowledge and competences has become an absolute necessity for today’s experts in international relations.

The profession of a diplomat has a universal character. It stipulates the competence in international law and international affairs, diplomatic negotiations and crisis management, strategic thinking and network building. Consequently, foreign language communicative competence has become of great importance for future and acting diplomats.

English is one of the most frequently used international languages for occupational purposes. Embassies, consulates and ministries of foreign affairs in particular pay great attention to their officials’ English skills as these institutions conduct multilateral international relations. Diplomacy is one of those professions in which English is used in conducting international relations, in performing relevant office work and in negotiating.

According to the United Kingdom Foreign Affairs Committee, linguistic abilities should be given more weight in promotion criteria, including to top jobs, as this would “command respect” abroad. [1] This opinion coincides with Ukrainian view on the required competences of diplomats.

However, there is a stereotype of the diplomat as a professional sitting with other diplomats in formal meeting rooms, negotiating peace, threatening war, or hammering out the terms of a treaty; this is just a part of what experts in international relations do. The great majority of diplomatic activity involves personal contacts with officials and citizens of a host country, getting to know them and their perspectives [2]. Accordingly, for some posts, a lack of fluency in the local language will limit the credibility of the post holder” [1].

At the same time, in the domain of a foreign language for specific purposes learning, there still exist some problems connected with the acquiring of less commonly taught languages. Here, it is worth mentioning that the term “less commonly taught” applies only to the educational picture of Ukraine. Other frequently used names for this group of languages, which share some characteristics across specific languages but are quite distinct in other areas, are critical languages, uncommon languages, less commonly spoken languages, exotic languages, exceptional languages. Some scientists (Richard Brecht and A. Ronald Walton, 1994) believe that these languages, which are crucial for international affairs, are generally available at universities, but their difficulty makes it virtually impossible for students to reach a functional ability solely on the basis of in-country academic programs [3]. Students and teachers frequently speculate as to which foreign language is the most difficult for Ukrainian-speaking students to learn and what makes some languages harder to learn then the others. The opinion of the Head of Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine about less commonly taught languages is “… we even do not have the task to train an individual in oriental languages during a short period of time. The World practice says that it is needed up to five years of face-to-face language learning plus practicing abroad to get a high level specialist” [4]. So, we can assume that a foreign language training of future diplomats in Ukraine is conducted in the conditions of time pressure, partly isolated from the occupational needs of the trainees.

In modern pedagogical and methodological literature the problem of foreign languages professional competence formation was researched by I. Alekseeva, O. Voevoda, V. Komisarov, I. Haleeva, A. Shchukin, I. Zotkina etc. Theoretical basis for the organization of occupational education at the present stage is reflected in studies of A. Asmolov, V. Blinov and others. The problems of training experts in international relations to overcome the barriers to intercultural communication in the era of globalization are presented in the researches of S. Ter-Minasova, L. Venedina, E. Hall.

Notwithstanding a great number of scientific researches in the field of diplomats’ foreign language training, intercultural communication and professional communication, still there is a gap between the growing requirements to foreign languages professional competence of experts in international relations and the training they get. This unsolved pedagogical problem requires from educators to search for new approaches in foreign languages for specific (occupational) purposes training. Thus, the specific strategic objectives of diplomats’ foreign language training are to be set up to improve quality of teaching and learning through implementation of student-centred, competency-based and differentiated learning.

The purpose of the article is to define the potential of the blended learning approach in future diplomats’ foreign languages professional competence formation.

Learning a foreign language presents different challenges for different people in different contexts. The ways different individuals approach the task of learning new vocabulary, figuring out new grammar rules, listening, reading, and speaking in a language other than their native language, are diverse. A range of methods and approaches are used to introduce new language, and a variety of classroom management techniques are employed to maximize practice opportunities. In the other words, the educator should create the optimal conditions for students for effective language learning. Such conditions have been identified and characterized in a number of studies, but the most general (Egbert & Hanson-Smith, 1999) include the following:

1. Learners interact in the target language with an authentic audience.

2. Learners are involved in authentic tasks.

3. Learners can interact socially and negotiate meaning.

4. Learners have enough time and feedback.

5. Learners are guided to attend mindfully to the learning process.

6. Learners work in an atmosphere with an ideal stress/anxiety level.

7. Learner autonomy is supported [5].

The majority of future diplomats’ foreign languages training still takes place in the classroom, and language teachers know from experience that achieving the presented conditions poses a significant challenge in most foreign language teaching situations where students have limited opportunities to actively engage in using the target language. Language teachers understand that to serve the needs of the students, they need to create an environment that most closely resembles actual use of the target language. In attempting to achieve the “optimal” learning environment, they have a number of resources and tools available. Recording devices, video players, newspapers, and language laboratories all provide different and varied access to content. They can employ a variety of activity types with group work and pair work, collaborative learning and independent learning to engage our learners in communicative language practice. They all try to address the need for personalized learning through the introduction of self-study resources designed for independent study. Thus, online learning environment can provide new approaches to foreign languages learning, supplement and compliment traditional face-to-face language instruction.

Discussion of blended learning (BL) appears with increased frequency in both the academic literature and the mass media. As education is becoming a universal service delivered anywhere and anytime over the global network, the higher education institutions try to implement elements of e-learning in traditional course delivery, in order to prepare their students, as well as the institution, for the future participation in education [6].

There are many definitions of blended learning, but the most common is that which recognises some combination of virtual and real-life environments for example, Graham (2006), who describes the combination of face-to-face settings, which are characterised by synchronous interaction, and information and communication technology based settings, which are asynchronous, and text-based and where trainees operate independently [7]. Garrison & Vaughan (2008) define blended learning as “the thoughtful fusion of face-to-face and online learning experiences” [8, p. 5] emphasising the need for reflection on traditional approaches and for redesigning learning and teaching in this new terrain.

As Garrison and Kanuka (2004) commented, this combination of classroom and online settings has simplicity, but there is also complexity to the concept which is evident in the wide variety of settings, diversity of the student population and consequent learning designs [9].

The appearance of new learning technologies, for example, podcasting, internet based audio and video communication, e-portfolios and social networking tools including blogs and wikis create new potentials for future experts in international affairs. Students acquire a foreign language when they have opportunities to use the language in live communication with the other speakers. Sometimes, it happens that the teacher is the only target language speaking person available to students, and although the course time is limited, the task is to develop effective communicative skills in the field of students’ future profession. In this case, the language acquisition supported by digital or net-based flexible solutions in the organization of learning is the only way to enhance the learners’ communicative competence, especially in their occupational sphere.

Some time ago any kind of distance learning was thought to be inappropriate for a language instruction due to communicative nature of the language acquiring. Nowadays, with the use of technology, teachers may create virtual language environment (students can communicate with a teacher, with each other and with native speakers online with the use of social networks, Skype, etc.) The word processing software, for example, can be used to experiment with collaborative writing, self-assessment, and peer assessment – a function that can also be taken outside the classroom by using wikis. Students may be encouraged to use instant messaging to practice conversation skills and forums for discussion on topics of the professional interest. The Internet can be used for research on class projects. Some students can have their own blogs to practice writing and engage with an audience and help develop skills and strategies that are vital to successful independent learners. Group blogs are used to summarize the day’s learning for absentees and provide writing practice. Through the use of these tools, teachers and learners are already engaging in the blended learning experience, perhaps without even realizing it.

The cultural diversity of the student population and the technology rich experiences of today’s students raise further issues for BL design. Some scientists (for example, Vaughan, 2007) argue that mere supplementation of a face-to-face course with online learning is not blended learning [10] whereas others (Littlejohn and Pegler, 2006) prefer to talk about ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ [11, p. 29] blends.

In our opinion, high-quality blended learning is a student-centered, competency-based logically ordered combination of face-to-face and online acquisition of knowledge or skills, which allows to study on everyone's own pace and path, free of time pressure. We also would like to mention that online learning phase of BL cannot be disconnected from a face-to-face phase.

Blended learning has many of the advantages of fully online learning including personalization, flexible pacing, and mastery-based progress with clearly defined relentless standards that prepare students for their career. Additionally, blended learning offers the following:

Differentiated Learning: by applying online learning, blended programs can diagnose a student’s learning level, style, etc. and differentiate instruction. Students work at a personalized level and pace, instead of moving through the course regardless of their comprehension of a material, communicative readiness and foreign language competence.

Multiple Learning Modalities: with blended learning, students can participate in multiple learning modalities in addition to online learning. These might include group projects, small or large group instruction, one-on-one tutoring, and more.

Student Ownership: like fully online learning, blended learning gives students ownership and control of their education. Under the supervision of their teacher, they have far more control over the time, place, path, and pace of their learning than traditional school students. This ownership helps students take pride in their work while developing important self-management skills.

Physical Location: BL provides the benefits of online learning within an educational facility or even a working place.

Data-Driven Teacher Attention: as with fully online learning, BL is data-driven, as teachers receiving regular updates on student progress. This empowers teachers by equipping them with the information to immediately intervene when students need or adjust instruction based on student learning.

21st Century Preparation: our 21st century marketplace is technology-driven. Blended learning prepares students for that marketplace by helping them become proficient, responsible, digital citizens.

Potential Cost-Savings: while starting a blended program can involve upfront costs, BL courses and institutions have the potential for significant cost-savings. This comes from reduced facilities and staffing costs.

As far as future diplomats’ foreign languages competences development is concerned, BL can foster students’ preparation and readiness for real-life native speaker interaction. Because, the more exposure students have to different contexts, voices, and accents, the more confident they will feel in the real world use of language. Students can be prepared online to actively participate in personalized pair- and group-work activities in class. Thus, student-to-student interaction can be maximized in the classroom. This builds future experts’ in international affairs confidence in their ability to communicate in the real world and increase students’ motivation to learn.

Having analyzed the learning environment of the diplomat’s foreign language training, we can summarize that their foreign language for specific purposes program should be built on an assessment of purposes and needs and the functions for which a foreign language is required. The foreign language for diplomats has to be concentrated more on language in context than on teaching grammar and language structures. It should cover subjects varying from international law or negotiations to critical thinking and crisis management.

We assume that the foreign languages professional competence of acting and future diplomats can be optimized by:

- defining essential characteristics of the diplomats’ professional communication, where foreign language training will be an instrument of solving professional tasks;

- changing content-related and processual characteristics of the diplomats foreign languages training by applying BL approach;

- changing the role of a teacher from the instructor to facilitator, whose main task is to get future diplomats to assume responsibility for their foreign language training and take the lead in their communicative competence for occupational purposes.

The further researches in this domain can be connected with the development of experimental model of future diplomats’ foreign languages training and setting the criteria for foreign languages for specific (occupational) purposes training of future experts in international affairs.

REFERENCES

1. UK politics. Promote more linguistic experts or risk credibility, Foreign Office told (April, 19 2013). BBC.co.uk. Retrieved December, 23, 2013, from http://www. bbc. co. uk/ news/ uk-politics-22180613.

2. Discover diplomacy: who is a diplomat? Retrieved December, 23, 2013, from http: // diplomacy.state.gov/ discover diplomacy/ diplomacy101/ people /170305.htm.

3. Brecht, Richard D., and A. Ronald Walton. 1994. National Strategic Planning in the Less Commonly Taught Languages. NFLC Occasional Papers. Washington, DC: National Foreign Language Center.

4. Popkova A. Diplomatic dimensions: How to train future professionals for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs / Alina Popkova // The Day. – 2009. – March, 4. – issue 37. – p. 3.

5. Egbert, J. and E. Hanson-Smith. (1999). CALL Environments: Research, Practice, and Critical Issues. Alexandria, VA: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

6. Bonk, C. J. (2009, December 11). R2D2: A Model for Using Technology in Education, eCampus News.

7. Graham, C. R. (2006). Blended Learning Systems: Definition, Current Trends, and Future Directions. In Bonk, C. J. & Graham, C. R. (Eds.). Handbook of blended learning: Global perspectives, local designs. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer Publishing.

8. Garrison, D. R., & Vaughan, N. (2008). Blended Learning in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey–Bass.

9. Garrison, R. & Kanuka, H. (2004). Blended learning: Uncovering it transformative potential in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 7(2), 95-105.

10. Vaughan, N. (2007). Perspectives on Blended Learning in Higher Education. International Journal on E-Learning, 6(1), 81-94. Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved December 23, 2013 from http://www.editlib.org/p/6310.

11. Littlejohn, A., & Pegler, C. (2007). Preparing for Blended e-Learning. London: Routledge



Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №5 - 2013

  
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