CH This paper is about a project-based approach to ESP course design – the main argument is that adopting this ‘structure’ provides students with a range of ‘learning spaces’ within which they can exercise ‘power’ or ‘agency’ over their English language learning. We’ll begin by providing a theoretical framework related to investment and agency, then we’ll describe the project-based structure of the course, then we will illustrate the range of learning spaces observed (and the ways that students invest and exercise agency).
CH We’ve been working on a course in English for science over the last five years or so: designing and evaluating curriculum and materials. The course is designed for students doing a science degree and takes a project-based learning approach. We’ll now consider some of the key concepts for this presentation.
CH Our concept of structure is fairly straightforward – it refers to elements of course design like curriculum, syllabus and task. All of these are informed by needs analysis conducted in consultation with disciplinary specialists, external review by applied linguist specialists and ongoing evaluation from semester to semester. Essentially, control over these structured elements rests with course designers.
LM When it comes to investment, the kinds of questions that we are interested in are similar to the kinds of things that Norton was investigating in the Canadian context (looking at second language migrant workers).
LM By agency, we mean the students’ taking control over and responsibility for their learning.
LM In the English language learning activity, power can be seen as being distributed between different participants: teachers and students. A course can be structured so that the ‘power’ is mostly held by the teacher, or course designer. It can also be structured so that the power is transferred to the learner.
CH The course aims are quite typical for this kind of course – we aim to raise students’ genre knowledge of scientific genres, including communication with both specialists and non-specialists.
CH: The course takes a project-based approach, involving students in the completion of a simple scientific experiment (these used to be designed by a member of the science faculty and were often carried out in the science labs), which is documented in two main ways – first, as a multimodal digital video scientific documentary, second, as a scientific report, similar to a lab report. In their video project, students work together in order to research their topic, collect data, design a storyboard and script, film, edit and share their work. In this process we see many elements of co-operative learning at work, with students working in collaborative teams, peer teaching and working autonomously out of class in order to get their projects done. Then, the students work individually to create a scientific report, like a lab report - taking the content from the video and reworking it as a written scientific report genre.
CH: In essence, the course engages students with two main genres – the scientific documentary (we provide them with an example by the BBC from YouTube) and the written scientific report (e.g. RA, final year project, lab report). The two genres are designed for different audiences, both specialist and non-specialist, and use different media, video and print, and as such they use a range of different rhetorical techniques in order to get the attention of the audience. In class activities attempt to sensitize learners to the use of language and rhetoric in these genres by engaging them in the analysis of authentic examples, before they draft their own versions as part of the project process. As students come up with texts which they will incorporate into their videos and reports, they are provided with individualized feedback, focusing on diverse issues of language use (e.g. appropriate grammar and word choice) as well as language skill (e.g. presentation skills, pronunciation and intonation etc).
CH: It’s worth mentioning the way that the students choose a range of interesting locations and also how, even on viewing this video, a range of ‘learning spaces’ can be identified (the use of interviews in English with passersby, for example).
CH We adopted a kind of participant observation method in this project, with 12 teams of students engaged to act as participant observers to their own out of class learning processes and collect data on those processes for us. In addition, five student researchers helped to co-ordinate with the groups and archive and store the artifacts and communications that they were generating. Through this method, we were able to limit our own intervention in the process, and as a result a lot of the data collected is ‘naturally occurring’, what students would have created in the course of the project anyway. Note the range of out of class data sources that were collected in this way: project artifacts, out-of-class project communications, focus group interviews. Also note that all students provided their informed consent for this process and that, because of the intense nature of the study, participant observers were hired as student helpers to provide some incentive for the amount of time we expected the project to take out of their schedules. The data was collected over a 9 month period covering 2 semesters – with a pilot study (2 groups) followed by a full study (10 groups).
CH: Videos could include footage (shot or found on the internet), final video.Images could include charts/graphs, images to serve as footage (shot or found on the internet).Audio could include soundtrack, narration, sound effects.Written text could include hand-written notes, drafts of scripts/narration, storyboards, typed notes (including cut and paste items from the internet)
LM: There was a lot of variety in the way that students used these learning spaces, with different groups making different choices about language use. For example, where groups were ‘mixed’ and included students from different language backgrounds, such groups made more frequent use of English for communication between themselves. Red indicates that the students did not have a choice of language. They had to use English.
CH: Here we see an example of students communicating with a Professor, using English in their email. Here they are asking for an interview with the Professor. This can be considered as a learning space that students are taking advantage of.
LM In the first case, English is being used as a lingua franca. In the second case, students recognize that email is a more formal way of communicating and they feel that they should use English more in email when compared to another medium like Whatsapp.
CH: InWhatsapp we sometimes see students using English in order to chat about the project with one another. In this example they are negotiating how to send one another files. Students also share their opinions via this medium sometimes.
CH: Some of theWhatsapp conversations went beyond the project to encompass other areas of the students’ lives, as here, where the students are talking about a book for another class. The text includes examples of code-switching – both intersentential (R’s turn) and intra-sentential (e.g. line 1).
LM: Students give various reasons for using English in their Whatsapp: e.g. 1. the perception that it is the ‘right’ thing to do for an English class; 2. the perception that it is faster/more convenient to type in English sometimes; 3. the perception that the mediated aspect of this communication makes it possible to practice (unlike a face to face setting).
CH: Many similar categories are also observed in FB. Students often set up FB groups to support their project work. One difference to the Whatsapp is that they tend to also exchange files and comment on them through the FB group that they have set up. Here, students are discussing an aspect of their project and this includes some discussion in English. As with the Whatsapp group, there are examples of intra-sentential and inter-sentential code switching.
LM: One function that students identify for FB is uploading files to share. They also comment that it is often easier for them to type in English in this medium, so this results in greater use of English in the unstructured learning environment.
LM: Another reason that students give for using English in FB is that they have studied their major subjects in English, so that the English use is triggered by the need for specialist terms in English (the Medium of Learning Effect). In this particular group, everyone had studied in EMI schools.
CH: Students demonstrate their agency in these unstructured learning environments when they draw on the L1 as a resource for communication among themselves. According to students they use Cantonese when there are a lot of ‘professional terms’ or because it is easier for them to present their ideas/communicate especially when they are planning. Also though, when they are having an argument and need to swear at one another (perhaps we need to work on this aspect of their language proficiency some more?). Interestingly too, one student notes that they use English for those tasks that are more directly related to the video task. In this way, the L1 acts as an important resource in the process of constructing the video, while outcomes are, naturally, in English.
CH: This really higlights the reality of the bilingual context that the learners find themselves in – the student here clearly perceives the use of L1 as a resource, ‘Chinese to help English’, rather than as a kind of hindrance
Hong Kong University: Structure and Agency in Learning Spaces
Structure and agency in learning spaces:
Considerations for ESP course design
Lindsay Miller & Christoph A. Hafner
Department of English, City University of Hong Kong
Staff Development Seminar, Centre for Applied English Studies,
Hong Kong University, March 15, 2014
Background and context
• University course in English for science students
– Applied Biology
– Applied Chemistry
– Applied Physics
– Architectural Studies
– Computing Mathematics
– Environmental Science and Management
• Elements of course design
• Informed by a needs analysis
• Control rests with course designers
• Norton (1997) uses the term investment “…to
signal the socially and historically constructed
relationship of learners to the target language
and their sometimes ambivalent desire to learn
and practice it.” (p411)
Questions about investment
• Under what conditions do language learners
• How can we encourage language learners to
become more communicatively competent?
• If we want our students to invest their time and energy
in language learning then we have to make sure that
they want to do this for some real-life purpose – that
they want to join a relevant or ‘imaginary’ community
1. The community of learners
2. The disciplinary community
3. The workplace community
4. The wider/global community of English language users
As Cummins observes when talking about
including learners in decisions about their
“The power relationship is additive rather than
subtractive. Power is created with others rather
than being imposed on or exercised over others.
Within this framework, empowerment can be
defined as the collaborative creation of power”
English for science introduces students to the genre knowledge and
English language skills that they need for scientific communication in a
range of local and international contexts. The course aims to develop
students’ ability to locate and critically read a variety of scientific texts
and appropriately communicate through speaking and writing the
findings of scientific projects to both specialist and non-specialist
audiences. Drawing on a range of authentic texts in the domain of
science, the course will introduce students to common rhetorical
structures in scientific communication as well as the typical vocabulary
and grammar needed to express these structures. Students will learn to
report the findings of a scientific study using a range of genres, modes,
and media formats, including written scientific reports and multimodal
English for science project
A. Digital video project
B. Written scientific
Genres and functional language
Architecture of the technological
• 12 groups, 48 students, 18-23 years old
• 36 females, 12 males
• Mostly year 1, undeclared majors
• 43 HK Chinese, 4 Mainland Chinese, 1 Korean
• 3 ‘mixed’ groups, 9 ‘homogenous’ groups
Video Images Audio Written text Communication
Group 1 16 102 8 17 EM, FB, WA
Group 2 38 17 2 10 EM, WA
Group 3 1 76 52 8 FB, WA
Group 4 19 7 1 28 FB, WA
Group 5 7 1 0 7 FB, WA
Group 6 32 38 22 12 WA
Group 7 1 9 13 14 FB, WA
Group 8 1 6 1 6 WA
Group 9 10 38 13 3 FB, WA
Group 10 44 29 11 18 FB
Group 11 3 17 31 11 EM, FB, WA
Group 12 1 18 0 9 WA
Mediated learning spaces
# Learning Space Purpose
1 E-mail (text-based) Send files to group members. Contact potential interviewees.
2 WhatsApp Interact with group members
3 Library system Search for background readings/references
4 Internet Search for information
5 Wikipedia Check definitions
6 Blog Read and respond to classmates comments
7 Facebook Sharing information and project drafts and other artifacts. Discussing project.
Interact and maintain social network of group members. Sharing with a wider
8 Google Docs Collaborative writing
9 Dropbox Sharing information and collaborative writing
9 Blackboard Download project guidelines
10 PowerPoint Check information about project presented in class
11 YouTube Sharing with a wide audience
12 Phone (audio-based) Interact with group members (about project and to maintain social cohesion
Unmediated learning spaces
# Learning Space Purpose
1 Student canteen Meet with group members
2 Around campus Film footage/record narration for project
3 In student dorm Discuss project with group members
Film footage/record narration for project
5 In laboratory Collect data for project (film footage/record narration)
6 At home Collect data for project (film footage/record narration)
Sent: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 12:32 AM
Subject: Invitation of an interview
Dear Prof. SXXX,
I am SEE year one student, XXXXXX. In this semester, I am taking GE1401 English for Science. Since my group is doing the ESM
topic, we want to find some professionals to conduct some interviews in order to have strong references. As we know that you
have well-understanding about soil and plants, we kindly invite you to join our interview.
If you are agree with this invitation, we suggest to have the interview with you on 28/2 Thu(during 12:00-3:00) OR 1/3 Fri(after
12:00). If you are not available on the suggested date, let us know when you are free. The interview will last about 30 minutes.
i am looking forward to receiving your reply. Hope we can have a nice chat.
C: This is an email to that Arc Eden staff, right, … So, why did you choose
R: She is a foreigner [Group 2]
L: In your email communication was it in English or Chinese?
L: for the whole group?
W: the difference between whatsapp and email is that this one is more close to
our life so its more close to spoken language so we feel so relax to type in
Chinese…but in email we feel so official…
E: more formal way… [Group 11]
WhatsApp: Project talk
J: Can someone give me ur email address so I can send back the video
J: Ok. Do u hv a drop box
There r a lot of video
If I hv to send email
U will be receiving abt 20
Or use finger [USB drive]
H: 😨 [emoji]
I give you usb on monday
Btw the file is quite large 😏 [emoji]
H: How many Gb?
J: Nearly 1
But can't seed email xd [emoticon]
WhatsApp: Non-project talk
2013-02-19 1:27:13 PM: R: 有冇人有friend 讀psy for young pro?😭
[Do you know any friends who studied psychology for young professional?]
2013-02-19 1:33:08 PM: H: 做乜
2013-02-19 1:33:44 PM: PC: Ho chi yau
2013-02-19 1:34:03 PM: R: 分今日quiz但我未買course pack,想借
[I have quiz today but I haven’t bought the course pack yet. I want to borrow it.]
2013-02-19 1:34:25 PM: R: 😭Can you ask for me!!!really thxxxxx
2013-02-19 1:38:03 PM: R: I can go any where to get that book😓
2013-02-19 1:38:45 PM: PC: I am asking
2013-02-19 1:38:59 PM: PC: But no one reply
2013-02-19 1:39:13 PM: R: Nvm😊
2013-02-19 1:43:51 PM: PC: When do u need it?
V: Because this is an English project so we use English.
L: So you started off with English yah?
All: Yes. [Group 5]
T: I mean that maybe the English is because it is faster for us to type, and then
when the sentence is longer we type in Chinese.
R: Or the meaning is quite difficult for us to express in English, so we’ll choose
to use Chinese. [Group 1]
C: but what actually happened here was that you changed to English…
G: because I want…when I typing the English I feel more confident for me
compared with spoken English.
C: but it’s not more confident than your Chinese…right?
G: more comfortable than speaking…
C: right…so it’s like an opportunity to practice…
G: yes…and I also want to make my English improve… [Group 11]
Facebook: Project talk
Q: 麻煩您地幫我check 有無漏了 [Please help me check if I have missed any]
我硬系覺得漏左好多 [I always have the feeling that I missed a lot.]
March 10 at 0:07
AL: 我見到我個d 已齊＞＜ [I can see that I got all for my part]
March 10 at 0:10 via mobile
RH: REMEMBER TO FIND THE WATER SOUND @
March 10 at 13:42
March 10 at 13:42
RH: KCY you still have the overall comment of the open area outside not yet record
March 10 at 13:52
KCY: o i will record it tonite
March 10 at 13:55 via mobile
RH: (y) (Thumb up)
J: Um, we had a meeting to outline the general script at the next week part and
we went home to edit it, yea, to make some change in order to make it better.
We used Facebook to upload the script and everyone can see and edit and yeah
each of us edit some part to make it. [Group 3]
C: Why are you using English on facebook? Compared to when you are speaking
face-to-face, you don’t use so much English right? What’s the reason do you
E: I seldom type Chinese on the computer
D: me too.
E: It’s complicated
C: so you are not used to the input method. [Group 9]
R: Because we studied in English high school. All our assignments are in English.
So we are used to typing English but not Chinese
C: Everybody’s studied in an EMI school?
R/Q: yes [Group 10]
L: What happened when you were doing the narration, the story? Did you do that once?
W: No, recording my voice at least one half day in my room and then they did their own
G: …yes I did my own again at home, because I thought my voice was maybe too
nervous…not good enough, so I need to do it again.
L: Do you know how many times you recorded it before you were happy?
G: Oh…more than 10 times! (laugh)
W: …yes, more than 10 times, it’s like only 5 minutes when we are actually recording…so
totally speaking it’s like 3 to 4 hours to practice
(all four students agree).
L: What kind of things were you not happy with when you heard your voice?
W: …it’s very strange for me to hear my voice (laugh)…and I kind of think “is that
me?”…and it’s not fluent, and sometimes we will speak a wrong words and so we will
start over again. [Group 11]
L1 as a resource
We use Cantonese
“A lot of professional
terms… if they are in
English we cannot
“More easy for
us to present
“Help us to
“When we plan
the idea we use
“When we start to
we need to swear”
“When we start to
make the video
we use English”
C: One thing that you do very interesting is that you switch from Chinese to
English sometimes. For example, here, Mika is speaking English and it switches
to Chinese. Do you know why that happened?
R: It’s the culture we are in in the high school where we are born. Like Hong
Kong people are always speaking both at the same time…so sometimes we will
need to use English to help Chinese or use Chinese to help English [Group 10]
Principles of Constructionist
1) A problem-project space
2) Related cases
3) Information resources
4) Cognitive tools
5) Conversations and collaboration tools
(Jonassen & Ranre-Murphy: 1999)
ESP course design
1) A problem-project space
2) Related cases
1) The projects presented to
students are interesting from
both general and disciplinary
2) Students are shown
different ways to present their
projects, and make use of their
own world knowledge
ESP course design
3) Information resources
4) Cognitive tools
3) Students have to make use
of online and other resources
in order to gain a wider
perspective on the topic
4) For instance, students are
shown how to prepare a script
and use software tools in
order to present their ideas
efficiently and effectively.
ESP course design
5) Conversations and
5) Students work in groups to
share their knowledge and
experience in order to
complete the project. They
also share their ideas with
other classmates (blog) and
with a wide audience
Cummins, J. (2001). An Introductory Reader to the Writings of Jim Cummins. Multilingual Matters.
Norton, B. (1997). UK: Clevedon.
Jonassen, D.H. & Ranre-Murphy, L. (1999) Activity Theory as a Framework for Designing
Constructivist Learning Environments. ETR&D 47(1), 61-79.
Norton, B. (1997). Language, Identity and the Ownership of English. TESOL Quarterly, 31(3), 409-
Norton, B. (2000). Identity and language learning: Gender, ethnicity and educational change.
Harlow, England: Longman/Pearson Education Limited.